the Irish for rights

Student challenges to degree classification, and examiners’ academic freedom

ECIT building, QUB, via the QUB websiteSome time ago, I blogged about the question of whether a low mark is a breach of contract. A little while ago, in a gallimaufry (omnibus) post, I briefly returned to this issue. The context was a US case, Keefe v New York Law School (17 November 2009), but now it seems that the issue has arisen rather closer to home. Yesterday’s Irish Times tells the story:

Graduate takes university to court over degree results

A Queen’s University [Belfast] graduate yesterday launched a High Court challenge to his degree classification. In one of the first cases of its kind, Andrew Croskery has brought judicial review proceedings over his lower second-class honours classification.

Mr Croskery, from Co Down, claims if he had received better supervision he would have instead obtained an upper second-class in his electrical engineering degree.

Read more here.

There is similar coverage on the BBC and UTV; in the Belfast Telegraph, Cherwell, the Guardian (also here, on the Human Rights in Ireland blog), and the Mirror; and commentary on the Cantakerous, Gullibility, and Learning Architecture blogs. Update: Slugger O’Toole’s post has the QUB regulations at issue.

The New York and Belfast cases raise two important issues. First, at private law, when can there be a contract between a student and a university, and as a matter of policy will the courts get involved in purely academic matters to determine whether the contract has been breached? Gullibility argues strongly that the metaphor of students as customers is misleading, and that Andrew Croskery’s case should be dismissed.

Second, universities in the UK – and, for that matter, Ireland – have more of a public flavour than US colleges normally have, the question arises as to whether they are subject to judicial review, and if so, whether the courts will as a matter of policy accord significant deference to purely academic matters.

Whether at public law or at private law, a judicial policy of declining to get involved in purely academic decisions respects the academic freedom of the university and the examiners to make academic decisions. Provided that the appropriate procedures have been followed, the courts are very slow to go behind substantive academic decisions. The classic US cases are Board of Curators, University of Missouri v Horowitz 435 US 78 (1978) and University of Michigan v Ewing 474 US 214 (1985); (and see eg Douglas Rush “Through the Looking Glass: Judicial Deference to Academic Decision Makers …” bepress esp Part III). An extremely strong version of this judicial deference can be discerned in the Irish High Court in Quinn v Honourable Society of King’s Inns [2004] IEHC 220 (15 June 2004) in which Smyth J declined to give the applicant leave to challenge an exam grade. The reports do not make clear whether counsel for QUB referred to this case, though he did argue that the judicial review application should be dismissed as the court was not the proper forum for the challenge. Mr Justice Treacy adjourned the application and will give his decision on the application for leave to commence judicial review proceedings next month.

I await judgment with great interest, and some trepidation. Doubtless I will blog about it when it is handed down. Now, in the meantime, perhaps I had better reconsider my marking techniques!

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7 Responses to “Student challenges to degree classification, and examiners’ academic freedom”

  1. […] « Student challenges to degree classification, and examiners’ academic freedom Sep 23 2010 […]

  2. Nic says:

    I know practically nothing about the law but my instinct is that this lawsuit will not go ahead and I would agree with that decision. Aside from anything, I think just the fact that it went to court would open the floodgates for similar lawsuits, it wouldn’t even matter if he won or lost.

    I do have a lot of sympathy with him though, as I refuse to sign up to this idea that a 2:2 is a failure and that it always indicates a student who spent more time in nightclubs than they did studying. It’s just not true. I worked hard and got a 2:1 myself but my sister also worked hard and got a 2:2. I understand that hard work isn’t enough, you have to have the ability but in my opinion, she did. That said, it’s only an opinion because I wasn’t privy to the marking criteria but I do honestly believe that there was an issue with bias too. That’s a word that’s thrown around too lightly, I do accept that, but I honestly believe that it can happen and that it did happen with my sister. In my case, I was one of the ones who was liked. Whether that came into my grade, I don’t know. I hope not but I do know that I was one of the ones who was liked.

    So I’m not going to assume that Andrew didn’t study or that his work wasn’t good enough. It may be the case but I’m not going to assume it is because I despise that assumption. I still think the lawsuit is ridiculous and if you ask me, I think it’s going to damage his chances when it comes to graduate jobs. But seeing how it made my sister feel, I’m guessing that’s the way he feels too, so I’m not going to condemn him for feeling crushed. I think I would have done too. He’s just reacting in the wrong way.

  3. […] to my two previous posts concerning student challenges to degree classification, there is a piece in this […]

  4. […] challenging his degree results in Queen’s University Belfast (on which I have previously blogged: 1, 2, 3). The gravamen of those posts was that courts are slow to disturb substantive academic […]

  5. […] judicial review proceedings to challenge his degree results (on which I have previously blogged: 1, 2, 3, 4; and there is also an excellent post Jason Smith), might have got a result during the […]

  6. […] of this kind, where an objection is simply to matters of academic judgment, the courts show great deference to such matters, and are very slow to interfere. The deference is stated in different ways in the […]

  7. […] question in such cases is whether the matter can be litigated at all. There is judicial deference to matters of academic freedom, so the courts are very slow to interfere in matters of purely academic judgment, and generally […]

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Me in a hatHi there! Thanks for dropping by. I'm Eoin O'Dell, and this is my blog: Cearta.ie - the Irish for rights.

"Cearta" really is the Irish word for rights, so the title provides a good sense of the scope of this blog.

In general, I write here about private law, free speech, and cyber law; and, in particular, I write about Irish law and education policy.


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