SU voices opposition to possible new ‘fit to sit’ examination policy

Antonia Velikova discusses the controversial proposed 'fit to sit' exam policy that the University is consulting on implementing.

Antonia Velikova
16th November 2015

NUSU Council has passed an official motion, declaring it will actively oppose any attempt on behalf of the University to introduce a ‘Fit to Sit’ policy.

Proposed by Education Officer Matthew Price and seconded by Welfare and Equality Officer Luke Allison, the motion passed council vote with a whopping 95% of support. Only 5% of voters voted ‘no’ and none abstained from a vote.

The essence of the ‘Fit to Sit’ policy seeks to establish that all students, who sit one of their exams, will be deemed fit to take it – therefore, submitting a PEC (Personal Extenuating Circumstances) form after the exam, even if they feel they have underperformed, will be impossible.

Now that the motion has been implemented, it will be used as the main point of NUSU’s stance on the policy, which will be expressed at more talks at the end of the semester.

“I think the motion will certainly facilitate the consultation and our response, because we have now officially received the backing of the Student’s Union council,” Matthew Price said. “This is such a strong point in our argument because now the students have spoken, the student voice has been heard and this will be a spearhead in the consultation.

“The main points will be in response to the arguments presented in the initial consultation document.”

The Cross-Faculty Learning, Teaching and Student Experience Committee published a consultation document, which makes the case both for and against the policy. It points out that it will help students develop a crucial professional skill. “Many employees have to decide when they are ill, whether it would be responsible to attend work,” the consultation paper states. “This applies especially in healthcare professions, but not only there.”

The paper also points out that ‘Fit to Sit’ already exists as a policy in the Clinical Medical and Dental parts of the University, and reduce both the amount of variables when dealing with PEC form requests and the workload of the PEC committee.

Matthew Price argued that the currently existing policy in the Clinical Medical and Dental parts is different: “The Medical and Dental Schools have ‘Fit to Practice’, which is a different thing. Being fit to practice upon the public has very different repercussions than being fit to sit an exam.”

Speaking to The Courier, Luke Allison said: “The ‘Fit to Sit’ policy fails students on many levels and does not have the students in mind. The whole feeling behind the policy is that students are here to play the system and that they are simply faking being ill for exams.

“Not only is this insulting to students who have to go through the stress of resitting an exam but even if the majority of students submitting PEC forms were lying, which I highly doubt, then should we really be stopping these people at the expense of students who are genuinely ill?”

“The ‘Fit to Sit’ policy fails students on many levels coach and does not have the students in mind. The whole feeling behind the policy is that students are here to play the system

Matthew Price agreed and pointed out that it’s not fair for all students to suffer repercussions, because the odd few may decide to cheat the system.

“I think that the reasoning that some students are submitting “just in case” or insurance PEC isn’t quite fair,” he said. “I think as a Union and University we expect more of our students. While there might be the odd person over the time who might try and do this, I don’t believe it’s a large number.”

The consultation paper also points this out as a drawback of the policy, as well as emphasising another issue students have with the policy – the treatment of mental health issue in accordance with ‘Fit to Sit.’

Students from Union society Mind the Gap, which aims to raise awareness of mental health in University, have declared their opposition against the policy.

“The committee at Mind the Gap are outraged and sickened that this is even being proposed,” Harris Qureshi, Social Media Officer for the society said. “The undue stress it could add on to students suffering mental health issues (as well as any other PEC) is unfair.”

“The policy completely invalidates the point of the PEC form, and promotes the elitist value that exams are highly priority than coursework or other written assessments,” Zoe Godden, a member of the society, added. “When in actuality, in most modules these assessments have a percentage weight equal to or greater than exam marks.”

In a statement issued to The Courier, the Academic Registrar Lesley Braiden, Director of Student Services, said: “At present, no decision has been made about introducing a Fit to Sit policy. The possible advantages and disadvantaged are outlined in the consultation document and we have invited the Students’ Union to respond as well as relevant faculty committees, Graduate School Committees, boards of studies, and staff-student groups.

“All responses will be considered before a decision is made.”

The consultation document on the policy outlines some practical issues relating to its implementation. Those involve students falling ill during an exam, which can be considered an exception to the rule, the nature of evidence provided, raising awareness among staff and students about the policy, and what implications this would have of the appeal process of PEC forms.

According to Luke Allison, this still places significant pressure on students regarding their performance in exams: “If I submit a PEC form on the day of an exam I have no idea if it will be accepted. I could not sit the exam in which case I risk my PEC for being rejected and getting 0 or I could sit the exam anyway, knowing that I can get an alright mark. Maybe drop 10 - 20 % as I’m ill but, hey, it’s better than 0. We shouldn’t be making our students make these decisions. It’s not right.”

Matthew Price emphasised that the conversation is very open to all members of the student and staff community.

“It is important to remember that this is just at a consultation phase, and they are only asking the question,” he said. “It is credit to a strong relationship between the University and the Union that we’re doing this together.”

If Newcastle University were to implement the ‘Fit to Sit’ policy, it would be in a minority within Russell Group institutions. Russell Group universities, who have adopted the policy, are University of Birmingham, King’s College University of

London and Queen Mary University of London.

“We would be a minority of Russell Group universities to implement this and I don’t think this is a minority we want to be a part of,” Matthew Price said. “ I think our main priority should be supporting the welfare of our students, not taking it away from them.”

The policy has been introduced in 19% of UK universities. Staff from Coventry, Nottingham Trent and Southampton Solent have reported a decrease to staff workload, however issues with student and staff awareness when introducing it initially.

“Indeed, any student or member of staff who wishes to submit a response may make their views known to Simon Pallett, Chair of Regulations Working Group of Taught Programmes Sub-Committee. The deadline for comments is 18 December 2015,” Lesley Braiden said.

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