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We need to give “special consideration” some special consideration

How should universities handle requests for "special consideration". Independent Adjudicator Felicity Mitchell on a new best practice consultation
This article is more than 4 years old

Felicity Mitchell is the Independent Adjudicator at OIA.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) has published a discussion paper on requests for special consideration.

Around a fifth of all the complaints we see are from students who have asked their higher education provider to make some allowance for their illness or an unexpected personal crisis.

These students have often found it difficult to find or use their provider’s processes, to meet the set deadlines, or to get the evidence they need. Some of them have managed to do all of that but they feel the outcome has not been fair to them.

It is important for providers to look at a student’s request for special consideration in a way that is fair to both the individual student and the wider student body and does not compromise academic standards. In practice this is not easy to do.

Minding our language

It’s easy for students to get a bit lost in what can be quite complex processes and the language that is used can itself be a barrier. Terms like mitigating or extenuating circumstances might be very familiar to the Wonkhe readership but are unlikely to mean much to a student who may be living independently for the first time, or facing particular challenges.

Those challenges might be to do with their mental or physical health, disability, language or cultural differences, mode of study or background. The phrase “exceptional circumstances” might be easier to understand but could put some students off because they think their sickness bug is not that exceptional. We have used “requests for special consideration” but the word “special” has other associations and is far from ideal. We’d welcome other suggestions!

Shifting ground?

The higher education sector has never had a single uniform approach to students who ask for special consideration. Over the years we have seen an enormous growth in our membership and we have expanded our outreach activities, and this is giving us a more well-rounded perspective on how different providers approach these cases and what a fair process might look like.

When we visit higher education providers student advisers often tell us that they are worried that some students with genuine difficulties are missing the boat because they can’t get the necessary evidence or did not understand that they needed to make a claim in the first place. On the other hand, providers tell us that they are swamped with claims and appeals. Students often feel such pressure to obtain a “good” degree and the difference between a 2.1 and a 2.2 can be critical.

At the same time obtaining an appointment let alone a doctor’s note quickly from stretched NHS services can be next to impossible. So it’s both more important and more difficult for students to make a claim. I think the ground has shifted and the traditional process-driven approach may no longer work.

What’s the risk?

In March 2019 we held a forum to encourage conversation about how providers approach students’ requests for special consideration. Our discussion paper sets out some insights from that forum, from the many cases we have seen, and from other discussions we have had with student representative bodies and providers over the year.

We are exploring what “reasonable” looks like, and how to find the right balance between scepticism and trust.

The paper tries to tackle some knotty problems and asks some important questions.

There is obviously a nervousness about some students gaming the system and getting an unfair advantage. But is it fair – or proportionate – to design processes around those students, and does it risk putting other students at a disadvantage? Is the bar set at the right level?

Are processes sufficiently flexible to deal with the unusual – or with something that looks quite minor but has a significant effect on an individual student? What sort of evidence should students be asked to provide – or should we do away with the evidence requirement altogether and trust students to act responsibly? Should we be telling students to go to the doctor when they don’t need to?

What about students who don’t make a claim because their personal circumstances are particularly sensitive, or their cultural background discourages this sort of disclosure? What happens when a student misses a deadline? Should we even have deadlines?

How do requests for special consideration fit in with fit to sit policies – or disability support – or placement arrangements?

Tell us how it is – and how it should be

We hope that students, student representatives and providers will continue to share their views with us on these issues. We will be hosting a series of online discussions about some of the questions posed in the discussion paper.

Details of the discussion themes and how to join in are on our website. We would also welcome comments by email.

One response to “We need to give “special consideration” some special consideration

  1. We are getting swamped with appeals (written by lawyers) where students are making retrospective post-Exam Board Extenuating Circumstances claims. The tone of some of the appeals is quite bolshy and one would assume from reading them that the failure to provide an unlimited number of assessment attempts is breach of the Equality Act.

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