Policy updates – some goodish news and bad baaad news

Hannah Buchan, UMSU President
4 December 2019

Recently on President’s News: two policies – one old and one new – which have significant potential to impact students have been slated to go to the Academic Board for approval at its 5 December Meeting.  

So there’s fair to middling news, and yeah … there’s bad news. Baaaad. News.

The two policies are the Assessment and Results Policy (which deals with special consideration) and the brand new Fitness to Practise Policy.

Let’s start with the good(ish) news. The draconian changes proposed for the Assessment and Results Policy we have been telling you about have been removed from the draft to go to the Academic Board this week. That is, the drastic proposals to remove specials on specials completely, and to introduce a “fit to sit” approach have been withdrawn.[1]

It’s not unequivocally brilliant news – the proposed changes still include significant tightening of the provisions covering further special consideration.

Under the current proposal for the Board’s ratification, the proposed policy makes explicit that further special consideration – that is special consideration applications relating to a particular assessment task for which special consideration has already been granted – “are only considered in exceptional circumstances and, in those cases, only once”. The only outcome for a second “special on special” application is for the affected student to be withdrawn from the subject without academic penalty. However, generally this has been custom and practice in most faculties under the current policy. There is an upside in that it means that the current approach of some faculties to deny outcomes to a student deemed eligible for a special on special will no longer be possible – they have to offer a late withdrawal.

So while not a wholesale win for a compassionate, gentler and kinder approach to students dealing with unanticipated difficulties – we will class it as a success for student feedback.

It was clearly an unqualified triumph in how you stepped up to get involved and tell us what you think about these changes. Your participation was absolutely integral to UMSU’s submission to the policy review, more than 2000 of you took the time to tell us how you felt about the proposed changes and the impacts they would have on you. So that, at least, is worthy of celebration.

What is abundantly clear from your feedback – is that not only were the proposed changes rejected – but also that students overwhelmingly believe that the status quo with special consideration is terrible. So, while we are very relieved that the changes have been largely abandoned, it does nothing to address students’ experience of the current process which  UMSU has been jumping up and down about for more than a decade!

Now to the bad news. No this is really bad news, make a cuppa and sit down first.

Remember the proposed Fitness to Practise Policy covered in the President’s News of 23 October 2019? Yeah, I thought not. It was released for a very short consultation period exactly when you were all swatting for your exams and finishing final assignments.

Who even knows what a Fitness to practise Policy would be about? I certainly didn’t until the good people at UMSU Advocacy laid it out for me. Basically, it’s the sort of issue that could be conducted as a supportive, educational, capacity building means of ensuring you are well equipped to do what you need to do when you enter a registered profession, or it could be a punitive process, based on speculative wrongdoing and missed opportunities to address some major policy gaps which compound detriment to vulnerable students on placements. Looks like your University is opting for the latter.

UMSU addressed its key concerns on the proposed new policy in its submission to the policy consultation. The upshot of our submission is that we opposed four of the seven key provisions, supported two and gave qualified support to one, subject to amendment.

Unfortunately, not one bit of UMSU’s feedback on this proposed policy was taken into account in the final draft. That appears to suggest that the view of students is of less than no interest to University policy makers. This shouldn’t be surprising perhaps, since the Academic Board President’s Report to the October meeting of the Academic Board frames the policy as a response “to the needs of those faculties who deliver professionally accredited programs…” Needs of the faculties? The President of the Board seems to forget that students are also members of faculties.  How is it that policy makers have come to consider “the needs of the faculties” as somehow independent of the needs of students? Not a great start to shaping and delivering “an outstanding student experience for the current and future students across the University.” Looks like the Vice Chancellor still has some work to do on student experience– perhaps no one bothered to read his memo about students “being at the heart of heart of our University and everything we do must shape and deliver a better experience for them today and into the future”..?

This means that the Academic Board is now set to decide whether this punitive and speculative policy will be approved. Speculative? Yep – students on professional placements (think Teaching, Engineering, Law, Social Work, Nursing, Dentistry, Medicine, Vet Sci…etc) can be sanctioned for things they have not even done (but might do). The bad news doesn’t stop there though, not only does the revised post-consultation draft maintain all of the problematic clauses we opposed in our submission, it doubles down and adds a few more.

Let’s play double jeopardy! Not content with creating sanctions for potential breaches of conduct rules – now the University wants to sit down, put its feet up and breach some good old Human Rights law.[2] The most recent post-consultation version of the policy effectively creates a whole new category of conduct related penalties, potentially overlapping the existing misconduct provisions which are used to discipline students. This means, you could be on a placement where you are deemed to have (or look like you might) breach the conduct rules, and you can end up facing penalties from a general misconduct hearing, and then be required to front a five (!) person Fitness to Practise (FTP) committee who can issue further penalties on top of the ones you have already been given.

In our submission to the policy consultation, UMSU also stated that any possible consequences for not complying with a medical assessment requirement should be made explicit. The post consultation policy now addresses this, but only by way of giving broad and ill-defined authority to an FTP Committee to “take the failure into account in making a recommendation…”. This is far too vague.

The final punch in the guts is that this is yet another wasted opportunity for the University to introduce policy which actually supports student experience. Overall, UMSU believes any FTP policy should be expressed in terms of building students’ capacity and by early intervention and proactive support. This is the recommended approach of the 2015 TALQAC (that’s the University’s Teaching and Learning Quality Assurance Committee) Working Group which formed the background to this policy proposal. Apparently the policy drafters didn’t think much of TALQAC.

We also know that many placements which fail, do so for reasons beyond the student’s control. However, this policy also fails to address circumstances where it is disputed as to who is actually responsible for the placement breakdown. The proposed FTP policy could address this problem by setting out a clear process for evaluation of these situations and determination of whether a student has legitimately failed a placement, or the placement was cancelled through no fault of the student and they should therefore be offered a further placement with no fail recorded. But nope.

Unfortunately, what we have instead is a policy with a focus that is largely punitive, rather than supportive, and which effectively creates another disciplinary process, and where authority is couched in vague and speculative terms.

I will be taking all of these concerns and recommendation to the Academic Board on 5 December, and arguing all the way to send this proposed policy back to the drawing board.

Next stop – a concerted campaign to improve the current student facing processes – special consideration is number one on the list.

[1] Special consideration on further assessment granted as a result of special consideration.

[2] Check out the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights for example – Article 14 (7) says “No one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he has already been finally convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country.” Forget it if you’re at Melbourne Uni though.