Today’s correspondent is a

… university student in [New South Wales]…, and I’m currently in the process of joining the local SES unit. However, I had a concern about my university commitments conflicting with this volunteering. As I’m sure you know, when a student is unable to attend a class or assessment due to extenuating circumstances, they can apply for consideration towards their grade or a deferred assessment. The problem is that my university’s ‘Academic Consideration Policy’ does not account for emergency service workers/volunteers (it mentions everything from military service, to work commitments, religious holidays and beyond, but there is no mention of emergency responders). Wanting to reassure myself before becoming a volunteer, I attempted to deal with this by talking to staff at the university to see if a volunteer would actually qualify for consideration. Eventually I was given the rather unconvincing answer of ‘we don’t really know; it would probably come down to the separate judgement of each subject coordinator’. Having met most of my subject coordinators, my consideration being left to their judgement with no guidance from formal policies is a little alarming. Suppose there is a large flood I have to attend during an exam time, or something similar?

Getting to the heart of my question; is a university obligated by law to make allowances for students that are involved in emergency volunteering? I have searched briefly through some legislation myself and found protections in the Fair Work Act for employees that volunteer during emergencies, but I can’t find any mention of students.

The short answer, and pretty much the long answer too, is ‘no, a university is not obligated by law to make allowances for students that are involved in emergency volunteering’.  After that sort of opening statement, I would usually go onto explore ‘the law’ but given there is no legal obligation of that sort, there is no law to cite.  As my correspondent has noted there are protections for employees but not for students.

But I’ll wander out of my ‘lane’ for a minute.  As a university academic I am aware that all universities have a special consideration/deferred assessment policy.  Special consideration has always confused me; I’m never sure what to do with it. A student submits work, you assess it, how can you then give a higher mark on the basis that they may have produced a different result in different circumstances. The transcript does not say ‘Distinction (well not really but it might have been)’.  But there were circumstances were a student did have say Distinction results throughout the semester except for the one affected assessment task and their final result was one mark off a Distinction so you would rely on the ‘special circumstances’ to push them over.  I’m sure most academics would by sympathetic particularly as they live in the same community and will be aware of local floods or significant ones requiring out of area assistance.

Deferred assessment is always problematic.  Students putting off their exams from say November to the ‘special exam period’ in January or February never really do themselves any favours.

With my academic hat on, I’d be confident to say ‘I’m sure your teachers will give whatever lee way they can, but their options are limited and if results are important, put your best foot forward’.

Putting on a different hat, this time as someone who’s been involved, one way or another, with the volunteer emergency services since I was 13 and during my university studies, I don’t think you will find any service, or any unit controller, that doesn’t say ‘put your family, job and studies first’.   The question ‘Suppose there is a large flood I have to attend during an exam time, or something similar?’ demonstrates a misunderstanding of the concept of volunteering.  If there is a large flood, or something similar, a volunteer does not ‘have’ to attend, they attend if they can. And one of the factors that determines whether they can is other commitments such as exams.  University students may not be able to respond during exam time but may have more availability than others during the summer break (if that still exists and the university hasn’t moved to Trimesters).  And units located near universities that draw on students know that and should accommodate that.

I would urge my correspondent to discuss the matter with his or her local unit leader. I’m sure any of them would say ‘if you can’t come due to exams, that’s fine’.


As I said, the last two observations are outside my proper scope of reporting on the law.  The legal answer is ‘a university is not obligated by law to make allowances for students that are involved in emergency volunteering’.