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How to take strategic action to deliver equality of opportunity for Disabled students

Endless reports have promised progress on access failures for Disabled students – but how much difference has been made? Meg Darroch and Jim Dickinson take some regulatory ideas for a spin
This article is more than 1 year old

Meg Darroch is Academic Experience Officer at Leeds Beckett SU

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Over the summer, once generic promises like “improving communication” or “becoming more student focussed” were filtered out, Wonkhe’s analysis of the most popular issues across students’ union officer manifestoes placed “reasonable adjustments” for Disabled students up in the top five.

That is not a particularly scientific way of measuring the depth or breadth of an issue. But it does tell us something about the frequency with which “reasonable adjustments” that enable Disabled students to access higher education are not met, and the priority that student leaders are placing on this particular “risk to equality of opportunity”.

In England the regulator has a duty to promote equality of opportunity in connection with access to and participation in higher education. But since its inception it has done this principally by assessing differentials in outcomes rather than opportunities, and looks set to do so in the future too. For Disabled students, that could be a problem.

It is true that on the measures that the Office for Students has, Disabled students assess their experience and achieve outcomes at lower rates than their non-Disabled counterparts. But in many cases, Disabled students’ battles to access their education are overcome, albeit with significant opportunity costs – and the deep failures that underpin those battles often don’t show up sufficiently in outcomes measures.

And anyway – delivering the adjustments that Disabled students need to access their education isn’t like making progress on other EDI outcomes. A student can either access their education or not. That should be fixed tomorrow, not aimed at over a five year period.

Making progress

To interrogate the issue, a group of Wonkhe SUs subscribers met at a policy forum to identify if there were interventions that could be made that might make a difference. There are numerous sources of evidence of lived experience and dissatisfaction from Disabled students – but there is less evidence of that kind of material being interrogated and made subject to process mapping or policy design by others working in higher education.

Bringing together student leaders (both Diabled and not) and SU staff working in voice and advice roles, the forum attempted to kickstart some of the thinking that could drive that work.

Almost all universities have the same or similar processes for Disabled students and reasonable adjustments.

  • First, a Disabled student declares a disability or presents with an enquiry as to whether they may have one.
  • Next, a university service handles the assessment of that disability – referring the student to an external service where appropriate
  • Once it is confirmed that student is Diabledf, a central service will then assesses the disability in the context of the academic programme – identifying aspects or components which it would be difficult to access
  • At this stage the central service designs (or at least selects and compiles) adjustments to teaching, learning and assessment activities as appropriate and sets them out in a plan
  • The student then takes the plan to their academic department for implementation

It sounds great in theory, but so often it’s a process that goes wrong.

Mapping failures

One group was worried that students don’t feel confident in declaring a disability – and are worried about discrimination, particularly in healthcare subjects or others where a placement is assessed. The fear surrounding fitness to practise and getting a job prevents a student even making the first step.

Another group had supported students who had declared a disability, but the person to whom they disclosed didn’t have an understanding of the condition – or made inappropriate assumptions about its impact based on their own prejudices and experiences. Many had seen students whose initial disclosure to academics who had not signposted or referred appropriately.

A number of the round table participants worried about major and significant cultural differences for disclosure for international students – especially given the higher numbers of international students (often on one year PGT courses) and the differences in funding that apply to those students.

All had countless tales of long waiting lists to get initial assessments (especially for NHS assessments) and for many students that resulted in high costs – a large number of students end up going private, and while some universities may refund some costs, any upfront payments in a cost of living crisis are a problem.

And given the delays and backlogs in the NHS, while a Disability service might be doing its best when it avoids a formal diagnosis but instead says something like “you have traits of autism”, that can cause major problems when the student tries to get adjustments implemented in their department.

A number of participants reported a lack of understanding of conditions, and how they affect individuals – all agreed that they need to be person-centred, and need inclusivity by design principles to be embedded. And most had stories of having to repeat oneself and mountains of bureaucracy to wade through – hard for all, but especially for neurodivergent students.

There were other familiar themes. “Just tell us once” processes sounds great but often don’t work in practice – and sometimes students don’t want their condition disclosed, just the reasonable adjustments in place. Staff don’t always look at the system, and when they do they often seem to want to know why the adjustment needs to be put in place – requiring students to “prove” their disability multiple times, and sometimes in public.

And in the academic departments, participants had endless experiences of staff not always agreeing on what is “reasonable” or not – arguing that the central service doesn’t understand the subject, or that such plans are merely advisory, or are somehow a threat to academic standards. And it often up to the student to manage that professional disagreement.

Can you fix it?

There are familiar sounding fixes to all of these problems. Improving training, support and guidance both for Disability teams and academic staff is an obvious place to start.

Reviewing the relationship between the NHS, local services and the university to make assessment faster and more frictionless would also assist.

And initiatives like the Disabled Student Commitment from the Disabled Students Commission should also help in getting the agenda higher up the list of priorities across the sector.

But those are the sorts of things that people have been talking about for years – and this mix of gentle encouragement and soft nudges towards doing better isn’t moving the dial nearly enough on causing urgent action. It’s also the case that the legal impasse over the Abrahart case means that the sector is nor urgently learning the lessons that it should be over making the adjustments that Disabled students need to access education.

So at the forum, we also considered some of the regulatory levers that we would like to see the Office for Students and its nations counterparts consider implementing to provide some meaningful “stick” to go along with long-standing carrots.

1. Anticipating the issues

The first is what we might call “converting incidences to strategy to meet the anticipatory duty”. The law is clear – the duty to make reasonable adjustments is a duty owed to disabled people generally, regardless of whether the provider knows that a particular student is disabled or whether they have any disabled students at all.

This means that they must plan ahead for reasonable adjustments and not wait for disabled people to approach them before considering how to meet the duty. They must anticipate the type of barriers that students with various impairments may face. And they must also anticipate the adjustments they can make to remove these barriers.

Most universities know how many Disabled students they have, and most split out physical or mental health disabilities for statistical purposes. But few have a detailed and strategic analysis of the breadth and depth of conditions and their distribution around the student body and subject areas, and so those universities are almost certainly not strategically assessing the needs of their student body and investing time and attention appropriately.

Without that, decisions on resourcing become ones about casework rather than the anticipatory duty. As with APPs focussed on outcomes, if providers were required to make these kinds of strategic assessments using evidence and student input, and then were required to demonstrate that they had resourced plans to tackle the issues in the assessment credibly, things could improve.

2. Embedding advocacy

The second is what we might call a requirement to “embed professional advocacy”. The advocacy model for students in most universities is far more suited to quality enhancement than it is to tackling the unlawful. Course reps are not qualified to support these cases, part time elected Disabled students’ officers can’t take on the case load, SU advice centres often only attract crises and central Disability services may not be close enough to the academic departments to make a real difference – and anyway, it’s rarely their job to advocate.

So a requirement to ensure that professional advocacy for Disabled students is available to students within academic departments (in partnership with the SU), all in pursuit of the OfS requirement on engagement in its B Conditions, may well resolve issues quickly and help get issues highlighted centrally when they need to be.

3. Self-audit gaps

The third would involve asking a university – in partnership with students – to annually self-audit any gaps in delivery of reasonable adjustment plans and commit to compensating or closing the gaps in response. If you think about it, it’s odd and quite outrageous that the university says to the student “here’s our plan” to be legally compliant and often takes no steps at all to ensure that that plan has been delivered, other than waiting for complaints from students least likely to have the energy to pursue them.

Then if a student or group of students made a notification to the regulator that it then believed ought reasonably to have been picked up in the self-assessment, action could be taken. That should sharpen minds on ensuring plans are followed.

4. National Disabled students survey

Next there is what we might call “satisfaction monitoring with users”. We are able to see the differences in general experiences for students with different characteristics – but this is about the things that are in place for this group of students specifically.

Commercial imperatives drive participation in an international student barometer that looks at agents and application, arrival and orientation and the student learning and living experience. As no such commercial drivers exist for Disabled students, an equivalent should be driven by the regulator. A bolt-on to the NSS that students who believe themselves to have a condition, with pressure to address failings highlighted by the results, could be a real boost. And a requirement to follow up with paid focus group participation and an action plan to address issues in the report would likely see real improvements.

5. Righting the wrongs

Finally, the group discussed the scope for students – both those that are Disabled and those that are not – to be better briefed on the rights that Disabled students have, and how they can enforce them.

If the Office for Students required providers to take steps, either directly or through resourcing their SU, to ensure that all students understood the law and processes in this space, then progress on resolving issues would be faster, students would feel more confident in raising issues themselves, students would be better placed to support each other and students would better understand, and be both accepting and supportive of, the adjustments made to enable others’ participation.

An entire cohort of students graduating aware of the battles that Disabled people go through and what public authorities and others should do as a result would be a welcome side consequence.

With all of these solutions, there is a fine line between capturing and acting on the voices and experiences of Disabled students and a theory of change that requires the unpaid labour of Disabled students for anything to get done. Guidance setting out advice to providers on how to do the former without slipping into the latter would be hugely beneficial.

Market mechanisms

As OfS itself says, a decent regulatory approach should seek to deliver social and policy objectives in areas where market mechanisms may not succeed:

For example, the improvements in access and participation that students and society require will not be delivered by the market alone. This means that the OfS will take direct regulatory action to drive improvement in this area, beyond that necessary to preserve a minimum baseline.”

In a sensible world and in the context of that commitment, the Office for Students would have responded to findings from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator on Disabled students and complaints and acted to intervene strategically. It hasn’t so far – and so as well as urging universities to take action along the lines suggested, we’d urge John Blake to take action too.

4 responses to “How to take strategic action to deliver equality of opportunity for Disabled students


    Martin et al. (2019) Implementing Inclusive Teaching and Learning in UK Higher Education – Utilising Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a Route to Excellence. Project report: Society for Research into Higher Education.

    This research emphasises the requirement for senior leadership buy in, benchmarking and joined up thinking to enable students and staff to understand what sort of support is avaiable and how it can be accessed easily.

  2. Sadly universities are driven by market forces, charging for everything and supplying as little as they can get away with. Adjustments for many disabilities cost money : we all remember that airline that itemised how much passengers were paying so the airline could meet their legal duty to accessibility? Universities are equally unwilling to spend on such students. It’s all very well suggesting senior management buy-in but that’s just the problem, who will pay? Either government must make it a legal duty with teeth, not the wishywashy Equality Act, with financial penalties, or it must fully fund universities to provide adjustments ( ring fenced of course, maybe only available when signed off by disabled students???). Waiting for senior managers to have a change of heart has been going on for 27 years now, since the DDA.

  3. HEPs and quangos need to change their terminology around disability. Declaring or disclosing a disability is not helpful. This negative terminology perpetuates that disability is something to be ashamed and/or embarrassed about. Sharing is a far more empowering notion. And stop using the word interventions when discussing disabled students. Interventions is a medical model description, something myself and many of my colleagues working in disability support are attempting to remedy.

  4. Make each programme publish how it has anticipated disability and how it has introduced changes to learning,teaching and assessment using UDL principles. Advocates would then have information to challenge.

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