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Absence, Illness or Other Adverse Circumstances

During your programme, you will need to attend taught sessions, study in your own time, and complete assignments. You may also need to attend placements and similar learning activities. You should aim to meet all your academic commitments. If you are struggling to do so, you should contact a member of staff in your institution as soon as possible to discuss what help and support your institution can offer you. 

You may experience serious adverse circumstances arising from medical conditions, personal difficulties, bereavement or other significant causes. These serious circumstances can have an impact on your studies. 

What should I do if my academic study is disrupted by serious adverse circumstances? 

  1. If your health or personal circumstances are affecting your ability to study, contact your institution. The best approach, wherever possible, is to take steps early, in advance of significant impact on your academic work. It is your responsibility to let your institution know if you are not going to be able to meet your academic commitments. 
  2. Keep a record of what is happening and how it is affecting your studies. Keeping a note of key dates of a period of illness or disruption, for example, will help you when requesting support from your institution. You may be asked to provide some medical evidence if a health issue is having a significant effect on your studiesYou will only be asked for this evidence if it is necessary for your institution to be able to put in place the right mitigations or adjustments for you. 

How can my institution help? 

You should have access to pastoral support and study skills support. In addition, your institution may be able to agree on one or more of the following steps with you:  

  • An extension to one or more assessment deadline(s) 
    • Your institution will have a policy on extensions. Decisions about whether to grant an extension and for how long are made by teaching staff in your institution. 
    • Durham University only gets involved where an extension would mean your deadline is extended beyond the end of the current academic year, into the next academic year. Such extensions are possible but the University needs to look at this, in conversation with your institution, to assess the impact on the rest of your programme. 
  • Opportunities to catch up on missed commitments 
    • For example, if you are unable to attend a taught session due to serious adverse circumstances, you may be offered: a one-to-one meeting with a tutor about what was covered; the chance to join another session covering the same material at a later date; or access to materials from the session (texts, slides, etc.) and the chance to follow up with staff if you have any questions. 
    • Your institution should take reasonable steps to support you in catching up on missed activities but there may be good reasons why this is not feasible in every case. 
    • It is your responsibility to discuss and agree with your institution on how you can catch up with any learning activities you have missed. 
  • Temporary reasonable adjustments to learning and assessment 
    • If you have a serious acute issue that prevents you from participating in a learning activity or assessment, your institution may be able to make a temporary adjustment so that you are able to participate fully. This could include changing the form of one or more assessments on an individual basis, provided the new form of assessment gives you an equivalent opportunity to demonstrate what you have learnt. Other kinds of adjustments may also be possible. 
    • Your institution makes the decision about what adjustments are reasonable and appropriate. They can ask the University for advice about this. 
  • Longer-term reasonable adjustments to learning and assessment 
    • If you have a recurring or longer-term health problem, disability, or if there are any other circumstances that affect your participation in learning and assessment over a lengthy period, your institution should offer you longer-term reasonable adjustments. These could include providing teaching materials in a particular format, giving you extra time to complete any time-limited assessments, and offering an alternative, equivalent forms of assessment that are accessible for you. Other kinds of adjustments may also be possible. 
    • Your institution makes the decision about what adjustments are reasonable and appropriate. They can ask the University for advice about this. The University does not provide disability support direct to students but it does advise your institution on the principles they should follow. 
  • Suspension of studies 
    • If you need to take some time away from your studies, you can request a suspension. Your institution will be able to help you decide how long you need to suspend your studies for.
    • Suspensions of studies are for a maximum of one academic year, in the first instance. If a suspension longer than one academic year is needed, or if you are unable to return as planned at the end of a period of suspension and need more time, your institution will discuss your circumstances with the University. Your institution and the University will talk about how best to support you back into study and whether further suspensions are needed. 
  • Withdrawal 
    • Rarely, a student needs to withdraw from their studies for personal reasons, including for reasons of ill-health. This normally happens with your agreement, after other routes to support you in continuing your studies have been tried. 
    • Your institution will not withdraw you without your agreement, unless: 
      • You stop engaging in teaching and learning for a substantial period without communicating with your institution about your circumstances and the reasons for your absence (see the Academic Progress Notice procedure). 
      • You cannot progress in your programme due to failing too many assessments, once all resit opportunities have been exhausted. Normally other mitigations will be explored with you before you reach this point. 
      • You are required to withdraw as the result of a disciplinary process, following academic or non-academic misconduct. 
      • You are training for a role in ministry and the organisation supporting your training judges that you do not meet the necessary criteria to practice in that role. Your church or supporting organisation will have their own process they will follow in such cases. Depending on the circumstances, you may still be able to continue with your academic programme even if you are no longer training for a particular role. 
    • If you do withdraw from your programme of study, all the credits you have gained for the modules you have completed will be recorded on your academic transcript. 
    • Depending on how many credits you have successfully completed, you may be eligible for an ‘exit award’. This is an award of a qualification at a lower level than the qualification you were originally aiming for. Your institution can recommend that you receive an exit award. The final decision about whether to grant an award is made by the Durham University Overarching Common Awards Board of Examiners. 
    • Unless you have withdrawn due to academic failure, or as a result of a disciplinary process, you may be able to return to study on a Common Awards programme again at a later date. If you return within five years of your withdrawal, it may be possible to use some or all of the credits you gained in your previous programme of study towards your new programme of study. This will depend on your individual circumstances and you should discuss this with your institution when you apply for admission. 
    • If you return to study on a Common Awards programme more than five years later, or if you apply for admission to a programme run by a different university, you may be able to count some or all of the credits you gained in your previous programme as ‘accredited prior learning’. This will depend on your individual circumstances and you should discuss this with your institution when you apply for admission. 

The Serious Adverse Circumstances Procedure 

Sometimes circumstances may arise that cannot be dealt with in advance of any significant impact on your academic work. The Serious Adverse Circumstances (SAC) procedure exists to address these situations. 

There are three scenarios in which the SAC procedure can be used: 

Scenario 1: Adverse circumstances that occur during or immediately before an assessment 

In this scenario, there is no time for you or your institution to take action in advance to mitigate the effects of your adverse circumstances on your academic study. Here are some examples: 

  • you become unwell during or immediately before an examination but nonetheless complete the test 
  • you receive news of a bereavement immediately before a presentation and go ahead with the assessment 
  • you have an accident immediately before an examination and are unable to attend but you do not have an opportunity to let your institution know. You are initially given a fail mark for not completing the examination. 

In the first two situations, you may be concerned that the adverse circumstances have affected your ability to demonstrate your learning during the assessment. In the third situation, you can use the SAC procedure to show why you were not able to attend. 

Scenario 2: You have received support but the effect of your adverse circumstances goes beyond the mitigations put in place 

In this scenario, you were able to contact your institution and work with them to agree on some mitigations to address your circumstances (e.g. extensions, opportunities to catch up, etc.). 

However, sometimes it is difficult to fully and accurately assess in advance the impact a set of circumstances will have on your ability to study. Here is an example: 

  • you have a recurring health condition and your institution agrees with you some extensions and reasonable adjustments to help you continue with your studies. Towards the end of the academic year, it becomes clear to you that your health condition has recurred more frequently and severely than you anticipated when you requested the extensions and adjustments. Your health has had a more serious impact on your academic work than the impact accounted for by the mitigations you already have in place. 

Scenario 3: You did not request support in advance to help mitigate the effect of adverse circumstances 

In this scenario, you have experienced adverse circumstances and you did not contact your institution at the time and ask for support. Whilst it is your responsibility to inform your institution as early as possible of any issues that may have an impact on your academic study, there are occasions when we recognise that there are barriers to doing so, or where students find it difficult to disclose problems. Here are some examples: 

  • You are a victim of a crime and find this difficult to talk about. It takes time for you to be ready to disclose this to your institution and by the time you are ready to notify someone there has already been an impact on your academic study. 
  • You are diagnosed with a health condition that you did not know you had. In retrospect, you identify that this condition had an impact on your ability to study. 

In any of these scenarios, you can make an application through the Serious Adverse Circumstances procedure for staff to look at your situation. Your institution will be able to guide you through this process. 

How does the SAC procedure work? 

You will be asked to briefly explain in writing the serious adverse circumstances that have occurred and how these have affected your academic work. We recognise it can be distressing to set out your circumstances in writing. You do not need to describe your situation in detail – a concise summary is sufficient. The most important information you need to provide is not details of the adverse circumstances themselves but information about how these circumstances affected your academic study. You will be asked to specify which modules/assessments have been affected. 

You may be asked to provide some supporting evidence alongside your explanation, for example, a medical letter. 

Support should be available from your institution when you make a request for SACs to be considered. Your institution will handle the information you give sensitively and it will be kept confidential to a small group of specially designated staff. If you are finding it difficult to provide an account of your circumstances, particularly if you have experienced a traumatic incident, there are ways that your institution can move ahead with the process without asking you to provide a written account of what has happened. 

A small group of staff will look at your explanation and any supporting evidence. They are not asked to assess the seriousness of your circumstances but the level of impact your circumstances may have had on your academic work. 

This group will record an impact ‘grade’ from 0 to 3. 

Your request to have your circumstances taken into account may be graded 0 if: 

  • There is no evidence that your circumstances had an adverse effect on your academic work. This can happen if a student has misunderstood what the SAC procedure is for. 
  • Other mitigations (e.g. extensions) have already been put in place which are sufficient to account for the adverse effect on your academic work. 
  • You did not notify your institution of the adverse circumstances at the time they occurred when it is reasonable to expect that you could have done so. For example, if you were ill several weeks before an assessment was due and your circumstances indicate you could reasonably have been expected to apply for an extension or other support at the time. 

The other impact grades are: 


The evidence submitted indicates that the serious adverse circumstances are likely to have had a small adverse effect on the performance of the student in their assessment(s) 


The evidence submitted indicates that the serious adverse circumstances are likely to have had a significant adverse effect on the performance of the student in their assessment(s) 


The evidence submitted indicates that the serious adverse circumstances are likely to have had a very significant adverse effect on the performance of the student in their assessment(s) 

What happens next? 

The impact grade given is recorded alongside your mark for any affected assessments. At your institution’s Board of Examiners, members of the Board can see your mark and the impact grade. They do not see the written account of your circumstances or any supporting evidence. The exact details of your circumstances are thus kept confidential. 

An SAC impact grade can allow your institution’s Board of Examiners and the Durham University Overarching Common Awards Board of Examiners to make decisions that can affect your progress in your qualification and your final results. 

Note: an SAC impact grade will never result in a mark being changed. 

Decisions made by your institution’s Board of Examiners in light of an SAC impact grade can include: 

  • You may be allowed to progress to the next level of study despite having more fail marks than would usually be allowed for students wishing to progress. 
  • You may be allowed to progress to a higher level qualification despite low marks or fail marks in your current qualification. 
  • You may be allowed to resit an assessment for an uncapped mark. Resits are normally capped at a pass mark. 

Decisions made by Durham University’s Overarching Common Awards Board of Examiners in light of an SAC impact grade can include: 

  • In the case of classified awards (i.e. awards given with ‘first class’, ‘second class’ honours, or with ‘distinction’, ‘merit’, etc.) the Board will consider your case and see whether there are grounds to exercise discretion when it comes to classification. Your classification will never be lowered but you may end up with a higher classification. 
  • In the case of all awards, the Board can decide on the basis of SAC impact grade(s) to award a qualification or an exit award where more credits have been failed than would normally be permitted. 

Both in your institution and at the University, decisions are made on a case-by-case basis with the Board looking at the full picture of what learning outcomes you have achieved, your marks, and any SAC impact grades. 

SAC impact grades are also an important acknowledgement in your student record of the fact that you have completed assessments in a situation where your circumstances were affecting your ability to demonstrate your learning. Durham University can pass this information onto other institutions at your request if you go on to study for another qualification in future. 

What about the effects of Covid-19 on my academic work? 

In the academic year 2019-20, Durham University implemented a ‘no detriment’ policy to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 for all students. The University asked your institution to identify which of your modules or module assessment components (if there is more than one assessment for a module) had been affected by the disruption resulting from the pandemic. 

We use this information to calculate two average marks from your completed modules: one including the Covid-affected modules or module components, and one excluding these modules or components. In calculating the final mark for your qualification, the university will use whichever of these two averages is higher. This means that if your marks were lower because of the effects of Covid on particular modules or assessments, then these results will not bring down your overall mark. 

Information about which modules or module components were affected by Covid-19 will stay on your record until you complete your programme and you are awarded your qualification. For some students, this means that the effects of Covid on particular modules or components will be taken into account several years from now when they reach the end of their programmes. 

From the academic year 2020-21, the no detriment policy no longer applies because we have asked your institution to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 in other ways. Approaches vary across institutions but steps may include adjusting teaching patterns, changing assessment types and deadlines and increasing or adjusting student support. 

If you are seriously affected by Covid-19 on an individual level – for example, if you or a family member become severely unwell – you should also ask for individual support and adjustments and, where necessary, use the SAC procedure.