Should the courts have the authority to resolve academic disputes between students and their universities?

On the one hand, everyone deserves to have their dispute heard by a competent adjudicator, particularly students who feel they have been wronged by their educational institutions.  If the courts don’t have the power to intervene in academic affairs when a true injustice has occurred, then what is the point of the court system and how else can a student expect to get a fair shake when dealing with a large organization like  a university?  On the other hand, if judges were expected to devote court resources to every student who didn’t the grade they felt they were entitled to on a mid-term, they would never see the light of day.  And it would prevent other, perhaps more important disputes from being addressed urgently.

It costs a lot to run a court system, but judicial efficiency is only part of the picture.  If students were told to take it to court every time they had a beef with a professor, then that wouldn’t do much good for the vast majority of students who wouldn’t have the time or the money to see it through.  The same would go for university resources, which would be overstretched.  On top of this, judges might find themselves having to make a decision about some complex area of study that they slept through or had absolutely no interest in during their own university days.

For these and other reasons, courts have repeatedly drawn a fine across what the types of disputes arising from university affairs they devote their attention to, and instead have encouraged universities to devise a system of internal procedures for allowing students to be heard without needing to march down to the courthouse.  The basic rules are set out in this post, but I will summarize them as follows: anything related to purely internal matters, like a claim about an academic issue (e.g. the decision of a PhD panel), must be reviewed by internal university bodies first, and only if there is a significant unfairness in those proceedings will the courts take a look and perhaps impose a different decision.  Claims about a university breaking its contract with a student, about a university’s negligence causing harm to a student – those items will get the full attention of the courts, as if the contract or tort was set in any other context.  In those cases, the thinking goes, the university has less specialized knowledge and is acting more like any other party in a common dispute.

The Ontario Superior Court of Justice released a judgment last month in Karam v. University of Ottawa (CanLII) that briefly touches on many of these issues.  The student in this case was hoping to graduate with a Bachelor of Commerce and a specialization in accounting, which requires that he get a certain grade point average in accounting courses.  The dispute turned on whether a particular course did or did not qualify as an accounting course.  The student, in one corner, felt that it was, in fact, an accounting course, and his grade in the course entitled him to the specialization in accounting.  The university, in the other corner, felt that the course did not make the cut, and despite the student’s grade the specialization was not deserved.

The student took the matter to the University of Ottawa Senate Appeals Committee, which is empowered to review and deal with these sorts of decisions, and it found in favour of the university.  The student sought judicial review (Wikipedia) of the decision; a “judicial review” is a type of lawsuit that invites a court to review the decision of a government agency or administrative tribunal with variable levels of scrutiny, which range depending on how much deference the agency or tribunal is entitled to.  In particular, the student claimed this was a decision about whether the university had honoured their contract, which should attract a high level of scrutiny by the courts and relatively little deference, while the university claimed this was about a basic academic issue (i.e. when to award a certain degree), and little scrutiny and much deference should be applied.

The student failed:

The applicant submits that his entitlement to be awarded a degree with accounting specialization is substantially a contractual issue, thus attracting a correctness standard of review.  We disagree.  We accept the respondent’s argument that a substantive decision of a university body on an academic matter (in this case, entitlement to be awarded a degree), if it is open to review at all, is to be accorded very significant deference.  The standard of review is reasonableness.

In our opinion, the record before this Court amply demonstrates the reasonableness of the respondent’s decision that the applicable university regulations justify the original decision of the business school, upheld by the appeals committee, that the ADM 4311 course was not an accounting specialization course and was not eligible for inclusion in the minimum grade point average calculation.  Even if the applicant was correct in his position that the degree requirements, or explanatory information on the university website, was unclear or contained an element of ambiguity on this issue, it was for the Appeals Committee to rule on the applicant’s entitlement to be awarded the specialized degree, provided that its decision was reasonable.  As noted, we are of the view that the committee’s decision was reasonable.Jud

Judgments like Karam are important for students and universities to consider when deciding on how to deal with a grievance that does not appear to have been settled with the decision of an internal university body.

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