IP Inclusive has responded to the European Patent Office (EPO) consultation on a proposed new European Qualifying Examination (EQE) framework. The proposals include a more modular approach to assessment, and a format better adapted for online evaluation.
Our response, copied to both the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) and the Institute of Professional Representatives before the European Patent Office (epi), urged the Examination Secretariat to:
- optimise the format of the EQEs to suit the diverse needs of disabled candidates;
- ensure that the procedures used to assess and award reasonable adjustments for disabled candidates are both clear and aligned with those used in comparable examinations; and
- take account of the impact of exam timings on parents and carers.
It recommended employing a specialist accessibility consultant in order to ensure these things happen.
This project was led by IP Ability, our community for disabled people, carers and their allies. It included input from two of our other communities: the IP Non-traditional Family Network and Women in IP. The response was written by Marianne Privett of AA Thornton, IP Ability co-lead, to whom we are extremely grateful.
You can read the full response below. Information about the proposal and consultation can be found here. You may also be interested in a subsequent response submitted by the mental wellbeing charity Jonathan’s Voice: see here.
New EQE – proposal and consultation
IP Inclusive’s submissions
IP Inclusive is a collection of UK-based individuals and organisations in the intellectual property (IP) sector, who have come together to make our community more inclusive, diverse, open and fair. IP Ability is the IP Inclusive community for disabled people and carers working within the IP professions in the UK. IP Ability aims to provide a supportive and informative network focusing on issues relating to disability, neurodiversity and health conditions of all kinds, be they mental or physical, visible or invisible, permanent or temporary, sudden onset or progressive. The Women in IP community tries to tackle issues that people face as women within the IP professions. The IP Non-traditional Family Network is a community for people in solo parent families, blended families, adoptive families, LGBT+ families and other non-traditional families in the UK IP professions. All IP Inclusive communities welcome allies.
IP Inclusive welcome the proposition to reform the EQE. Reforming the format of the examination is an excellent opportunity to utilise the benefits of technology and improve the experience of all candidates. Reforming the rules and procedures surrounding the examination is also an excellent opportunity to ensure the examination provides a fair and consistent assessment of all candidates’ ability to practise as European Patent Attorneys (EPAs). Ensuring the examination provides a diverse range of candidates with the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to practise as EPAs is consistent with the epi’s policy on diversity and inclusion1, which policy includes reference to training:
“epi aims to have a positive impact on its members and other stakeholders by promoting D&I within our field, and will endeavour to follow best practice guidelines to support the ideals of D&I. Thus, epi will take these into account when setting and implementing its policies, practices & procedures, training and education, and other events and activities.”
2) Potential problems
IP Ability recognise that online examinations will often suit disabled candidates better than paper based examinations. Furthermore, it is clear that WISEflow was designed with accessibility in mind2. However, IP Ability are concerned that designing an online examination to suit non-disabled candidates, then adapting the examination to suit disabled candidates as and when such candidates request adjustments could result in a less than optimum experience for all candidates.
IP Ability are also aware that disabled candidates for the EQE in its current form often experience difficulties in satisfying the Secretariat that they qualify for compensation in accordance with Rule 17 of the Regulation on the European qualifying examination for professional representatives (REE). For example, some disabled candidates with lifelong conditions are asked to provide evidence from medical practitioners each time they apply for compensation (e.g. when resitting one of the papers) even if it should be clear that their disability will not have changed in the time since they were last awarded compensation. The uncertainty resulting from an unclear procedure for requesting compensation causes unnecessary and unjust stress for disabled candidates. In addition, disabled candidates are sometimes uncertain as to whether they will qualify for compensation until close to the time that the EQE is due to be held, which hampers their ability to adequately prepare for the examination.
Childcare responsibilities still tend to fall disproportionately on women. Hence, Women in IP are concerned that the timing of the examination could disproportionately affect some women if the examination clashed with time periods with additional childcare responsibilities such as school holidays and the end of the school year (which is typically very busy). Some solo parents are unable to rely on their children’s other parent to share childcare responsibilities, and may find it difficult to find family and friend support over the examination period to ensure their children are cared for. Hence, the IP Non-traditional Family Network are concerned that the timing of the examination could disproportionately affect some candidates who are solo parents if the examination clashed with time periods with additional childcare responsibilities such as school holidays and the end of the school year.
3) Proposed solution
IP Ability urge the EPO-epi working group to consider the diverse needs of disabled candidates when designing the examination. UNIwise, who developed and delivered WISEflow, developed it on the basis that it should be designed to meet the needs of all the people who want to use it3. Hence, WISEflow has the potential to offer an accessible examination system and all EQE candidates should be able to benefit from its design since, to quote from UNIwise4:
“Many of the things we develop in WISEflow to aid disabled students also support the configuration of the overall design of WISEflow, giving the collective user base a better and more streamlined exam and assessment experience.”
Designing the examination to suit disabled candidates will include choosing to make use of some of the features within WISEflow. For example, WISEflow allows candidates the option of customising fonts and font sizes4, which benefits visually impaired candidates without the organisation administering the examination having to design and implement an adjustment as and when a visually impaired candidate highlights their need. Furthermore, WISEflow’s lockdown browser can enable access to some assistive technologies4 whilst some assistive technologies can only be accessed outside of the lockdown browser5. Assistive technologies can benefit a wide range of disabled candidates including visually impaired candidates, physically impaired candidates and dyslexic candidates. Therefore, we ask that access to assistive technologies be considered in the design of the examination, including the examination being designed so that some candidates can be allowed to remove the lockdown browser so that they can use external programs. To help those designing the examination determine which features may help a diverse range of disabled candidates, we recommend employing the services of a specialist accessibility consultant
Designing the examination to suit disabled candidates will also include choosing not to make use of some of the features within WISEflow so as to avoid disadvantaging some disabled candidates. For example, although candidates using screen readers can “drag and drop” answers into place, once in place, the screen reader does not allow them to check their answers. (A blind law student kindly volunteered to test the model papers and this example is based on his feedback.) Clearly this disadvantages candidates using screen readers since candidates must be enabled to complete the examination and check their answers before submitting them. As above, to help those designing the examination determine which features may disadvantage some disabled candidates, we recommend employing the services of a specialist accessibility consultant.
Although, as stated above, online examinations will often suit disabled candidates better than paper based examinations this is not true for all disabled candidates. For example, some candidates may experience migraines when using a computer. Designing the examination such that it may be printed onto paper and assessed without the use of a computer (except when a candidate downloads a paper at the beginning and submits their answer at the end) would assist such candidates. As above, to help those designing the examination determine how best to accommodate disabled candidates whose impairment affects their ability to be assessed using an online examination, we recommend employing the services of a specialist accessibility consultant.
The REE will need to be rewritten or substantially revised to suit the reformed EQE. When the REE is rewritten or revised, we ask that the procedures used to assess whether disabled candidates are awarded compensation also be rewritten or revised so that disabled candidates are able to follow a clear procedure and are awarded fair compensation. To help those rewriting or revising such procedures, we recommend surveying the procedures used by universities across EPC member states (since many candidates will be familiar with such procedures) and the procedures used by other professional services organisations to assess a disabled candidate’s ability to practise as, for example, an accountant, an architect or a lawyer. Employing the services of a specialist disability advisor and/or a specialist occupational health practitioner should help with this task.
It is noted that the proposed new EQE is being designed with two sessions a year instead of the existing one session. Two sessions will require candidates with childcare responsibilities to make suitable arrangements twice a year instead of once. For parents of school aged children, it is likely to be more difficult to make suitable arrangements during school holidays and the end of the school year when a family’s normal routine is disrupted. Therefore, Women in IP and the IP Non-traditional Family Network urge the EPO-epi working group to review the timing of school holidays and the end of the school year in EPC states with a significant number of candidates (e.g. Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom) and arrange the examination to avoid the school holidays. Doing so should reduce any potential disadvantage caused to candidates with responsibilities for school aged children.
IP Ability urge the EPO-epi working group to consider how best to optimise the format of the examination to suit the diverse needs of disabled candidates. IP Ability also ask that the EPO-epi working group ensure that the procedures used to assess whether disabled candidates are awarded compensation for the reformed EQE are clear and comparable to the procedures used to assess whether disabled candidates are awarded compensation when sitting comparable examinations. Women in IP and the IP Non-traditional Family Network IP also urge the EPO-epi working group to consider the timing of the examination and recommend timings that avoid the school holidays and the end of the school year in the majority of EPC states.