A disabled students’ organisation has called for strict new rules on access to higher education, and – as a last resort – for universities to lose their licence to operate if they fail to meet them.
Disabled Students UK (DSUK), a grassroots organisation led and controlled by disabled students, spoke out after a new report exposed the “unhappy situation” and “undue pressures” facing disabled students.
The report by the independent Higher Education Commission, co-chaired by disabled peer and former home secretary Lord Blunkett, heard how many disabled students were unable to sit in lecture theatres, access learning materials, or secure the reasonable adjustments that had been set out in their support plans.
The Arriving at Thriving report said disabled students faced a “heavy administrative burden” in applying for the support they needed, and then being assessed and chasing up that support.
It said there was a “great deal of evidence” of problems with the disabled students’ allowance (DSA) system.
It also concluded that disabled students are often forced to interrupt their studies because of the “financial burden, a lack of support, and struggling to fully access their teaching and learning”, while the complaints process creates further barriers.
A survey carried out for the commission found that many disabled students were seen by staff and other students as faking or exaggerating their impairments, or just being lazy.
In 2018-19, there were 272,000 disabled students at English universities and colleges.
Among its recommendations, the commission calls on the government to create a new system to support disabled people from the classroom, through university and into the workplace, and to reform the DSA system.
And it says every university should appoint a senior leader to take responsibility for the experiences of disabled students.
Although the report includes evidence from students and universities in Scotland and Wales, its recommendations are aimed at universities, regulators and government bodies in England.
The report has been welcomed by DSUK, which described it as “an important first step toward increased equity”.
A DSUK spokesperson said: “The report suggests that a lack of training causes staff not to understand how to implement reasonable adjustments or make their teaching accessible.
“In line with our own experiences, the report details students being treated as if their conditions are not real, their symptoms are exaggerated, they are lazy or simply need to work harder.”
It said the report demonstrated that the “persistence of failures” in securing equality for disabled students since the Equality Act 2010 became law was due to “failures of oversight”.
DSUK welcomed the report’s call for the Office for Students (OfS) – the independent regulatory body for higher education in England – to do more to monitor disabled students’ access.
This includes recommendations for OfS to: ensure universities provide information about the training they provide staff on disability inclusion; research how universities are reducing the administrative burden on disabled students; and monitor the quality of disabled students’ experiences in higher education.
Universities have to submit access and participation plans to OfS, and cannot secure public funding or award qualifications to students without doing so.
OfS shares about £40 million a year between the universities it registers, depending on their predicted number of disabled students.
But DSUK wants OfS to produce “clear and transparent” rules around access – created in consultation with disabled students – that all universities in England will have to follow, with possible penalties for those that fail to comply to include financial fines or even deregistration as a university.
Phen Woolley-Gale (pictured), political outreach director of DSUK, said: “Many higher education providers claim that they do not have access to adequate funding to fulfil their legal obligations with respect to disabled students’ access.
“We want to see the OfS require proof of these claims.
“For those who are not able to prove that they cannot come up with the money, we want to see monetary penalties imposed in an amount that will make non-compliance the less financially beneficial choice for the provider.
“For those who are able to prove that they cannot come up with the money for accessibility, we want to see the OfS provide funding specifically earmarked for their needs in order to become compliant.
“We would suggest that this funding could be sourced from the penalties imposed on willfully non-compliant providers.
“Deregistration needs to be on the table, but it also needs to be a last resort.”
She added: “The body of evidence showing rampant non-compliance across the sector is already here and it is only growing; we will not tolerate more delays.
“It’s been 10 years since the Equality Act became law; disabled students have waited 10 years for regulatory bodies to follow through on their promises to put us first and ensure we have fair access to our education. We shouldn’t have to wait any longer.”
Chris Millward, OfS’s director for fair access and participation, said: “I welcome the insights from the Higher Education Commission report.
“We will discuss with the Disabled Students’ Commission (DSC)* how best to address the issues highlighted in the report, while continuing to regulate universities and colleges in a way that reflects their diversity of mission and students.”
A spokesperson added: “We intend to discuss the findings of the report with the DSC, which the OfS helped to set up specifically to advise on issues such as this – as such we are unable to respond to specific recommendations at this time.
“The DSC next meets in early December, after which we will be able to provide more information.”
*An eight-strong independent group set up by OfS, half of whose members are senior university figures, but which includes two representatives of disabled students
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