Special Consideration – Need For Urgent Improvements

UMSU welcomes the initiatives to create a more student centred, integrated approach recently announced by Student Equity and Disability Services (SEDS).

We are aware that University staff with key roles in the Special Consideration process have been discussing ways in which the University can make special consideration more appropriate and compassionate. This year SEDS received SSAF Grant funding for a pilot project running until the end of the year to look at the resources required and best practice models to provide adequate case management and coordinated support for students with complex needs.

The UMSU Advocacy Service has been advised that SEDS is now focusing on upskilling staff in developmental advising, exploring extending length of appointments and introducing options for meeting with same advisor consistently. We understand that, as these improvements are implemented, SEDS will seek student feedback with a view to becoming more student-centred.

This is an opportunity for the University to truly demonstrate that there is meaning behind its latest marketing slogan: ”Come as you are.  Leave as you want to be.” Apart from courting a copyright law suit from the estate of Kurt Cobain, this sends a clear message to students that the University takes as we come and provides support to us to ensure that when we leave this place, we can do so, not only knowing that we have not been disadvantaged by circumstances out of our control, but as the best people we can be.

This is why we need to talk about Special Consideration and the processes the University uses to make adjustments to assessment for those times when coming as you are means that you would be disadvantaged in relation to others.

It is worthy of note that special consideration disputes and complaints make up almost a fifth of the UMSU Advocacy Service’s caseload. In fact, students complain about each step of this process:

  • The application process for special consideration is opaque from the start;
  • there is a lack of transparency in how and why decisions are made;
  • decisions are often unduly fettered by rigid, black letter adherence to policy, where compassion and discretion is warranted; and
  • applications are bounced between processes on technical grounds until unpublished deadlines have passed and applications can no longer be considered.

 

We need to bear in mind that these are students who are already suffering hardship and disruption to their academic lives, and the state of current processes frequently exacerbates their conditions. That is, when students are coming to the University “as they are” and that means that they are unwell or struggling in some way, the University is making things worse for students who are asking for help.

Students have been providing feedback on their experience of student support at the University for many years, and the Advocacy Service has been raising the same issues for over a decade. Most recently UMSU’s submission to the University’s MSEEP Green paper in April reiterated the same concerns. Consequently, none of the issues experienced by students in relation to the University’s approach to special consideration are new.

UMSU is of the view that students’ poor experience of special consideration processes will only begin to improve if there is a fundamental shift in attitude on the part of the University. Principally there needs to be a shift from the current approach which appears predicated on the idea that students are trying to game the system and routinely apply for Special Consideration with the aim of achieving an advantage that other students do not enjoy.  The University calls these “strategic behaviours” but there is no evidence to justify this approach to students who are suffering or are sick.

Only when applications for special consideration, and requests for equitable academic adjustments are received and processed in good faith will students begin to experience the process as more compassionate and less punitive.  Students are saying that we just want to be able to “come as we are” and that when we do the University will work with us.   Instead, many students experience the University’s response to this as a cruel and unusual punishment.

We hope that, after a decade of raising the issues, the University is finally committed to these foreshadowed improvements. Coordinated support in particular will hopefully change the culture regarding supporting documentation for students registered for ongoing support. Currently the documentation cycle is reminiscent of Centrelink’s approach, demanding new evidence even when there has been no change in long term or chronic conditions.

UMSU would also welcome changes which bring the University into proper compliance with the Disability Standards for Education, including:

  • Enhanced consultation with students about academic adjustments to reach a mutually beneficial outcome where the adjustments are reasonable and meet the particular needs of the student;
  • Improved education for academic staff regarding how to balance the competing priorities of equitable adjustments and inherent academic requirements;
  • Alleviating the burden on students to advocate for academic adjustments when the student is already unwell;
  • Taking a more compassionate and less simplistic approach to available outcomes of special consideration for cases that require complex decision-making; and
  • Clear information about deadlines and dates which are frequently invoked to disallow requests. For example, the “hard deadline” for Alternative Exam Arrangements (AEAs) needs to be made clear to students, including being listed on the “key dates” section of the Uni Website and the Dates and Times section of subjects in the Handbook.

 

Ultimately, we agree that we should be able to come to the University “as we are” and that we will have confidence that the University will respond to how we are with compassion and understanding.  Please.

Molly Willmott

UMSU President