Public Interest Cases

Disability and Ill Health - September 2014

These cases illustrate issues to be considered in making reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities and looking at claims for extenuating circumstances relating to disability and ill-health.

 

Responsibility on students to seek diagnosis and provide appropriate evidence

Loughborough University

The OIA often reviews cases where students do not submit claims until after the end of their degree programme. In these circumstances the University’s procedures will normally set out very clearly the type of evidence that students need to provide on the issue that they believe affected performance and on why they were unable to provide evidence at the time.

A student at Loughborough University appealed a final degree result based on a late claim for Impaired Performance in the second year. She had no evidence to explain why she did not submit a claim at the end of the second year. The OIA concluded that the complaint was Not Justified:

“While we are sympathetic to the circumstances which [the student] describes and see no reason to doubt her account, we can find no basis to find fault with the University’s decision. We observe that the University has a duty of fairness to all students, and must uphold the integrity of its academic awards. We consider it reasonable that the University requires independent professional evidence to support a claim based upon illness, including specific independent evidence of reasons why a student was unable to comply with required timescales.”

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Liverpool John Moores University

Universities have a duty to take reasonable steps to find out about students’ disabilities and provide opportunities for advice and needs assessment to support adjustments but this duty does not extend to routine screening.

A student at Liverpool John Moores University was withdrawn from a course leading to a professional qualification, having failed his second attempt at two modules. Following his withdrawal he had taken an online test which suggested there was a strong possibility he might be dyslexic but had not undergone a formal assessment. He appealed on that basis and the University rejected his appeal.

While both the University and the professional body accrediting the course strongly advised students to seek support there was no evidence that the student had raised any concerns about possible dyslexia until the point he was told he could not continue. The OIA considered that he had some responsibility to have sought support from the University at the time if he had concerns. The OIA also considered that the University’s decision not to treat the student as disabled in the absence of a diagnosis was reasonable, and that the student’s complaint was Not Justified.

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London Metropolitan University

The OIA found a case Not Justified where a student at London Metropolitan University appealed against a decision to terminate her studies based on poor attendance due to a health condition. The student had successfully appealed against an earlier decision to terminate her studies and at that stage had been directed to the Disabilities and Dyslexia Service but had chosen not to use this service.

The University’s procedures were widely publicised to students and made it clear that appeals based on mitigating circumstances must demonstrate ‘why the student was previously unable to disclose those circumstances’. It rejected her appeal against the second termination of studies on the grounds that she had not provided relevant evidence and had not engaged with the relevant University processes.

 

Responsibility on students to follow procedures

Birkbeck College, University of London

It is not unusual for University procedures to specify the type of evidence to be provided to support claims for mitigating circumstance on the grounds of illness. The OIA considers this reasonable

A student at Birkbeck College claimed mitigating circumstances for some of her examinations, stating that she had been ill at the time. She provided only general information from her GP, to the effect that she had reported difficulties sleeping associated with stress. The letters from her doctor did not give any details of the timeframe or duration of her condition nor a clear medical opinion on how this might have affected her performance in examinations. The College’s mitigating circumstances procedures stated requirements very clearly, specifying that medical evidence must include dates, time frame and a medical opinion about the likely effect of illness. The student had not met those requirements and the OIA found her complaint that the College had rejected her claim and subsequent appeals Not Justified.

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University of Bedfordshire

A student at the University of Bedfordshire appealed against the University’s decision to require her to repeat part of an academic year, on the grounds that she had been unwell during the assessment period. She did not make a mitigating circumstances claim at the time of the assessments. She was unable to provide medical evidence covering the period of the assessments, instead providing a letter from a doctor in her home country, written before the assessment period, outlining her medical history. She indicated that she was used to self–prescribing and had not visited a doctor in the UK.

The student had not followed the University’s procedures or provided the necessary medical evidence. As she did not inform the University of the difficulty she was experiencing at the time, the University was not able to provide the appropriate support or offer the necessary advice. The OIA found her complaint that the University had rejected her appeal Not Justified.

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Cardiff Metropolitan University

Cardiff Metropolitan University considered a stage one complaint about disability support in the summer of 2011. The University did not uphold the complaint and wrote to the student explaining that he had ten days to submit a written request for a stage two review.

The student did not contact the University regarding this matter until early 2014. The University concluded that he was out of time.

Higher Education Institutions in the UK often take the view that if a student wishes to submit a complaint, or progress a complaint to the next stage of the procedure, he or she should do so within a reasonable timeframe and by the published deadline. Complaints not progressed within the published timeframes cannot then be accepted later on, though sometimes consideration may be given to any valid evidenced reason for the delay. This is standard practice in universities and the OIA does not consider this approach to be unreasonable

The OIA found the complaint Not Justified

 

Responsibility on universities to document how they have supported students with disabilities

Oxford Brookes University

A student at Oxford Brookes University complained that her request for an extension to a submission deadline under the mitigating circumstances procedures had been rejected. The student had dyslexia but had forgotten to take all her IT equipment on an overseas trip at the time the assignment was due. This meant she did not have access to IT equipment and assistive technology that had been provided by the University.

The notes of the Review Panel provided by the University did not include details of its membership, of what consideration had been given to the findings of the Mitigating Circumstance Panel that had first looked at the case. It was unclear what information relating to the student’s disability, including how her work might have been affected by not being able to use the IT support provided, had been discussed.

The lack of documentation meant the OIA could not satisfy itself that the Panel was properly constituted, that procedures were followed and that the final decision was reasonable. The OIA found the complaint Justified for these reasons and recommended that the student’s mitigating circumstances be referred back to a freshly constituted panel.

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University of Oxford

In considering a number of aspects to a complaint brought by a student at the University of Oxford, who had both disability and specific medical conditions, the OIA found that the University could not demonstrate that it had looked at whether medical issues could have affected performance on the day of the examinations. There was no reference in the Examiners’ report to how particular symptoms and side effects of medication, both of which were included in evidence from the student’s doctor, had been taken into account. The OIA found the case Partly Justified and made recommendations including that the University ask the Examiners to reconsider the student’s results in the light of all available medical evidence.

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University College London

In considering issues related to discrimination the OIA does not act as a court. It does not investigate or make legal findings in the same manner as a court. However, the OIA does refer to the law and guidance on discrimination to form an opinion as to good practice and to decide whether the University has acted fairly. The OIA considers that when a University becomes aware that a student may have a disability, it should ask itself the following questions:

  • Is the student disabled?
  • If so, what provisions are we now applying to him/her?
  • Do those provisions place him/her at a substantial disadvantage?
  • What could be done to prevent that disadvantage?
  • Would it be reasonable for us to take those steps?

The OIA found a case Justified where a student at University College London was removed from the course for poor attendance against the terms of his Learning Agreement. At that stage the student presented medical evidence of depressive illness. The University could not demonstrate that, once it was made aware of the diagnosis, it looked at whether illness might have contributed to the student’s poor attendance or whether its processes had put the student at a disadvantage. The OIA recommended financial compensation to the student for distress and recommended that the University rehear his grievance.

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City University London

City University was unable to provide evidence that it had taken full account of a student’s late diagnosis of dyslexia in considering her appeal against the marks awarded for her coursework and examination papers. The OIA found that the University had no provision in its Regulations for dealing with late diagnosis.

The OIA found the student’s complaint Justified. It accepted a suggestion from the University that an appropriate remedy would be for the University to review how questions arising from the student’s disability had been addressed during the appeals process. Additionally the OIA recommended that the University review its Regulations to include information on how it deals with late diagnosis of disability.

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Falmouth University

The OIA found a complaint from a student at Falmouth University Partly Justified because the University could provide only a copy of an email sent to the student’s academic department which gave a list of students with disabilities and generic advice sheets on supporting students with dyslexia and dyspraxia.

Conditions such as dyslexia impact each individual differently and therefore, whilst advice sheets might be generally useful to academic staff, this on its own was not sufficient to demonstrate that reasonable adjustments had been made to prevent the student from being disadvantaged. The OIA found this element of the student’s complaint justified, required the University to apologise and pay compensation for the distress caused, and to review its procedures for the support of students with disabilities.

 

Responsibility on students to follow procedures

Northumbria University

Universities need to ensure that reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities are properly coordinated.

The OIA considered a complaint from a student with a severe visual impairment at the University of Northumbria that she had not been provided with course materials in an accessible format. Her Disabled Student Support Recommendations were that materials were to be provided electronically, in advance, so that her support worker could re-format them to the appropriate size.

The OIA identified a number of failings in the University’s provision of adjustments and its consideration of her complaint, including its failure to ensure that the core textbooks for her degree were made available electronically in a timely manner. The University also failed to recognise until Stage 2 of its complaints procedures that feedback should be provided electronically in typed format, rather than being handwritten on her work. Despite accepting this, the University provided her with handwritten feedback on a subsequent assessment.

The OIA found the complaint Partly Justified. It took the view that the University could and should have done more to provide reasonable adjustments without the student needing to escalate issues through the complaints process. The OIA recommended compensation to the student for distress and that the University review its mechanisms for managing and coordinating the provision of reasonable adjustments.

 

Students on professional placements

London South Bank University

A student from London South Bank University complained that she had not been provided with appropriate support for her dyslexia while on placement and in assessing her performance in practice- based assessments.

The student declared that she had dyslexia only a few weeks before the end of the placement and did not provide evidence of her dyslexia or her support requirements to the University. As the placement was almost at an end the University put in place adjustments that seemed reasonable in light of the limited information available.  The OIA considered this reasonable.

There is no requirement to make adjustments to competence standards and so the student was still required to meet professional competencies, the assessment of which was a professional judgment for the University. The complaint was found Not Justified.