Quiet change in USyd academic policy sees end of no-fault discontinuation not to count as fail

The reform means that anyone who applies to discontinue not to count as fail after census date must provide proof of extenuating circumstances following the Government’s controversial Job-ready Graduates Package passed two years ago.

Changes to USyd’s Coursework Policy in September 2021 reforming its academic policy to mandate that all students must submit documentation and proof of extenuating circumstances in order to discontinue courses without counting as failure. 

What does this mean for students? 

This means that the University has withdrawn the ability for students to discontinue units without providing any justification, or else face the risk of having a failed unit on their transcript. The changes were made in direct response to the 2020 Job-ready Graduates Package (JRG), which was narrowly passed in spite of unanimous opposition from student unions and significant protests against the measure. 

The Job-ready Package contains a provision which effectively limits the granting of discontinue not to count as fail only where students demonstrate proof that they encountered circumstances “beyond [their] control”, do not make “full impact” on or after census date, which would make it “impractical” for a student to continue to undertake the relevant unit. 

Previously, USyd made available two options for students who wished to discontinue a unit of study after census date had passed. 

Last year, for example, a student in Semester 1 who withdrew a unit prior to 16 April 2021 but after the Census Date (2 April 2021), would not have had to submit any documentation or reason to access Discontinuation Not to Count as Failure (DC). 

Those who discontinued after the old DC deadline would have had to apply directly to their home faculty and provide documentation proving “unexpected, serious and long-term illness or misadventure” or “circumstances beyond your control”. 

Today, anyone who applies to discontinue a unit after census date must provide documentation to satisfy the above criteria to access DC. The only other difference is that all successful DC applications will automatically result in a refund of students’ fees for the relevant units. 

What implications might this have on student welfare? 

SRC Welfare Officer Grace Wallman is one of many student advocates who is worried that the quietly implemented changes will be highly detrimental to student welfare. She expressed concerns that disabled, financially disadvantaged and international students stand to be disproportionately affected.    

“Those who may not have had any issues on their transcript or a Fail on their transcript, are affected. They [are going to] have to explain [that] to employers when they’re applying for postgraduate studies… It’s reproducing the disadvantages that already exist,” she said. 

Drawing from consultations that she had with affected law students in her work as SULS Disabilities Officer, Wallman fears that these changes will impose unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles on the student community. 

“The consultations I’ve had with students indicated that even if people get their DCs approved on the [University’s] service portal, it can take a very long time for that to be reflected on your actual transcript,” said Wallman.  

Though she understands that universities were forced to change its policy due to the JRG, she expressed frustration with USyd’s lack of transparency and communication on the changes. For her, USyd has failed to discharge its duty of care in “shielding students from the worst” of the changes’ effects. Instead of leaving students in the dark, the University should have made public statements and designed easy-read guides to help students with navigating DC applications.

“Even for students who’ve navigated these systems a lot, there’s a real lack of knowledge about SRC and SUPRA Caseworkers, so many people have no idea these services exist,” Wallman told Honi. “They [USyd] just advise students to call the Student Centre – they’re useless. Usually, you’re going to be on hold for hours and just say they can’t do anything anyway.”

Increased accountability must be part and parcel of reforms for the University’s much-touted Service Portal redesign to be meaningful. Wallman cites multilingual explainers, implementing concrete turnaround times and increased staffing of the Student Centre as essential in order to improve the notorious bureaucracy associated with DC applications. 

Wallman also argues that the University and the federal government must trust that students are accessing these processes in good faith, rather than assuming that students actively seek to exploit the system. 

“I find everything to do with Job-ready Graduates to be extremely paternalistic,” she said. “The Government and University just need to trust students more because almost everyone is an adult who is holding employment, who’s able to vote. Our academic lives are an extension of that autonomy.”

Encapsulating these sentiments, SRC President Lauren Lancaster condemned the Federal Government’s changes as “rubbish”, characterising 2020’s JRG Package as a step in the “selling off of tertiary education”. 

“It is deeply unfortunate that the university has to carry out such changes that unduly punish time-pressured and struggling students, and make them pay for courses they may not undertake for good reason.”

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Please find the following resources to access help with DC applications at the SRC, SUPRA and the University:

1 – University of Sydney Late Discontinuation under Special Circumstances

Access information on how to apply for Discontinue Not to Count as Fail here: https://www.sydney.edu.au/students/discontinue-unit-of-study/dc.html 

Apply for Discontinue Not to Count as Fail (DC) here via this form: https://sydneyuni.service-now.com/sm?id=sc_cat_item&sys_id=72aa553bdb18c110eab96a15059619ff 

2 – Students’ Representative Council (SRC) Caseworker Service

The SRC provides free, independent and confidential advice and support on a variety of matters ranging from DC applications, Special Considerations and other arrangements, academic misconduct and dishonesty allegations, show cause and exclusion, Centrelink, tenancy issues among others. 

3 – Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association

SUPRA employs a professional team of caseworkers who assist with academic and welfare issues for postgraduate students at Sydney University.