A landmark legal case being taken by a graduate seeking to overturn his degree classification could open up a “can of worms” for all academical institutions, it has been warned.
The caution comes after Andrew Croskery, who has taken judicial review proceedings against Queen’s University Belfast, was told his degree classification is to be reviewed.
Mr Croskery, from Co Down graduated with a 2:2 in electrical engineering from QUB earlier this year. However he claims if he had received better supervision he would have obtained an upper second class degree.
In this case, which also alleges procedural irregularities at Queen’s, the law is being used to claim Mr Croskery’s human rights were breached because he was not allowed to appeal the degree as he had already graduated.
The hearing was expected to begin at Belfast High Court yesterday, with skeleton arguments due to be presented to judge Mr Justice Treacy.
However Tony McGleenan QC, representing Mr Croskery, requested a “short adjournment” of three weeks, telling the court that Queen’s had conceded to carrying out a review of his client’s degree classification. The barrister also said if Mr Croskery, who was just half a percent away from a 2:1 degree, is still unhappy with the outcome, he would now be able to appeal his results.
A lawyer for Queen’s told the hearing: “This is a proposal made without prejudice. The head of the school is out of the country for the next week but we are very hopeful that the review process will be complete within three weeks. When we re-convene we will have some idea about how the applicant’s concerns have been assuaged.”
It is understood the argument around inadequate supervision relates to advice Mr Croskery was given about the standard of his work. He is requesting that email correspondence with the university tutors be examined as part of the review process.
Meanwhile, the University and College Union, which represents more than 120,000 academics and staff across the UK, has said this case could end up setting a “dangerous legal precedent” which could potentially threaten academic freedom.
Professor Bob Osborne, from the University of Ulster’s School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy, said he was surprised that Queen’s had changed its stance.
“I am very surprised that any university is prepared to re-open the classification of a degree after someone has graduated — unless due process has not taken place,” he said. “If it is confirmed, it does open a huge can of worms.
“However it may be a defensive position that the university thinks it is better to get rid of the problem rather than having to go before the court. It is unusual unless a student has convinced the university that there has been some malpractice which has led to them being disadvantaged. Maybe they have now uncovered some new evidence.”
Jonathan Bell, chairman of the Committee for Employment and Learning, said: “The consequences of any decision in this case are going to be major and I have no doubt that is in the minds of the people as they conduct themselves. There will be a lot of interest to see the outcome. What we at the Employment and Learning Committee will be asking is ‘what can we learn from this?”
“The system has changed a lot culturally since I was at Queen’s in the late 80s when there were no fees and you got a grant. There has been a psychological shift where people are paying for a service therefore they want a good service. And, if there is something legitimate that they think is wrong with the service, they have a right to ask for a review.
“However I think that courts, in all situations, should be used as a last resort.”
The case been adjourned until November 2.