‘Inhumane’: new special consideration system rejects students suffering cancer and bereavement

Academics have widely denounced a new special consideration system, labelled “dogmatic” and “hostile”, which has left students with cancer, depression and terminally-ill parents unsupported. Naaman Zhou and Max Hall report.

Academics have widely denounced a new special consideration system, labelled "dogmatic" and "hostile", which has left students with cancer, depression and terminally-ill parents unsupported. Naaman Zhou and Max Hall report.

A new system for special consideration which has rejected students with cancer and recently deceased parents has been described as “inhumane” by students and academics.

The new system, which was introduced in semester one to centralise the process of applying for special consideration, has come under fire for being bureaucratically dysfunctional and “hostile to students”, according to complaints from academics collected by Honi.

Sophie McGing, a third year Arts/Education student suffering from cancer, was rejected in April when applying for an extension after a recent chemotherapy treatment.

She was told her condition was a “long-term issue” and she was therefore ineligible, even though her application concerned the short term side-effects of her treatment. Special consideration is intended to provide support to students with short-term circumstances beyond their control.

“I had a chemotherapy appointment and in the few days after, suffered side effects like a sore throat, severe bone pain to the point of being immobile and unable to type, and a lack of con- centration, known as ‘chemo-fog’,” she said.

McGing had been diagnosed in March and completed several assignments while undergo- ing treatment. This was the first time she applied for special consideration. She was rejected on the same day she applied.

As a result, McGing decided to defer the following semester. “I continued to go to Uni to study and make that effort, but after this I deferred because I don’t want to go through that effort every time, every week an assignment might fall on a chemotherapy week.”

McGing’s experience is one of many. Honi understands applications which do not have a specified end date or are “ongoing” have been consistently knocked back. Students were denied extensions for failing to identify the “end date” of their terminally ill parent’s lives, their depressive episode, and pregnancy.

One student who applied for an extension following the death of a parent was rejected and told to obtain a death certificate, a process that takes up to six weeks. Once they supplied the certificate, the student was granted a one day extension. “In the past, a statutory declaration or order of service from a funeral would have sufficed,” said Sharon Maher, an SRC Caseworker who provides free support to students throughout the special consideration process.

The administration of special consideration was handed to Student Administrative Services at the start of 2016. A single online page for student applications was launched at the same time. The move, overseen by University Registrar Tyrone Carlin, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) Pip Pattinson, replaced a faculty based process that allowed individual Unit of Study coordinators considerable discretion in assisting students.

The underlying policy that governs special consideration has not changed, merely its administration. In addition to the mismanagement of individual cases, the system has been described as “overly officious” and bureaucratic by academics.

Honi understands photocopies of death and medical certificates are no longer considered sufficient documentation for a special consideration application. The online form requires applicants to categorise their circumstances into one of a small number of options, and provides no human contact point for advice or complicated matters. Rejections are sent from a ‘no reply’ email address with little reasoning and no information on how to appeal the decision.

SRC caseworkers said the problems were a “systemic” issue, characterising the process as “dogmatic”. They also reported that the volume of special consideration rejections has increased since the centralised system was introduced. (The University declined to provide figures.)

Academics complained about the changes to the University as early as May, describing the process as a “disaster” that is “extremely insensitive” and “hostile to student interests”. Honi understands meetings in a number of faculties and University working groups have been dominated by concerns the “unfair” process may exacerbate students’ existing problems and lead to more dropouts.

Some academics have levelled the charge that Student Administrative Services staff were inadequately trained to handle students with complicated circumstances, including mental health issues.

“There is a collective response now across faculties that has never happened before,” Breda Dee, an SRC caseworker, said. “Everyone is in agreement that this is a process that is not working, that is damaging.”

Many of the academics Honi spoke with for this article were hopeful that a review process would result in substantial changes. Several com- mended the system’s intentions.

Dr Elizabeth Hill, a senior lecturer in political economy, credited the new process with dramatically reducing the workload of academics.“For standard requests the system works well, but there are teething problems for more complex ones like domestic violence or family trauma,” she said.

Associate Professor Tim Wilkinson, a civil engineer who chairs the University’s Admissions Committee, said he intended to contribute to any ongoing review.

“There are some details around the operation of the process that could be improved to ensure clarity around information to staff and students, efficiency of processing for staff, and a more human touch for serious cases,” he said. “University management is aware of these issues, and has indicated a commitment to review and improve these processes.”

Dr Lesley Beaumont, Associate Professor of Classical Archaeology, said some changes had been implemented at the request of academics.

“Everyone involved will have a more positive experience of the system [in semester two],” she said. Honi understands that Carlin, the Registrar, who is currently on leave, participated in a review of the process that has taken place over recent weeks. The University declined to comment or specify any changes being made to the process as a result.