9 things to find out about when you are applying to university in the UK – if you have additional support needs

Find out if you like the place

This what everyone does; right? How good is my course? What are the employment prospects? I want good sports provision. Do they have many gigs/bars/club nights/social societies? Is there a non-alcohol culture? Is it in a major city or is it on a quieter out of town rural campus? On top of all these priorities which all students need to find out, if you have additional support needs then you should consider finding out a few more things about the university/college you are interested in.

Do they have a disability/learning support team and how many staff do they have?

Most universities in the UK will have a separate team usually based within their Student Services area who deal specifically with disabled students/SEN learners and might be called the disability team. These teams are sometimes in the library especially if there is a ‘one stop shop’ type model within the institution – (I know this seems odd: “Go to the library to get your disability sorted”? But this is more to do with organisational and pragmatic issues in the background and (usually) nothing to do with the ethos of the place). This team often works with students with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, students with autistic spectrum disorders and students with mental health difficulties. Usually there will also be separate provision for mental health difficulties in the form of counselling services and increasingly specialist staff who may have a health or social services background. Sometimes the dyslexia team will be separately organised and located in a different area as well (maybe within the study skills team). There might also be members of staff in the disability team who specialises in your impairment e.g. visual impairment or hearing impairment. Ask if the team is organised like this.

Find out what the accommodations to assessment/exams provisions are

The vast majority of HEPs in the UK will have specific provisions if not a separate policy which covers the support of disabled students/SEN learners in assessments. The most common adjustment is probably in the area of providing extra time in examinations and usually 25% additional time is common practice (but more time is allowed in some circumstances). Other examples of support which might be provided are separate rooms, a scribe (amanuensis), use of a PC, enlarged examination papers. Less frequently provided are adjustments to assessments (term papers, projects, dissertations etc). This is a more controversial area as many institutions consider changes to assessment deadlines to be altering academic standards. However, some institutions do allow additional time for disabled students/SEN learners. You may also be able to negotiate alternative assessments – for example submitting a multimedia piece in the place of a written piece of work – although these are less frequently available.

Check if you are eligible for funding and if you are, make sure you have applied for it

Many UK resident students who have additional support requirements will be eligible for a non-means tested grant which is not repayable (this is called Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA) in England Scotland and Wales – I know! We have lobbied successive governments to change the name but they haven’t). If you have had support during school you may not have had to personally apply for any funding but in higher education you do. Also, you may not think you can get any funding but these allowances are used to support a wide range of support needs – dyslexia, ASD, mental health, visual impairment, hearing impairment etc. The monies pay for support which is related to educational provision (i.e. support you require in the lessons/lectures/seminars and when you are studying and for additional human support for accessing the curriculum – it is not for adaptations to accommodation or to pay for physical support outside of the classroom).

Contact the student finance department (Student Finance England ; SAAS ; Student Finance Wales ; Northern Ireland ; Republic of Ireland ) and follow the instructions for application. But be aware that the process can take on average 10 weeks, so apply as soon as you get an offer of a place.

If you are not a UK resident student you will need to try to obtain funding to pay for support. Although UK HEPs are legally obliged to make reasonable adjustments to support disabled students many of them have limited funding to pay for additional support. Also, it is difficult to know to what extent this legal duty applies to students from outside the UK.

Make sure you have a diagnosis or medical/educational evidence of your condition/disability/learning need.

In UK HE most HEPs take their direction from that which is outlined in UK law i.e. that the condition is long term, significant and affect day to day activity. You will normally need to provide documentary evidence that this is the case and this will usually need to be a qualified medical practitioner such as a GP or for a SpLD such as dyslexia, an educational psychologist. A SENCO report will usually not be enough nor will a recommendation to an examination board. If you are an international student a translated document will usually be required from a similar organisation or practitioner.

Check out what provision is available in the library

I’m pleased to say that libraries in universities in the UK have a long tradition of offering additional support services in liaison with support provided from within disability services. For instance, they often allow additional time for loaning physical resources, provide additional support such as help with finding books, sometimes additional storage and may even make additional rooms available for individual disabled students to study in. If the library houses suites of desktop PCs there may be a dedicated area for specific computers with specialist software or hardware for inclusive access or they may even provide laptops to borrow with specialist software. Related to this also:

Check out the IT provision at the university

Many IT services are embedded within or work closely with the library in a university so provision such as loan of IT equipment is integrated. Increasingly IT support in universities is providing assistive technology for a range of learners so it is worthwhile checking out what is available to all students on the university network (e.g. Global Autocorrect , Read and Write). Also, it is worth finding out whether more specialist apps (if you use them) are compatible with the university network. If you are applying to a course which makes use of software packages such as SPSS (statistical package often used in psychology or other social science courses) or AutoCAD (design software) you need to figure out how you are going to access this software if you have access needs.

Accommodation/halls of residence

Find out what adaptations are available in the university’s halls of residence. Most universities offer adapted rooms which are designed specifically to be accessible, such as rooms with accessible showers or rooms with fire alarms (vibrating pillow devices etc) that are linked to the main alarm system (for hearing impairment). They will also have a range of equipment which can be provided such as ergonomic study chairs, adjustable desks. If you require more extensive adaptations you should contact the university as soon as possible as they will have to make arrangements to carry out building works. Some universities are now offering areas within their halls of residence which are for students who prefer a quiet space, they may offer alcohol free halls or similar targeted provision. You should find out if accommodation is offered through private companies because you might need to make separate enquiries to these providers. The university’s accommodation team should be able to give you more information about private accommodation.

Find out how existing students at the university have been supported

One of the best ways to find out about provision is to speak to someone who has been there and done it. If you know someone who has already studied at the university, they will be able to tell you what support is like.

If you can’t find anyone who has studied there then you may be able to find examples on the university’s website or in their prospectus. Of course, the university is not going to advertise bad aspects of their support but the fact that they have provided examples of additional support tells you something about whether they see these issues as important. There may be examples of graduates from your course who are disabled students who have completed studies successfully. At the open day it might be useful to ask questions about how previous students have been supported. You might be able to speak to an admissions tutor beforehand about support available on your course. Look at discussion groups on social media (or websites such as the Student Room) to find out whether the support has been of a high quality. Speak to students’ union representatives: there might be an equalities officer or a disability officer who you can contact in advance of applying. There might be disability societies such as Aspies Soc etc.

 

 

Panic attacks

I’m racing past the crowds. Darting in and out. Side to side. Out of my way. I need to get past. I need to breath. I’m going. To. Feint. I manage to get past. I’m now running up the road. Trying to concentrate on the task in hand which is to get to a safe place. Or a place where I can relax. When the crowds clear it actually gets worse. I can’t stop concentrating on feeling feint and dizzy because my mind is no longer focussed on getting through the crowds. I start to panic so I start to run. If I don’t concentrate on running my mind will more than likely go back to the fact that I’m about to feint or stop breathing. So I carry on running. Eventually I find the back street where I can walk without seeing anyone and where my breathing can get back to normal. Once I’ve relaxed and broken back out onto the less busy pavements, I manage to calm down and I make it to work.

If you’ve experienced one, you’ll know that I’m referring to having a panic attack. The feelings I describe above were a regular occurrence in my life for about 20 or more years. Fortunately, I don’t generally experience them anymore but occasionally, when I’m feeling particularly tired or in a particularly difficult setting, maybe standing at a concert or stuck in the middle of a row in a lecture theatre, the feelings creep back around the edges.

I can’t remember exactly when I experienced my first panic attack but I do know that I feinted a couple of times when I was about 14. One time, I caught my toe on the kitchen door shortly after I had woken up and gone downstairs for breakfast. As I sat at the dining room table I felt the nausea creeping up on me and then the familiar feeling of stars forming around the outside of my vision and the loss of sound… but the sounds re-appear as if in a dream, until I regained consciousness and found myself lying on the floor at the front door of our house with the local farmer (who was delivering our milk and was a family friend) above me and my brother and mum alongside. I’d pulled the table cloth completely off the table and sent everything flying in dramatic fashion.

It happened again in secondary (high) school during a particularly hot summer’s day in a stifling design technology classroom. The teacher had come to help me and as I stood up to let him sit in my seat, I felt the rush of blood away from my head and before I knew it, I was on the floor again unconscious. I think I linked these feelings of light headedness with feinting so that when ever I was then in a confined space and felt that way, maybe because I suffered from insomnia around that time, I started to panic and had to resist the urge to run for the exit. I do remember experiencing one during my GCSE exams and had to ask for a toilet break. And then they plagued me for the next two or three decades.

Until I went to university (probably after experiencing them for about three years) I hadn’t known what they were or told anyone I was having them. It just so happened that I was studying psychology for my undergraduate degree programme and came across a small section on them in an ‘abnormal’ psychology book which was one of our recommended textbooks. Finally being able to put a name to what they were, I disclosed that I was having problems to my personal tutor who sent me to the counselling service. The counsellor explained that he could help me but that we would have to meet a few times and explore ‘issues which I might not be terribly comfortable with’. Needless to say, I wasn’t willing to explore ‘issues which I wasn’t terrible comfortable with’ so I didn’t attend. I did go to the GP who gave me a clean bill of health but offered no further guidance or referrals.

Unfortunately, they got worse before they got better and I was unable to attend many of my lectures throughout the second year of my degree course. Fortunately, I had formed a very close friendship with someone else on the course who I shared a house with. He was able to attend lectures and bring back the notes for me. This was before there was any funding available for disability services in the UK and well before any campaigns to raise awareness for mental health conditions.

 

Policy flaws in the UK HE system of support for disabled students

All policies are flawed as they are the result of political processes when they are created and are interpretable by staff at street level when actual implementation occurs. More often than not they reflect disagreements between different sides of the political establishment and are in part written with many stakeholders’ opinions in mind. Incrementalism is the usual result, as the ideas of politicians come to fruition within legislation: policies take shape over several years and through several iterations. Such is the case with policy within the UK HE sector around disabled learners – the result of several policy strands, developed over the last few decades, which together form the policy context.

At the moment, the discourse from within the Department for Education, as a result of fiscal tightening, is around how HEPs should move to more inclusive approaches. However, we didn’t get to this point in the policy process by starting with inclusive approaches in mind, so we are left with policy legacy which wasn’t intended for the current purposes. So here are some thoughts about how the current policies are flawed – they’re not intended as a definitive list, but rather as points for discussion and further contestation.

It relies on the Equality Act 2010 to drive practice

However, legislation such as the EA2010 in itself relies on individuals taking big organisations such as universities to court. Even with the support of quangos such as the EHRC few students are likely to want to go through the convoluted and possibly very expensive legal process this requires. Students don’t want to be at war with the university in an individual capacity as they believe it puts their degree classification on the line and are worried about retribution. Even when a student does take an HEI to court (and anecdotally this is increasing as students who are discriminated against seek financial compensation against high fees through litigation cases) the case is more often than not settled out of court since the institution does not want to be dragged through the press. This means that once battle lines are drawn the university becomes overly defensive as it seeks to mitigate any financial loss or admittance of wrong doing. HEPs would rather settle out of court and this leads to entrenched views rather than positive organisational changes. In worse-case scenarios it can lead to hidden resentment from staff.

No teeth to legislation

A corollary of the above is that most staff don’t take the threat of legal action seriously. Few people have been involved in a legal case or even heard of a colleague who has been dragged into one, so the legal ‘stick’ fails to provoke action. Whilst guidance from organisations such as the EHRC is more proactive and aligned with the social model of disability, which seeks to remove barriers to participation, it is fundamentally underpinned by a legislative/legal model.

Medical model definitions

The Equality Act 2010 relies on medical model definitions. The legislation defines disabled people in terms of their impairment. This can cause issues in legal cases since a significant number (particularly around employment) get thrown out of court because impairment can’t be proven. And it weakens discourse from organisations such as the EHRC when they allude to the social model of disability.

Medical model thinking

The HE sector relies on the medical model of disability. UCAS and HESA, who collect information on disabled students/applicants, use a system which is based on impairment categories. This weakens any discourse from organisations such as HEFCE (now OfS) when they suggest to HEPs that they should move towards inclusive teaching and learning based on social model arguments.

Funding is based on medical categorisation

Institutional funding relies on medical definitions of disability categorised as above. The OfS disburses monies based on disclosure against a list of impairments. However, funding bodies should move towards a funding model based on resource management. If HEPs are providing xx number of hours of note taking for disabled students, they should be recompensed for it.

Statistical information is patchy

OfS/HESA figures are flawed in several ways. They are only proxies of demand. For example, the numbers of students disclosing dyslexia (SpLD) is about 50% of the overall intake of disabled students but it is still rare for a student to possess a fully recognised education psychologist’s diagnosis for the SpLD when they enrol for HE study. Each year about 1/6th to ¼ of the those students who declare an SpLD are being re-assessed because their diagnosis is inaccurate. Similarly, about another 1/6th of these students are newly diagnosed i.e. didn’t know they had SpLD until they entered HE. There is no accurate understanding of how many of these disclosures are never validated through diagnosis. This is also increasingly the case with students who declare a mental health difficulty. No one has provided an accurate understanding of what these, rapidly rising, disclosures actually mean.

The funding model is based on an individualised/medical model/semi market (a mish mash approach)

Some monies go directly to the institution but there is very little monitoring of how these monies are used. The monies are not ringfenced, and never have been, but come through the main grant received as part of WP funds. This approach is more aligned to a social model of disability since the institution can, or at least should divert attention, resources and spending to remove barriers to access and to ensure that the HEP is inclusive. However, support is still largely funded through DSAs which are underpinned by an individualised and medical model approach.

Disjointed approach to defining how support should proceed

There is very little joined up strategy between the DSA process and the realities of street level implementation of teaching practice. Unlike the schools’ sector in which disability staff/teaching staff are part of the process of creating a report on learners’ support, the HE sector in the UK, relies on external staff who usually have not had any HE teaching experience, to write a report based on a limited number of recommendations. These reports are written in order to draw down funding from DSA and are very rarely, if ever, reviewed as the learner progresses through their studies. However, the reports are often circulated to teaching staff with the understanding that they implement the recommendations for adaptations to their teaching practice. HEPs then repeat similar exercises to produce learning support plans which are more context specific but which in turn, rarely involve academic staff who are left to implement recommendations without much input into their rationale.

Free journal article available to download – while stocks last!

It seems I never publicised the availability of free download access to this article:

Mike Wray & Ann-Marie Houghton (2018) Implementing disability policy in teaching and learning contexts – shop floor constructivism or street level bureaucracy? Teaching in Higher Education. 

Only 50 free downloads are available so you’ll have to act quick.

 

 

Pioneering disability rights activist Michael Oliver dies

Just heard the sad news that Professor Michael Oliver has died. Oliver was the first person to articulate the social model of disability which underpins much of the approach to removing discrimination in the UK and its influence can be felt around the world in legislation which promotes the rights of disabled people. You can read about his philosophy in the Politics of Disablement and Understanding Disability: from theory to practice. This model is the reason why I refer to disabled people rather than people with disabilities: you can get a brief flavour of it in the DEMOS training materials I wrote many moons ago. If you don’t know who he is there is an interesting video about his life in higher education made by the University of Kent.

Have you achieved minimum inclusive teaching and learning standards in your organisation?

At the moment many institutions are working on defining what approach should be taken to inclusive teaching and learning and in doing so are benchmarking their existing practice. It’s more difficult to get started with this than you’d imagine because there are no agreed ways of working in HE which are considered to be standard. In schools differentiation and some kind of agreed learning plan* are fairly standard but this is not the case in UK HE organisations.

One of the problems you might encounter when embarking on this work is that the terms used to describe such exercises seem to have become mixed up. The terms base-level, baseline and benchmark seem to be used interchangeably so it’s worth considering what you mean by these ideas.

Benchmarking

Benchmarking is normally about comparing something to an existing standard or practice. You might benchmark how a department is responding to supporting disabled students by comparing what goes on in another department which is seen as being particularly successful in this regard. In businesses this is often done to compare performance against other companies who are more successful, to identify areas for improvement. In terms of inclusive teaching and learning we would be looking at practices which are seen as exemplary, such as ensuring that the majority of the materials you are going to use in a lecture are available for students to peruse 24-48 hours in advance. Or ensuring that your handouts are as accessible as possible – making sure that the print is legible using a recommended font type and size (such as those without serifs printed in at least 12 pt).

Base-level provision

Where we seem to have got confused in HE inclusion circles (in the UK at least) is with notions of base level support. This is probably because of the 1994 base-level document which was commissioned by HEFCE and HEFCW. If you’re not familiar with this publication I would recommend that you have a look at it because it really did pave the way for a lot of provision in the UK: some of the suggestions are still not implemented in some HEPs 25 years later.

The foreward to this document is confusing to say the least: it says that they were intending to set out minimum standards and by doing that to set a benchmark for comparison. Perhaps the benchmark was very low at the time but the recommendations contained within are quite radical, even now.

The executive summary doesn’t really help to elucidate matters: it says that the provision outlined refers to the ‘minimum level of support that each HEI should provide.’ It then says that these provisions were not intended as statements of best practice because it was perceived that they could be improved on.

Well they were right about being able to use them as a benchmark against which to compare your practice at the time but would you want to benchmark against minimum standards? There is a possibility these confusions were being used as rhetorical devices as is often seen in policy documents: policies are interpretable in multiple ways. If you’re giving the benefit of the doubt to the policy writers they are intended so that localised implementation is afforded flexibility – the cynical amongst you would see them as a lack of understanding of a policy context.

Baseline

Somewhere along the journey base level seems to have got mixed up with baseline. Which is an exercise which many HEPs in the UK are engaged in currently. They are measuring the practice within academic departments to gain some kind of baseline measure of their provision so that they can show progress. The inclusive teaching, learning and assessment tool contained within these pages is an example of how you might go about that. With it I tried to create an iterative process because I was cautious of creating an exercise which is seen as imposing standards from on high (top down implementation). I also wanted to create some sort of continuous improvement process so that departments had room to develop provision and had ways in which to define their own subject specific good practice. Another way of doing this is to outline benchmarks which exist in the sector (they can be from across education) and ask departments to measure their own performance against these. In this way you are offering best practice which academic departments can aspire to.

Here’s some suggestions (with additional questions from me and from within the detail of the document) from the original base-level guidance which you could benchmark against.

Do you have a well-publicised system of outlining students’ learning support needs with target times for completion and a code of practice which outlines how these are circulated? How are these used by academic departments? Do all academic staff see them? Do they input into them?

Does your HEI provide services to reflect the agreed needs within these documents? Do learning support plans get implemented? Do they reflect existing academic practice? Are they reviewed sufficiently?

Is a member of senior management given an assigned role in the implementation of inclusive provision? Do they have a role in dealing with unresolved issues that might affect the organisation of academic provision?

The guidance is perhaps most famous (can policy guidance be famous?) within the UK HE sector for outlining ‘minimum’ levels of staffing. Does your institution provide the following dedicated disability officer staffing levels?

Size of institution (students) Full time equivalent posts
Up to 3,000 0.5
5,000 1.0
10,000 2.0
15,000 3.0
20,000 4.0

* I make a distinction here with learning contracts which are prevalent in HE because they are usually a static statement of support needs rather than a reviewable document which tracks progress against learning targets.  Also, teaching staff very rarely have any input into them, unlike learning plans in schools.

 

Disabled Students’ Allowances effectiveness research

Short post on this one for now as I’m working away in Hong Kong. The Department for Education have just published commissioned research into disabled students’ take up and thoughts about Disabled Students’ Allowances.

You can download the report directly here or go to the related DfE website.

First comment is that I’m not sure they are measuring effectiveness, as the outcome measures are not directly related to that. They asked students how confident they felt about completing their course. That section of the report should really have been entitled ‘does DSA have an effect on how confident students feel about completing their course?’ not ‘Do DSAs and HEPs support have an impact on student retention and achievement?’  The only way of providing any objective evidence on retention and achievement is to look at outcome measures such as completion rates compared to non-disabled students and by comparing those who did claim the monies and use the support with those that didn’t (in terms of completion rates not of feelings about their completion likelihood). Also they have examined whether it has influenced the decision to attend HE but not used a comparison group of people who haven’t attended HE.

At first glance it seems somewhat flawed in terms of measuring what the headline title of the DfE webpage is but it could be the jetlag so I’ll give it another go and read it again when I’m less sleep deprived.