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Speculation over treatment of Newcastle University medical student

Failing a student by one mark may seem harsh but it is not, in itself, unfair. On 8 February 2014, the Daily Mail newspaper reported that a former Newcastle University medical student had lost his High Court case against the University. The student, Paul Crawford, had apparently been subject to an unfair appeal process at the University after failing his course by one mark. This initial and speculative analysis of the Daily Mail’s report conjectures as to the nature of any unfairness on the part of Newcastle University.

The newspaper report quotes Mr Crawford’s barrister, Antony Speaight QC, as saying:

‘The judge found that the university had failed to give Mr Crawford a fair hearing under its own internal appeals procedure, the rules of which it had broken.

‘However, the ultimately critical question was whether the university had departed from its own published handbook in the manner in which it computed Mr Crawford’s marks.

‘At an earlier hearing a different judge was sympathetic to Mr Crawford’s argument that double weighting one of the components of a practical exam was inconsistent with the calculation of an average.

‘However, at this hearing the judge held that the handbook gave merely an overview, and that the double weighting was not inconsistent with its text.’

Mr Speaight does not claim that failing a student by one mark is unfair, which it is not unless other students in a similar position and circumstances were treated more favourably, but he does say that the judge found the University had broken its rules of appeal and failed to give the student a fair hearing.

Why might a university appeal process have been unfair? Pertinent deficiencies might include: supplying the appellant student with incomplete, misleading, inaccurate or false information; misleading the appellant into wrongly believing that all relevant information had been disclosed; failing to supply relevant information when warranted by a specific context; failing to properly consider new evidence arising from the appeal process itself; failing to properly address points made by the appellant; rejecting points made by the appellant on spurious grounds and, perhaps at some final review request stage, ignoring or misunderstanding points made by the appellant; allowing or seeking changes of evidence on the part of the university; being closed to the appellant’s case or perfunctorily supporting the university, and devising unfounded excuses rather than giving good reason to reject a review request.

The Mail’s report does not say which, if any, of the above example deficiencies applied in Mr Crawford’s case, but ‘his argument that double weighting one of the components of a practical exam was inconsistent with the calculation of an average’ provides a possible clue as to what may, roughly, have happened. If Mr Crawford had known before taking his practical examination that one of its components was double-weighted he would have been in a position to make an informed decision to concentrate study and practice time in that component area of ‘Clinical and Communication Skills’ before taking the examination. In these circumstances he would have had no excuse for what may have been a relatively poor mark and the ‘different judge’ at the ‘earlier hearing’ would perhaps not have been ‘sympathetic’. Given the declared actual sympathy of the earlier judge perhaps Mr Crawford was unaware of the double-weighting when he took the examination.

If Mr Crawford was unaware of the double-weighting of an individually assessed component of his practical examination at the time of the examination then when and how did he find out about it?

That Mr Crawford’s case is relying on the university’s ‘published handbook’, with its reference to calculating an ‘average’ (rather than a more general weighted average), may indicate that the course handbook was the only official source of information on how the practical examination marks were allocated (weighted). If the University had already provided specific information on the weightings of the individual practical components of Clinical and Communication Skills then this would have superceded the more general advice of the handbook.

If, when the relevant facts emerge, it turns out that Mr Crawford, in common with other students taking the practical examination, was not given notice of the distribution of marks across the assessed components then he has been subject to an unfairness that precedes the reportedly unfair appeal hearing. That possible unfairness has two elements; the relative disadvantage, compared to other undergraduate students at Newcastle, of not having the information necessary to make informed decisions on where to concentrate his study efforts, and the more fundamental unfairness, or perhaps unreasonableness, of being assessed without having been provided with sufficient information to enable him to best prepare for the assessment.

Undergraduate university students elect to take academic study modules according to the restrictions and available module choices applicable to their specific degree programmes. Each module has a university assigned credit-value (number of credits) to signify the study time (academic effort) required for successfully completion of that module. The more work a student puts into a particular module the greater their anticipated mark for that module.

The calculation of the final (overall) mark of a student, as used in deciding the student’s final award, reflects both the credit-value and the mark given for each of a student’s assessed modules, with the credit values being used as weights in calculating the final mark as a weighted average mark over all modules.

Students know that higher credit-value modules are more valuable than lower credit-value modules. For any given module students also know the relative weights of each of its separately assessable component parts; they are informed of the percentage of marks or proportion of credits given to an essay versus an examination and advised of the relative weights of a dissertation proposal and the dissertation itself. In the case of an examination they are supplied with a rubric or structure which spells out, where necessary, the marks assigned to each question or individually assessable component of the examination.

Without knowing the weight of a module or unit of study and the relative weights of its assessed components students cannot apportion their learning or preparation efforts for assessment effectively, i.e. in the most productive manner for optimal academic performance.

The Daily Mail’s report does not say when Mr Crawford first learnt of the apparent double-weighting within the practical examination. If it was indeed only after completion of the examination then, unfairness aside, the soundness and standards of assessment at the University’s medical school are perhaps questionable. If examiners are neglecting to provide medical students with sufficient information on the structure of their assessments then what other failings might be occurring in the training of future medical doctors? If the double-weighting was only disclosed to Mr Crawford at the time of the appeal then any of the failings, or other failings, listed earlier may have occurred during the appeal process.

The Mail’s report indicates that, having exhausted the University’s appeal process, Mr Crawford took his case to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIAHE, OIA). Thereafter he appears to have sought, been granted and won a judicial review.

Had the Office of the Independent Adjudicator upheld Mr Crawford’s complaint then he would have had no need to seek a judicial review. It seems that the OIA decided in favour of the University, despite the reported failure of the University to give Mr Crawford a fair hearing. Even had the OIA upheld Mr Crawford’s complaint its only power here is to refer the complainant back to the University for further consideration.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator’s decision is unsurprising: How are university student complaints handled? Unileaks crunches the numbers. The Mail’s report refers to Mr Crawford’s legal team claiming a breach of contract. Contract law was perhaps the only legal avenue available in the context of the OIA’s Rules and its tolerance of significant deficiencies on the part of a university.

The University of Newcastle upon Tyne’s victory perhaps does little to enhance either its own reputation or that of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has, whilst repeatedly identifying what might be regarded as serious failings, continued to express its confidence in the University.

As Mr Crawford’s barrister says:

‘It is an unfortunate outcome for a young man who had spent six years training to be a doctor and at one time or another passed every element in the medical examinations.’

This article was amended on 10 February 2015. An earlier version inaccurately referred to the QAA as continuing to express its judgements of the University in terms of ‘reasonable confidence’. The reports of QAA ‘Institutional audit’ reviews of the University carried out in 2005 and 2009 use the phrases ‘broad confidence’ and ‘confidence can reasonably be placed’ to convey their respective audit conclusions. These phrases represent the most positive of the outcome descriptions in use by the QAA at the time. The applicable text has been simplified and the qualification of the QAA’s confidence in the University removed. The simplification has included the deletion of a broken hyperlink to the QAA’s reports.

The Journal newspaper reports that Paul Crawford has asked Newcastle University not to bankrupt him. He says that such a course could look “somewhat vindictive”. Mr Crawford, who failed the final year of his Medicine and Surgery degree, may be ordered to meet the costs of his High Court legal action against the University.

There is ample scope for the student consumer to demand better

In a post for The Ivory Tower blog, Unileaks UK raises a number of issues which are of interest to university students. The case of the Newcastle medical student is examined in the light of the published High Court judgment and GMC guidelines. Had the student been treated fairly during his initial appeal then the final outcome may have been different.