NPC Guidelines for the Conduct of Research Degree Appeals (1995)

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The National Postgraduate Committee was formed in 1982 to represent the interests and aspirations of postgraduate instructional and research students. All institutions with postgraduate students are entitled to representation on the Committee.

We would be very pleased to discuss further the points raised in the Guidelines, and to receive comments on them. If you would like any further details on the Guidelines or on the NPC itself, please contact the National Postgraduate Committee.

Introduction

Research degrees are very different in nature from taught course degrees. There is little set training on research programmes, and each "course", and the project behind it, is different. For this reason, assessment is a more personal affair and is necessarily more subjective and qualitative than is the case for taught degrees with set examinations. Rigorous appeal procedures tailored to the requirements of research degrees are essential at all institutions. Existing guidelines, in the shape of chapter 5 of the CVCP Reynolds Committee Guidelines, work well where they are implemented. However, the NPC's experience with research degree appeals has highlighted a number of cases which are not covered by the Reynolds Guidelines. In particular, the Reynolds Guidelines do not suggest a detailed procedure for the conduct of the appeal, and do not allow for the appeals committee to make wider recommendations beyond the individual appeal being considered. In the light of its knowledge of appeals procedures at a number of institutions, the NPC has drafted the following guidelines.

It should be emphasised that this is not an attempt to propose regulations for institutions. These are guidelines which will help institutions to draft their own regulations, according to their own circumstances. The timescales given are indications of what might be appropriate; realistic timescales will almost certainly vary between different institutions. No set of guidelines can attempt to cover every scenario; it is important that regulations are kept flexible to allow for unusual cases, while providing a framework which ensures that all parties know their responsibilities.

The guidelines are a result of consultation within the Committee and with institutions. Any comments will be gratefully received and considered, and should be sent to the General Secretary.

Summary of Recommendations

All institutions should have particular procedures for research degree appeals, and all research students should be made aware of these procedures.

The appeals process should consist of two stages. The first stage is a "filter" stage, to ensure that spurious cases do not require a full hearing. However, it is important that a committee rather than an individual is responsible for this filter to avoid any possibility of abuse.

Stage One: Appeals Committee

The Appeals Committee should be a standing committee of the institution. It decides whether there is a prima facie case for consideration, and so whether there should be a full appeal hearing. To save time and effort the Chair may decide on their own to proceed with a hearing, but may not reject the appeal without convening the full committee.

Stage Two: Investigating Panel

The Investigating Panel is a subcommittee of the Appeals Committee. It conducts the full appeal hearing and makes a recommendation to the Appeals Committee on the outcome of the appeal.

The Appeals Committee makes the final decision, and may also make more general recommendations concerning issues that arise from the case.

General

  1. All institutions should have procedures governing research degree appeals. Institutions should recognise that the process of conducting and examining research degrees is different in a number of ways from that for instructional courses, in particular that the process is conducted on an individual basis. As a result, guidelines on degree appeals will require specific clauses relating to research degrees.
  2. The procedures for dealing with research degree appeals should be specified in guidelines or regulations produced by the institution. These guidelines should be clear and unambiguous, and all students undertaking research degrees, and their supervisors, course directors and counsellors, should be made aware of their provisions (preferably, but not exclusively, by these being published along with a Code of Practice on Research Supervision given to each student).
  3. Regulations relating to appeals procedures should be fixed as far as possible, and in particular must be independent of individual appeal cases. Institutions may wish to include a degree of flexibility into the handling of cases by allowing committees or individuals to act at their discretion, but if this is the case it must be specified in the regulations and the normal operating procedure specified as far as possible. Where changes are agreed to the regulations, these changes should be notified to all students undertaking research degrees, and their supervisors, course directors and counsellors.
  4. Institutions must ensure that their regulations concerning research appeals are operating effectively, and achieving their objectives. Institutions should specify a body, such as a Quality Assurance Committee, which should be responsible for such appraisal.
  5. Institutions should also ensure that if appeals cases give rise to some more general recommendations beyond the particular case at hand, there is some formal mechanism, such as through the quality assurance procedures, whereby responsibility to ensure that these issues are investigated is properly assigned. Lessons learned from previous cases must not simply be forgotten.
  6. In addition to appeals procedures, institutions should have formal complaints procedures for hearing complaints arising during the course, and appeals procedures for non-degree examinations and recommendations for termination or alteration of course of study. NPC recommendations for such procedures are covered in our Guidelines on Codes of Practice for Postgraduate Research. If the roles and responsibilities of student and supervisor are clearly understood from the outset of the research programme then the need for these procedures will be kept to a minimum.

Appeals Committee

  1. The institution shall have a standing Appeals Committee, which will include (in a voting capacity):
    1. at least one member of the institution's academic staff, who has experience of conducting PhD examinations;
    2. at least one representative of the Students' Association (who is not the representative of the appellant);
    3. the officer responsible for the operation of the institution's equal opportunities policy (or their representative);
    4. an external member, who should be a member of academic staff at another institution who has successfully supervised PhD students.
  2. A member of the institution's administrative staff, conversant with the procedures for research degree examinations, should act as secretary to the committee.

Grounds for Appeal

  1. A research student may appeal against any of these decisions:
    1. that the degree for which the student is registered shall not be awarded and that the student shall not be given the opportunity to resubmit for that degree;
    2. that a lesser degree be awarded, or that the student be allowed to resubmit a thesis for a lesser degree.
  2. The student may submit an appeal based on any of the following grounds:
    1. that there were procedural irregularities in the conduct of the examination (including administrative error);
    2. that there is evidence of prejudice or bias on the part of one or more of the examiners;
    3. that there is evidence of inadequate assessment by one or more of the examiners;
    4. that there exist circumstances affecting the student's performance of which the examiners had not been made aware when their decision was taken;
    5. that their supervision during their course was unsatisfactory to the point that the student's performance was seriously affected.
  3. The Appeals Committee may rule out either or both of the grounds stated in d and e if it feels that in the particular case being examined it was unreasonable for the student not to have taken action before the examination either to resolve the situation or make the examiners aware of the circumstances.
  4. Neither the existence of complaints or grievance procedures, nor any previous use of such procedures by the student, is in itself a reason to dismiss appeals citing ground (e) above, unless the committee feels that lack of action on the part of the student was unreasonable. Students are not always in a position to assess the competence of their supervision at an early stage, and so deficiencies may only come to light as a result of the examination.
  5. Any appeal citing medical factors must be supported by appropriate medical certificates. Students should be made aware of the importance of getting such certificates at the time of the illness or disability.

Submission of Appeal

  1. Appeals must be submitted in writing to the secretary of the Appeals Committee. The institution must have procedures defining communication between the student and the institution, e.g. providing written confirmation of receiving an appeal, and asking the student for a current correspondence address.
  2. Appeals should be submitted as soon as possible. The appellant must notify an intent to appeal within 28 days of receiving the examination result. The Appeals Committee may consider later appeals at its discretion.
  3. Within two months of receiving the examination result the appellant must submit to the secretary of the Appeals Committee a summary of their appeal, consisting of the grounds under which they wish to appeal, the outcome they wish to see, and a summary of supporting evidence.
  4. Within two months of the receipt of this summary, the Appeals Committee will meet to consider the appeal. The Appeals Committee may make one of the following decisions:
    1. To reject the appeal. In this case, the appellant will be notified in writing of this decision, and may submit further evidence within 28 days for the Appeals Committee to reconsider hearing the appeal, providing such further evidence has not been previously put before the Appeals Committee by the appellant and is relevant to the case.
    2. To hear the appeal.
  5. The Appeals Committee may ask for further evidence from the appellant or other party in order to decide between actions (a) or (b) above, but it may not conduct any substantial review of the case at this stage, such as interviewing witnesses. If the committee feels that such an investigation is justified, it must decide to proceed with the appeal.
  6. Alternatively, the chair of the Appeals Committee may decide that the appeal should be heard without convening a meeting of the committee. No appeal may be rejected without a full meeting of the Appeals Committee. Failure to consider an appeal constitutes a denial of natural justice.

Investigating Panel

  1. If the Appeals Committee decides to hear the appeal it will appoint a subcommittee, the Investigating Panel, to hear the appeal (see Conduct of the Appeal Hearing).
  2. The minimum number of members of the Investigating Panel will be 5. At least one of these must be a representative of the Students' Association (who is not the representative of the appellant). The Appeals Committee may appoint non-members to the panel where it feels this to be appropriate.
  3. None of the members of the Investigating Panel may have had any previous involvement in the case being investigated (except as a member of the Appeals Committee considering the initial appeal application), or other involvement which may be felt to prejudice their fair opinion in the appeal. If such an involvement comes to light before the investigation of the case, that member will stand down and the Appeals Committee will appoint a replacement. Where such an involvement comes to light during the appeal hearing itself, that member will withdraw from the panel and not be party to its report to the full committee.
  4. The Investigating Panel will decide whether any member has had any previous involvement in the case being investigated, or other involvement which may be felt to prejudice their fair opinion in the appeal, if such an allegation is made either by the appellant, their representative, any member of the Investigating Panel, or any other person involved in the appeal.

Conduct of the Appeal Hearing

  1. The hearing before the Investigating Panel should take place not less than 28 days after the appellant has been informed that the Appeals Committee has decided on a full appeal hearing, and at a time when all interested parties can attend. The appellant shall be given at least 14 days notice of the date of the hearing.
  2. The appellant may submit further written evidence in support of their case before the date of the hearing.
  3. Any person whose conduct is brought into question by the appeal should be given a copy of the appeal, and should be given an opportunity to present evidence to the Investigating Panel. The appellant and witnesses should receive all relevant papers at least 14 days before the date of the hearing.
  4. If the appellant fails to attend the appeal hearing without good reason, having been served notice of the meeting, the appeal hearing may take place in the appellant's absence.
  5. The appellant may be accompanied at the hearing by a friend, who may speak on their behalf. The friend need not be a member of the institution. The appellant should inform the Appeals Committee secretary of the name and status of the friend in advance of the hearing.
  6. During the presentation of evidence to the Investigating Panel (but not after this while the Investigating Panel considers its decision), the appellant, their representative, and any or all of the examiners, have a right to be present. The Investigating Panel may determine which other persons may be present for all or part of the hearing, but may not unreasonably exclude any persons called by the appellant or other interested party as witnesses.
  7. Minutes of the Investigating Panel hearing will be kept in case of an appeal against its decision.
  8. At the hearing, all parties shall be entitled to present evidence, to call and question witnesses, and to make a concluding statement. All cross-examination should be through the chair of the panel. The concluding statement of the appellant will be heard last.
  9. All written evidence presented to the Investigating Panel will be available to the appellant. If the examiners wish the examination report to be kept confidential, this will be allowed, but the examiners will be invited to prepare a summary for use by the panel. If they fail to do so, a non-attributable summary will be prepared for use by the Investigating Panel. Evidence which witnesses are not prepared to have revealed to the appellant may not be presented to the Investigating Panel, and must not be allowed to influence their decision.

Outcome of the Appeal

  1. On the recommendation of the Investigating Panel, the Appeals Committee may take any of the following decisions:
    1. to reject the appeal, in which case the student should be informed of the reason;
    2. when the appeal is on either of the grounds stated in clauses 3.2.1 or 3.2.4 above, to determine the proper action, such as:
      1. to recommend to the board of examiners that, for reasons stated, the board should reconsider its decision;
      2. to give the student permission to revise the thesis and re-submit for re-examination within a specified time limit;
      3. to declare the examination null and void and to direct that a fresh examination be conducted;
    3. where the appeal is on the either of the grounds stated in clauses Grounds:2.b or Grounds:2.c above, to declare the examination null and void and to direct that a fresh examination be conducted;


%%where the appeal is on the grounds stated in clause Grounds:2.e above, to give the student permission to revise the thesis and re-submit for re-examination within a specified time limit. In this case, the Appeals Committee should direct the relevant Postgraduate Study Committee to ensure that satisfactory supervisory arrangements are made for the period until re-submission.

  1. Where re-examination under clause 1.b.iii or 1.c is determined:
    1. new examiners should be appointed, in number not fewer than on the original board and containing not fewer than two external examiners;
    2. the examiners should be given no information about the previous examination except, and only if considered necessary, the single fact they are conducting a re-examination on appeal.
  2. The Appeals Committee may also make recommendations of a more general nature on issues that arise from the case, if it sees fit. There should be a formal mechanism for consideration of these recommendations, as described in section General:5, and a designated body should ensure any necessary action is taken.
  3. Institutions must allow for appeal against these decisions with a second stage of appeal to Senate (or similar governing body).