by Lowri Pitcher
On January 14, 2020, a petition was launched to the Welsh Assembly calling for students to receive medical notes from their GP free of charge. The petition reads: “Currently when requiring a letter from the GP to back up an extenuating circumstances claim or for evidence for a DSA application the GP will charge the student around £35 (surgery dependent). This means that on top of the difficulty that a student may be having with their health, learning difficulties, and/or disabilities, they will then have to pay to have a document that shows this. This means that many students (especially those from poorer backgrounds) will have trouble with receiving the support that they need to not only complete their degree but in some cases survive.”
William Bremner, a student at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, who started the petition told Gair Rhydd that he had proposed this petition “Because students are already put under so much financial pressure with high tuition fees and loans, then to have to pay exorbitant amounts for a letter that can be written in minutes (often when at their most vulnerable) is depressing and unfair!”
“to have to pay exorbitant amounts for a letter that can be written in minutes (often when at their most vulnerable) is depressing and unfair”
Currently, GPs are entitled to charge a fee in order to provide a medical certificate to patients. Students have been known to pay anything between £10 and £50. At Cardiff University, students applying for extenuating circumstances must provide supporting evidence if they are applying after the submission of an assessment/exam date or if they have attended an examination or other assessment; if they have self-certified previously for two periods this academic year; or if the circumstances have had an impact for a period more than 7 days in duration.
Gair Rhydd Politics spoke to D’arcy McKenzie Bowdler, currently, a student at Cardiff Metropolitan University who said: “I have personally struggled to supply evidence to university due to the expense of a doctor’s note, leaving me at an academic disadvantage as I can’t always apply for mitigating circumstances.”
Conversely, Abbi Russell-Samways, a Biomedical Science student at Cardiff Met told Gair Rhydd that she had never paid for a medical note from her GP at North Road Medical Practice. When Abbi requested supporting evidence for a Disability Student Allowance (which helps cover some of the costs you have because of a mental health problem, long term illness or any other disability) she “ dropped the form off to them [GP practice] & picked it up about a week later. I was never charged anything for this.” Similarly, when Abbi needed to be signed off work for a month, her GP “printed the note off for me there & then without costing me anything, which I was able to use for both work and mitigating circumstances.”
She added: “I think it’s appalling that students should have to pay to show they’re struggling to the university. I realise I have been very lucky in how easy my experience has been and it’s awful that not everyone has been treated the same.”
I think it’s appalling that students should have to pay to show they’re struggling to the university
When approached for comment, a Cardiff University spokesperson said: “The University has consulted with students and, from this session, students are not required to provide a doctor’s certificate with every report of extenuating circumstances.
“Students are permitted to self-certify extenuating circumstances for up to 7 days for two 7 day periods annually.
“Where evidence is needed, a medical note is only one type of evidence that can be submitted. Depending on the type of circumstance, evidence can also include a letter from a support service to whom the individual is known or a statement from a third party (e.g. social worker, police).
“Any student experience extenuating circumstances can contact the University’s Student Advice Centre for support and information.”
Gair Rhydd also approached James Wareham, Cardiff Students’ Union’s Vice-President for Welfare and Campaigns. He said: “The Students’ Union certainly has had contact with students who have been unhappy at being asked to both provide and pay for medical evidence, required under the University extenuating circumstances and appeals procedures. We are confident, however, that the recent introduction of self-certification in extenuating circumstances will lead to a reduction in the numbers of students needing to provide medical evidence.”
He continued: “Various Sabbatical Officer teams have worked with the University to support the introduction of self-certification in the extenuating circumstances procedures. We are confident that this will mean a reduction in the number of students requiring evidence obtained from GPs, but will continue to lobby for the improvement of the system in general.”
Finally, James added: “The Students’ Union is always supportive of progressive measures that alleviate the burden on students, especially concerning common student issues such as finances. After consulting with students, if this is found to be something in their interests, then we will take action as appropriate.”
At the time of writing, the petition has received over 140 signatures. This means that once the petition period comes to an end, due to finish on March 14, 2020, it will be considered by the Petitions Committee of the Welsh Assembly. The Committee will then decide an appropriate course of action which may entail conducting a detailed inquiry, contacting the Welsh Government or arranging a Committee meeting to discuss the matter further.