Overseeing quality of support for disabled learners in higher education: where next?

If inclusive teaching and learning is to gain traction in UK HE, support for equality needs to be been given more than the cursory glance during quality assurance that it has been afforded in the past.

The QAA is to remain as the agency in the UK that will oversee ‘quality and assessment standards functions’. With a new ‘fully revised’ version of the UK Quality Code due to be published in late 2018 I thought it would be interesting to look back at the role which quality audit has taken in ensuring disabled students get an equitable experience of HE. It’s particularly important at the moment with such an emphasis being placed on inclusive teaching and learning and a move away from the DSA funded support for individual students.

In October 1999, the QAA published ‘Section 3: students with disabilities’ of its code of practice for quality assurance which audit teams were to use when ‘inspecting’ the provision of HEPs. The section contained 24 precepts which covered a whole range of facilities including precepts related to the delivery of academic programmes and examinations and assessments. An example of this being precept 10:

The delivery of programmes should take into account the needs of disabled people or, where appropriate, be adapted to accommodate their individual requirements. (QAA 1999, p. 13).

In 2005 Riddell and colleagues noted that academic staff were aware of the section of the code which focussed on disabled students and by 2007 observed that the section had been recognised as playing a role in the development of provision within HEIs. But teaching staff also expressed resentment at being told what to do by an external agency and for some, quality assurance processes overall are anathema to their understanding of the essence of HE provision.

A review  carried out by the QAA in 2009 of 129 of its institutional audits is somewhat equivocal in relation to the impact of section 3 of the code (QAA, 2009). Whilst it was reported that 95% of audit documents mentioned disabled students, it also noted that there is no requirement to report separately on support available and therefore there were no references made to this provision in sections within audits reports which related to good practice. Nor were there any recommendations for action made by the auditing teams (QAA, 2009). It is perhaps indicative of the approach taken to support for disabled students within institutional audits that the report mentions ‘only a small number of the institutional audit reports specifically identified features of good practice in the area of meeting the needs of students with disabilities in aspects of learning and teaching’ (QAA, 2009, p9).

My own experience of QAA audits and of other quality assurance processes in HEPs is that disabled student support is given a very cursory glance. Disability staff in HE are often pulled in at the last minute as an afterthought. I’m sure many readers will have experienced taking or making a phone call a week before such a process is due to take place, when the question ‘what are we doing to ensure disabled students are supported properly?’ is asked. This is despite quality assurance relating to equality issues being ignored for the previous 4 or 5 years since the same processes were undertaken.

In 2010, an updated version of the QAA section was published which contained precepts that reflected a more inclusive style and which paid heed to the social model of disability and the need to remove barriers to participation (QAA, 2010). However, in 2013 the specific section on disabled students was removed from the code and replaced with mentions within ‘chapter B4: enabling student development and achievement.’ This new chapter also amalgamated chapter 8 which was related to careers advice. These topics are odd bedfellows. At the same time references to disabled students were included within the chapters which specifically refer to teaching and learning and assessment and prior learning.

Whilst embedding references to disability within the other chapters of the code represents a more inclusive approach the move was perhaps questionable given the evidence from the QAA’s own review of audits. A more prudent approach might have been to ensure compliance to the existing separate section. It’s always a difficult balance to get right – being inclusive by embedding these issues throughout such processes whilst not losing the essence of what you are trying to achieve. In my opinion we went too far at that point in time.

Chapter B4 also pushed HEPs to ensure that they are pursuant of their obligations under existing legislation such as the Equality Act 2010. But there is very little joined up thinking around the EA2010 and the practice of teaching and learning. Once responsibility for this aspect of quality assurance is farmed out in such a way to other agencies or parts of the university which oversee equality policy, it gets lost with the myriad issues which academic departments are dealing with and becomes the bolt-on process which gets left as an afterthought.

If we are to make progress on inclusive teaching and learning during this next phase of quality assurance, it is imperative that it is embedded within the core processes of audit and that auditing teams and subsequent reports put it up front and central.

Tensions in HE disability policy – #1 student choice in DSA provision

Most policies present difficulties for implementation which result in tensions or dilemmas. HE disability policy is no different and this post highlights one such difficulty. The first tension is that there is some kind of student choice built into the system of DSA funding. When I first started in HE nearly 20 years ago there was ‘real’ student choice at least in the university I was working in. Disabled students could choose to organise their own support in a similar way to that which direct payments allowed. This was mainly because we didn’t have the resources nor the infrastructure to take on that responsibility in the disability office. However, it was often repeated to me (mainly by my manager) that the money belonged to the student and therefore they were responsible for using the money as they saw fit (how things have changed). It was a non-means tested grant after all and at the time universal wholesale maintenance grants were still in the memory of most people working in HE.

The reality of course was that this rarely occurred. There was one highly organised student that I was aware of that was hiring and firing her own support workers but I believe she was also doing this for her daily living support arrangements before she had arrived at university. Also, there was very little support in place anywhere so there was no market from which to choose providers.

As I understand it the monies are still supposed to belong to the student. This is part of the reason for continued government rhetoric around student choice in the DSA system.  It was meant to be a system which gave students control over the services which they required.

But what’s the reality? There is no real choice in the provision of DSA. The way that the DSA will be spent is pretty much tied up by the assessment of needs (AoN) report. Whilst there is a quotation system built into the AoN process to ensure value for money, the student is not given a choice of who will supply any elements. The suppliers who are put in the AoN reports are decided upon by the assessment centres and more recently for NMH by the DSA-QAG database. The student is then told by SFE which supplier has been chosen i.e. the cheapest. In theory the student is allowed to swap suppliers but why would they do this? The process of applying for DSA is so complicated that by this stage most students are beyond the point of caring. And if it was really their money they would shop around; but at no stage does a student see the money nor are they given the real role of being a consumer.

Recently, when students have exercised their choice by switching suppliers to in-house provision or university-preferred suppliers, missives have been disseminated by SFE suppressing the practice. As if there is some kind of underhand activity going on. Various bureaucratic barriers have been put in place to stop this happening which makes a mockery of the notion of student choice. The idea being that the market should be left to create its own fairness through the invisible hand – but of course the market is missing an essential element – a ‘real’ customer. So it’s a false market. In one sense the market is working by creating ‘value’ because prices seem to be falling but not because of laissez-faire policies: rather through a much more deterministic two quote system.

Importantly, we shouldn’t forget that students make their choice when they apply for HE study through UCAS. They choose a university based on several criteria including the disability support available. When a student gets books from the library they are not expecting to pay for those services separately. Nor do they get to take their monies and buy their IT services from different places. So why should they be expected to shop around for their disability support? Especially when transition for disabled students is more complicated than for other students and any additional bureaucracy leads to additional barriers to access.