Examinations: What rights do students have?

Exams are part of university life. However, they do not always go according to plan. To explore your options if there was a disruption during the exam, you suddenly fell ill or a fail grade took you by surprise, uni:view has talked to the Studienpräses and a legal expert.

Usually, the milk has already been spilt at the time when students refer to the Office of the Studienpräses. However, many students do not know their options if the exam was disturbed by a fire alarm or they have missed an exam due to illness.

uni:view, in cooperation with Studienpräses Peter Lieberzeit and legal expert Katharina Sonntagbauer, summarises basic information and a student’s intervention possibilities. The Office of the Studienpräses compiled a list of some of a student's rights and obligations and made it available online (in German).

You cannot file an appeal against grades

The bad news first: If you disagree with your examination results, you cannot make an appeal against it. "This is a legal provision and is probably related to the fact that  teachers also act as reviewers", Studienpräses Peter Lieberzeit explains the provision. However, according to section 79 of the Universities Act (in German), students are entitled to view their examination.

Students are entitled to view their examination documents

Students are allowed to view the assessment documents, the examination questions and examination records and make copies within six months following the exam. Multiple-choice tests are an exception to that rule, because it is not permitted to copy the questions and related answer items. Some departments or the studies service center provide information or a list of dates for viewing examination documents on their websites.

Annulling a fail grade due to serious irregularities during the examination

If students received a fail grade, but there were serious irregularities in the conduct of the examination, they can apply for the annulment of the grade. But what does this mean exactly? "Serious irregularities comprise things that you might generally consider a severe disruption during an examination: a jack-hammer used in the adjacent lecture hall during the entire examination, a fire alarm, a considerable reduction of the scheduled examination duration or the incorrect appointment of an examination board for an examination held before a board", explains Peter Lieberzeit.

Who can students speak to for getting advice and support?

For getting advice and support, the Office of the Studienpräses is not the correct contact point, but: "First of all, students should refer to their teachers, then to the studies service center (SSC) (in German) or the directorate of studies (SPL). The latter is also the appropriate contact for conflicts between teachers and students."

The Office of the Studienpräses (in German) only does step in if the SSC or SPL could not settle a legal issue. For this reason, the Office of the Studienpräses forwards student enquiries to these units at first.

Making an appeal against examination irregularities

If students want to file an application for annulment of the examination to the Office of the Studienpräses (in German), they have to meet the two-week deadline following the publication of the assessment results. In addition, only duly justified applications will be processed. "Some of the students simply write: 'I have heard that I can file an appeal. Please annul my grade'", says Peter Lieberzeit. "If students cannot explain why their application is justified in a comprehensible way, we have to disappoint them."

The Office of the Studienpräses receives between 150 and 300 enquiries every year; in 2015 there were about 100 procedures that led to the annulment of an examination. "In some years there are only 20 procedures. It differs", summarises legal expert Katharina Sonntagbauer. "Often, students appeal against a failed fourth examination attempt, because it means ‘all or nothing’. However, in these cases, we also have a close look at the facts and base our decision on these facts. This means that there is no 'bonus' for examinations held before an examination board", adds the Studienpräses.

How is an appeal decision made?

"Generally, we only uphold applications for an appeal against a fail decision if the teachers confirm the facts as explained by the students. If teachers have a dissenting opinion, the student is given the opportunity to comment. In cases of doubt, we decide in favour of the students, which sometimes made us unpopular with the teachers", Lieberzeit explains the procedure.

"If we reject the annulment of the examination, there are still other options to make an appeal: Students can still refer to the federal administrative court (Bundesverwaltungsgericht). As our basic principle is ‘in dubio pro studioso/studiosa’, the federal administrative court usually confirmed our decisions in the past.

Not being able to finish an examination

What can students do if they do not feel well during the exam or if they are not able to finish it? "In these cases, students should immediately inform the invigilator about this situation. Here, in the Office of the Studienpräses (in German), we repeatedly see students that did not pass the fourth attempt and want to plead being sick some time after the exam. Of course, that does not work", emphasises Lieberzeit.

When does the exam that I left count as an attempt?

"Primarily, the lecturer decides whether leaving an exam is justified or not", adds Katharina Sonntagbauer. Students also have the right to file an application to the Office of the Studienpräses (in German) if they think that the teacher did not consider crucial aspects in his/her decision."

However, it is important that students meet the relevant deadlines. The Office of the Studienpräses has to receive the application immediately, at the latest within fourteen days following the exam that the student left. This is the law. If leaving the exam is acknowledged as justified, the exam will not be counted as an attempt and the student can resit the exam at a later time.
Being sick while sitting an exam

Generally, students can de-register from an exam if they fell ill. However, they should refer to the teacher or the studies service center (in German) before the exam and submit a medical certificate (later).

"Of course, students can also sit the exam when they are sick, but at their own risk. If they really take the exam, it will certainly be assessed and it counts as an attempt. Leaving the exam afterwards is not possible", explains Sonntagbauer.

Long-term sickness throughout the semester
If students fall ill during the semester, the successful completion of a course with continuous assessment might be jeopardised. "There is no right to submit assignments afterwards", points out the Studienpräses. "However, many things can quickly be resolved on a personal level. Therefore, it is important that students talk to the teachers as soon as possible and inform them about the reasons. Just like the studies service centers and the directorates of studies, teachers are subject to professional secrecy – they are not allowed to talk about the contents of a discussion with third parties."

A person of trust attending the oral examination with you

In general, oral exams are public. As the premises of the University of Vienna are subject to fire safety regulations, the maximum number of people in the audience can be limited. However, the student's person of trust is an exception to that rule, because students have the right to be accompanied by a person of trust to the oral exam.

Communication is key

Independent of a student’s options granted by study law, communication with teachers and counselling sessions with the directorates of studies and studies service centers are still the best tool to find solutions to individual problems and to assert one’s rights.

"Many conflicts and appeals that we deal with on a daily basis should not have led to a legal dispute in the field of study law", summarises Peter Lieberzeit. "If students talk to their teachers soon enough, seek information on their own and ask for advice, many problems can be solved or avoided in the first place." (jr)