Blog: Extenuating circumstances - from problems to solutions in five days (sort of…)
By Dr Kelly Smith, Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship, Birmingham Business School
Like many University processes, “extenuating circumstances” (ECs), as it’s called, requires many staff from across the institution to play a part in making it work – each one a vital link in quite a long chain.
I happen to play several different roles: those of Senior Tutor for the Business School, a personal tutor in my own right, and a module leader. This has given me plenty of exposure to how the EC process works – and where issues lie – for staff and even more importantly for the students who rely on it.
I was only too happy to answer the call in February when StARS asked for participants in a “Rapid Improvement Event” (more of which later) to examine, challenge and redesign ECs.
First impressions – and an immediate crisis
I only joined UoB in January 2020, but I had been involved with ECs as a Programme Director in other universities and I had plenty to compare against. The first thing that struck me about the setup here was the complexity of all the different types of ECs and extensions that were available for a student to request.
It also quickly became apparent just how supportive UoB is of its students. But the complexity of how students are asked to apply, a lack of clarity over which types of support they are eligible for, and variations in how staff need to deal with applications adds in additional time and pressure on everyone involved.
The additional stresses put on students by Covid has meant that a process that was just working in “normal” times was quickly challenged with a sudden and prolonged increased in demand. All staff involved – wellbeing officers, personal tutors, programme administrators, Registry colleagues and more – have been acutely aware throughout of the delays and uncertainty that has meant for students, despite everyone’s best efforts.
But crises always present opportunities to reassess, and that is what I and many others agreed to partner with StARS to do.
The Rapid Improvement Event – intense for a reason!
The “Rapid Improvement Event” approach was new to me so I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was five days of seriously intense effort! It was exhausting, but felt very worthwhile.
At first, I didn’t know what to make of the various frameworks and methods that the facilitator told us we were going to use. But as it turned out, the approach ensured our discussions were focused and that everything that happened in the sessions had a clear purpose and outcome to keep us moving forward at pace.
The approach helped the group identify what was ‘non-negotiable’ from our current ways of working, what worked well and should be retained, and what – when we looked at it afresh – we didn’t need and could design out of the process. Most importantly, we had permission to be creative and look to see what we could include for the first time, rather than just adapt what we had.
It was a large group, most of whom I had never met before, and that proved to be one of the most important features of the whole exercise. I hope I can speak for everyone involved when I say that spending time hearing from those with a different stake in, and perspective on, the process helped us find the best way forward.
It also really helped that, for all our different areas of responsibility, it was very clear that we had the same priority: to make this form of support easier to understand and access for students.
Where we go from here – My Additional Considerations
Designing and developing the group’s recommendations into a first attempt at a working “product”, with the working title My Additional Considerations, is now with the StARS team and the University supplier.
It’s great to see how much the StARS team have been engaging with students and staff already to raise awareness and find out how to secure further input over the next few months.
I’m confident that what the University will get at the end of this is a clear, fair and trackable application process that can enable faster responses to students, with communication that helps them understand decisions.
Streamlining the administration around ECs and extensions will allow wellbeing officers and others to concentrate on understanding students’ problems and giving them the right advice and support at the right time. This is what they already do so well, and want to do even more of.
It has been so encouraging to collaborate with like-minded colleagues from across the University on something that will really help support our students and improve their experience of life at UoB. I’m looking forward to continuing to work with StARS as My Additional Considerations takes shape, and to seeing what else they have planned to improve the student and staff experience.
Visit the My Additional Considerations page for more information about the aims and anticipated benefits of the work to redesign the extenuating circumstances process.