EXCLUSIVE: Leave of Absence process endangers student welfare

AFTER SPEAKING WITH students and collecting data from the University, York Vision can reveal that there are some systemic issues with the leave of absence process that are actively harmful to students.  

The investigation has highlighted some problems that all students may face, but has discovered several key issues surrounding those on a Tier Four visa, or those reliant on services provided in York.

A leave of absence is described by the University as “a break from your studies”. They told Vision that they “aim to support [students on leave] in any way possible”, and that “taking a leave of absence is often the right thing… in individual circumstances”. There are up to 24 reasons a student could give to take leave, although data collected from a freedom of information request has revealed that two thirds of absences are taken for “health” and “personal” reasons. This means that out of the 820 absences in the previous academic year, around 550 fell into those categories. 

This was a stark increase from the year prior, where over 100 fewer students took leave, the largest jump in the past decade. Students most likely to take leave are in the science faculty, who take several percentage points per capita more than the other faculties, second year undergraduates, first year taught postgrads, and third year research postgrads. These trends have been the case for the past five to ten years.

Almost all the students Vision spoke to took leave for mental health related issues. The data we were provided with doesn’t break down what percentage of “health”  absences are “mental”, as “physical”, “academic”, and “compassionate” health absences are all options under the same umbrella. These students have spoken of how the process is “long-winded”, “bureaucratic”, and “draconian”. A lack of clarity as to how the process works only adds to the stress of a student taking leave.

When speaking to a student who had taken leave on multiple occasions, they told us that “in theory, the process should be simple, but it isn’t”, and that despite having more experience with the process than most, they still didn’t understand it in full. They believed this was because, even though they were happy with the support provided by their department, supervisors didn’t have enough training to act as a first point of contact. “Nobody seems to know what goes on.” 

A student taking leave for medical reasons will require medical evidence in order to support their application. This becomes a problem if a student wishes to take some leave retrospectively, as they would have had to prepare medical evidence from the day they weren’t able to study. Alongside the issue of trying to secure a same-day appointment, many students won’t have much of any official documentation, and due to its nature, a note from Open Door won’t count. 

Let’s also not forget that a number of students will be using Unity Health, which faced a new patient ban last year, and was previously declared ‘inadequate’ by the Care Quality Commission. Students have told Vision how delays from Unity Health can have serious repercussions on their progression or return to study.

The problems within a medical-based leave of absence don’t end there. One student described to Vision how there seems to be a separation between physical health, and mental health related leaves of absence. The process in place means that a student daunted by mental health concerns, which are often hard to diagnose and receive  support for, will have a much harder time than a student with a physical injury, say, a broken leg. This is not to say that this distinction is directly caused by University practice, but that the University uses a process that allows for such an unfair and unjust distinction.

If a student doesn’t have the required medical evidence, their “involvement with the course” is backdated to whenever they last attended something. In the first instance, this is hugely unfair to someone who is unlucky enough to be suffering, and happens to be able to attend one seminar at the end of term. All that time before will be counted as course engagement. 

In the second, this runs into serious consequences with those on a Tier IV visa. They are mandated to attend certain supervisor meetings in order to fulfill the conditions of their visa. This means that a student who could have suffered for months, but has to attend meetings to keep their visa allowing them to study and work, will be considered engaged by the University.

The University policy on accommodation also causes students to suffer. Should a first-year student take leave, they would be required to vacate University accommodation and return home. On top of assuming that all students can return home or have a home to return to, it means that friends, support networks, and resources in York are taken away. One student who spoke to Vision told us that they avoided taking leave, even though they were in desperate need, because they were dependent on York-based medical and addiction treatment. Although they needed the time off, the University would have forced them away from support that they needed to live.

Many students will be reliant on something in their University life in order in supporting them. A regular routine, new friends, and a hub of activity can all be leading factors to support a student if they’re suffering, yet this is what is denied to them after the University says that they’re “expected to spend their time away from the University”. Any build up of support that the University or YUSU could provide would be an enormous help. A  student on leave is offered YUSU membership in the form of associate membership, but can’t give full membership as they aren’t legally listed as a student. 

The University and YUSU can do more. Outside of challenges that Vision has presented, what needs to be changed immediately is the attitude of the University. Students should see total and utter support. The University could make steps to make the process for a leave of absence remarkably easier, and unless it does, it is actively taking measures to make a process designed to be supportive and helpful harder than it needs to be. The University has told us that they’re “undertaking a large-scale review of the leave of absence processes to ensure that they are as efficient and empathetic as possible”, so whether or not significant change will be made is yet to see. They also state that “students are given appropriate opportunities to stay in contact with the University during any leave they might take to maximise their chances of successfully returning to study”. 

Community and Welbeing Officer Steph Hayle told York Vision “Students on LoA need access to a greater level of support than the University currently offers them. It is absurd that the University essentially cuts students off when they are most in need of our assistance.  I am currently working on a project that will help strengthen that support, and develop and assist these students on a departmental level. In general, health related LoA only shows how much more funding our health services need so that students can access relevant and timely care.”