“Stress” and “uncertainty” felt amongst students due to Durham University’s new Extensions process

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At the beginning of the academic year 2023/24, Durham University introduced a new centralised Extensions App for students to seek deadlines for summative assessments. Despite the fact that this new Extensions process has been implemented across all departments, students have expressed their concerns to Palatinate that the process has not been publicised well enough, nor fully encompasses students with Disability Support Plans (DSPs).

On Durham University’s SharePoint page for extensions, it explains that deadline extensions are permitted for any issues beyond a student’s control, further mentioning that DSPs can only be used to provide “evidence of a flare-up of an existing condition” to request an extension.

The website advises “you should manage your time to ensure that your work is completed well in advance of the deadline.” Alongside events that are beyond your control, extensions are permitted for acute illness like stomach bug or flu, bereavements, or household emergencies that require immediate attention.

The website states that summative coursework deadlines are fixed with extensions only being granted in “exceptional circumstances” with retrospective requests not being permitted. If the extension is granted by the university, it will usually be for 3 or 5 working days, depending on the severity of the circumstances. Longer extensions will be given if necessary.

The list of circumstances in which extensions will not be accepted includes technology problems, travel or holidays, care or support for someone (if you are not the primary carer), minor ailments such as headaches, undiagnosed health conditions or those not registered with Disability Support, such as general stress or anxiety.

“The health and wellbeing of our students and the wider University community, is always our first priority”

durham university spokesperson

A Durham University spokesperson told Palatinate: “The health and wellbeing of our students and the wider University community, is always our first priority and we are committed to a whole-University approach to health and wellbeing. We have a new Health and Wellbeing Strategy, with the aim of making Durham a more responsible and productive place to study and work.

“We have a dedicated Disability Support Service – a friendly, approachable team of professionals who work with disabled students to discuss any academic difficulties encountered in relation to their disability throughout their time at Durham. We work with students to put personal and tailored Disability Support Plans in place, which outlines agreed reasonable adjustments.”

The new Extensions process supports Durham University’s new Student Support Model. Each department now has a dedicated Student Support Officer, who is the Department Disability Representative. Students can reach out to this Representative to seek advice for disability support, such as the process for creating DSPs, which can be used to implement a paced approach to deadlines so that students do not have to request extensions.

The new Student Support Hub also includes easy access for all students to seek support through the Extensions process, also mentioning what students can do in an emergency. A stand was managed at the Students’ Union’s Freshers’ Fair this year to advertise Student Support Services.

One student, however, expressed how they think the new Extensions process is “an awful idea” as it will directly impact the studies of disabled students like themselves, explaining that they believe it will cause them “added stress.” The student had to suspend their studies for the year due to a mental health crisis, stating that the reduction in extension times available, and the lack of clarity on the changes had directly contributed to their situation.

The student continued to say: “This policy has and will cause significant issues for disabled students who previously could apply for an extension to mitigate issues resulting from their circumstances.”

They expressed their concern to Palatinate that “By not allowing students to cite pre-existing conditions as a valid reason for requesting an extension, the
University are directly responsible for the damage this will cause for students, especially those with neurodivergent conditions that can cause difficulties with executive function, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD.”

“By not allowing students to cite pre-existing conditions as a valid reason for requesting an extension, the University are directly responsible for the damage this will cause students”

durham unviersity student

Another student also said that it “severely complicates” the process of getting extensions for reasons relating to a disability. They told Palatinate that they had an extension request denied despite having requested the extension for reasons that comply with their DSP. The student described the plan to “permit me to request extensions should I need them”, and told Palatinate that their department had to manually override the decision.

Another student expressed that as a student on a placement year, they are worried about how the policy will affect them upon returning to Durham. Drawing on previous experiences when submitting extension requests, the student told Palatinate that they have “numerous disabilities” and requested an extension for every summative piece of work in their second year.

The student also sometimes had to request an extension on their extension, as they continued to share: “I’m very worried about how I will manage the workload next year.”

The Durham University spokesperson continued to say: “As a University, we work extremely hard to care for our students, making reasonable adjustments to support them during their years at Durham. We continue to make enhancements to our Student Support Services and are investing an additional £1.3m per year in student support. This means extra investment in our Counselling and Mental Health Service, Disability Support services and College and Department student support teams.

“We are always open to feedback and dialogue with students, and we would encourage anyone with feedback or a concern to contact us directly.”

“It quickly became clear that the greatest cause of stress and uncertainty was how poorly advertised the changes to the extensions system were by the University”

will brown, dsu undergraduate academic officer

However, both candidates for sabbatical officer role Education Officer in the Students’ Union elections have included dealing with the Extensions Policy in their top priorities should they get the role. Catherine Howells listed that to “work to improve the new extension form” was her first priority; similarly, Theo Stubbs’ top priority was to “work with the University to reform the extensions policy so that it meets the needs of students.”

Palatinate spoke to Elisha, President of Durham University’s Students with Disabilities Association, on their thoughts on the changes to the extensions policy: “Recently, SwDA has been engaging with the SU and higher university management after members expressed concerns about the [new Extensions process]. Many of our members feel the new form does not accommodate their disabilities and forces them to justify themselves.”

They believe that “the University has failed to effectively publicise these changes which has left many students feeling lost about what they are entitled to and how to access support. There are ways in which the extension system can be adapted to better accommodate disabled students so that they do not feel unsupported and unheard.

“We hope the University listens to the concerns that have been raised and that improvements are swiftly implemented before the next deadline season.”

Will Brown, Durham Students’ Union’s Undergraduate Academic Officer also spoke to Palatinate on the recent changes to the extensions policy, saying: “As soon as I became aware of the issues some of our students were having with the changes to the extension system, the SU reached out to course reps to get their input and experiences with the changes. We had a huge number of course reps reply with a mixture of questions, personal testimonies, and peers’ experiences.

“It quickly became clear that the greatest cause of stress and uncertainty was how poorly advertised the changes to the extensions system were by the University and what they meant in practice for students, especially those with disability support plans, needing extensions.”

Image: Trevor Littlewood via Wikimedia Commons

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