Disabled students learn outside of the classroom too

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the “commitment” launched earlier this week by the Disabled Students’ Commission.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Like many reports before it, it’s chock full of good recommendations on improving access for and the experience of disabled students in the sector.

I do though worry about the theory of change being deployed. Even where charters of this sort are accompanied by entry forms and assessments to get a medal, folks complain about whether things have really changed – and no such process is proposed for this set of standards.

I worry particularly that a provider picking up the PDF can’t easily differentiate between what they must do, and just should do.

It’s long been the case that many disabled students do well despite the failure of the system to deliver HE that is legally compliant, and much of the document has a sense of “it would be lovely if” about it – which when everyone has no money and is exhausted, means the recommendations run the risk of being something we’ll look at next year, but not now.

There is however one recommendation that I’m particularly worried about. In a section on transition into the higher education community, the group calls for:

Students’ unions and guilds to ensure that their facilities are accessible and that all clubs and societies address the needs and support requirements of disabled students

That all sounds quite straightforward in principle, if often quite tricky in practice – both because of the funding issues for SUs but also because peer-organised activities that run principally through the auspices of clubs and societies are notoriously hard to regulate or improve from this kind of perspective.

There’s also the reality that enthusiastic GDPR interpretations tend to mean that your average SU or its societies don’t know who’s declared a disability, and can’t event work out at aggregate level if disabled students are taking part or not.

But it’s mainly an issue because of the way the sector, via the EHRC, interprets the Equality Act.

The bits in there on further and higher education don’t directly apply to SUs and so (for example) disabled students get very little support to (for example) take part in SU/extra curricular activities.

That’s because, on SUs, the EHRC says:

Although these are often thought of as educational provision, they are in fact service providers under the Act and their legal obligations towards students are covered by the services provisions of the Act accordingly (see Services Guidance).

That’s an interesting interpretation. I can see why the duty might not be directly on the SU. But it’s less clear why there is no duty to make sure the education/benefits that come from extra and co-curricular participation extends to universities to make sure that students can participate in that stuff.

If a group of students on a field trip stops for a bite to eat in a cafe that wasn’t accessible, would the EHRC be saying “ah, it’s fine because the cafe isn’t a public authority”? More to the point, would a student denied access to a placement be able to be fobbed off with “well that law firm isn’t a public authority, so tough luck”.

A glance at any set of photos from an Open Day suggests that SUs and their activities are clearly benefits “offered” by the university, and are clearly educational.

In other words, if a signer is allocated to a student to take part in a seminar, why isn’t someone paying for a signer so the student can take part in a student society committee meeting?

Or put another way, if taking part in a student group is an important part of the educational experience that is funded through fees, why are students only getting proper help with the bit directly provided by the university?

The Office for Students appears to agree. In its Equality of Opportunity risk register, it says that for many students, extracurricular activities are a core part of the higher education experience but these are not equally accessible.

It notes that those who do not receive sufficient access to extracurricular activities may be more likely to report lower wellbeing and/or sense of belonging, experience poor mental health, achieve lower-than-expected on-course attainment and lower continuation rates.

It also notes that differential access to enrichment activities may lead to differential outcomes in terms of progression into further study and employment, and notes that the students this is most likely to affect include those reporting sensory, medical or physical impairments, those reporting cognitive or learning difficulties, and those reporting multiple or other impairments.

I can’t actually remember whether the EHRC and OfS have a formal memorandum of understanding – but particularly as procurement reforms continue over the way the DSA is delivered, it’s long past time for John Blake (who sits on the commission) to intervene in this area to ensure that disabled students aren’t assumed to only have lives in the classroom.

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