In memory of my late mum: my late essay

June 4, 2004

Students offer many explanations for tardiness. Mike North asks how lecturers can tell which excuses are fictional and deal with the offenders.

If there's one thing students excel at, it is creative excuses for failing exams or not giving their work in on time. University lecturer sare a mine of anecdotes on the subject. Triana Toribio, a Spanish lecturer at Manchester University, says a friend told her about one student who had been unable to hand in his final-year extended essay in time because his mother died. "You can imagine her shock when, during the graduation party, that same student introduced her to his mother."

The desperate lengths to which students will go is illustrated in a story told by Alan Clements, professor of computer science at Teesside University: "One student claimed mitigating circumstances for his exams because he had been prosecuted for taking a car without having a licence or insurance - he claimed the trauma may have affected his exam performance."

Sally Brown, a director of the Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, divides excuses into two categories: Tex - technical extenuating circumstances such as the failure of a laptop; and Pex - personal extenuating circumstances.

It is the Pex variety of excuse that really tests a tutor's ability to discern the genuine reason from the outrageous porker, and their judgement in meting out the appropriate penalty.

Gavin O'Toole, a lecturer in Latin American politics at Queen Mary College, London, says: "The student's best strategic advantage is afforded by a congenital or recurrent condition, one a student can always whip out of a hat whenever the going gets tough. Depression is a bit of a godsend in this case because you can always argue that when you are under pressure (that is, when you have several essays to write) you are far more likely to have an 'episode'."

O'Toole says his students often try the old "ailing relative ploy", "a hard one to deal with, especially among the Muslim students whose grandparents often live with them. My response is always to interrogate them further - there is no doubt that this one is a smokescreen."

But the personal nature of Pex excuses and the embarrassing position they place tutors in has led many universities to introduce "condonement policies" that take decisions out of academics' hands. "Some tutors are more tenderhearted, some students are more inventive than others, so a policy has to be applied across the board," Brown says.

Patience Schell, a lecturer in Latin American cultural studies at Manchester, says there is a school-wide policy "that removes the authority regarding extensions from our hands, except for first years". One day late is five points deducted, and an additional point is taken off for each day after that. There is a special circumstances committee to deal with the tardy second and final-year undergraduates. "If their excuse is accepted in the committee, then their penalty is waived. If not, the penalty holds."

Keele University has a similar third-party system. Peter Chevins, director of undergraduate studies at the School of Life Sciences, says consistency is provided by forwarding all excuses to the course director, who is the only person able to give extensions on work. "These are provisional and have to be ratified eventually by the exam board. The university rule is that we accept late work (with no permission) up to seven days, with the mark reduced to a bare pass, but after that it is not accepted."

But Chevins adds that there is still an element of tutor discretion: "In practice, the best policy is to talk very tough about it but be reasonable if someone is a few minutes late."

Brown says the issue of how to deal with late work takes on a different complexion when so many students are working to pay their way or, in the case of mature students, having to support a family.

She says: "It's very difficult to differentiate excuses from reasons. How can a student get work in on time if they are working and have a caring responsibility at home, or if an employer changes their shift pattern? I come out on the student's side."

But according to Brown, students with the hardest lives outside class are often the most stoic and diligent, leaving the excuse-making to the "wasters" with a conveniently sick granny.

It is a sentiment echoed by O'Toole: "We have at least one seriously disabled student who is overcoming all the hurdles to her studies with admirable determination and never, ever submits late or even seeks special treatment. Needless to say, she is not British."

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