When asked to explain some of the reasons for why the university health service was seeing a rising number of students with mental health difficulties, I expected a former colleague and Head of Counselling to point to students feeling isolated and the pressures of navigating a new stage of adult life. However, he said something entirely unexpected.
Without flinching, this colleague said “mitigating circumstances – this has complicated everything” As he went onto explain, the issue of mitigating circumstances is something that is inherently within the control of an institution, that regularly induces and contributes to existing anxieties in students, and which is in need of serious reform.
This takes us to the 2018 Annual Report from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) which shows a return to the peak complaint numbers of 2012-14, the vast majority of these complaints relating to a student’s academic status. Unsurprisingly, within the category of academic status, the dominant set of issues relate to that of mitigating circumstances. This is an area that the OIA appears to want to tackle with vigilance, in the same way that they have sought to approach sexual misconduct and industrial action. It’s high time that they do.
Simple in theory. Complex in practice.
But why is this such an issue? Well, for starters, mitigating circumstances policies are explained in vastly different terms from institution to institution. Heck, they can even be wildly different within a single institution.
Let’s compare the mitigating circumstances policies of two institutions.
Institution One describes mitigating circumstances as “acute, severe, unforeseen, and outside a student’s control, which occur immediately before or during the assessment period in question.” Although it may be implied, there is no clear reference to students needing to submit proof of evidence, which circumstances are in or out, and how they will be assessed.
Institution Two on the other hand has an eight page policy document for students, in which it lays out the specific examples of mitigating circumstances which would normally be accepted with evidence, the circumstances which may be accepted with evidence, and situations that would not normally be accepted as a mitigating circumstance. This guidance specifies the types of evidence students would be required to submit, how these items would be assessed, and the way in which students would be notified of their outcome.
It’s worth noting the all-important timeframe for the submission of students’ mitigating circumstances. For one institution, it is within 7 days. For another, two weeks. For another, it is unspecified.
At a time when students are arguably at their most vulnerable, with the clarity or lack thereof associated with these policies, it is easy to see where their fears and anxieties emerge from. At the very least, students need to have confidence that they will be able to engage with a fair process of having their circumstances considered.
One striking case summary from the OIA report explains the case of a student who was awarded a lower second-class honours degree. The student appealed against the degree classification, saying that they had experienced mental health problems because of an assault by another student. The provider dismissed the appeal on the grounds of insufficient evidence. The OIA requested this appeal be reconsidered when the student supplied the evidence to support their claim. It is unclear whether the institution failed to seek the same piece of evidence that the OIA received, the grounds by which the claim was initially discarded, or whether the person responsible for administering the policy just arrived at a different conclusion.
No one sees the same picture
This leads to the other critical issue of how mitigating circumstances policies are applied within each institution. Typically, these claims arrive all in a flood during the particularly busy period of assessments and examinations. Assessing a claim takes time and it is well known that those with the least amount of time available are often in positions of having to sift through reams of documentation and compelling pleas from students to get to the bottom of what’s really going on. It also has to be acknowledged that the pressures around mitigating circumstances vary considerably faculty to faculty, depending on the ethos of those in charge of learning and teaching policy, the nature of assessment, and a whole host of other variables. This is not easy terrain, another clear reason for why responsibilities and processes need to be defined for and by institutions.
Balancing expediency with fairness and compassion is the challenge here, one that given the OIA’s track record with its work on sexual misconduct and industrial action, it is uniquely positioned to play a leading role in.