It’s time for SUs to campaign on individual advocacy

For most students a university hearing is a daunting, unfamiliar prospect.

The tribunal is mostly made up of academics. It is not unusual for four or more people to sit opposite the student in the manner of a job interview. In one memorable hearing at an Oxford College last year, the entire governing body – about 40 strong -was present for the hearing, sporting their academic gowns.

The stakes can also be high, with a negative outcome potentially affecting a student’s degree, education, and future.

Often students will find themselves in the firing line, with a representative of the department criticising their conduct or academic performance. This may be followed by hostile questions from the tribunal: “why didn’t you tell anyone?”, “why did you not interrupt your studies?”, “why are you raising this only now?”, “where’s the evidence for this?”. It is not surprising that many students tell us after the hearing that they felt like criminals.

Representation matters

In such situations, it is imperative that students have proper representation. Yet, some institutions prohibit not only legal representation but any sort of representation, allowing only a “supporter” who cannot address the tribunal.

The University of Exeter, for example, only allows the student’s supporter to address the Committee “at the Chair’s discretion” in academic appeals. The University of Leeds specifies that the student’s supporter will “not be permitted to represent you”.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator’s Good Practice Framework on Academic Appeals and Complaints states that “it will not be appropriate for a student or the provider to be legally represented at an academic appeal hearing except in the most exceptional circumstances.” It expresses a similar view for complaints panels.

It is noteworthy that the OIA adopts a different view in their Good Practice Framework on Disciplinary Procedures: “It is good practice for providers to permit legal representation in complex disciplinary cases, or where the consequences for the student are potentially very serious. (emphasis added)” It repeats the same advice in its recent Good Practice Framework on Fitness to Practise.

There are consequences

With respect, we disagree with the OIA’s position on appeals and complaints. Like in disciplinary and Fitness to Practise hearings, the consequences of an appeal or complaint hearing can be life-changing for students. An unsuccessful outcome can result in students leaving the institution with no degree or a lower degree, with consequent effects on their ability to continue their education, take up a job they have previously secured, or their future earning capacity. A 2015 study showed that, five years after university, graduates with a 2:1 or a First earned 7-9% more than those with a lower classification. Over a working life, this could represent a difference in earnings of well over £100,000.

Appeals and complaints can also be complex, involving an analysis of statutory provisions or interpretations on the limits of academic judgement. And what is complex for one student may not be for another.

Time for SUs to act

SUs in institutions that prohibit SU representation should seek to change this rule for the sake of the student body and obtain full rights of representation. All enlightened institutions should allow students whatever representation they desire, whether it’s an SU adviser or a formal lawyer. The University of Salford, for example, should be praised for giving students the right to “be accompanied at any meeting/hearing under this [academic appeal] Procedure by a representative of their choice and that representative may speak on the student’s behalf.”

Granting this basic right to students will not make the heavens fall but will render hearings less intimidating and fairer for students. Students would no longer be on their own but armed with an advocate who can speak persuasively on their behalf. If the representatives are able, tribunals should also benefit. The student’s submissions would be clear and on point rather than too short, too long, incoherent or irrelevant.

One SU adviser told me their institution did not allow representation at hearings so as to “empower” students to make their own case. That is nonsense. Far more empowering is offering students the option of being represented.

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