"Appalling" exam conditions are "part of the risk" faced by the 4,500 Open University students who sit their exams overseas or in non-standard exam centres each year, the OU has admitted.
Mature student Penelope Pugh was horrified with the conditions when she sat an end of year exam at the OU's examination centre in Buenos Aires - the British Council's office. She complained that she had been put in a busy and noisy open plan office, she had been engaged in discussions about her conditions instead of concentrating on the exam and she had been moved in the middle of the test. To make matters worse, an alternative centre had, unknown to Ms Pugh, been available - a private room in a British Embassy official residence.
With her work hindered by serious dyslexia and other disabilities, she had previously sat exams in special conditions, and her fears that the conditions in Buenos Aires had badly affected her performance seemed justified. Her exam mark - 46 per cent - contrasted sharply with her near-universal first-class gradings for her assessed coursework.
Her OU tutor, Joan Christodoulou, wrote to the exam board to have her mark raised. She told The THES that Ms Pugh had "worked so hard to overcome her dyslexia, spending many hours to produce excellent assignments". But the OU's exam board, initially after failing to contact Buenos Aires for an account of what happened, did not think the extenuating circumstances warranted an upgrade, which would have required a leap in marks of at least 15 per cent, the OU said. A request for a viva was also rejected.
After almost a year of complaints, at the end of last year the OU's London regional director, Judith Fage, tried to draw a line under the affair.
"Let me address the circumstances of your exam. Clearly they were appalling and no one would wish to take an exam in such an environment. This is not in any doubt."
But to some extent, said Ms Fage, Ms Pugh only had herself to blame: "You made the choice to study and take the exam abroadI and must have been aware that it would be impossible to guarantee the same environment as we could provide (in London). There are hundreds of overseas exam locations and we cannot visit them ourselves to inspect or monitor them. In your case you were very unlucky and the arrangements have of course been reviewed - but that is part of the risk of taking the exam overseas."
The alternative exam location in the private home, the OU said, was not appropriate for reasons of "security".
Ms Pugh insists that she had been reassured that an overseas exam would not adversely affect her, as the OU is used to flexibile provisions.
The OU's spokesman this week said that about 2,000 students take exams outside the UK each year and another 2,500 sit exams in special locations in the UK.
"We are obliged to be flexible and enable students to sit exams outside our normal centres," he said, "but we simply cannot guarantee the conditions. We'll do what we can to provide the right conditions, but there is no guarantee. There is no argument that Penelope's conditions were not good. But a team of people bent over backwards to do what they could for her. We looked closely at her circumstances but we could not justify the upgrade she wanted on academic grounds."
There was another concession, however, as Ms Fage explained: "In the light of what has happened I also think it reasonable to refund the £122 you paid for taking the overseas exam, in acknowledgement of the dreadful service you received."
Ms Pugh - who was recently used in an OU publicity broadcast to illustrate the university's flexible approach to disabled students - has now given up her studies.