Annex A: Major adjustments to examinations and assessment


1. Equality legislation1 requires that all universities must not discriminate against disabled students. Discrimination includes treating a disabled student less favourably and failing to make ‘reasonable adjustments’. As a consequence, the University needs to have procedures for approving ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure that disabled students (or prospective students) are not placed at a ‘substantial disadvantage’ in comparison with their non-disabled peers. This obligation covers many aspects of higher education but this annex deals only with significant adjustments to course and assessment requirements which require approval on behalf of Education Committee, and the normal procedures to be followed in considering applications for such adjustments.  

2. Other reasonable adjustments involve alternative arrangements for examinations which are approved by the Proctors (or by the Examinations and Assessments team under delegated authority from the Proctors), such as use of a computer or extra time for written examinations, and these are dealt with in sections 8.3, 8.4 and 8.5 above of this Policy and Guidance. Institutions are not required to make adjustments which would compromise the academic ‘competence standards’ of the courses in question (see Annex B: Competence standards for more information on competence standards). It should be noted that all universities are subject to the public sector equality duty2, the effect of which is to require universities to promote and embed disability equality proactively across institutional policies, procedures and practice3.


1  The Equality Act 2010 replaced the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA, 1995, amended 2001, 2005). In amending the DDA, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA, 2001) introduced the concept of ‘reasonable adjustments’ to the provision of higher education. The 2005 revision to the DDA placed a ‘positive statutory duty’ on public bodies (including the University) to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity between disabled and other persons and to avoid disability-related discrimination (among other obligations). All these provisions have been incorporated into the Equality Act, together with a new, broader public sector equality duty.

2  The public sector equality duty requires public bodies to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity, eliminate unlawful discrimination and foster good relations between people with a ‘protected characteristic’ and those without. ‘Protected characteristics’ are defined as age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity.

3  The EHRC has published guidance for providers of post-compulsory education which is available to download from

Some key definitions

3.    A disability is defined as a condition which has a long-term (has lasted for 12 months or is likely to do so), substantial (not minor or trivial) and adverse impact on an individual’s capacity to undertake normal day-to-day activities. Disability covers a wide variety of conditions, encompassing long-term illness (often from the point of diagnosis) as well as physical or psychological problems, e.g.

•    Vision or hearing impairments;

•    Physical impairments such as paraplegia, cerebral palsy, repetitive strain injury (RSI) and arthritis;

•    Mental health difficulties such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders;

•    Specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder. These conditions do not need to be shown to have a substantial adverse effect on ‘normal day-to-day activities’ as it is accepted that they will in all cases significantly affect students in higher education;

•    Long-term health conditions such as HIV, diabetes, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease/Crohn’s disease, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME, multiple sclerosis and cancer. A person with such a condition continues to be regarded as disabled despite fluctuations in the severity of their condition or, in the case of cancer, after recovery.

Case law has indicated that undertaking examinations is considered to be a day-to-day – rather than specialised – activity4.

4.    Reasonable adjustments are central to the concept of disability equality. Where a disabled student suffers – or would suffer – a substantial disadvantage, the University is under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to overcome that disadvantage. The intention is that the adjustments should ‘level the playing field’ for the disabled student. It is important that adjustments meet the needs of the individual disabled student rather than providing a generic response to a class or type of disability. Once implemented, adjustments do not provide automatic precedents for other students, but may be taken into account when considering what would be appropriate in a different case. The duty is anticipatory which means that the University should not wait until it is asked to consider what adjustments might be made, but should be ready – where feasible – with solutions to overcome disadvantages. The failure to make reasonable adjustments cannot be legally justified and if an adjustment is deemed to be reasonable then it must be made.

5.    Competence standards. There is no obligation to make adjustments to competence standards. Competence standards can be defined as the ‘academic, medical or other standard[s] applied for the purpose of determining whether or not a person has a particular level of competence or ability5’  in their course or as ‘a particular level of competence or ability that a student must demonstrate to be accepted on to, progress within and successfully complete a course or programme of study’6 . A competence standard must not itself be unlawfully discriminatory7 , therefore it must not be applied only to a disabled student and must be:

i.  Genuinely relevant to the course;

ii.  Applied equally to all students, whether with or without a disability; and

iii.  A proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

6.    The proportionate means component requires that:

i.    There is a pressing need that supports the standard’s purpose;

ii.    The application of the standard will achieve that aim; and

iii.    There is no other way of achieving the aim that is less detrimental to disabled people.

Further information on competence standards is provided in Annex B: Competence standards.


4  Paterson v The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis (2007) UKEAT 0635/06.

5  Equality Act 2010, Schedule 13, 4(3). Guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission for providers of post-compulsory education is available at

6  Guidance from the Equality Challenge Unit on the interaction between competence standards and reasonable adjustments is available at

7  Unlawful discrimination includes direct discrimination, which is never justifiable, and indirect discrimination or discrimination arising from a disability which cannot be justified in accordance with the numbered requirements set out in paragraph 5.

Current procedures for evaluating the needs of disabled students

7.    In most cases, candidates with significant long-term health conditions should be evaluated under the provisions relating to disability. The Disability Advisory Service will provide recommendations for support arrangements and adjustments to study conditions. Medical professionals or other specialists may also be asked to provide specific guidance. Advice on reasonable adjustments to assessment should be sought from the Disability Advisory Service8 – and if necessary from the Proctors – well in advance of the examination. It should be noted that candidates with eligible long-term health conditions continue to be regarded as disabled even when they have been deemed well enough to resume study or assessment. Furthermore the duty to make reasonable adjustments continues to apply.

8.    There is a wide range of adjustments that may be made to provide disabled students with an opportunity to meet the competence standards required on their course. Most commonly these involve alternative arrangements for examinations which are approved by the Proctors/the Examinations and Assessment team, on which further information can be found in sections 8.3, 8.4 and 8.5. These may involve adjustments to the conditions under which timed examinations are taken, including the provision of extra time and/or rest breaks; taking examinations in college or in a separate room; the use of word processing and other assistive technology; ergonomic furniture; and permission to take food, drink or medication into the examination room. Additionally, disabled students undertaking practicals or clinical assessments can be provided with an adapted laboratory environment, permitted the use of assistive technology, or allowed extra time to complete non-time critical elements of the task9.

9.    When a candidate’s disability-related needs cannot be met by such adjustments, it is necessary to consider more significant adjustments that may require dispensation from the regulations, and which require Education Committee approval. An example of an adjustment which would require Education Committee approval would be a course supervisory body devising an alternative assessment format which would test the same competence standards as the original assessment, e.g. a take-home paper. Further examples are provided in paragraph 17 below. The procedure for applying for such adjustments follows.



9  The latest edition of the General Medical Council’s guidance to medical schools ‘Gateways to the Professions. Advising medical schools: encouraging disabled students’ (GMC, 2010) contains a comprehensive Appendix with numerous examples of the reasonable adjustments made for medical students in UK medical schools. (

Applications to Education Committee for significant adjustments to course or assessment requirements

10.  Reasonable adjustments which require significant changes to University examinations are approved by or on behalf of Education Committee. The committee has delegated authority from Council to approve the necessary dispensations from the regulations required to put such changes into effect. Education Committee requires supporting material from a number of sources in reaching decisions on applications of this type. In such cases applications to the Chair of Education Committee need to be made as early as possible, preferably by email to using the dispensations application form. Further guidance on applying for dispensations from Education Committee is available from This includes guidance on the type of information and evidence which needs to be supplied when applying for these kinds of adjustments.  

11. The application is routed through the student’s college and therefore the expectation is that it will have been discussed and considered with relevant college tutors before submission, as well as with the department/faculty.  An indication of the extent of a college’s support for an application is obviously helpful. Similarly it is expected that the college will have considered the nature and type of any adjustments which it wishes to ask the University to consider, and will set these out in the application. It will normally also have been in contact with the Disability Advisory Service. For postgraduate students, the application may be routed through the student’s department/faculty, in which case the student’s college will also be approached for a view.

12.  An application must be supported by appropriate medical or other specialist evidence to confirm the nature of the disability and its likely impact on a student’s capacity to undertake all or parts of a course. The evidence should provide sufficient detail to enable those concerned to take a view on the reasonableness, in particular the need for and effectiveness of the requested adjustments.

13.  In most cases, a view of the application will also be sought from the Disability Advisory Service; the Service has substantial experience of providing appropriate support for students with disabilities and identifying appropriate adjustments.

14.  The application will be sent to the relevant supervisory body for the course concerned and that body will be asked to provide a comment on the adjustments proposed. It is important that the relevant board of examiners are also consulted, particularly about any changes in the mode of assessment which they will be asked to oversee. In giving its view, the supervisory body should refer explicitly to the material setting out the competence standards for the award, for example the course handbook.

15.  In the light of the material collected from these sources, a decision is then taken on behalf of Education Committee and passed back to the supervisory body/examiners and to the college (which communicates the decisionto the student). Clearly the aim of the process is to secure a way forward which is acceptable all round, although the final decision rests with Education Committee (normally the PVC (Education) acting on its behalf). If a student is not content with the decision that is reached, the normal route of appeal is to two members of Education Committee (who have not previously been involved in the decision). Ultimately recourse would be to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education10.

16.  A reasonable adjustment to a mode of assessment would normally be implemented by the Examinations and Assessment team as overseen by the Proctors. Once the decision has been made it is therefore also communicated to the Examinations and Assessment team and to the Proctors’ Office, for it to be implemented.



Examples of adjustments which require approval on behalf of Education Committee

17.  An extensive range of adjustments is already made via the Proctors’ Office/the Examinations and Assessments team and details of these and the application process are set out in sections 8.3, 8.4 and 8.5 of this document. These include some of the most frequent adjustments allowed such as additional time, rest breaks, adaptations to an individual’s timetable, etc. The adjustments which require approval on behalf of Education Committee are more significant in character and usually require a dispensation from the existing regulations governing aspects of the student’s course. Examples might include any of the following:

  • A student is allowed to extend the overall period of time within which a course is normally taken, e.g. to timetable the component elements of a Final Honour School across three rather than two years.

  • A student is permitted to substitute an alternative method of assessment for one or more of the normal assessment items. This usually, though not universally, entails finding alternatives to unseen written examinations, e.g. extended essays, take-home papers, or an additional dissertation. Where this is not feasible, it may be possible to alter the timing or duration of the assessment, e.g. by splitting it over more than one session or allowing the candidate significantly longer to complete it.

  • A student is exceptionally permitted to omit one or more papers from the normal assessment requirement on the basis that the examiners are content that they will have sufficient material on which to reach a classified outcome.

18.  These three examples illustrate the exceptional nature of such adjustments, and the care with which they need to be considered and put in place. It is also important to understand that the requirement is to identify what would be fair and reasonable for the student concerned in his or her individual circumstances, while maintaining the academic standards of the course. Approval for a particular application should not therefore be taken as providing an automatic precedent for another student. Each case has to be considered on its merits. Fairness to other candidates is ensured by taking very seriously the requirement not to compromise the competence standards of the course. Therefore it is important that an adjustment to a particular assessment method should not relax the academic requirements to be assessed as a whole. However, for the type of disabilities envisaged in this section, ‘levelling the playing field’ is unlikely to be a straightforward process.

Marking and classification

19.    Examiners are often concerned as to whether reasonable adjustments should constitute the sole accommodation made to take account of a candidate’s condition.  Part 12 of the Regulations for the Conduct of University Examinations allows candidates both to apply for special examination arrangements, and to ask for their condition to be taken into account as a factor which may affect their performance in examinations (Examination Regulations, Regulations for the Conduct of University Examinations, Part 12.2,  

20.    This means that even when alternative examination arrangements, including major adjustments which were approved on behalf of Education Committee, have been implemented to take account of a candidate’s condition, the candidate, through their college, may submit evidence to the examiners – via the Examinations and Assessments team – requesting them to take the candidate’s circumstances into account.

21.    It is accepted that examiners cannot assess undemonstrated performance and that candidates should not receive double compensation. Nevertheless, when an application for consideration of factors affecting performance is received, examiners are asked to take a view as to whether the reasonable adjustments are likely to have fully compensated for a candidate’s condition and allowed them to demonstrate their ability.  

22.    Furthermore examiners are also asked to consider the possibility that an examination adjustment may itself have adverse effects on a candidate’s performance and that some compensation might be appropriate even where the adjustment (e.g. extra time or rest breaks) has ostensibly compensated for the effects of the disability. Examples might include the fatigue caused by taking examinations with extra time; the experience of lengthy extended supervision; and frequent interruptions due to the need to take rest breaks.

23.    Parity with other candidates is maintained by the requirement that all candidates must fulfil the assessment criteria of the course. Reasonable adjustments to the mode of assessment or the conditions under which the assessment is taken are designed not to compromise these academic standards. The identification of a course’s competence standards is key to avoiding unlawful discrimination and enabling the University to meet its anticipatory duty to make reasonable adjustments (paragraph 4 above). Therefore, supervisory bodies are urged to clarify the competence standards of their courses in order to be better prepared for future applications for major adjustments to the mode of assessment11. This will make it easier to determine the most appropriate assessment for a disabled candidate.

24.    The board of examiners is asked to bear these factors in mind when attempting to determine the candidate’s proper class or result. Examiners may find the contextual evidence of especial use in cases where candidates have provided short weight answers or been placed close to a borderline.

25.    See Annex C: Consideration of medical and other special circumstances in examination and assessment for further guidance on the procedures to be followed in the consideration of medical and other evidence. Of particular importance is the necessity of keeping written records of the process of consideration and its outcome.


11  The OIA has recommended that the University review its assessment criteria and processes with the aim of identifying appropriate competence standards for its courses.