A Nouse investigation has found that a number of students are dissatisfied with the mitigating circumstances system at York. It includes evidence of instances of breakdowns in communication within departments and unreasonable demands made of individuals in crisis.
In many instances, it has emerged that the system has left students at a significant disadvantage, or unclear as to whether they are entitled to support. Complaints range from students struggling with physical conditions and debilitating illnesses, to those seeking compensation for mental health difficulties, and in some cases instances of trauma.
It is stated in the Mitigating Circumstances Policy 2015/16 that: “The University defines mitigating circumstances as problems that students have encountered which go beyond the normal difficulties experienced in life and which have affected their academic performance adversely during the assessment period for which they are claiming.”
However, students have raised concerns as to the vagueness of this policy; how it is implemented, and with what consistency across departments.
Many gave evidence as to how efforts to regulate the system have led to students being ‘placed in boxes’, or inappropriately categorised in nuanced circumstances, with one student blaming specifically what they deemed a “one size fits all” policy, arguing that such a regime could not be fit for purpose, given different students with different needs have varying requirements.
The same student, who is in their second year studying English Literature, gave an account of her own experience applying for support, explaining: “I applied for mitigating circumstances after a traumatic incident in my personal life, requesting to sit my exams as planned the following week, but to be permitted to resit ‘as if for the first time’ and not have it capped at 40 should I perform poorly, due to the immense stress I was currently under. I did not want to sit the exam for the first time ever in August, as I did not want to further disrupt my schedule.
“The department informed me that it would not be possible to allow an uncapped resit, as mitigating circumstances ‘could not be used to account for poor performance’, and that the procedure could not be ‘customised’ to fit my individual needs.”
It transpired that the policy was vague to such an extent that there was a breakdown in communication between members of the same department. The student continued: “This was despite the assurance of different members of said department and of the University’s student support network that an uncapped resit would be possible.”
They concluded: “I am appalled that the department believes mit circ can be one size fits all, as it currently wishes to operate, since different individuals have different needs which cannot possibly be fairly catered to under a universal policy.”
In another instance of ambiguity, Kerry Douglas, a second year English and Linguistics student, had to miss an assessed presentation due to a kidney infection and was left unclear as to whether she might be granted mitigating circumstances. She explained: “I messaged my supervisor about it saying the doctor wouldn’t allow me to fly home until I had a scan and it calmed down or I was risking damaging my kidneys since it was really bad.
“I got two doctor notes saying I was not fit for work and wasn’t able to go back to York in time for my presentation however I did all the work and explained to my group who were fine with it. I did everything but present due to illness.
“Then the department told me my MC probably won’t go through because I shouldn’t have been at home and should have been in York. They won’t tell me the final result until summer so it’s been super stressful and I was very sick.”
In addition to listing specifically what it deems does and does not constitute mitigating circumstances, the University website clarifies: “Academic studies are challenging and everyday life is full of ups and downs. It is important you develop the resilience and skills needed to cope with everyday inconveniences and illnesses so they do not stop you completing assessments in good time.”
In some instances, the latter statement has provided confusion as to what constitutes a suitable application in the case of mental health complications; in particular, how one might distinguish between general stress and medical Anxiety. For this reason, one student found it difficult to persuade their department that their situation warranted excusing from contact hours.
They told Nouse: “I was suffering from anxiety and depression for the first time at university. I was stuck in bed one day with constant panic attacks. I was so worried for my mental health and emailed my tutor explaining. The tutor replied this wasn’t a good enough excuse to miss class.”
The mitigating circumstances policy has been in review over the past year, and a new policy is currently being considered.
When asked, Pro Vice Chancellor Prof John Robinson commented: “The University operates a robust system which gives due consideration to all properly reported mitigating circumstances. The system is overseen by a committee of academics drawn from across the faculties and is supported by an experienced team of professional staff. The policy and process are kept under regular review with input from student representatives.
“In the current academic year, improving clarity and making interpretation more straightforward have been important themes, leading to development of a new policy. Students have had input to this process and representatives are participating in all stages of approval.”