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 XXX 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 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.

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