Imagine being told that you cannot apply for any form of examination adjustment when you have cancer and are undergoing chemotherapy.
Or imagine being charged more than your peers for your accommodation because you happen to be disabled.
Or imagine – as has been widely reported – being repeatedly made to sit in the stairwell of your lecture and regularly being left with no option but to sit in corners, by entrances, or without a desk to make notes.
In January my university’s Disabled Students Network (DSN), of which I am a member, released a report based on the testimonies of disabled students detailing the ways in which disabled students are denied equal access to education. Our testimonies – stories that are reflected at universities across the UK – show that the sector is failing to inform students of their right to relevant reasonable adjustments, and when students ask for them, they are often denied without legal grounds.
Even when support is there, it is sometimes provided in such a way that puts the student at a “significant disadvantage”. This could look like a 2-month delay to support at the start of their course or the student having to “chase after” support by email each week.
Poor adherence to the 2010 Equality Act in relation to disability is reported at a variety of universities as well as by a number of national reports. This trend has caused the Higher Education Commission to hold an inquiry into disabled students’ experiences in higher education, the results of which will be released in May.
As the evidence mounts there has been talk of increased oversight – the Higher Education commission went so far as to describe 2020 as a “momentous year for legislation protecting the rights of disabled students”. Disabled students will welcome this change – a decade of universities failing to follow the 2010 Equality Act has demonstrated a need for greater oversight. The Office for Students, which determines if universities are able to charge fees up to £9,250, does not investigate universities’ disability services or disabled students’ experiences.
Instead it asks that universities state how they plan to reduce the difference between outcomes gaps – between disabled students and nondisabled students entering the university, continuing with their studies and performing in their degrees. But what if disabled students struggle on and achieve in an unlawful environment? To my knowledge there is no evidence that “outcomes” measurements reflect to which degree a particular university provides disabled students with reasonable adjustment.
It is also not just about funding. Without oversight, the incentive for universities to invest in equality can easily be trumped by other interests. For instance, in 2016 new Disabled Students Allowance regulations meant that universities were given additional legal responsibilities, including the responsibility to not charge disabled students more if they needed accessible accommodation. And yet four years on many universities are showing no awareness of this aspect of the law, and some direct students to “hardship funds” instead.
Holding universities accountable
One way to increase oversight is to tie universities’ funding and permission to charge students high fees to the implementation of practices designed to enable the university to follow the law. Our report suggests a great number of useful practices, but I want to focus on those practices which empower students to hold their universities accountable to the law. There are currently a number of barriers which prevent disabled students who are experiencing discrimination from calling out their universities.
Information about rights and adjustments
Most of the students who tell me about their issues have no idea that what they are experiencing may be classed as discrimination. Neither do most staff members who discriminate.
OfS, OIA, universities and the government need to understand that It is impossible to speak up for your rights when you do not know your rights. When a university fails to proactively inform students about the existence of specific services and the right to access them, the university is making it very difficult for itself to be informed about the ways in which it is not acting in keeping with the law. Even if the student is directly asked if their rights are being respected, students cannot give an informed answer.
This barrier is compounded when staff who deliver disability services or who evaluate complaints are not aware of disability law. In such cases staff will fail to inform students or misinform the students about their rights.
Whenever I would bring up my situation to my examinations officer he would advise me to either drop out or simply get on with it.”
Reasonable adjustments and raising issues
Universities are consistently failing to provide students with reasonable adjustments. When this happens, the student who is affected (and thus would be ideally suited to complain), often is so disadvantaged that they do not have the time or energy to advocate for themselves or others.
[my lack of support] is directly negatively impacting my ability to keep up with assignments, homework, studying”
This barrier is further compounded when students are not actively supported in raising complaints. Even when there is an SU Disabled Students’ Officer, in all but one university this person is a full-time student. I have yet to hear of a case where a university employs an advocate with knowledge of disability rights. This is partly due to the assumption that the disability services department has the role of helping a disabled student resolve any accessibility dispute. This is not only incorrect but results in a conflict of interest in those cases where the disability services themselves are the target of the complaint.
OfS, OIA, universities and the government need to understand that even when students know their rights, they need qualified independent advocacy.
Internal accountability and oversight
At most universities disability inclusion is handled separately by estates, academic departments, the disability services department etc, with little coordination or oversight by upper management. This causes problems for students in raising complaints. If your supervisor is uninformed about disability law and denies you adjustments, ideally there should be someone above them who you can speak to.
But if the structures of accountability are unclear and there is no group with ultimate responsibility for making sure that each body is acting in accordance with disability law, making it more likely your complaint will be ignored.
[the disability services] did not respond to my complaints for the bullying that I was receiving since 2017 until I met one of the mental health managers in December 2019”
OfS, OIA, universities and the government need to understand that without internal accountability discrimination will not be addressed.
The consequence of these barriers is that many disabled students end up dropping out without ever having made a formal complaint. If a disabled student falls at university, they make no sound.
There are a number of practices that could be implemented to address these barriers. These would be a good start:
- There should be a centralised body with close ties to upper management which has the ultimate responsibility for building accessibility into all aspects of the university. This body should hold disability services, academic departments, estates etc accountable and be an accessible point of escalation for any disabled student who feels that their disability rights have not been respected.
- There should be an annual review of universities’ disability approach based on disabled students’ experiences. This review must extend beyond asking if disabled students achieved the same degree outcomes as nondisabled students to instead focus on whether disabled students are being provided with equal access.
- Information regarding disability support at university and disabled students’ rights must continually be provided to all disabled students, whether they have declared a disability or not. At every level of the disability services and complaints hierarchies, staff must be trained. This includes obligatory training for academic staff such as lecturers and supervisors.
Disabled students are being accepted into universities and asked to pay the same fees as non-disabled students, and yet universities are failing to make the education accessible to us. The suggestions I have put forward as to how students can hold universities accountable are only a part of the puzzle. Others have suggested measures such as using external rather than internal complaints procedures.
The discussion about which legislative changes to make will continue. Given the mounting evidence what is undeniable is that more oversight is needed to safeguard my right to education and that of my disabled peers.