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.

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.



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 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.


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.