Mentally ill students risk academic penalties for missing classes

Phoebe Hurst discusses potential academic penalties for mentally ill students

Phoebe Hurst
28th October 2019
Image: Pixabay
Students suffering with mental health problems could face being penalised with academic sanctions at some of the UK’s top universities, according to the Guardian, whilst other universities have no uniform policy to help suffering students.

The Guardian has found that of the 21 universities who responded to a freedom of information request (FOI), only an estimated 20% had a consistent intervention policy in place designed to support students in need. This suggests that at many top universities in the UK, students suffering with mental health illnesses, such as depression, PTSD or eating disorders, are being left with little to no support.

"There is a growing number of recent undergraduate student suicides at universities within the UK."

These findings reinforce increasing concern over student mental health and the support being offered by universities, emphasised by the growing number of recent undergraduate student suicides at universities within the UK. During an inquiry into the death of Natasha Abrahart, a Bristol University student who committed suicide last year, it was uncovered that there had been a lack of support in place for her, in spite of the university being aware of her mental health illness. Bristol University is one of the UK’s leading universities: it is ranked as one of the UK’s top ten universities and as one of Europe’s top 30 universities. Abrahart's death has, therefore, raised concerns as to why a leading university so tragically failed a student.

There is a concern that many universities deflect their duty of care onto the academic schools and expect them to be proactive in raising concerns over attendance and at-risk students. However, there is a lack of guidance on when to do so, what to look for, and how to report concerns.

Newcastle University’s attendance policy reads as follows: “students are, except for absence with good cause, expected to attend all elements of their programme of study, including lectures, seminars, tutorials […] examinations. A student who is not able to attend University should inform the school/institution and submit a Student absence request. For absences longer than 7 days, a student must also submit a medical certificate. A Student Notice of Absence Form is not compulsory but any absence noted by the academic unit may be recorded as unauthorised if it has not been authorised in advance.” This could suggest that the responsibility for raising concerns is placed at the feet of the academic school, rather than the university body itself:

Changes to the University's absence request forms that came into effect last academic year (2018/19) raise questions as to how invested in their students  Newcastle University is.

These changes meant that students were not able to submit student absence forms unless absent for upwards of three days: this means that students who are absent for one/two days due to mental illness are not able to apply for their absence to be authorised and thus may face disciplinary action as a result. Absences of one to two days are more likely to occur in students who are mentally ill than those who are not. On courses such as English Literature, a student’s attendance counts towards their final grade, thus meaning that students with low attendance due to their mental health are academically penalised.

These findings bring to the forefront, once again, that universities in the UK need to do more to support their vulnerable students.


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