Academic unfairness
November 2022 | The Learning and Wellbeing Team

Bias, discrimination and unfairness are a daily occurrence on every campus in Canada and the United States. Studies have shown that 35% of BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of colour) students report being treated unfairly by professors, 50% report being treated unfairly by other students and 35% report being treated unfairly by university staff and administrators.   

Gender-related discrimination is also unacceptably high.  Close to one-third (31%) of gay and lesbian students reported discrimination, as did 34% of bisexual students and 34% of students who reported a sexual orientation other than gay, lesbian, bisexual or heterosexual. Finally, one in five female students and one in eight male students also report experiencing discrimination. 

Most students spend a number of years at college and university. Given the high rates of discrimination experienced by so many different and diverse groups of students, there is a very good chance that you will experience some type of unfairness while you are at the university, which may be race or gender-based. Still, despite the universal experience of unfairness and discrimination in our daily lives and on campus, there is still a lot to learn about unfairness and discrimination. 

Three types of academic unfairness.

Students can experience a number of different types of academic unfairness, which may or may not be an instance of discrimination. Discrimination exists when the unfairness you have experienced is because of the group to which you belong . Not all unfairness is discrimination. But unfairness, for whatever reason, is wrong, and you will need to do something about it. What you do depends on the type of unfairness you have experienced. Download the guide.

Procedural unfairness occurs when there is unfairness in how tests are administered, graded or even written, as well as how accommodations are implemented or even recognized. Here are examples of a number of potentially unfair experiences of procedural unfairness:

  • my exam included questions about topics that were never covered in class.
  • I arrived a few minutes late for an exam and wasn’t allowed to write it.
  • my accommodation for extra time in a quiet room wasn’t evaluated.

Interactional unfairness occurs when there is unfairness in how some students are spoken to by instructors, teachers or professors either in the classroom or in the office. Here are examples of a number of potentially unfair experiences of interactional unfairness:

  • the instructor or professor favours the same student or the same group of students by always calling on them to answer or always ignoring them. 
  • the instructor makes rude, joking, mean or angry comments about the same student or the same group of students,
  • the instructor refers to the same student or to the same group of students to illustrate ideas in class.

Outcome unfairness occurs when there is unfairness in how benefits are distributed among students. These benefits can be benefits that involve time, opportunities, grades, scholarships, or even just praise.  

  • some students are getting better grades on tests, papers and assignments for reasons other than differences in merit (i.e., how well they have prepared).
  • some students are getting more or better opportunities to participate in projects, and greater chances of accessing programs
  • some students are getting more praise than other students. 


Tell us about your experience of unfairness.

We have heard about the experiences of unfairness on campus, and we are starting to document those experiences. Many students because they are new to college and university don’t know what to expect, what in many instances counts as unfairness, and what if anything can be done about it. 

Have your say

Click on the survey link below and let us know about your experience with unfairness. And, if you leave us your contact info (optional), we will keep you up to date on what we are learning. 


How to deal with academic unfairness. 

How you deal with unfairness depends, in part, on the type of unfairness you have experienced. Here are some tips and strategies to deal with different types of unfairness and how to talk to others about it.  Download our step by step guide on what to about these different types of unfairness.


When is unfairness an instance of discrimination?

Not all unfairness is discrimination.  Unfairness becomes discrimination when it happens because of the group you belong to.  You will likely have a test that is unfair or has been graded unfairly, but that doesn’t mean it happened because of the group with which you identify.  It is still unfair, and it is still wrong. You just have to go about it differently. 

When is unfairness just offensive or harsh?

As a student, you will likely take a course or receive a grade that is really, really harsh. It may feel really unfair. In order to argue that a poor grade is unfair, you have to show that the poor grade is causing some kind of harm. If every student was marked harshly, then it would not be an instance of procedural unfairness. And, if the professor was polite about it, then it is unlikely to be an instance of interactional unfairness. 

However, if you can show that poor grades for the entire class is going harm your chances as a class to do well in your program, or well in the job market or applying for scholarships, then it may be an instance of outcome unfairness.   


Grayson, J. Paul (2014). Negative Racial Encounters and Academic Outcomes of International and Domestic Students in Four Canadian Universities.
Journal of International Students, v4 n3 p262-278 2014.

Government of Canada, S. C. (2020, September 15). Students’ experiences of discrimination based on gender, gender identity or sexual orientation at postsecondary schools in the Canadian provinces, 2019.

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