Isn't a sick note for when you break your leg?

Honour system at U of S puts more responsibility on students to suck it up

Everyone always seems to fall ill at exam time. After three years of university, I now expect that a runny nose or headache will probably accompany me into my English final. Weeks of chronic stress and fatigue have to catch up with us sometime.

I presumed that a sick note was only for times when I physically could not get myself out of bed. Apparently this was not the case for students who were flooding the health clinic during exam season at the University of Saskatchewan. The university’s Student Health Centre stopped writing sick notes in early September and is instead encouraging instructors to accept self-declaration forms from students who were absent for medical reasons. Students will now have to go off-campus to obtain sick notes for professors who continue to require them, and the clinic will still write notes for its regular patients.

The clinic changed its policy after line ups during exam periods overwhelmed medical staff and sometimes forced them to turn people away who needed more pressing medical care. The clinic was writing almost 2,000 such notes a each year.

By encouraging the use of self-declaration, it may seem as if the U of S is creating an opening for wide spread absenteeism. However, traditional sick notes don’t really verify whether or not a student has a legitimate medical reason for being absent. It was difficult for physicians at the clinic to determine how incapacitated a student was in the single visit they would make to the clinic demanding a note. In some cases,  notes were handed out to students after they were no longer sick. The self-declaration forms actually puts more onus on students than sick notes do. Falsifying a form would be considered academic dishonesty.

Lynn Kuffner, U of S’s manager of student health and counselling pointed out to the Star Phoenix that in practice sick notes are not much different than a self-declaration form. “University is about academics, but it’s also about becoming a responsible adult,” she said. When the self-declaration forms were tested such as this past spring, the university found no difference in the number of absences compared to when sick notes were used.

Similarly, in January, the University of Alberta also replaced sick notes with a self-declaration policy, except that, unlike the U of S, the change is not optional for individual professors. “Physicians were often acting as a rubber stamp and saying, ‘the patient indicates this’ and signing it. So really, what is this doing that a patient couldn’t do in a signed declaration anyways? They’re just taking the student at their word,” Kevin Friese, Assistant Director of the U of A Health Centre, told the Gateway.

The University of British Columbia, University of Toronto and McMaster have also implemented comparable policies.

Part of the learning curve involved in becoming a responsible adult is figuring out how to deal with illness. Learning when it’s worth it to call in sick and when you should just suck it up and get through the day is part of becoming productive and successful. Self-declaration puts more responsibility on students to find that balance, as it doesn’t give students a doctor’s signature to hide behind.