Re-visioning support for disabled students in HE

The discourse of recent policy directives from (the late) Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Department for Education (DfE) is attempting to drive HEIs towards “the social model” of disability, on the back of cuts to the funding grants that are allocated to individual disabled students.

However, the sector is still working with outdated models of support and requires more radical policy solutions. For example, HEFCE suggested that the social model of disability is a key framework for considering how the sector should approach support for disabled students. Authentic social model thinking asks us to frame our approach in terms of removing attitudinal, social, and environmental barriers – instead of focusing on an individual’s impairment (medical model thinking). But the latest policy directives, and HEFCE-commissioned research, still use terminology which is out of kilter with the social model i.e. students with disabilities. Similarly, current ways of accounting for disability services in HE rely on HESA/HEFCE frameworks built with metrics/KPIs such as the numbers of students who have disclosed an impairment on application, or at enrolment. The sector needs to start measuring how much resource has been committed to making estates accessible; how many diagnostic assessments for dyslexic learners have been arranged and paid for; and how many adjustments to assessment have been made in an academic year. This approach tells us the size of the commitment that the HEI has put towards reducing barriers and doesn’t rely on medical model statistics.

Universities need to rethink disability services to become inclusive

The DfE’s emphasis is to re-focus efforts towards inclusive teaching and learning, but university disability services are not currently designed to address this undertaking. The diagram below is a simplified model of how support for disabled students is organised within most HEIs. Disabled student characteristics and disability support services are over-emphasised. And most HEIs place disability services at the forefront of responses to the current policy changes. In HEFCE’s recent research, models of good practice are shown to be originating in disability services whereas they should be emanating from educational development services or from within teaching faculties. HEIs which are going to be at the forefront of inclusive practice are those which encourage change to be driven from within academic departments, and not from centrally-organised provision within student services. In the future, disability services have an important role to play in providing supplementary services such as assessing student support needs or providing support through interpreters or note takers, but they shouldn’t be at the forefront of changing teaching and learning.

Fig. 1: the Current model of disability service provision in UK higher education

Source: Mike Wray

In the existing model, Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) still play a significant role in underpinning support because of the amount of funding they provide. But this funding model relies too much on individual student characteristics. One of the few pieces of research in this area, from the National Audit Office in 2007, reported that students who claim DSA get better results than those who don’t, and even better results than non-disabled students. But only around 50% of those who declare disability within HE claim DSAs. This might be because claiming DSA requires students to be aware of the grants and to go through a notoriously bureaucratic process which requires a considerable amount of perseverance. Motivational characteristics and social capital have not been researched as reasons for differential outcomes for DSA claimants, but they are likely to play a significant part in how successful those students who do receive DSA are on their courses.

A way forward

So how can the interests of disabled students best be progressed? One useful suggestion comes from the 2009 Rose report into support for dyslexic learners in the schools’ sector. The pyramid model (a variant of that presented in Rose) below moves beyond thinking about how disability services fit into provision and instead asks “what’s the best approach for supporting teaching staff in delivering improvements in educational outcomes for disabled learners”?

How would this look in the HE sector? Specialist skills are already present amongst a significant number of trained specialist tutors, but these staff mostly sit outside of academic departments and need to have their roles re-imagined, in order to gain more academic credence i.e. be embedded in academic departments and have a higher education teaching background.

Fig. 2: reconfiguring dyslexia support in HE

Source: adapted from the 2009 Rose Report 

At the bottom of the pyramid lie core skills that all academics can deliver through inclusive practice models such as universal design for learning. Such approaches propose that much of this can be delivered if it is factored in at the course design stage and not added in an ad hoc fashion as problems present themselves.

And, crucially, resources need to be committed into the middle tier of this pyramid so that some staff in academic departments in all HEIs have advanced skills: the sector cannot solely rely on “champions” to deliver this work, as envisioned in the HEFCE-funded research. We need to train academic staff and commit resources such as creating academic roles within departments (only some HEIs currently have academic disability coordinators) to take on this work, in the same way as schools must commit resources to fund special education needs and disabilities coordinators (SENCOs). SENCOs are focussed on learner achievement, offer added value, and redress educational disadvantage: surely this is what all HEIs are in the business of delivering.


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