In October, after a six-month Inquiry into disabled students’ access, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) released a report with lessons for the government and the Higher Education sector. It states “we cannot shy away from the fact that our evidence demonstrates an unhappy situation for many disabled students”. The evidence validates the voices of disabled student groups all over the country who have increasingly drawn attention to the barriers to access in the last few years. As one such student group, Disabled Students UK welcomes the report as an important first step toward increased equity.
The report takes a holistic approach and details not only the issues disabled students face in accessing their degrees, but many of the structural reasons behind them. We especially appreciate the focus on oversight bodies such as the Office for Students (OfS). It is our position that the persistence of failures detailed in the report, even 10 years after the introduction of the 2010 Equality Act, must be recognized as failures of oversight.
The 2019 Inquiry by the Women and Equalities Committee into the enforcement of the Equality Act finds that while regulators, inspectorates and ombudsmen have a duty of enforcing the 2010 Equality Act, many fail to do so .
The importance of oversight cannot be overstated in relation to disability, where the duty to make reasonable adjustments is anticipatory and the difficulty for individuals to make complaints is greater. As disabled student leaders, many of us within DSUK have tried to raise issues regarding lack of access within our universities, only to be ignored. Some have resolved this by going to the media or taking legal action, but these options are often inaccessible and/or cost-prohibitive to most disabled students. Additionally, unlike the legal system and the media, oversight bodies have a unique position of being able to go beyond individual cases of discrimination to act preventatively – they can require universities to implement structural changes in an anticipatory fashion.
In theory, the responsibility for OfS to hold universities accountable is already laid out in their framework, which states that as a condition of registration HEPs must follow equality legislation. However, OfS requires little in terms of concrete steps toward this goal from HEPs, beyond that they create Access and Participation Plans.
This lack of concrete requirements continues a pattern of disability rights not being enforced within Higher Education. An effective lobbying campaign in the late 90s meant that HEPs were allowed to write ‘disability statements’ outlining what they could offer to disabled students instead of having to implement contemporary legal requirements. In theory HEPs now have full responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010, and yet the main route of enforcement continues to be for universities to write their own plan
We were therefore delighted to see the Higher Education Commission make recommendations for OfS to take a more active role in monitoring disabled students’ access, including:
At Disabled Students UK we wish to add that these ways of monitoring disabled students’ access must be accompanied by clear and transparent rules for what type of findings are acceptable. If the qualitative monitoring reveals that 25 percent of disabled students at a particular university have to wait months for their access to be in place, is this acceptable? If an access and participation plan reveals that a university has made their staff Disability Equality Training voluntary, is this acceptable? Right now universities are not sure which anticipatory (such as staff training) are necessary and which are just nice to have. Nor are they sure what accessibility outcomes are acceptable and what are grey areas.
We suggest that these rules should be created in consultation with disabled students and should reflect the social model of disability as well as the rights laid out for disabled students in the 2010 Equality Act and clarified for Higher Education by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2015.
In the same vein of clarity and accountability, information about the consequences for HEPs which fail to provide students with acceptable access must also be made transparent—whether those be deregistration, monetary penalties or additional conditions for continued registration.
Why should we be thinking about structural improvements to disabled students’ access during a pandemic? As we detail in our report “The Impact of the Pandemic on Disabled Students”, the pandemic has been holding up a mirror to the sector regarding its poor treatment of disabled students. Adjustments, such as access to recordings, that disabled students have been denied for years, were suddenly made available when non-disabled students needed them. At the same time, new access needs, such as the need for captions, have often not been prioritised.
The pandemic has increased our understanding of the importance of accessibility for shock tolerance and as something that benefits the wider student body. The HEC report argues that the pandemic offers a unique opportunity to rebuild the sector and get things right: “We must harness this time of great change in the sector to ensure that accessibility is built in to all teaching and learning from the outset.“
Supported by the comprehensive evidence detailed in the report, we therefore call on the government and OfS to show their commitment toward more equitable access to education for disabled students by adopting these concrete steps to enforce the rights of disabled students in Higher Education.
The report “Arriving at Thriving, learning from disabled students to ensure access for all” was released by the Higher Education Commission in October. The report is based on survey responses of over 500 disabled students as well as written statements and roundtable interviews with a number of stakeholders. The inquiry was chaired by Lord David Blunkett; Kathryn Mitchell, Vice Chancellor of the University of Derby; and Lord Philip Norton, Chair of the Higher Education Commission.
Disabled Students UK is a disabled-student-led organisation. We envision a world where disabled students have the same access to higher education as non-disabled students. We are working to make universities truly accountable to their disabled students and to disability law. We do this through peer support, research, disabled student representative networking, knowledge sharing and lobbying. Originally set up in February 2020 our members now include disabled student representatives from over 30 universities.
For more information, please contact Disabled Students UK at [email protected]