Students in a jam: Who is on our side?

Student Marlene Kongsted ended up having to write an extended exam paper after a number of unfortunate mix-ups involving course registration and advance approval. An experience during which she felt alone and unable to get the advice she needed. She calls for a body that can speak up for the students in cases like hers.

[Translate to English:] Marlene Kongsted, kandidatstuderende medievidenskab på Aarhus Universitet. Foto: Privat

Marlene Kongsted is taking her Master’s degree in media studies, but would like to give her degree a more organisational dimension. She therefore utilises the opportunity of being a visiting student at other faculties by, for example, replacing a number of media studies courses at Arts with courses at BSS. That was also her plan this spring. But six months later she regrets it. Because it ended as a bureaucratic rollercoaster

that resulted in her having to take an extended exam.

"I'm left with the feeling that I haven’t learned as much as I had hoped. And neither will I in future dare to utilise the opportunities to direct my studies in a particular direction," says Marlene.

Confusion over names

We rewind to the end of 2015, where Marlene contacted studies administration at BSS to be enrolled on the 'Management, motivation and performance' course, for which she also had advance approval. But the course was not offered in the spring of 2016. However, another course was, this time with a confusingly similar title: 'Management, motivation and performance in the public sector'. Even though the titles of the two courses are very similar, they are actually two completely different courses.

Marlene was enrolled on the course. But what neither she nor the studies administration were aware of is that participation on the course required that the student had already taken two other specific courses. Which Marlene first realised at the first lecture when she felt herself to be completely left in the cold.

"I found it really difficult to understand the lecture. When I talked to my fellow students about it, I discovered that they were all from political science."

Waiting for an answer

Treated unfairly? How to proceed with a complaint

Your study portal contains information about how to make a complaint, who you should make it to, and also what you can make a complaint about.

Deadlines for complaints and appeals committees can also be found in decisions made by e.g. boards of studies. If you are in doubt, contact the studies administration office at your faculty.

Students are not expected to be familiar with the organisation of the university or division of responsibility between the various parties involved in dealing with complaints, such as e.g. boards of studies and department heads.

The studies administration has the task of ensuring that any complaint is dealt with by the appropriate body – also in cases where a complaint must be divided up and dealt with by several bodies such as the department head and board of studies.

Source: Kirsten Andersen, Educational Law, AU

The lecturer subsequently found out that Marlene did not meet the conditions for participation. That in turn meant that she would not be able to get the course approved in advance, so Marlene was therefore given the opportunity to choose a new course. She decided to follow the course in 'Organisation, culture and innovation' at the Danish School of Education at Arts and in February she sent an application to both the board of studies at the Danish School of Education and to her own board of studies at the School of Communication and Culture. The board of studies at the Danish School of Education quickly approved her application. Whereas the answer from her own board of studies dragged out. While waiting she decided to follow the course anyway.

"I didn’t really have a choice, as I wouldn’t be able to get the course I’d originally been enrolled on approved anyway. And as I had previously received advance approval for similar courses I really couldn't imagine this one not getting approval," she explains.

Approval rejected by the board of studies

But in March her application was rejected.

Head of department at Media Studies and member of the board of studies at the School of Communication and Culture, Associate Professor Jakob Isak Nielsen, explains that the application was rejected on the grounds that the intention with the course was for it to be part of an educational scientific context and that there were only a few dimensions of the course which were consistent with the educational objectives of the Master's degree programme in media studies.

"She had already covered the dimensions of the course which could be said to have relevance for media studies early in her degree programme, meaning that there was no sufficient basis for a credit transfer of the course as a core media studies course. And I cannot do anything about BSS making a mistake here," he says.

This is not an explanation that Marlene Kongsted buys.

"If you looking at some of the other courses 

I’ve had approved you could say exactly the same. Some of them are even further removed from media studies than this one," she says.

In a bit of a fix

Marlene Kongsted is now in a bit of a fix. If she does not get advance approval of the course, she cannot take the exam, and she will then end in a situation where she is ten ECTS credits in arrears for this semester. She has written back and forth with both the Student Counsellors' Office and the board of studies.

"The Student Counsellors’ Office helped me press for some progress in the actual case processing, but they were only able to help me in relation to media studies. I could really use someone who could guide me in relation to the general academic context and my rights as a student. I’m surprised that it’s legally possible to end up in this situation," says Marlene.

When it came to submitting a specific appeal, Marlene says that she received different advice.

"The Student Counsellors’ Office encouraged me to let things run their course, while the studies administration told me that there were no grounds for an appeal," she says.

Taking an extended examination

The solution that Jakob Isak Nielsen presented was not one she had seen coming.

"I had to write an extended exam paper (independent study, ed.) covering 20-25 pages within a 14-day period as the assignment had to compensate for a whole semester's instruction. This is on top of the exam worth 20 ECTS credits that I already faced. So it's pretty exhaustive. And I don’t think it’s reasonable, because I can't see what I could have done differently during all of this."

The best solution under the circumstances

Jakob Isak Nielsen understands that the decision may seem unreasonable, but believes that an extended exam paper as an independent study is the best solution under the circumstances.

"It's not because we’ve made a decision that she must be subjected to a particularly tough exam. It’s not an administrative reprimand. The type of exam is a consequence of writing an independent study paper, and it’s intended to ensure that the students receive academic substance corresponding to 271 hours of workload for every ten ECTS credits."

When asked how Marlene Kongsted could have acted differently, he replies:

"That’s hard to assess. She could have chosen the courses that we offer as part of the degree programme and to which we attach an academic value."

But the students have the opportunity to take courses on other degree programmes. Isn’t it fair enough that she makes use of the option?

"Yes, that is correct, so long as the course credits can be transferred. But this option is not a blank check. There needs to be an academic assessment of each individual case."

Students disadvantaged

Marlene Kongsted has just handed in her exam paper as an independent study assignment and can now only cross her fingers for a pass. But her experiences have led her to wonder who it is that actually stands in the student’s corner in such cases.

"My case is one thing. But I think you can find similar examples where the students get in a jam even though they haven’t done anything wrong. During the spring there was the case of an exam at BSS, where an employee had reused an exam paper. It was the students who suffered there, even though they didn’t do anything wrong.”

Marlene Kongsted thinks the students are placed in a bad position in relation to the university in such situations.

"The university has a monopoly over the rules. And we don’t have a union to help us in cases like this," she says.

Translated by Peter Lambourne