Across the sector, we face a serious challenge to fund disability support effectively, particularly in light of cuts introduced over the past two years to Disabled Student’s Allowances (DSA) funding.
These cuts hit universities harder each year, as new intakes come in on the new funding regime. And, at the same time as these cuts challenge our budgets, we see students' expectations about the quality of the support they receive continuing to rise.
Announcing the DSA cuts in 2014, the government used spin to soften the blow as best they could. The ministerial statement described the changes as "modernisation" rather than a cut in government funding, and shied away from being explicit about the need for universities to spend more money on disability support, despite this being the unavoidable result. The significant additional costs were only hinted at, when the government expressed a desire to “rebalance responsibilities between government funding and institutional support”.
Perhaps of greatest concern was the assertion made in the ministerial statement, without supporting evidence, that individual disability support may be removed for some students “through different ways of delivering courses and information”.
The velvet glove worked and the sector complied. The cuts were introduced in two phases over the last couple of years, whether students and universities were ready or not. And we’ve been playing catch-up ever since.
I’ve come across universities in all parts of the sector doing important and impressive work to promote inclusive learning and teaching; the DSA cuts have pushed these issues higher up the agenda. Extending the use of lecture capture software (such as Panopto), implementing and enforcing new minimum design standards for course materials, offering alternative forms of assessment to all students, and reviewing approaches to seminar and group work – such changes can and do make for a much more inclusive learning environment.
Importantly, these changes benefit all students, not only disabled students. They level the playing field and help create a more inclusive environment for all students, including those whose first language is not English, mature students and distance learners.
However, we need to be realistic about how far we are able to scale up these pilot interventions. And, until inclusive practice is genuinely universal and guaranteed for all students, we cannot begin to talk about removing individual forms of disability support from disabled students.
Universities are complex organisations, with dozens of academic departments, hundreds of student cohorts, and thousands of staff members. We therefore tend to take any statement that starts “At our university, it is mandatory for…” or “Every student at our university receives…” with the biggest of salt pinches, knowing how difficult it is to deliver standardisation across an entire university. People can be very attached to their old ways of working for all kinds of reasons. Even if we deliver universal buy-in, we still have the task of ensuring colleagues newly recruited to the university comply.
Sometimes opt-outs are for good reason. I’ve known academic colleagues, working in universities which claim universal lecture capture is in place for all students, defend their decision not to comply with this requirement when it comes to their own lectures.
These are colleagues who believe passionately in excellent teaching and the inclusion of disabled students. However, they also have sincere and thought-through pedagogical concerns about lecture capture which lead them to set aside their institutional steer, whether their institution is aware or not.
Instinctively, I want to support the decisions of these colleagues, and their decision to teach in the manner they consider most effective. However, if commonplace lecture capture starts to be used as a reason for denying students university-funded individual disability support, it becomes very difficult to justify any non-compliance.
If a disabled student is denied a notetaker or a recording device, for example, because lecture capture is promised to be universal and is deemed to be sufficient, and this same student subsequently attends a lecture that is not recorded – for any reason, technical or pedagogical – the student could find it relatively straightforward to bring forward a complaint of discrimination. How would the university in this case demonstrate it has made reasonable adjustments to enable equal access?
A university's stated policy on an aspect of inclusive learning and teaching, such as universal lecture capture, might have been introduced to promote inclusion. However, if not routinely implemented in practice, such a policy can be flipped and used as evidence against the university.
Even modest changes risk non-compliance. A change many of us have considered, given the funding challenges, is to look for student cohort in which more than one disabled student requires a notetaker. In place of the multiple notetakers, perhaps we can allocate just one notetaker to support all disabled students in that teaching group. On the face of it, this seems like an easy, if modest, saving.
But we need to tread carefully. Each student’s specific requirements – in terms of the style or format of the notes, for example – can vary significantly. If a student is able to evidence why, for disability-related reasons, they require notes in a particular style or format, and show that the single notetaker allocated did not meet that requirement, again the student may find themselves with a fairly straightforward case to bring against their university.
As a consultant working with the HE sector, it would be helpful if I were able to offer easy solutions to challenges like the DSA funding cuts. I want to say that, with a few tweaks to our learning and teaching policies, we can eradicate the need for notetakers and personal educational assistants for some disabled students. However, such claims are risky – both in terms of the experience of these individual students and the university’s compliance with the Equality Act 2010.
There is a great deal we can do to minimise the costs of disability support and make disability services as efficient as possible; co-locating disability support with other services to avoid duplicating generic costs, automating administrative aspects of case management, reviewing the charges levied for those support services that still attract DSA funding, and so on. However, let's be clear - the costs of providing disability support will remain, be substantial, and continue to rise year-on-year.
We can hope we're given time to see what court and Office of the Independent Adjudicator rulings emerge, and find alternative ways of paying for the support that no longer attracts DSA funding, before further DSA cuts come our way. We can hope the government realises the sector is still constructing the ‘new normal’. We can hope the government sees that the current financial climate for universities – with operational costs rising and a reliance on plateaued tuition fee-based funding – is not one in which it is easy to absorb significant new costs, no matter how strong the justification for doing so.
At the same time, we need to maintain realistic budgets that take account of the high costs of giving each disabled student fair and equal access to an entire higher education programme.
While any new investments we make in our disability support services might be made largely due to the government’s decision to ‘rebalance’ responsibilities between government and universities, we should also be proud that these are investments, well made, in a better, fairer society.
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