Off-script email leads to suit centred on bad handwriting

Student claims lack of promised dyslexia support cost him a first-class degree. Jack Grove writes

February 23, 2012

Many academics will have cursed a student's bad handwriting as they puzzle over an illegible exam script - but does it ever make a difference when deciding a student's grade?

Mitch Vidler, a former Lancaster University student, believes that his hard-to-read scripts cost him a first-class degree in management and enterprise.

Mr Vidler, who has dyslexia, had been assured that his exam papers would be transcribed into text because of concerns over his wayward handwriting. But it was not until his third year that he discovered that this message from the university's disabilities office had not been made clear to academic staff.

The university admitted its mistake, but it argued that the lack of transcription had made no difference to Mr Vidler's final marks because examiners were actually able to read his scripts.

Unhappy with this response, Mr Vidler paid to see his second-year exam papers.

Written on the cover of three of the scripts were comments such as "I cannot read this" or "cannot read", and the papers were littered with question marks and crosses next to near-illegible sections.

One marker even commented: "Can you do anything about your handwriting?"

Nevertheless, the marks were generally high, ranging from 67 to 70.

Mr Vidler's concerns grew when he obtained an email written by an officer from Lancaster's department of organisation, work and technology. The email, which had been circulated among staff, disputes his need for transcription: "His handwriting is not particularly good, but it is no worse than some others who do not suffer from a disability."

Worried that Mr Vidler might "embellish" his answers in post-exam transcriptions, the officer adds: "If he is allowed to do this, then surely any candidate with bad handwriting, regardless of disability, could argue the same."

The officer concludes: "This seems to be a case of Mitchel's anxiety about his exam performance, outweighing good common sense."

Remarking on those comments, Mr Vidler said: "This email displays a true lack of understanding of the needs of disabled students, as well as the process of assessment and a university's obligations to its paying customers."

He is now seeking a refund on the cost of his studies - about £15,000 in total - claiming that Lancaster failed to give him the support it promised at the start of his course. He will donate any compensation to the National Dyslexia Association.

The university has since apologised for the administrator's "unacceptable" email and for other failings, but it argues that Mr Vidler was not disadvantaged by the lack of transcriptions. Lancaster has offered him £150 "to recognise the stress and anxiety this situation has caused you", but it has refused to upgrade his 2:1 degree classification.

The exam papers containing concerns over handwriting were all re-marked, the university noted, with no change to the final marks.

Mr Vidler has now lodged a complaint with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

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