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A Message to the Uni Gods: Change Your Extension Policies

Extensions, huh? You can’t really get through uni without needing one at least once, but boy do they make it an absolute fuckfest of a process. The professor becomes judge, jury and, in the event your pleas are insufficiently desperate, executioner.

CW: Suicide, mental illness.

 

It’s the night before your assessment is due and you’ve finally given in.

You’re not going to get this paper done in time–you’ve got over 1000 words to go and all you can do is stare at the accusatory blink of the cursor. It’s time to wave the white flag. It’s time to email your professor.

You descend into your Gmail inbox and hit ‘Compose’, and so it begins. No expense can be spared, you must tell it all: how you’re in between moving houses to escape your klepto roommate and your childhood cat died last month and you’re averaging two hours of sleep each night and the current geopolitical situation is somehow making you fear for your life all the way in Melbourne and the vastness of the universe is weighing on your mind thereby forcing you to question the significance of this single uni assignment in the grand designs of the cosmos.

The next morning, their reply: Sorry you’re going through that. Can I get a doctor’s note?

Extensions, huh? You can’t really get through uni without needing one at least once, but boy do they make it an absolute fuckfest of a process. The professor becomes judge, jury and, in the event your pleas are insufficiently desperate, executioner.

Personally, if you charted fluctuations in my mental health then I suspect each dip would coincide with the encroachment of an assessment deadline. When I’m more than a week out from a deadline, it’s bliss. I still have all the time in the world to get things done. Then, I check my calendar, realise I need to finish researching, planning, and writing in a handful of days, and my bliss vanishes into thin air.

At the start of each semester, as my professors are walking us through their LMS modules, they’ll point to that little section at the bottom, titled ‘Student Support’ or ‘Wellbeing’. They’ll tell us that our welfare is a priority to them, and that we should never be afraid to ask for help. But here’s the thing: for me and many other students, the best way the uni could support us is to chill the fuck out with those late penalties. It's as if the uni is willing to do everything except what will actually help.

I don’t say this to downplay the importance of the uni’s existing resources either. Things like the Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) are incredibly valuable, and I know many students benefit from their support. However, unis attempt to have it both ways – while painting themselves as an institution that prioritises mental health, they rain hellfire upon your WAM if you submit an assessment two days past the due date.

How do late penalties even work?

The first thing to understand is that there is no centralised Uni policy for late penalties. The power to set late penalties is allocated to the Board of Examiners for each subject, and official policy states that the penalties must be “proportionate” based on factors like “the level of the subject” and “the nature of the task”. In my experience, this has translated into most subjects possessing a late penalty of 10% for all assignments.

10% is a hefty deduction, and it isn’t that high at other institutions; for example, the Australian National University College of Arts & Social Sciences stipulate 5%, as does the Arts Faculties at the University of Sydney and University of New South Wales. Undoubtedly, there has been a movement towards higher late penalties within contemporary tertiary education and the University of Melbourne, along with other Victorian universities like Monash and RMIT, have led the pack.

If you’re an Arts student like me, there’s a particular issue with having a late penalty this high. In Arts, the best mark most students can realistically expect is in the 80-90% range. And this isn’t your Year 9 science project where a late penalty means dropping from a 100 to a 90, still retaining an A+. For most students, the 10% penalty can mean dropping by two whole grades. Applying a penalty that is 10% of 100% to an assessment where most can only feasibly expect 90% at best is not fair math for the student. Sure, it’s only really a few percentage points of difference––but how many students are scraping by with low P’s who could be doomed to an F by the minutest decrease of mark?

Why do we have deadlines?

Let’s be fair and examine why the University has a late penalty in place. Firstly, deadlines ensure a level playing field for students competing against each other in standardised assessments. Secondly, there are multiple levels of bureaucracy that assessments must go through before grades can be released, so efficient delivery of results relies upon timely submission. Thirdly, there are situations in the “real world” where there are consequences for tardiness greater than a mark reduction; thus, it is the uni’s responsibility to cultivate respect for time management in preparation for said real-world consequences.

Many students likely appreciate the structure that deadlines can provide. Personally, without a deadline, it’s easy for me to fall into a pit of doing nothing. However, this doesn’t justify how they are used by the University to undermine students’ capacity to lead happy, fulfilling lives. 

In a chat I had with former Disabilities and Women’s Officer Srishti Chatterjee, I was given a simple answer: “the Uni does this to regulate fear.”

Srishti spoke to how Melbourne’s uniquely harsh late submission policies foster an environment of self-surveillance. The severity of the punishment, therefore, becomes the point, compelling students to monitor their lifestyle and habits to ensure conformity to what Melbourne University ordains. This mandated conformity is further troubled by the fact that it homogenises what is an incredibly diverse student population. Differences in schedule, capacity and ability are waved away—all must have their work in at the same time on the same day, or else cop the penalty.

As Srishti said: “for a university as diverse as us, anything that is homogenising shouldn’t exist.”

The ‘means testing’ of extensions

The obvious retort to this would be that Special Consideration and extension exist to adjust the playing field for students who are disadvantaged. Yet, this ignores that such concessions are usually gatekept via requiring medical documentation, which subjects students to a medical system that is not always fair, accessible or understanding.

Due to a schedule that was filled with uni work and events, for an extension I needed last semester, I had to take a telehealth call in a dingy CBD alleyway right before an important event to make sure I had the medical documentation in time. But at least I got that extension in the end, because not all students do, even if they really need them.

One anonymous student told me that they had suffered numerous late penalties over their years at uni because of an abusive home situation. They had no recourse for this, at one point receiving a 30% deduction because of work that was two days late.

Another student, Sam, told me how a similarly abusive situation left them homeless during a uni semester. As they were navigating homelessness, they also had to navigate the bureaucracy of the Special Consideration system—which certainly shouldn’t be the priority when experiencing homelessness. Last year, they were also denied Special Consideration because they applied too late after a due date as a consequence of exacerbated illness, forcing them to withdraw from their subjects.

“I don’t think the Uni gets the impact of sending extremely mentally and physically ill people a letter saying, ‘we’ve decided you’re not sick enough for the help,’” said Sam.

Srishti also relayed stories to me of times when they were unable to acquire medical documentation, often due to obstacles arising from being an international student. During the time of an intense family crisis, they had to provide private, emotional details of their life to a tutor to ‘prove’ that the extension was necessary.

What all these stories demonstrate is that because the Uni effectively ‘means tests’ extensions and Special Considerations, there are so many students that slip through the gaps. Too many students—and too often the ones the Uni should be striving to take care of the most.

The bigger picture

The Uni isn’t alone in its poor handling of student well-being. It’s a systemic issue within higher education, and a turn towards viewing students as self-reliant, need-to-be-successful individuals.

Sociologist Ulrich Beck refers to this conception as the “life of one’s own”, wherein individuals are driven to construct lifestyles that are independent, distinctive, and marketable. Completing uni assessments on time becomes a way to signal to employers that this person is reliable, organised, disciplined. Employable skills such as time management and self-reliance are prioritised in a hellish labour market at the expense of providing a fulfilling, healthy academic experience.

Another sociologist, Emile Durkheim, writes about this idea called “anomie”. It’s when there’s a discrepancy between what society posits as the good life and what is feasible for an individual to achieve within that society. It describes quite well what’s going on here: universities prescribe a certain lifestyle for students, one where they commit themselves to their studies at all costs. But it’s impossible for a vast swathe of the student population to do this because we all have lives outside of study that can sometimes make completing assessments on time unfeasible. That’s anomie—the uni is presenting a vision of their students that most of us just can’t match.

I can attest to experiencing this anomie in my own life. I am genuinely sickened by shame whenever I must request an extension from an assignment. My teachers are nice about it, but that doesn’t change the overwhelming guilt I feel when sending the email. That deadline sets an expectation, a benchmark for the serious, scholarly student to prove themselves against. When I don’t meet that expectation, I can’t shake the sense that I have somehow failed myself, my teachers, and the University of Melbourne.

Anomie has consequences. Durkheim first conceptualised it in a book called Suicide, which gives a general idea of what he thinks the consequences are. A 2021 systematic review conducted by psychological researcher Jace Pillay revealed that uni students were among the most vulnerable demographics for mental illness and suicidality. The stresses of student life were identified as a risk factor, in addition to low self-esteem and a lack of social support.

Australian higher education isn’t exempt from this. A National Tertiary Student Wellbeing Survey conducted in 2016 by Headspace and the National Union of Students found that one in three uni students had thoughts of self-harm and suicide, and that only 1.6% of students had reportedly never experienced mental health problems that affected their studies. That is what happens when students are pushed to their limit, compelled to aspire to goals most of us can’t reasonably meet and unable to access the support they need.

Where to from here?

So, late penalties are fucked, Melbourne Uni is fucked, and tertiary education overall is fucked. What do we do?

“Universities could look at students and feel a duty of care instead of just seeing them as cash cards, looking at degrees not as a competition but as an opportunity to give them an accessible, comfortable experience,” said Srishti.

Sam offered a similar sentiment: “I know very few students that couldn’t have benefitted from more lenience during their time at uni, and if the uni wants our money, surely they have a vested interest in keeping us at uni and most of all alive.”

That’s the key here: Melbourne University as it functions today has not constructed a system of student support that exhibits this vested interest in keeping students alive.

What ultimately needs to be done is that the actual sources of the stress need to be tackled. Tight, unforgiving deadlines cannot coexist with high levels of student well-being, and neither can the necessity for medical documentation. A higher education system aimed at squeezing students into the mould of employable graduates cannot coexist with high levels of student well-being.

There are small steps that the University of Melbourne can take. There could be a widespread push to reduce late penalties across all subjects and faculties so that 10% ceases to be the norm. The process for receiving extensions and Special Consideration could become far more inclusionary. It’s unfair to both staff and students that we are expected to throw ourselves desperately at the feet of our teachers’ inboxes, trauma dumping in the hopes of getting an extension. That’s why the entire process needs to be accessible and destigmatised, where there isn’t any shame in asking for an extension, only acceptance and understanding.

Yet, talking to Sam and Srishti, they both proposed something that goes even further: moving away from set deadlines and replacing them with more inclusive and equitable systems of assessment. Srishti told me about an Honours class of theirs where students get to choose the week where they present their assignment to the class, allowing everyone the opportunity to select deadlines that fit their schedule. In my creative writing classes, deadlines are usually at the end of the semester, meaning we can work on our creative pieces over the duration of the course and give them the time and effort they deserve.

Look, I don’t think deadlines are without their place in a university. Time management is a valuable skill, and it should be something that we are encouraged to cultivate as students. The problem arises when time management becomes the be-all and end-all of every assessment you receive. The implication of punitive deadlines is that other skills don’t matter—who cares if you wrote a well-researched, excellently argued, and articulated essay if you submitted it one or two days late?

To me, the solution is for universities to diversify their approach to assessments. Not every assignment needs a set deadline, and no assignment needs a tight deadline with a late penalty so harsh it can drop you by two grades. This lets students become familiar with a wider range of schedules and is more reflective of the “real world”, where deadlines are rarely fixed and other forms of deadlines and work types are often accessible. Srishti even confirmed to me that their professional deadlines have been more forgiving than their academic ones. Hell, I’m submitting this article ten days late (sorry, Nishtha lol) and Farrago still finds a way to cope—why can’t the Uni?

 
Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Five 2022

EDITION SIX 'RETROFUTURISM' AVAILABLE NOW!

Our last print edition of 2022 is here! This wild, visionary edition is filled with burning nostalgia, glittering hope, and tantalising visions of the future, past, and present.

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