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  • Writer's pictureKane Murdoch

The F Word

As promised, this is the second post for this week, following on from Tuesday's post . While mitigating circumstances are a slightly amorphous concept, open to the judgement and interpretation of decision makers, today's topic is more clearcut. It still relates to the same basic concept though, which is the F word of the title to this post , Fairness. You didn't think it was 'Fuck' did you? Perish the thought, close your ears children (musical interlude).

Now, as I mentioned in the first post it's actually very important that we who make decisions on misconduct, appeals, etc are not only fair, but are seen to be fair, not only by students but also by third parties such as Ombuds, and student unions. Of course, a student who has a series of poor decisions come back to haunt them may not think that the arrival of consequences is "fair", but at least when we detail our concerns (or allegations to use the more punitive and legalistic term); deliberately and carefully consider what they say in response; and then show that we did exactly that in our formal communications to students, at least it is clear what we thought about the situation and why. It is fairer than the alternative, whereby the concerns raised are vague and difficult to understand, and reasons for decisions are even more vague (or worse, non-existent in a formal sense). The latter case also begs the question: how could a student possibly know if they were treated fairly if there is no evidence or working to show that they were treated fairly?

A recent appeal leapt to mind, which may help flesh out what I've just said, in simple terms. A student appealed on the basis that they had not been afforded procedural fairness. They said that they had made arguments about their matter, but when they received the outcome they could not tell whether those arguments had even been read, let alone given adequate consideration. So I took a look at the details.

I read the outcome, and (without much paraphrasing at all) it said a decision had been made that the student was responsible for the breach, and they were being penalised. There was no laying out of the detail of the concerns, and there was no mention of the student's response, let alone discussion of that response alongside the originating evidence. It was not a well-reasoned decision, and therefore I was of the view that it was not procedurally fair. That doesn't mean it was actually wrong- but it means that it simply wasn't fair. The appeal was upheld.

Which led me to do some more reading. I discovered that there's a bit of debate about whether reasons are necessary in administrative law decisions. This is a good read on the subject, not too wonkish or dry (I do like dry white toast though, so...). I lean toward the argument that it's preferable for reasons to be given, because quite simply more transparency in decision making=more fairness. And when students believe that they will be treated fairly, we can build trust, community, etc. Your mileage may vary, but it's a decent read if you're so inclined.

In a feat of good timing, in the day between post one and post two on this topic, I also came across a blog post by a former colleague at UNSW Sydney, Adam Micolich. He's a professor of physics, and so not in my particular line of work. But his blog post discusses a misconduct appeal at UNSW which raised severe concerns for him. I am no longer affiliated with UNSW, so I don't pretend to know what is happening in my former group, or the broader misconduct environment there. But I'd be mortified if someone wrote this blog about my uni and the work that I do.

So fairness isn't just something that can be denied to others. It's something which can reflect very poorly on us, should we fail to rigorously uphold it.

Until next time, thanks for reading,


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