Judge throws out student’s challenge to OIA (UK)

By Jack Grove

A medical student who twice failed his final-year exams has lost a legal battle against the decision not to award him a degree. Amandip Sandhar had been studying University of Manchester when he narrowly failed his year five exams in June 2008. He argued he should have been deemed to have passed because of mitigating circumstances, namely that he had been forced to look after his elderly grandparents after his mother traveled to India. He was allowed to re-sit the exams in 2009, but he was again unsuccessful. He declined a third chance to retake the final year, contending again that the university should have granted him a degree given his personal circumstances.

These included the illness and death of his grandmother in 2009 and the anxiety surrounding the previous year’s appeal. After exhausting internal procedures at Manchester, he took his case to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator in October 2009, which backed the university’s stance. He challenged the OIA’s fitness to rule on the matter, saying it was not impartial given its funding came from subscriptions from universities. The Court of Appeal has now dismissed Mr Sandhar’s appeal for a judicial review, saying there is no evidence to doubt the OIA’s objectivity because independent directors made up the majority of its board. It also backed the OIA’s handling of Mr Sandhar’s case, saying it was not entitled to demand a declaration and injunction requiring Manchester to award a degree.

“This is an important judgment from the Court of Appeal,” said Rob Behrens, the independent adjudicator.

“It confirms that the OIA and its staff are independent and free from bias.”

Lord Justice Longmore’s judgment, published this week, confirms the subscription-model operated by the OIA allows it to remain independent.

“It is clear that the wages of individual case-handlers are not paid by the university against whom the complaint is levelled but come from the funds generally available to the OIA from all [higher education institutions],” it says.

“In all these circumstances I just do not see how…any fair-minded and informed observer could say that there was a real possibility that the OIA in general or its independent adjudicator or any individual case-handler was biased in favour of the [higher education institution] under scrutiny in any particular case or lacked independence in any way.”

The judgement adds: “If the OIA were adjudged to lack the necessary independence, it is hard to see why the same objection would not apply to many ombudsman schemes funded by levies on the businesses which come within the purview of such schemes or indeed to the disciplinary tribunals of many professional bodies such as the GMC or the Law Society.” On Mr Sandhar’s wish for the OIA to undertake a “full merits review” of his situation, the judge adds: “The OIA does its task properly if it continues its investigation until it is confident that it has all the material it needs in order to make a decision on the individual complaint, and then makes its decision.”

Source: Times Higher Education http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=418694&c=1