Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Students Have a Right to Redress, So Give Them a Fair Hearing: Opinion

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Students Have a Right to Redress, So Give Them a Fair Hearing: Opinion

Article excerpt

Some appeal panels put complainants at a disadvantage, warns Daniel Sokol. It is wrong to deny them the chance of justice.

How curious that academics, usually so concerned with the rights of the underdog, often grow defensive when faced with students seeking redress against potentially unfair decisions. Some academics, it seems, are convinced of the infallibility of their decision-making.

Last year, I set up a company to help students challenge academic decisions. Although now a barrister, I was formerly a university lecturer and continue to hold an honorary academic post. However, many academic colleagues are critical of my venture ("Profit not the omega for Alpha Appeals", News, 8 August) and, behind my back, there are whispers of "traitor" and "swindler".

Next week, I am representing a student at an internal university appeal. After six years of study, he failed his PhD. His relationship with his main supervisor had broken down to such an extent that the two no longer spoke. He also developed depression and a stress-related skin condition. The appeal panel will consist of three professors, and there will be three witnesses giving oral evidence. I will present the student's case, "cross- examine" the witnesses, make closing submissions and, I hope, provide the student with some reassurance.

Representations at university appeal hearings form a small part of my practice, but they are memorable. At my most recent one, the chair interrupted an opening comment about the key provisions of the university regulations to tell me: "We don't care about the regulations here. We'll make the decision based on what we feel is right." I asked the secretary to note this in the minutes. At the hearing before that, a panellist addressed questions to one of the witnesses that were so irrelevant that, after about three minutes, the chair had to stop his colleague mid- question, to the embarrassment of all present.

No doubt many appeal panels are fair and competent, but others are less than impressive. In my experience, members of university appeal panels need far more training, given that the stakes for students are considerable. The constitution of the panels and the procedural rules regulating the hearings differ from one institution to the next. Some allow legal representation, others do not. Ideally, in my view, each panel should have one legally trained member to ensure that the proper procedure is followed and that the rules of natural justice are respected. The difference between professional judges and appeal panels is stark. …

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