The latest from the OIA

Joanna Forbes

Last week the OIA published two further ‘public interest’ reports i.e. reports containing summaries of cases about a particular topic where the OIA believes that publication (which includes the name of the university) is in the public interest.   The two latest reports feature closed complaints brought since 1 April 2012 relating to disability and ill health, and plagiarism and academic misconduct. 

The first report looks at reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities and claims for extenuating circumstances arising from disability and ill health.  These two issues feature very heavily in the student complaints and appeals which we are asked to advise on, and clearly form a large part of the OIA’s workload.

The published cases contain good and bad news for universities.   The OIA appears to take a robust approach when it comes to requiring students to follow procedures and to seek diagnosis and provide appropriate evidence, where all of the complaints were found to be not justified.  The OIA found that the universities’ procedures clearly set out the requirements applicable to students wishing to submit claims for extenuating circumstances, and that it was reasonable for universities to require students to provide independent professional evidence in support of such claims, including evidence of why they could not have complied with relevant timescales.

Similarly, whilst universities must take reasonable steps to find out about students’ disabilities and to provide support, universities are not required to routinely screen students and students have a responsibility to seek support and to engage with university support services. 

On the other hand, the universities came off badly when it came to documenting how they have supported students with disabilities, where all of the complaints were found to be justified or partly justified.   Universities were unable to prove how they had taken students’ disabilities into account in making decisions about their academic performance, or that they had considered whether their internal processes had put the student at a disadvantage.  The OIA’s view is that the issuing of a generic fact sheet aimed at students with dyslexia was not enough to demonstrate that reasonable adjustments had been made, because the individual impact of such a disability on each student is different.  

The OIA’s second report reinforces the importance of having clear regulations to deal with academic misconduct, and ensuring that those regulations are followed.  The OIA confirmed that it considers a decision as to whether plagiarism has been committed to be a matter of academic judgment, but that it will look at whether the university has followed its own procedures correctly and whether there was any unfairness in the way it reached its decision.  Any penalties imposed must be in accordance with regulations and also proportionate and reasonable, particularly when they lead to very serious consequences for the student.  The reasons for imposing a particular penalty must be clear and based on a complete and accurate understanding of the relevant facts.

The OIA expects students to take responsibility for ensuring they are familiar with university regulations and to seek help if they are unsure about issues such as plagiarism; in such cases it is always helpful if the university can demonstrate that it provided clear guidance to students on how to avoid plagiarism.  For universities tackling the ever-increasing use of essay ‘ghost writers’ the OIA helpfully confirmed that it does not consider it unreasonable for universities to use other forms of assessment, such as vivas, in those cases. 

The case reports will be of interest to anyone involved in dealing with student complaints and academic misconduct; it is to be hoped that they will also be read by students considering a complaint to the OIA. 

Joanna Forbes
Senior Associate Solicitor
Education Team
0800 763 1310
M: 07725 241552
F: 0800 763 1710
International DD: +44 870 763 1310


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