Academic Judgement in Higher Education: The social cost of its demise?

In 2015 the Consumer Rights Act made universities ‘traders’ and students ‘consumers’. Academic literature on the adverse consequences of the law has been copious, with many critical of the ‘student-as-consumer’ metaphor and others concerned for the rise of ‘a culture of litigation’. One area that has remained outside the remit of legal redress has been ‘academic judgement’ where ‘only the opinion of an academic expert is sufficient’ (OIA, 2017). Case studies in the High Court suggest, however, that this ‘cloak of immunity’ (Palfreyman, 2010) is gradually being eroded. The paper argues that in the future it is will, for example, be quite possible for students to appeal against a grade awarded for an essay and demand their script be re-marked … and why not, when some would argue that universities should ‘stop the pretence of consistent marking’ (Bloxham et al., 2016) and the appeal procedure is already well-established in schools? The social cost could be high though. As consumerism in Higher Education entrenches many solicitors are already poised to support students with their claims: ‘If you have recently failed an exam but wish to appeal the decision we can help you’ (Alpha Academic Appeals, 2007). Universities thus face a paradox. Maintain academic judgment and run the risk of leaving students unprotected against possible malevolent or negligent misdemeanours by academic staff (Gadja, 2009). Or, at a time when universities are falling prey to the systemic imperatives of economic subsystems that today grow with dynamics of their own (Habermas, 2006), limit academic judgement and jeopardise the very values, norms and consensus formation that are required for academic freedom and autonomy to flourish.