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Fitness to Practise
If you are a university student involved in a professional course, you’ve likely been told about fitness to practise. Most professional bodies (like the GMC and the HCPC) make fitness to practise a requirement for anyone looking to register to practise. You’ve hopefully been to a lecture or seminar where they’ve discussed the topic, if only briefly. This article will aim to give you some more information as to what exactly fitness to practise means, the impact it can have on your professional career and the help you can receive from our university solicitors.
What is fitness to practise?
A useful definition of fitness to practise can be found in the HCPC guidance on the topic, where they describe a registrant as having the “Skills, knowledge, character and health to practise their profession safely and effectively.” Ultimately, fitness to practise is the ability of a professional to meet professional standards. If you aren’t considered fit to practise, then you’ll be unable to practise in your chosen field.
It’s important to note that the actual requirements for fitness to practise will vary from body to body. Universities and other higher education providers who run courses which give a professional qualification should have procedures in place that will manage any concerns about a student’s fitness to practise. These concerns should be dealt with fairly, promptly and proportionately.
However, your university does have an obligation and responsibility to address any concerns if they believe a student is not fit to practise. Examples of issues which may lead to fitness to practise concerns will include but are not limited to:
- Academic misconduct (cheating, plagiarism, etc)
- Other disciplinary or conduct offences (breaches of the code of conduct, anti-social behaviour, violence, sexual misconduct)
- Unprofessional behaviour (laziness, poor self-management, dishonesty, breaching client confidentiality)
- Behaviour outside of the university (criminal convictions, disruptive behaviour in the community and inappropriate use of social media)
- Unsafe practice, incompetence or requiring too much supervision
- Poor mental or physical health or serious physical impairment that interferes with the student’s ability to practise safely.
While the onus is on the student to achieve and maintain fitness to practise, your university also has a responsibility to help support you achieve this standard. They should highlight the expected code of conduct that you need to follow and provide full training on the same. Any perceived breach needs to be properly inspected to see whether this is a fitness to practise issue or whether it is a less serious question of competency. As a student, there is an expectation that you will learn and develop in your role and future career. What might be seen as a fitness to practise issue for someone qualified could instead be an area where a student requires improvement.
Fitness to practise procedure
If your university raises concerns about your fitness to practise, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) provides guidance on the recommended procedure they should follow. Before any sort of formal proceedings should begin, it’s recommended that your university should perform an informal “Cause for concern” procedure. However you should note that the university may choose to bypass this stage and go straight to disciplinary action if they believe the issue is sufficiently serious. The focus of this procedure is to identify whether this issue does affect your fitness to practise or whether it merely is a question of your competency. It should be less concerned about punishing transgressions and more concerned with helping students improve and develop.
If the University believes there is a case to answer following investigations, they may decide to bring formal proceedings against a student. Your university will have a specific procedure which is unique to them, but there are some general principles that they should be considering. For example, if your fitness to practise is being questioned in a case where the facts have not yet been established, your university should conduct an investigation into the matter. In those cases, the investigation should be carried out by a member of staff who has had no previous involvement in the case. This investigator should meet with you as soon as possible to get your side of the story.
Once all the facts are collated, a report will usually be provided by an investigator outlining the facts, their opinion of the case and their recommendation. If they believe that your fitness to practise may be impaired, then the matter may be referred to a fitness to practise panel hearing.
The role of the panel is different depending on whether the facts are established (I.e. criminal proceedings) or whether they still need to be proved by the panel. Once the facts are established, the panel will consider whether the facts lead to a genuine fitness to practise concern and, if so, what action should be taken.
Outcomes and appeals
While the procedure for both is very similar, a finding that a student is not fit to practise is different from a finding of misconduct. A finding of misconduct may attract a wide range of penalties. This is in contrast to fitness to practise, where a finding that a student is not fit to practise may result in the student being removed from their course. If this happens, there will be little chance you can train at a different university.
Your university can potentially suspend you for just a period of time rather than permanently. They can also establish supportive measures so you have an opportunity to correct the mistakes made and demonstrate that you are fit to practise. These measures should be proportionate, carefully explained and with a clear outcome. If the conditions are related to concerns about your health specifically, then the university should explain what evidence they will need from you before you can return to your studies.
Your university will write to you with the formal decision, outlining whether you have been removed from the course, whether you will receive an exit award and explaining your right to appeal the decision. If you do need to appeal, then you need to be aware of the time limit to appeal the decision and the grounds under which you can appeal. These will be unique to your university, and the information should be available in their regulations. It is very important that you check these regulations, as your university reserves the right to reject an appeal without assembling an appeal panel if the procedure isn’t followed. There is also the OIA external appeal stage, which can be made directly under exceptional circumstances. Students should also be mindful of any other potential deadlines that apply if they did with to pursue a matter further with the Courts.
Further help with fitness to practise
If you are a student facing an issue of fitness to practise or are wanting to appeal a decision made, our higher education solicitors can provide advice, support and representation. We are experienced advocates and have represented clients in university disputes and OIA appeals.
Higher education law can be complicated and stressful and a student must fully understand the procedures to have the best possible chance of success. With their extensive knowledge and experience in dealing with University disputes, our university solicitors can help students by providing independent advice and help drafting a robust appeal. At HCB, our education lawyers are passionate about getting the best possible result for students and understand the years of hard work and money students have invested in their course. Furthermore, we understand the significant impact these decisions can have on both your education and future career. Making an appeal with the assistance of our specialist lawyers will provide you the independent and specialist advice you need.
If you need the help of a specialist higher education solicitor, please contact our specialist education legal team on 0333 202 7175 or contact us by email on firstname.lastname@example.org.