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

What every student will do (and learners with support needs are no different) is to research general features of the college they are interested in. For example, you might want to know how good the course is. What are the employment prospects? You might be interested in how good the sports provision is. Are there 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 if you have additional support needs you should consider finding out a few more things which I have suggested here:

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 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 your 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.



Identifying dyslexia in higher education: Rose part II

‘there does appear to be a bit of a postcode lottery when it comes to offering support’

I thought I would try to explain the process of identifying specific learning difficulties/differences (SpLD)/dyslexia for readers who do not have an in-depth knowledge of how support systems work in HE in the UK. Many education providers face an uneasy challenge of identifying learners with additional support needs whilst struggling to provide properly funded support mechanisms.

The system that most HEPs have in the UK is that students are directed towards the disability service (or the name given to it in their place of study) to be ‘assessed’. Many students (and often their parents) start asking questions at open days, often stating that their school did some sort of assessment and it was used to give them extra time in exams or they were told they weren’t dyslexic but they’re still struggling. Or they come at some point in the academic year (either during Freshers’ week) or when they start struggling.

The second tranche of students usually come because of a referral from their academic department after they have handed in an essay. By the way, this is a reason not to panic in central services, as a steady stream of students emanating from academic colleagues is a sure sign that the message around available support is getting through.

Most central services staff will then do some sort of screening test which will involve an interview with the student to discuss their educational experiences and the reasons why they think they might be dyslexic and some sort of screening schedule (usually a list of questions with indicators). However, in my experience it is rare to turn a student down at that point: more usually they will show some kind of issue and be referred to an educational psychologist. This will either be someone who comes onto campus from an external organisation (I have used the Educational Guidance Service in the past) or they will be asked to visit a local centre such as those run by the British Dyslexia Association.

The assessment is usually around £300 which is a significant amount of money for students facing years’ of tuition fee repayments once they leave HE. Students must weigh up the costs of paying for this against the benefits of identification and all that comes with it in terms of self-understanding and support systems.

But many HEPs provide some financial support for this process. From a cursory search using Google (and contrasting HEPs towards the opposite ends of the Guardian league tables): at Oxford University support is available through the ‘SpLD fund’ – it appears from the information I could find that the costs will be met in full and up to a year after the assessment was carried out; and at York St John University it appears that the student must pay the full costs of the assessment (£284) and arrange their own appointment. (Please let me know if the information is incorrect for either of these examples).

So there does appear to be a bit of a postcode lottery when it comes to offering support and there is a question over the extent to which staff within HEPs act as street level bureaucrats when developing systems of support in the face of unlimited demands for their services. At the most inclusive end of the spectrum, are HEPs in which a screening is offered across all students. In some further education colleges for instance, an initial literacy test is administered to all students upon enrolment on a course of study which might funnel students to support for English language skills including support for SpLD. The opposite to this would be a provider where there is no financial support or limited referral processes.

When I first came into HE 20 years ago, there were limited resources in the UK and the institution I worked at offered limited help with the referral process. A fund was available, but it was means-tested, and the student was asked to go off campus to a centre and arrange their own assessment. It wouldn’t have been in my best interests in terms of student expectations if I’d screened everyone, because there weren’t the resources available to support those students. They were troubling times for me, professionally and ideologically!

The current context means that these systems are once again being opened up to funnelling because demands are ever-increasing (disabled student disclosure has risen hugely in the last 30 years), resources are being stretched (in England at least where the funding model is being ‘modernised’), and the model of central support is being questioned in order to move towards more inclusive teaching and learning. Some HEPs are already reducing the amount of funding they provide for assessments of SpLD or are outsourcing their support services to commercial operations. The question is how do HEPs maintain the balance between making support available on a mass basis with limited financial resources whilst ensuring that they abide by their legal obligations and commitment to social justice, widening participation and inclusion.

How to re-define dyslexia in higher education – Rose report – part I

The Rose report (2009) drew together opinions from across the education debate to produce an informed direction for supporting dyslexia in the schools’ sector. Rarely discussed in HE circles, the report has many useful ideas to consider relating to the organisation of support.

It defines dyslexia:

  • as a difficulty in learning accurate and fluent word reading and spelling, underpinned by problems with phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speeds. Phonological awareness approaches to assist learners to improve reading are certainly a key focus of recent approaches in the UK such as those promoted by Maggie Snowling and others, but it’s very unlikely that this is something covered in 1-2-1 specialist tuition session in HE.
  • as a continuum, not a distinct category i.e. there are different levels of severity. By implication assessing someone ‘with’ dyslexia is a complex decision-making process. This an important point to consider for HE as the model is very much about a black and white distinction between someone being given the label of dyslexic vs non-dyslexic. In order to get DSA for example, the student needs to prove they are disabled i.e. dyslexic. This approach is problematic for a number of reasons –  many HEIs have taken this distinction as a means for deciding who can access exam arrangements and what arrangement should be put in place but Rose suggests that there is no sharp dividing line.
  • co-occurring – but these are not on their own markers of dyslexia, because there are a range of overlapping difficulties. For example, it is often suggested that organisational skills might be affected in students with dyslexia, but recent definitions such as in the Rose report suggest that phonological processing is the defining problem. It could be inferred that phonological processing difficulties and verbal memory might interfere with effective planning, but poor organisation is not of itself defining of dyslexia.

Early identification is also emphasised in the Rose report but it is still the case that a large number of students with dyslexia only get formally assessed when they enter HE. I’d estimate anecdotally the rate to be about 20-30%. This could be because they are able to survive at earlier levels of education, but as the level of literacy required gets more and more complex, problems become more acute. However, the story which many students relay, is that there was little support available.

A related problem about finding information on support available at university is also reported. A recent investigation undertaken by postgraduate psychology students at York University demonstrated further barriers which bureaucratic systems of policy implementation create within the sector. For example, whilst many HEPs insist on a post-16 educational psychologist’s report for exam adjustments a number of them don’t offer any support with paying for the report and some have even recently reduced the financial help available.