Public interest cases

Competence standards - February 2017

Oxford Brookes University

A student complained to the OIA about the University’s decision on a number of matters including the provision of reasonable adjustments.

The student had a diagnosed anxiety disorder and submitted a successful mitigating circumstances claim relating to exams and coursework. An alternative to a timed examination was not offered.

The course handbook did not state that timed, unseen examinations are directly linked to a competence standard for the programme. The University explained to the OIA that the aim was ‘to assess students’ ability to think about which techniques to apply to a problem, rather than their research skills in looking for a technique to solve a question’. It had been considering ways of finding out what the student could do without reference materials but had not found an alternative to exams, presentations or vivas by the time the student left the University.

The OIA was concerned that the University had not demonstrated that the formal, timed, unseen examination format was itself testing a genuine competence standard that could not be tested in other ways. We were also concerned by an internal email that expressed reluctance to make adjustments for this student as that would disadvantage other students. The Equality Act does not prevent universities from treating disabled students more favourably than other students in order to remove a disadvantage.

The OIA decided that this element of the student’s complaint was Justified and recommended compensation for distress and inconvenience. Her overall complaint was Partly Justified as we considered the University had acted reasonably on the other issues she raised.


University of Southampton

A medical student at the University of Southampton submitted a successful academic appeal to the University against her deregistration from the programme. The University gave her the opportunity to resit the year but she failed the Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) and was unable to progress. She complained to the OIA after the University refused her appeal to be allowed extra time for the OSCE as a reasonable adjustment for disability.

The requirements of the course were clearly set out and did not permit the student to progress without completing the OSCE. The ability to complete OCSE stations within a specified time is widely accepted to be a competence standard and the University’s documentation explains that this is because the replication of clinical practice is central to the assessment.

The OIA decided that the University had acted reasonably in the circumstances and that the complaint was Not Justified.


Queen Mary University of London

A medical student at Queen Mary University of London complained to the OIA after the University turned down her appeal against being deregistered from the course.

The University provided a number of adjustments for the student following a needs assessment. It required her to pass one examination that was based on visual interpretation of x-rays as it considered that “image recognition is a key competency standard for a medical doctors“.  The student provided medical evidence to her appeal that she may have been disadvantaged by the visual nature of the assessment. However the duty to provide adjustments does not apply to a competence standard.

The OIA decided the complaint was Not Justified. The University was able to demonstrate that it gave sufficient consideration to the student’s circumstances and made adjustments to support her by allowing her extra time. However its professional judgment was that it was not possible to change the format of the assessment as it was intended to assess visual processing.


Disability and Reasonable Adjustments

University of Sussex

The Student Support Unit (SSU) at the University of Sussex sought additional reasonable adjustments to a disabled student’s examinations following an injury unrelated to her disability. The Reasonable Adjustments Panel agreed to replace two examinations with essays in her second year. However, when the student asked for the same adjustments in her final year, the Panel did not agree. It stated that ‘academic standards could not be secured’ in the student’s subject area if all examinations were replaced, and offered instead to arrange for assessment to be via a larger number of shorter examinations. The University turned down the student’s appeal against this decision. The student temporarily withdrew from her studies.

The student complained to the OIA about the decision to turn down her appeal. As part of our review the OIA looked for information on which the Panel had based its view that ‘academic standards could not be secured’ if the changes requested were made. We saw correspondence from the Deputy Chair of the Exam Board that essays had been used successfully in the same academic school, giving an indication that examinations were not always considered a competency standard by the school or the exam board.

The OIA decided that the Panel’s decision was not reasonable in all the circumstances and that the student’s complaint was Justified. We recommended that the University set up a new panel, apologise to the student, refund fees and make a payment to the student for distress and inconvenience. The University notified us that the new Panel agreed to offer an alternative means of assessment to the student. The University implemented changes to its processes following the OIA’s decision to ensure that the Reasonable Adjustments Panel receives relevant information about a student’s change in circumstances, and to introduce guidance on assessing learning outcomes.