• Wenee Yap

The Sky is Falling: Failing, Academic Appeals and Plagiarism


So by now, most of your assignments have been handed in, and if you’re really lucky, have been handed back. If the marks you were hoping for this semester didn't quite come your way, there’s a few things you might want to keep in mind.

Most importantly, if you have failed an assessment, the major point to keep in mind is that failure is a label. It is no more a definition of your personal worth than success. In the hyper-competitive environment of law school, it does not signal the end of times.

“Since we were small, we’ve known the rush of seeing our names at the top of the list or getting some amazing mark,” observed journalist/author Lisa Pryor, who scored the perfect 100 UAI. “It’s a real rush. That’s why people keep chasing it even when it starts to lose its sheen, or when it actually ends up being more pain than it’s worth. It’s just hard to give up that high. Like an addict.”

If anything, failing a subject is an indication to you that some element of your approach to study is not working. Perhaps it was a bad semester – you may have been dealing with personal or family crisis, swamped under too much work or other commitments. Many universities offer some form of help, like uni counselling, as well as a procedure to appeal academic fails. This can involve alternative assessments following the successful lodgment of an application for special consideration. Find out what these are – you may be able to appeal and reverse the fail on your record.

Associate Professor Varnham recommends that if you are facing a fail or have another issue with the university, discuss it with your lecturer first or the course convener if necessary.

“All universities… have comprehensive procedures available for internal appeals and review of decisions,” advised Associate Professor Varnham. “This includes policies and procedures to be applied in matters of academic misconduct. Decisions must be made without bias, and are designed to ensure fairness, transparency and the observance of the rules of natural justice and due process. An aggrieved student should invoke the appropriate procedure in the manner specified.” The ‘manner specified’ may require that your appeal be in writing, and its details will be set out in your university’s policy and procedures available online and/or on campus. If you are unsure of how to best lodge an appeal, Associate Professor Varnham advises you can seek help from a student advocate. Check out your student union for further advice.

If you are still unsatisfied with the appeal, Associate Professor Varnham advises turning to the Student Ombud. An Ombud is an independent third party who can investigate the situation and, depending on the scope of their power, make recommendations to the university and to the student. In UTS, Student Ombuds will not belong to the same faculty from which the complaint arose – i.e. a law academic will not investigate a complaint raised within the law faculty.

Advice on approaching academic appeals

When drafting your appeal or complaint, Associate Professor Varnham advises that you concentrate on being clear, concise and factual when explaining your problem. “The worst thing that can happen is when a very genuine grievance gets lost in a great deal of emotional accusations and detail,” said Associate Professor Varnham. She recalled one student who “presented a court with 32 handwritten pages – he was unsuccessful.”

A word on plagiarism.

Plagiarism is the dominant form of academic misconduct at university. Its strict definition depends on the Faculty and University policy regarding plagiarism – but note that it can include ‘assisting’ as well as outright ‘cut-and-paste’ or copying another person’s work. “Avoid becoming a ‘patchwork plagiarist’ by cutting and pasting from the internet,” said Associate Professor Varnham. “No matter how short of time you are, it’s simply not worth it.” Note that some lecturers now use computer programs which check your work against other submitted work as a guard against plagiarism.

If you are found guilty of plagiarism in law school, you risk severe penalties including possible expulsion. At a professional level, Part 9 of the Legal Profession Admission Rules 2005 (NSW) states that as penalty for academic misconduct, you may be refused admission, reprimanded or, if you failed to report academic misconduct and are now practising as a solicitor, you may have your admission cancelled. Other Australian jurisdictions have similar rules.

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