Will five-day extensions remedy Special Consideration’s inhumanity?

Five-day extensions are undoubtedly a massive win for struggling students, but greater reform is needed to truly fix what is a broken and overly bureaucratic system.

Art generated by Midjourney.

The University of Sydney’s Academic Board has approved a trial of five-day extensions for all assignments in response to an all-time high volume of Special Consideration applications. 

This semester, students are able to access five calendar day extensions by submitting a statutory declaration through the Special Consideration portal. Unlike previous applications, such extensions do not require medical evidence. The new scheme applies to all assignments in all units with the exception of short-release and group assessments. 

SRC President Lauren Lancaster describes the new scheme as a “win hard-fought for by myself and the SRC, which puts student welfare back into our own hands.

“It will be an important buffer for those struggling to get by at uni, while the concurrent lightening of evidence requirements mean that the University is trusting students to do the right thing,” Lancaster said.

The proposal for five-day extensions was presented to the Academic Board by Associate Professor and University Registrar Peter McCallum as a measure to reduce the enormous number of Special Consideration applications submitted each year. 

Applications have more than doubled from less than 30,000 in 2018 to 60,000 in 2021, despite the student population increasing by just 10 per cent. In Semester 1, 2022, USyd received over 31,000 applications, comfortably dwarfing 2018’s total numbers. Accordingly, Special Consideration applications are projected to increase by a further 25 per cent this year. 

The Faculty of Science has the highest rate of special consideration applications per student, accounting for approximately 20 per cent of total applications but only 14 per cent of total students. First-year and postgraduate students stand as the most adversely affected, with over 8000 applications made by first-years last semester alone. 

Professor McCallum’s report to the Academic Board cited two reasons for the increase in applications. First, the move to online exams has resulted in a surge in applications concerning home technical issues. Secondly, application trends “strongly correlate” with fluctuating COVID-19 case numbers in NSW. 

USyd’s Special Consideration system buckled under this unprecedented increase in application numbers, resulting in “longer processing times, student stress, poor experience, and an increase in staff workload”. This was exacerbated by technical issues, with the online system suffering five outages and four server breakdowns in Semester 1, 2021. 

Source: University of Sydney Academic Board papers, Coursework Policy 2021.

As a result, the average number of working days it took for an application to be processed increased from 2.5 in Semester 1, 2020 to 4.3 in Semester 2, 2021, with the latter figure increasing to 7.95 working days in cases requiring referral to faculties. 

Honi has received reports of students waiting up to four weeks for their applications to be processed, with some cases for specific assignments being resolved well after that assignment’s due date. Honi has also received reports of individual cases seemingly slipping through the cracks, with appeals of decisions left unanswered up to four months after the initial application.

While the new five-day extensions will likely reduce the number of applications and thus speed up processing times, it is unclear if this will be sufficient on its own. 

According to Lancaster, five-day extensions “won’t solve all the issues facing students.”

“Special Consideration of course requires more staff and likely funding in the future,” said Lancaster. 

This is a need that has been recognised by Student Services, with Special Consideration receiving “temporarily increased staff resources”.

Honi understands, however, that there is no plan in place to permanently increase the staff resources to the Special Consideration Unit, which suggests issues surrounding delays in processing may persist in the near future. 

The severe ramifications of such a decision becomes clear when examining the wait times for Informal Appeals of Special Consideration decisions, with the maximum wait time of 10 business days regularly breached due to a lack of staff. 

While significant, wait times are just one of the many issues facing students engaging with Special Consideration. At the core of its inadequacy is its overly bureaucratic nature. 

This is perhaps best exemplified by the arbitrary application deadlines imposed on students. Indeed, students must submit Special Consideration applications within three business days of the relevant illness or misadventure. Any application submitted after this period is automatically declined unless an adequate reason for lateness is provided. 

In these instances, students that may be facing severe health or family-related complications will be denied help on a bureaucratic technicality, rather than the merit of their application. In Semester 1, 2021, nearly 1000 (3.3 per cent of the total) student applications for Special Consideration were rejected for being late and having an “insufficient late reason”.

Sharing Lancaster’s view, SULS Disabilities Officer and SRC Welfare Officer Grace Wallman argues that five-day extensions is not an “unqualified victory” and that further reform to the system is required. Otherwise, USyd’s much-celebrated simple extension reforms risks becoming a “band-aid solution” that fails to address chronic understaffing of the Special Consideration Unit. 

“The university should be minimising stress with these systems. It’s not the fault of the people who are working in these support services. The university has to really resource and fund all of these systems adequately,” Wallman told Honi

“There’s still a big battle to be won.”