Exam policy change hits students with mental health issues

By ELLIANA SALTALAMACCHIA

A Monash University policy change leaving students unable to cancel an exam once they have started has been labelled unfair on students with mental health issues.

Former student Marc Sudholz said he would not have graduated if it weren’t for his ability to defer an end-of-semester exam after suffering an anxiety attack.

“You can’t predict it. You could be feeling perfectly good going into the exam and then sit down and suddenly it all falls apart,” Mr Sudholz said.

In April, the university sent an email alerting students that, as of this semester, they could no longer apply to cancel an exam if they couldn’t complete it.

“If you suddenly become unwell during your exam, tell an invigilator and they will get medical staff to attend to you,” the email read.

“We recommend you try to finish your exam, if you are able, because in most circumstances, if you’ve turned up and seen and/or attempted to answer the exam questions, you won’t be eligible for special consideration.”

Previously, students could cancel no later than 30 minutes before the exam’s end. If the circumstances were  considered legitimate, students would be able to arrange a deferred exam.

Marc Sudholz was able to graduate this April after cancelling and deferring an exam in his last semester. Picture: supplied

Monash Student Association (MSA) education officer Raphael Tell said the policy change was particularly unfair on students struggling with mental health issues.

“It’s not fair, it’s not justifiable and it’s just going to add to the mental health stresses of students who already don’t really feel supported,” Mr Tell said.

Mr Tell said the main issue with the policy was the unclear communication of the change.

“The email that was sent out was incredibly vague and purposely used language to scare students into not engaging with the cancellation of exams policy,” he said.

“It’s really isolating for students who feel like Monash isn’t on their side when they already feel so isolated because of their conditions.”

Mr Tell said he understood the new policy involved students reporting their circumstances to registered nurses in the exam room, who would then provide an assessment. If the student was deemed unable to continue, the nurse would prepare a report to be sent to the faculty.

But Mr Tell said he felt uncomfortable that it was up to the discretion of the nurse, particularly with the nature of mental health issues.

“[There is] no explicit policy, no explicit form that students can engage with, just hope that the registered nurse will understand and emphasise their circumstances,” he said.

“[Students will] have to come back and resit units, they can lose their scholarship money, international students can lose their visas. It’s really high risk stuff.”

MSA education officer Raphael Tell

Mr Tell said the previous policy was scrapped because Monash University had data it said showed students misusing the system. But this is data that MSA has been unable to get their hands on.

“We haven’t received any follow up data or real willingness to share that with us so we’re quite disappointed,” he said.

“It seems to us the only people who really benefit from this change are the staff who don’t have to deal with the extra paperwork of people filling out exam cancellation forms.”

Mr Sudholz said despite its exploitation by other students, the policy had been important students like himself.

‘You’re trying your best, you always want to be able to sit the exam and you always want to be able to finish it,” he said.

“In some subjects where it happened, I’d been studying for 70-80 hours in preparation for the exam and it still happened. It’s not due to a lack of preparation, it’s not due to a lack of trying, it’s just something which happens out of the blue,” Mr Sudholz said.

He said it was important that students were able to cancel an exam, provided it was for a legitimate reason.

“I am evidence that it’s not a broken system and that it does work,” he said.

“It helped me when I was in need of desperate help, and it’s allowed me to finish university because I was able to resit my exam. I’m now working full time, I’m really enjoying life, I’m in a really good space, but none of that would have been possible had I not been able to cancel my exam.”

Mr Tell said students who might be at risk should register with the Disability Support Services unit at the university so that nurses in the exam room could be made aware of their conditions.

Monash University media and communications said they had no comment at this stage.