Putting the Heart into Heartless – Melbourne University’s proposed Special Consideration Policy – you just better hope nothing goes wrong.

Welcome to Catch-Special Consideration – the damned if you do, damned if you don’t approach to student equity – brought to you by the same University which just announced its Student Life White Paper which purportedly puts us students “at the heart of everything we do”… except when it doesn’t, and particularly if anything happens that is outside of your control.

It was only a couple of months ago that my President’s News argued the urgent need for reform to the University’s Special Consideration processes. On Monday 3 September the University released proposed amendments to its Special Consideration policy so I was optimistic that the changes that students have been asking for would finally be implemented.

However, this proposed policy amendment is not what I had in mind. In fact I am staggered by the draconian nature of the proposed changes to Special Consideration.

While a number of the minor amendments are relatively uncontroversial and may increase clarity and transparency for students trying to negotiate the special consideration process, there are two proposed changes which will have dramatic and unfair impacts on many students.

The first proposed change is to make students who complete their assessment ineligible for special consideration. In other words, once you complete an assignment or an exam – forget about applying for special consideration. You better hope you weren’t too affected by illness for example, because you’re going to be stuck with your mark if you sit and finish the exam.

Of course, if you know beforehand that you are unfit to sit – then you better hope against hope you will be deemed eligible once you apply, because if you’re not eligible – then you will probably fail for not taking the assessment or finishing it.

This is Catch-Special Consideration where students who are unwell or in crisis would have to make decisions that have major and long lasting ramifications at the same time as their capacity to make these decisions is likely to be impaired.

The other significant proposal is to remove the availability of any further assessment if you have already been granted special consideration in respect of an assessment. That is – special consideration assessment adjustments can only be granted once in relation to a particular assessment component. So if you’re further prevented from completing the special assessment, you will not be offered further special assessment for that assessment component in that subject. If you are eligible for further special consideration the University will offer to withdraw you from the subject without a fail — but you’ll have to do it all again, even if you only missed by a hurdle. Otherwise you can accept a mark for prior incomplete assessments – yay.

Think about it. I am talking about circumstances which are outside of a student’s control. This kind of punitive regime is more akin to Centrelink than a University that is committed to putting students at the heart of everything it does. George Orwell would be proud.

If these changes go through it will be a real roulette wheel for many students – gambling on whether to complete assessment when you are affected by exceptional circumstances, or risk not completing it (and being stuck with that result) if you are deemed ineligible, or remain unfit after the special assessment is offered but only once. So this will add anxiety and uncertainty to students who are already suffering from illness or misadventure.

Taken together, these two proposals align with what is usually referred to as the “fit to sit” rule – where if you choose to sit and complete assessment, you are deemed to have declared yourself fit to sit it. In other universities where the “fit to sit” rule is already in play, such as UNSW, the problem of dealing with students who got it wrong – for example where their capacity to make that judgement was impacted by the very reason they needed special consideration – has led to an explosion of complaints and reviews. Students with mental health conditions and/or those who are neurologically diverse will be particularly disadvantaged by the introduction of “fit to sit”. In the UK where this approach has been rolled out over recent years, it evolved as an administrative cost cutting measure; where costs are being cut at the expense of student wellbeing and equity. Maybe that’s what being at the heart of everything we do means to the University?

The President of the Academic Board has recently said that the proposed amendments to the current Assessment and Results Policy (MPF1326) are “a response to feedback from academic divisions in the context of recent changes in the trend data on special consideration applications”. No word of a response to the urgent issues students and their representatives have been raising for the last decade. He further notes that the challenge in responding to the priorities of the academic divisions is to continue to allow students to request special consideration “without creating a system that leaves the possibility open for alleged strategic behaviour”. What now? Strategic behaviour – by which I assume the President of the Academic Board is referring to the oft-quoted, never evidenced, idea that students are out to “game the system” to get their results by unfair means.

In reality, students applying for special consideration are unfit to do their best in assessment – it may be mental or physical health or affected by a crisis of some kind – bereaved, victims of crime, in an accident.

The proposed changes to the policy were not accompanied by any rationale other than the president of the Academic Board’s reference to data trends – but which data?

I will tell you what data I have access to, and that’s the clear evidence that the special consideration procedures at this University need urgent overhaul. Astonishingly, instead the University is proposing to take an even more rigid and punitive approach to students with equity needs.

What is the rationale for these proposed changes? From what I can tell, it appears to be at the behest of Academic and Professional staff who lack the resources to deal with students’ genuine equity needs. It is most definitely not putting students at its heart. There. Is. No. Heart.

A quick survey of other Go8 institutions indicates the proposed “fit to sit” policy would put Melbourne at the top of the charts on the Draconian Approaches to Student Equity leader board, neck and neck with UNSW where the “fit to sit” rule was introduced without consultation in March this year.

At this stage, the amendments are only a proposal – currently out for consultation with the wider University community. In this context, it’s vital that we make the University put its Student Life White Paper money where its mouth is, and ensure it uses this opportunity to make the sorts of student-centred improvements to the process flagged recently in the June President’s News. As students we should demand the University increase its resources for student equity, rather than implement further cost cutting measures based on bad faith and mistrust of its students.

I am keen to hear your feedback on these proposed changes so I can represent students’ interests to the University. Please contact me at president@union.unimelb.edu.au to let me know what you think and look out for further updates and information.