We should be thinking about fee refunds for students with disabilities – every year

The student experience is worse for disabled students, but only when the experience is hampered for all by Covid-19 do we consider refunds. Stephen Campbell wonders why.

The number of disabled students in UK universities is increasing each year.

It has been revealed that 16.2% of home students have declared a disability to their institutions, of which 58,600 are in receipt of Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). The recent House of Commons report Support for disabled students in higher education in England stated bleakly that

…disabled students in higher education have somewhat worse outcomes from higher education than non-disabled students. Students with a disability are more likely to drop-out of courses and those that finish their degree tend to have lower degree results.”

The value of experience, or education?

In 2016 the Government’s DSA reforms were intended to improve value for money and put the onus of responsibility for supporting disabled students more squarely with universities. The question here is what exactly is meant by value for money – is it the value of the support, or the value of the education? If the former, then for disabled students the quality of their support should be reflected in the quality of their student experiences. If the latter, then value is very much taken to mean the quality of education provided by universities.

After all, as the report highlights, disabled students are more likely to graduate with lesser degrees or drop out altogether, and if the statistics are to be believed, that’s with support and funding. Noticeably absent from the report is any mention of financial reimbursement for disabled students, which one would assume should be a consideration given they are statistically less likely to complete their studies.

Covid-19 refunds

Five months on from the abrupt shift to online delivery and the closing down of much else that goes on inside campuses, universities are still grappling with the complexities of providing alternative means of teaching with assurances to students that alternative does not necessarily mean lower quality.

Recently there has been growing calls for universities to consider financial reimbursement for students whose studies have been affected by the Covid-19 adjustments. The House of Commons Petition Committee concluded, for example, that universities should be provided with clearer guidelines on when students have a right to request refunds because of the disruption. They state that a “significant number of students” have complained

 they are not receiving the standard of education that they had expected, feel they are entitled to, or which offers true value for money in light of the amount they are paying in tuition fees.”

Similarly, the NUS recently added to this chorus of discontent by calling on universities to establish

 a student hardship fund and the option for students to retake or be reimbursed for the academic year”

due to fears of future job security and the effect Covid-19 will have on the economy. They urge the HE sector to consider

the option for every student, in every part of education, to redo this year at no further cost, with full maintenance support, while ensuring those returning to education next year receive high-quality education, training and support”.

Considering the estimated black hole in university finances predicted by UCU, it is not surprising that HEIs are reluctant to inflict even greater damage to their precarious finances by countenancing a lowering of fees.

A new problem?

On the face of it, this is a whole new dilemma for the sector, including as it does issues of access/inclusion, adjustments to teaching spaces and the impact of health policies on individuals and institutions.

But in other ways, this is not a new problem, particularly for disabled students already familiar with health-related adjustments, equality of access and alternative teaching. While recent reports reinforce the assumption that universities delivering courses online and in alternative formats have somehow lessened the quality of the student experience, exactly these sorts of adjustments have been in place for disabled students for years, specifically to enable access and facilitate inclusion.

Arguably, this raises uncomfortable ethical questions about the assumed entitlement of non-disabled students to expect compensation for their troubles. But it also raises the question; if non-disabled students are receiving a lower standard of education, does this mean disabled students have always received a lower standard of education?

Missing out

Missing out on ‘the gamut of student life’ such as May balls, earning their blues in sporting events and signing up for countless societies they will never attend will sound very familiar to those students with physical, visual or hearing impairments, long-term illnesses, learning difficulties, emotional disorders or mental health conditions. For many disabled students, missing out on such events is part of the everyday student experience. Academic reasonable adjustments, online/alternative teaching and limited access to bars, clubs and societies is the material reality of their student lives.

Hundreds of disabled students have accessed adjusted courses for years with no refunds, and not in a way that theoretically undermines the academic integrity of their course. In this respect we can see how the present health emergency has highlighted the disparity of student experiences, specifically between disabled and non-disabled students. Where disabled students have traditionally been expected to accept gratefully the adaptations allowing them access to an environment for which they were traditionally excluded, now the current climate has prompted the non-disabled to suddenly decry the lack of full student experience.

The implication of non-disabled students demanding refunds or concerned about the quality of their education is that they expect adjustments to necessarily result in a lower standard of teaching/learning. This, therefore, alarmingly assumes disabled students have always received a lower standard of education.

If refunds are awarded then we must acknowledge what disabled students have been saying for years; there is a profound inequality within this thing called the student experience, and the sector must consider the implications of this for students with diverse access requirements.

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