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Student ambassador: Too much red tape for disabled students

Student life — One third of all enquiries to the University of Copenhagen's student ambassador come from students with disabilities.

Students with disabilities are more likely to run into problems with internal processes at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH).

This is according to an overview, prepared for the University Post, of enquiries directed to student ambassador Bo Gad Køhlert in 2020.

»In general, the way cases are handled, and the processing and communication in students’ cases could be greatly improved,« says Bo Gad Køhlert.

Disabled students tend to approach him for two main reasons: to ask how best to apply for a dispensation for help, or to file a complaint because their application has been rejected.

One third of all enquiries

The role of the student ambassador is to provide students with the help they need – and to give them equal opportunities at the university.

Bo Gad Køhlert received a total of 667 inquiries from students at UCPH in 2020. Of these, 223 were from students with disabilities.

This means that 33 per cent of all enquiries to the student ambassador were from disabled students, making them the largest group of students to contact him [quarterly report in Danish]  in 2020.

To put this into perspective, the 667 enquiries he received in 2020 represents just under two percent of UCPH’s 37,500 students. The number of enquiries to the student ambassador has remained stable in recent years.

A long, exhausting struggle

The regulations on disabled students state that appropriate accommodations must be made to compensate for a student’s disability. Usually, the study boards at the individual study programmes grant dispensations for this.

SEE ALSO: New guidelines to accommodate students with disabilities [in Danish]

For example, students with disabilities can apply for special teaching or exam conditions to compensate for their disability.

Statistics

In the statistics for 2020, most of the enquiries directed at the student ambassador were about dispensations. 107 of these enquiries came from students with disabilities.

Dispensation enquiries are when students with (and without) disabilities ask the student ambassador to help them apply for special assistive devices or adaptations to teaching conditions or exams because of so-called unusual circumstances.

In the student ambassador’s statistics, there were also a relatively large number of enquiries regarding legal complaints.

According to Bo Gad Køhlert, 57 legal complaints were made by students with disabilities in 2020.

In addition to this, the student ambassador was contacted at total of 59 times by disabled students about admission, SU, harassment, disenrollment, thesis postponement, complaints about exams, sick leave and other matters in which their disability had an impact on the situation.

A total of 223 students with disabilities contacted the student ambassador in 2020.

If a study board rejects a student’s application, the student can appeal the decision. But it can take many months for a case to be re-evaluated. And it can be a gruelling process for the student, because the rules are so complicated.

An example of a rule that can be difficult to figure out is a physical aid such as a so-called IT rucksack. Students usually have to apply for this via the state-funded SPS programme at their university, but in some special cases, students have to apply for funding outside of the university.

Students often need dispensation for exams

In 2018, Bo Gad Køhlert told University Post that it is important for students with disabilities to familiarise themselves with the Danish Discrimination Act, (which states that UCPH is obliged to take appropriate measures to ensure that people with disabilities can gain access to employment and education) in order to get the help they are entitled to and need, when applying to their study board.

According to Bo Gad Køhlert, students with disabilities often require dispensations from exam regulations in order to take their exams on an equal footing with other students.

»Dispensation cases are most often about exam situations. For example, students may apply for an extended exam deadline or for extra preparation time. Some may need to take exams in special rooms so that they do not get disturbed by noise,« says Bo Gad Køhlert.

Entitled to a detailed explanation

Bo Gad Køhlert says a study board’s decision is always based on an assessment of the individual situation, and if a student’s application is rejected, there is an administrative framework for how study boards must convey this assessment to the applicant.

»The more incomplete the response from the study board is, the greater the basis for appealing the decision by submitting a legal complaint, based on administrative law principles,« says Bo Gad Køhlert. This can be done in several ways:

»A student may claim not to have received a sufficiently detailed reason for the decision; that the case has not been sufficiently illuminated or, in the very worst cases, that the study board has simply not referred to the legal paragraphs that it has to use when making a decision,« says Bo Gad Køhlert.

Many of the students who contact Bo Gad Køhlert are unsure what their study board has paid particular attention to when rejecting their application.

»Unfortunately, I often receive these kinds of enquiries. Of course, I only see a small part of everything that goes on at UCPH. But it is a trend,« says Bo Gad Køhlert.

More rigorous case handling, please

To avoid such cases, the student ambassador suggests a more rigorous case handling process.

»Many of the study boards, dispensation committees and case handlers could put more effort into examining each student’s situation. They should have a thorough understanding of the legal principles and provide detailed explanations for rejections  –  based on judicial practice. That would give the students less cause to complain,« says Bo Gad Køhlert.

RULES and framework

The National Board of Appeal is responsible for the framework that determines when the Danish Discrimination Act applies to people with disabilities. The legislation itself can be found at Retsinformation.dk. [in Danish]

If a student is only applying for financial aid, the application should not be sent to the study board.

Furthermore, the Danish Discrimination Act has nothing to do with the Danish student grant, SU, for which completely different rules apply.

Although study boards are generally responsible for granting dispensations to students, the situation is complicated by the fact that some study boards have delegated their decision-making power regarding administrative matters to administrative staff, who then process cases on behalf of the board, says Bo Gad Køhlert.

This may happen if a student misses an application deadline or in other practical matters that do not require a subject-specific assessment on an individual basis. In such cases, a subcommittee under the study board can make the decision or it can also be handled as a purely administrative decision.

Must understand the academic context

However, Bo Gad Køhlert is in favour of study boards deciding whether a dispensation should be granted.

»It would concern me if people who do not have insight into the specifics of a subject area were to make decisions based on academic assessments,« says Bo Gad Køhlert.

He emphasises that the University Act states that study boards must decide on dispensation applications, and that the University of Copenhagen must comply with the law.

»It also makes more sense that those who understand the academic aspects of the study programmes also make decisions about dispensations. Students with disability must be treated equally and must not be compensated in a way that gives them an advantage other students,« says Bo Gad Køhlert.

 

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