Finnish universities must now use courts to revoke degrees

layout_set_logoA court in Finland has ruled that universities must go through the court system if they want to revoke a degree.

In a precedent-setting decision, a body dubbed “the court of last resort in administrative cases” in Finland ruled that universities must apply to them to revoke someone’s degree. The ruling, which occurred this month, took place after a former student filed an appeal after the University of Eastern Finland (UEF) cancelled his degree over charges of plagiarism and fraud.

Here is more from the publication Helsingin Sanomat (which we translated using One Hour Translation): 

“The Supreme Administrative Court took a position on what the correct mechanism for cancelling a Master’s degree is,” explains Petri Rintamäki, General Counsel at the University of Eastern Finland.

According to Rintamäki, the ruling of the court means that, if similar cases emerge in the future, the university cannot cancel the degree by itself but must seek the annulment of the degree from the SCA.

“This is a considerably slower process,” Rintamäki concludes.

There are some nuances to the decision by the Supreme Administrative Court Court Administration (SCA), Rintamäki told us:

in similar situations, where the students does not [voluntarily] admit scientific misconduct or fraud and wishes to contest the results of University’s Ethical committee’s investigation, this is the case. However the SCA’s [decision] can be interpreted that if the student admits the fraud and [voluntarily] gives a University a permission to revoke the degree, it can be done without SCA.

He also clarified how much extra time this new process might take:

the duration of the SCA process varies based on the issue, but according the SCA’s webpage the average duration of all their cases are approximately 11 months varying from average 7.1 months (foreign affairs) to average 15.2 (financial issues). Litigation in administrative courts in Finland is not very expensive in general. Naturally it requires work from our in-house lawyers and there is always the risk that when we lose a case, we have to pay the other party’s legal fees. However they are not in administrative cases very high. If I recall correctly the other party’s legal fees in SCA were a little over 2,000 euros. Naturally because we won the cases we [didn’t] have to bear these costs.

Rintamäki noted that the decision sets a “major” precedent, as it “clarified the legislative situation in Finland although the process will take more time.”

According to Helsingin Sanomat, the decision stemmed from a case against UEF by an unnamed man who received a Master of Philosophy in 2011, then worked at the university as a junior researcher and post-graduate student. When he and some other researchers submitted an article to the Journal of the Optical Society of America, it was flagged for plagiarism, prompting UEF to look into all of his previous work.

In its final report, a temporary ethical committee unanimously found that the man was guilty of plagiarism, fabrication and misleading the academic community in his Master’s thesis.

The university re-evaluated the thesis and rejected it in May 2013. Subsequently, the Dean cancelled the man’s Master’s degree and right to post-graduate studies.

The man denied the intentionality of the act and claimed lack of reference skills, amongst other things. Because of the incident, he also lost his work as a researcher at the university.

The former student appealed the decision to the SCA. Although the SCA ruled the UEF didn’t have the right to remove his degree, the court upheld the university’s decision. As Rintamäki told Helsingin Sanomat

In practice, the result is the same: the person will lose the Master’s degree.

You can read more here (in Finnish).

Rintamäki noted that there are no pending court cases involving UEF students and their degrees, but he didn’t know about other Finnish universities.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen courts play a role in a university’s decision to revoke a degree. After Suvi Orr retracted a paper in 2012, the University of Texas revoked her PhD; it reinstated it after she sued, and now is trying to revoke it again. Her lawyer has filed a motion for summary judgment to stop this from happening.

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3 thoughts on “Finnish universities must now use courts to revoke degrees”

  1. I think this is a very interesting issue. Is there any comprehensive literature that shows the procedures at a national level in countries with major publishing output, e.g., USA, Canada, Japan, EU + UK, BRICS countries, Nigeria, etc.? IN cases where there are multiple retractions and/or errata based on data that originated from an MSc or PhD thesis, can a member of the public challenge the institute where such a degree was obtained, and seek to revoke it?

    1. In response to your last question, I would direct you to the case filed by Dr. Gabor Lukacs, where he objected to a PhD being awarded due to a dispute over the qualifications of the student. Link below:

      If I recall, the result there was the exact opposite as in the RW article above: the judge ruled that the court did not have jurisdiction. Now, the U of M case was different in there was no obvious misconduct, and that Dr. Lukacs was not acting as a representative of the University. It is the only other example I’m familiar with, however.

  2. This a rather perplexing decision given that the degree would be granted by school initially-an internal, non-legal matter- and also reflects a certain competence which the institution would possess and the court might not have the requisite knowledge/competence to do so. Better to leave it in the hands of the school as the time required by a court appearance may have a negative impact on schools seeking a revocation. In cases where an injustice was believed to have occurred then a legal appeal would still be possible.

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