Time to stop being reasonable on reasonable adjustment failure

TASO - the Office for Students (OfS) funded charity that aims to determine “what works” to eliminate equality gaps - has a new report out on both transition support and mapping reasonable adjustments.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

On the latter, there’s nothing wrong with the report per se – but not only does it feel like we’ve read a lot of it before, it also feels like even if the recommendations were taken up, they wouldn’t move the dial on students being able to access their education.

Part of the problem with the OfS approach to access and participation that TASO exists in the slipstream of is that the regulator is pretty much obsessed with outcomes to the detriment of experience.

So while “a few” respondents were able to identify the relationship between the implementation of reasonable adjustments and outcomes such as awarding gaps, they were unclear about what methods they would use to monitor impact in these areas or to create Type-3 evidence.

It would, I guess, be nice to know. But even if those adjustments had literally no impact whatsoever on educational outcomes, students have a right to them – “right” being, incidentally, a word that isn’t found in the report at all.

Put another way, if having reasonable adjustments in place only shifted the dial a tiny amount on outcomes versus some other sort of intervention, it’s not an option for providers to de-prioritise sorting out the myriad issues identified in the report over things like communication between departments, having to repeatedly re-share information, inconsistency in applying adjustments or students experiencing long delays in getting those adjustments in place.

They have a right to them. A universal right to them. Now.

Meanwhile the extent to which the anticipatory duty is fulfilled (providers must plan and take a strategic approach to addressing the barriers that potentially impede disabled students) differs – progress is “slow” and in some areas, staff continue to “lack an understanding” of what is reasonable within an anticipatory lens, such as flexibility around attendance or the format of assessment.

In other words, it’s fourteen years since the Equality Act 2010, yet those providers are (still) breaking the law.

It’s why the fairly lacklustre recommendations are so disappointing. I’ve read endless reports that say the same things – increased collaboration between academic staff and disability services staff, streamlining information systems, promoting universal design for learning, and offering comprehensive training to staff. But still they don’t seem to be happening.

Maybe this wasn’t the remit of the report, but for me there’s four things that would move the dial here.

First, we need a regulator that cares about compliance in this area. The idea that OfS is consulting on culture wars case studies right now but hasn’t got a condition of registration setting out what it would expect providers to be doing to meet their duties to disabled students under the Equality Act 2010 – including what it expects to see on the anticipatory/strategic duty – is as preposterous as it is offensive.

The second is about embedding advocacy. When disabled students – and, I might add, non-disabled students – understand their rights in this area, they’ll be able to put pressure on that an optional training course never can.

The third is about audit. Universities should be expected to self-audit any gaps in delivery of reasonable adjustment plans and commit to compensating or closing the gaps in response.

It’s both odd and quite outrageous that a university says to a 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. And it’s why – in Sweden – as well as course reps, there’s reps for the study environment who are trained in this sort of stuff.

And then there’s stats. Commercial and financial imperatives drive participation in all sorts of surveys and league tables – but as no such commercial drivers exist for disabled students, an equivalent should be driven by the regulator.

A bolt-on to the NSS for students who believe themselves to be disabled, with pressure to address failings highlighted by the results, would be a real boost. And a requirement to follow up with paid focus group participation, process mapping to address problems and a published improvement action plan to address issues in each provider would likely see real improvements.

The point is that plenty of people think we have a wicked problem (complex, hard to resolve, multiple accountabilities) and deploy tame solutions (training courses, waiting for complaints). But this is a critical problem for these students – and in that scenario, it’s the regulator’s job to turn the heat up so it’s treated like that inside universities.

That’s not to suggest that disability staff (and, indeed, academic staff) are anything other than overworked, or that the funding is there or the systems are there to address all of this. But on that weekend in 2020 when it looked like every student was going to be unable to access their education, Gold Command teams plonked it on the top of the priority lists, senior managers treated it like a crisis, and solutions were found.

That the sector continues to treat disabled students not being able to access their education as anything other than an emergency of that nature is a scandal.

Leave a Reply