Opinion

Mitigating circumstances: a long-term solution?

While much of the university’s policy regarding exams has come under scrutiny from the student body, their policies regarding mitigating circumstances have remained reasonably unscathed. However, with most likely a greater number of students facing an environment or circumstances that will impact their work in exams it is now more vital than ever that the terms of mitigating circumstances are questioned. 

Mitigating circumstances are in theory a compassionate and efficient method of ensuring that students with exceptional situations have an equal chance of succeeding in exams. Indeed, it is a necessary and somewhat successful system. The guide the university provides states that changes in assessment format, learning opportunities, anxiety due to changes to the assessment or day-to-day activities, and unavailability of resources have been included as grounds in which you can apply for mitigating circumstances due to COVID-19. Of course, there are various other environmental and personal conditions that are eligible for mitigating circumstances. In all, the university rightly caters for a wide range of unforeseen disruptions which can severely detriment a student’s performance. 

There are also a number of ways in which examiners will take action in light of mitigating circumstances, including disregarding certain papers or moving your result to the higher-grade classification. Details of these can be found in the online handbook provided by the university. While these appear to be effective solutions, the problem lies when the student has their grade moved to the higher classification, but their actual marks remain the same. For example, they may be awarded a 2:1 but their marks remain within the 2:2 boundaries.

For a facility intended to ensure that students have equal access to achievement through a discretional method, it inflicts exactly the opposite of this once the student has completed their degree. Many application forms for jobs, higher education, graduate schemes, and internships require applicants to provide a breakdown of the marks they achieved in their exams. This places an applicant who received mitigating circumstances in an awkward position of needing to explain the disparity between their degree classification and their paper marks. This forces students to explain themselves and their situation to third parties when it is a matter that should remain between them and the university. What appears to be a benevolent response to student grievances can pave the way for future issues. 

Approaching the university for extra support during an already stressful period can be distressing and nerve-wracking, an experience that students should be able to leave behind once they graduate or move forward in their degree. However, the current university policy regarding mitigating circumstances does not allow for this. A far more considerate and future-friendly alternative would be to also increase the marks when awarding a higher grade classification. If examiners believe that the student would have been capable of achieving a higher grade in normal circumstances, then their marks should also reflect this. The current policy feels more like a token of acknowledgement rather than a genuine attempt to ensure equal opportunities in the present and the future. 

While online exams and virtual learning have encouraged us to question and scrutinise new university policies, we must also remember those that existed before the pandemic that still prove problematic. Mitigating circumstances is no doubt one among the many university policies that have been inadequate for longer than lockdown. It is important to remember to continue moving towards improving our welfare systems that will still be in place once lockdown has ended and life returns to normal.