A medical student who suffers an "extreme" fear of exams has won the right to continue her degree after a tribunal ruled the university discriminated against her because of her mental health disability.

The woman, who has a borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder, had failed to sit written exams and avoided some clinical assessments, particularly in paediatrics and surgery, because of ‘‘extreme anxiety in relation to sitting exams [and] performance assessments’’.

The University of Newcastle declined to grant the woman an extension of time to complete her Bachelor of Medicine after she had only completed three-and-a-half years of course work in an eight-year period, the maximum time allowed.

The Dean of Medicine, Professor Ian Symonds, felt there was a significant risk that she would not be able to safely work as a doctor, even if she ultimately managed to graduate, because of her psychiatric illnesses.

But the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal upheld the woman’s claim that the university discriminated against her on the grounds of disability and directed the university to grant her an 18-month extension.

The woman, who was given the pseudonym BKY because of the ‘‘sensitive nature’’ of her disability and the potential impact on her career prospects, will now be given almost a decade to complete her degree.

The Tribunal heard she suffered ‘‘extreme anxiety in relation to sitting exams’’. She completed one semester up until the day of the final exams but did not sit them. On another occasion she had a panic attack while driving to an exam and couldn't bring herself to attend.

Her psychiatrist, Dr Elizabeth O’Brien, said the woman suffered "an intense fear of failure and the shame of this at times paralyses her ability to apply herself consistently to her studies’’.

Dr O'Brien said the borderline personality disorder "manifested itself in anxiety, especially performance anxiety approaching examinations and at such times she would respond with avoidance behaviour".

While she couldn't sit the exam on the date, she was often able to complete the exam on a later date, if the university found special circumstances.

Dr O'Brien said the woman could complete her degree if given another 18 months because she had overcome mental health issues in the past to become a qualified registered nurse.

The three-member tribunal found the university had granted another student who had a poor academic record a 12-month extension, yet denied BKY an 18-month extension.

That student had failed eight subjects whereas BKY had failed four and was allowed to withdraw from another five subjects without penalty.

That indicated there was a ‘‘probable connection’’ between the university’s decision and her disability, the tribunal said.