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New academic withdrawal procedure raises concerns

Last issue, Tharunka reported changes to the procedures for late withdrawal from courses. The changes, due to come into effect in semester 2 2014 or semester 1 2015, will record withdrawals on transcripts, replacing the current procedure of erasing courses entirely. While much of the discourse has been about bringing UNSW’s withdrawal procedures on par with the other Group of Eight universities, Pro-Vice Chancellor Professor Chua says the new policy is a tool to help identify and assist students at risk.

“There is quite a lot of interest in the University for early intervention and trying to understand and manage students who may be having difficulties. We don’t have any data on withdrawals, and currently because none of comes through, it’s hard for us to actually flag a student until it’s way too late,” Professor Chua said.

Referring to the biannual ‘assessment review groups’ within each faculty which monitor student performance, Professor Chua said, “If we start to say ‘okay, why are there a couple of academic withdrawals?’ – because we will now be recording them – the faculty review committee will look at the students’ performances, and contact the student and see if they can assist them in any way.”

Enquiries by Tharunka reveal that under the old procedure, academic withdrawals are recorded by Student Central for accounting and administrative purposes, and that faculties are sent courtesy copies of the outcomes of withdrawal applications by Student and Academic Services. It is therefore unclear why this information is not currently being used for the purposes described, or why it is necessary to record withdrawals to achieve these aims.

For Professor Chua, the other motivations for the policy are providing flexibility for students who don’t meet the current guidelines for academic withdrawal, as well as creating a complete and accurate record of a student’s time at university.

“I’d like to put the power back into the hands of the students. This policy is a way of saying ‘you can manage your life and we will be there to assist’”. We are giving students the ability to withdraw right until the last day of the semester. I think this [new policy] assists folks who aren’t managing for all sorts of reasons and gives them discretion over their studies.”

“[The changes] will say to employers, ‘you started a course – which is a matter of fact – you had to withdraw, and that withdrawal was permitted. And that is an accurate record of what happened.”

UNSW’s student leaders have expressed concern that these changes will effectively ‘out’ students with disabilities to potential employers.

SRC Students with Disabilities Officer Alexandra Little said, “In practice, the new system will mean that potential employers will be able to identify a student with a disability or medical condition just by looking at their transcript. It is completely inappropriate for students to be disadvantaged because of circumstances entirely beyond their control.”

SRC Welfare Officer Brendan Byron had similar thoughts, saying “If you’re withdrawing without academic penalty, you should be able to withdraw without penalty. Having a mark on your transcript is a penalty.”

“It’s interesting to see who this is supposed to help. They aren’t helping disadvantaged students, who are trying to complete university degree in unstable circumstances.”

The Pro-Vice Chancellor confirmed that a review will be conducted twelve months from commencement of the new policy, and that feedback will be sought from student leaders and faculties.

“My sense of having a trial is to actually ascertain ‘is there an issue, and if so, how large the issue would be, and how may we begin to address it?’ That’s why I said to the Board, let’s see if the faculties feel this is a way for them to manage students at risk in a better way. That is a very important measure of success”.

While throughout Professor Chua’s dialogue with Tharunka, the changes were referred to as a “trial”, a representative from the Pro-Vice Chancellor’s office later said in a statement, “Professor Chua would like to point out that the Board has not described this as a trial. The procedure has been endorsed and it will be reviewed”.

Crystal Moran [twitname]manlycarrots[/twitname]