Francis Foecke, Bristol University

The Guardian, 17 February 1990

Shadow of a doubt by Stephen Bates

Were Bristol University student Francis Foecke's results too good to be true? He tells Stephen Bates how he spent four years and £100,000 arguing for suspicious minds, not suspicious marks. The case resumes on Monday

FRIDAY June 13, 1986 should have been one of the best days of Francis Foecke's life. It was the day he expected to be told that he had achieved one of the best degrees awarded by Bristol University for many years. Instead it was the day he was accused of cheating, of achieving a result that was just too good to be true.

Nearly four years on, and £100,000 in legal fees later, Foecke (the name is pronounced Fakey) is still trying to clear his name and win the degree he considers his of right. Next week the labyrinthine procedures of the university grind into operation once again, the legal fees will tick up once more as a Queen's Counsel presents the Foecke case and the minutiae of three answers on two question papers will be pored over with the concentration of textual scholars debating a medieval manuscript as a tribunal endeavours to get at the truth.

Both sides appear entrenched in their positions, the university apparently unwilling to concede that it could have been mistaken and Foecke with the dogged and bitter determination of a man whose struggle has taken over his life, home, career and prospects.

Francis Foecke, American-born and now 33, went up to Bristol University in 1983 to read maths and computer science. His English wife, Priscilla, had taken a course in English and drama at the university before becoming a teacher and the couple had made a pact that Francis would support her through university by working as a hospital porter and then her teaching salary would help to subsidise him.

To start with, Foecke fell out with his lecturers one of whom later became the first to raise suspicions of cheating was reprimanded for failing to attend their lectures and even failed to pass his first-year exams first time round. His second-year results improved, but not by much. But the results in his final examinations came as a shock. Not only did he take 13 papers five more than required but he added a double project to the burden of his work. When the marks were tallied, the results seemed impossibly good 100 per cent for graph theory, 98 per cent for linear programming, 96 per cent for Stochastic processes, 95 per cent for operating systems, 91 per cent for linear models and foundations of mathematics, 90 per cent for computer construction and architecture, 84 per cent for logic, 78 per cent for statistics, 75 per cent for advanced computer architecture and 70 per cent for the project. Most remarkably of all, he even managed 159 per cent for algebraic number theory because he answered six questions instead of four. One examiner wrote on the bottom of one script: ``The best paper I have marked in the last 10 years.''

Instead of the first-class degree which had been hinted at, he was informed by letter that he was under suspicion of dishonest conduct. He said: ``I just freaked out. I couldn't believe it. I ran all the way to the university to find out what they meant. I found the man who wrote the letter. He refused to talk about it except to say that I must know what it was about. I think they had already made up their minds that I was guilty.''

The suspicions, first aroused by Dr Sean Collins, a tutor with whom he had had several disagreements, concerned the similarity between Foecke's answers on one of the papers and one of the model answers in the examiner's script. All Foecke's papers were returned to the markers for rechecking and one other examiner, Dr Geoffrey Grimmett also spotted similarities at this stage. At a tribunal on which Dr Grimmett sat, the dons conceded that Foecke had achieved universally excellent results but remarked that he had been seen on many occasions late at night in the mathematics department. A key had been lost. The dons concluded that Foecke could have gained access to the filing cabinet containing the papers.

The story now begins to take on surreal touches. With no evidence that the papers had been tampered with, or that Foecke had actually seen them before the examinations, a thesis was put forward of how he could have hidden in heating ducts . . . could have stolen the missing key which had been lost a year before . . . and therefore must simply have broken in and seen the papers.

Unfortunately the scenario which as Foecke says would have required him to be ``a cross between Rambo, James Bond and the Invisible Man'' fails to take account of a number of factors. Firstly, he would have had to know where the scripts were stored and to have had the patience and cunning to break in without leaving a trace. Secondly, he would have had to study and copy without being spotted by security staff the details of the papers and their model solutions. And thirdly, and most cunning of all, he would have had to know precisely when the examination papers had reached their final versions.

More than a year on, the university finally released the model solutions on which they based so much of their case to the Foecke camp, which has discovered they were covered in Tipp-Ex and alterations, indicating a substantial revision process. Foecke claims it is not even clear that the corrections were made before the examinations were actually completed. The university's case is that Foecke's answers in some instances are so close to the model solutions as to be explained only by his having had prior sight of them. In at least one case, the Foecke solution contains mistakes also evident in the model answer.

His answer is that it is not unlikely that his model solutions should mirror those of the examiners, because they had been his lecturers and had taught him how best to tackle the problems. Even lecture notes borrowed from previous students showed up the same mistakes. The smoothness of his answers could be accounted for because the examiners frequently set identical questions. As a statistician, he counted the probability of a particular question being reset and revised accordingly: some of the questions had been set regularly. His explanation for his transformation from a mediocre student to an outstanding one is just that he worked hard.

THE simple,immediate solution would have been to summon Foecke for a viva (verbal exam) to check his knowledge. Instead Foecke found himself before a university tribunal on which some of his accusers sat, having to prove his innocence, rather than his accusers having to prove his guilt. External examiners called in to examine his papers admitted that his answers contained similarities to the examiners' model solutions but added that they were consistent with those of an outstanding pupil who had selected the model routes to answer the questions.

One of his own examiners wrote: ``Foecke gave excellent answers to all questions. His answers were essentially as for my master solutions with minor changes . . . This is consistent with his having prior knowledge of the questions/solutions. It is also consistent with his being a very good student and with Foecke and myself both finding the most natural method for each answer without having any illicit prior knowledge.''

The university's tribunal met in October 1986, excluded evidence from the external examiners and did not consider the hypotheses about a break-in, but decided that answers to four questions were sufficiently similar as to preclude any explanation other than prior knowledge and ruled Foecke could be awarded only a pass degree, withheld for five years.

Since then Foecke has struggled to have that judgment overturned. He appealed first to the University Council and then, after more than a year without progress or a decision, attempted an appeal to the university's visitor, who happens to be the Queen. Sixteen months on, the Privy Council decided that the appeal was premature until the university's appeals procedure was completed. Last December, a new appeal began to examine the case afresh. Its hearing was adjourned and resumes next week. All this has been accomplished in compliance with university statute. It could all have been completed earlier had Foecke given in. In the circumstances it is little wonder that he should have become cynical about his chances of a fair hearing: after four years he has still not exhausted the university's own internal appeals procedure and until he does, he has no redress outside.

Meanwhile, he and his wife Priscilla, now a primary education adviser, are living in a dilapidated house in Clifton, which was originally bought to be renovated and sold to finance the appeal. The money has run out, renovation is only half complete and the house will almost certainly have to be put on the market in the spring as a first step to meeting legal bills. Other sources of finance, including the National Union of Students, which underwrote the initial stages of the appeal, have also dropped out.

FOECKE is bitter that the case has lasted so long, bitter that it has blighted his career and bitter that there is no way out short of surrender. The long delays have heightened the sense that the university is irretrievably prejudiced against him. It is fuelled by depressing coincidences such as that last year when members of the Royal Statistical Society were pressed to set up an appeals process to investigate cases like his. The vote at the society's annual meeting was tied and the casting vote in favour of the status quo happened to be cast by Sir John Kingman, also the vice-chancellor of Bristol. The university itself has maintained a lofty impartiality towards the case, merely maintaining that it is striving to be even-handed. It has agreed that the onus of proof in the case should finally rest with the accusers rather than the accused, but it has refused to underwrite the costs of the appeal. Meanwhile, Foecke finds himself ground between the remorseless wheels of due process, pressing on with dogged determination and without an end in sight. He said: ``It's astonishingly depressing. It would be absolutely wrong for me to give in before my sanity gives out. The university has absolutely nothing on which to hang a case. If I had done it, if I had cheated, do you think I would ever have taken on such a massive institution for so long, with my resources?''

The Guardian, 20 February 1990

Final appeal for student accused after `bizarre' exam

A Maths student who scraped back on to an honours degree course "by the skin of his teeth" but produced exceptional results in his finals was later found guilty of cheating, an appeal hearing was told yesterday. The results were sufficient to earn Francis Foecke a good first-class degree, said Mr Ian Karsten, barrister for the Board of Examiners, at an appeal hearing at Bristol University.

But the examiner, who had also set a paper, found that changes he had made in his outline solution were produced almost exactly in the student's answer. An inquiry found ``remarkable and bizarre'' coincidences in Mr Foecke's papers. The inquiry found that he had cheated and ruled he should not get his honours degree, but said he could be awarded an ordinary degree, withheld for five years.

Mr Foecke, aged 31, an American, denies he dishonestly obtained knowledge of the examiner's outline solutions.

The hearing is the last round in Mr Foecke's attempts to clear his name of the findings by the inquiry in October 1986.

Mr Karsten said that in his first two years, Mr Foecke did so poorly that he was transferred from the honours course to an ordinary degree course. After tuition he scraped back on to the honours course ``by the skin of his teeth.'' Mr Karsten said it was possible for a student who did poorly in his first two years to obtain a first-class honours degree.

But he said: ``There are certain similarities between some of the outline solutions and Mr Foecke's answers which are so remarkable that there could be no possible explanation other than he saw the outline solution.'' The hearing continues today.

The Guardian, 10 April 1990

Bristol University acted with a certain grim relish last week to make public its endorsement of lecturers involved in the four-year-long wrangle with American maths student Francis Foecke over whether he cheated in his finals papers in 1986 when he obtained results that appeared just too good.

A 100-page tribunal report published last week could not discover how he had done it, but concluded that he must have had prior sight of the papers. The university has now affirmed its total confidence in the integrity of its staff. The vice-chancellor, Sir John Kingman, has been particularly aggrieved over suggestions that he used his casting vote as chairman of the Royal Statistical Society to veto an appeals procedure for cases like Foecke's. In fact, he stood down while the vote was taken. Meanwhile, Foecke's advisers are considering an appeal and his QC was sufficiently surprised by the outcome of the tribunal to offer to represent him further, next time through the courts.

The Guardian, 31 July 1996

Ex-student vows to fight on as libel case against university fails :  

Christopher Elliott

Man was accused of cheating because his exam results were 'too brilliant to be true'

In the background was the sound of hammers. Francis Foecke was earning his living the only way he knows how after getting first class results in 13 examinations in computer sciences and mathematics at Bristol university. He works as a general builder since the university denied him an honours degree because his results were ''too brilliant to be true''. Yesterday he lost the latest round in a 10-year legal battle to prove that he did not cheat.

Mr Foecke, aged 38, has spent more than £ 150,000 on his battle against the decision of the university and its officers through various stages of Britain's educational and civil justice system.

Yesterday the Court of Appeal struck out his libel claim against Bristol university and mathematics professor Geoffrey Grimmett because Mr Foecke failed to lodge £ 25,000 (pounds) as security against future legal costs.

Mr Foecke, of Redlands, Bristol, studied computer sciences and mathematics as a mature student at Bristol university between 1983 and 1986, when he sat an unprecedented 13 papers in his finals, achieving first class results of between 70 and 100 per cent in all of them.

University authorities who became suspicious set up a special committee which found him guilty of cheating on three questions. It accused him of hiding in an air vent and then using a key to open a filing cabinet containing the answers. He was denied an honours degree, being awarded instead a pass degree after a five-year delay.

Protesting his innocence, Mr Foecke, who was born in the US and is now a British citizen, issued a libel writ in February 1993 against the university and Prof Grimmett, one of the examiners. But his claim failed in May 1994 when a High Court judge, Mr Justice Ian Kennedy, ruled that the courts had no power to hear the case. Only the university's ''Visitor'', the Queen, had power to resolve the dispute.

Bloody but unbowed yesterday, Mr Foecke vowed to fight on, possibly in the European courts. ''I didn't think it was going to take 10 years. I was advised at the outset that it would take a couple of months. But it has just dragged on.'' When the marks were tallied the results in his exams seemed impossibly good. He even managed 159 per cent for algebraic number theory because he answered six questions instead of four. One examiner wrote on the bottom of one script: ''The best paper I have marked in the last 10 years.''

He admits making a poor showing in his first two years at university, which made his final results all the more remarkable. ''My first two years were very low par. I wasn't at university as often as I ought to have been. I was earning money on the side to set up the family.'' He claims a lot of his success was sheer hard work.

31 August 1999, The Guardian

Honesty on trial : Peter Kingston on a case of alleged cheating now at the European Court of Human Rights

A former student accused of cheating and denied an honours degree by Bristol University because his performance in finals looked too brilliant to be true is appealing to the European Court of Human Rights after a 13-year battle to clear his name.

If Francis Foecke wins his landmark case - a decision is likely to take another two years at least - his lawyers reckon universities will be forced to reform their grievance procedures and perhaps scrap the controversial `visitor' system.

In what is thought to be the first case about a British university to go to the Strasbourg court, Foecke, 41, is alleging that Bristol denied him natural justice and effectively dealt with him by kangaroo court.

His saga should be a warning to anyone thinking of fighting a university over a cheating slur - for instance, any of the 117 computer science students recently downgraded by Edinburgh University after similarities appeared in work they did for an unsupervised programme-writing exercise. At least one says she will sue. Henrietta Roe, 20, from Hartland, Devon says she is to seek damages for defamation of character and compensation for any loss of earnings she may incur.

In 1996, Foecke disclosed that his battle had then cost him pounds 150,000 and said: `I didn't think it was going to take 10 years. I was advised at the outset that it would take a couple of months.' Foecke claims that the UK (appeals to the European Court are against the relevant state) failed to ensure that he `received the recognition of his studies to which he was entitled'.

Foecke, of Luccombe Hill, Bristol, studied computer sciences and mathematics as a mature student from 1983 to 1986. He sat an unprecedented 13 papers in his finals, with first-class results in all.

Eight days after the last paper, the university told him he was suspected of `dishonest conduct' over his finals. A committee set up by the university's board of examiners ruled, after a two-day hearing, that he was guilty of cheating in parts of answers to three statistics questions. He was given an ordinary degree.

In a letter outlining Foecke's appeal to Strasbourg, his lawyers say the university's case was based on `alleged similarities' between some of his solutions and model solutions examiners had prepared.

The lawyers claim the university never spelt out any accusation that Foecke had the model solutions in the exam room, or whether he had seen them before and memorised them. Nor did it say how he might have had access to the answers.

Foecke vainly took his case to the university's `visitor'. Pre-1992 universities have external arbiters called the `visitor'. The queen is Bristol's, but she deputes her duties, usually to an eminent lawyer. `We got a three-line letter from the clerk of the Privy Council simply saying that the university's case was OK,' said one of Foecke's legal team.

Foecke then took his battle to the high court but in 1996 the court struck out the claim because Foecke failed to lodge pounds 25,000 as security against future legal costs.

Foecke claims the university violated his right under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights to a hearing before an independent and impartial tribunal. He claims the blocking of the libel action deprived him of access to a court, in contravention of the same article.

A university spokesman said: `The university continues to hold its view, which was the view originally taken by the expert committee, that he breached the university's exam procedures.'