The combination of Brexit and concerns about international competitiveness, the pressure on institutions to widen access and deliver ever better and more valuable user experiences to justify increasing fees and the implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework, have all intensified focus on the quality of teaching and the learning experience.
Simultaneously, changes to the Disabled Students' Allowances regime have fuelled interest in inclusive teaching practices devised to meet statutory equality obligations through a more strategic approach to reasonable adjustments. That such practices carry a wider range of benefits than merely assisting with baseline legal compliance makes the case for inclusivity compelling.
HEFCE data show that around 10% of all students in the UK have disclosed a disability. The proportion of disabled students varies between institutions, but some report disclosure rates at or above 20%. Most agree that the true figure is even higher than this - particularly as there is no general legal duty on students to disclose that they have a disability - meaning that in many providers, disabled students constitute a significant proportion of the community.
Disabilities come in many forms, physical and mental, with students recognised as being vulnerable to a range of them. Making the transition from home to university can be challenging, requiring adaptation to a new place and more independent ways of working. The pressure on students to do well is considerable. Mental health issues, which tend to be underreported, are now recognised as a core driver of drop-out rates.
The argument for inclusivity is simple - if an institution invests in inclusive practice for the benefit of all students, it is likely to significantly reduce the cost and time needed to make individual adjustments the law requires for disabled students. There should also be a decrease in complaints, a rise in student satisfaction, more successful learning outcomes and significant reputational enhancement that may also be reflected in TEF results.
The decrease in funding of Disabled Students' Allowances (DSA) is one of the most significant financial developments to hit the HE sector in recent years. The logic of the cuts was presented as incontrovertible: levels of public funding had become unsustainable and institutions should bear more responsibility not only for ensuring compliance with the Equality Act 2010 (the Act) and public sector equality duty (which they should be doing anyway) but also for creating more inclusive teaching and learning environments for the benefit of all students. Whilst DSA funding has not ceased altogether, it is now considered by Student Finance England to be only the 'top of an apex of support, underpinned by an inclusive environment, and individual reasonable adjustments where required'.
The extent of the reasonable adjustments duty is still often misunderstood. Although the obligations imposed are wide, extending to individual students and being anticipatory in nature, it is not the case that the law requires providers to make adjustments for all students, who previously benefitted from DSA support (though many may choose to do so). To be protected by the Act and therefore be eligible for adjustments, a student must meet the technical definition of 'disability'. This goes beyond having a recognised condition or diagnosis to there being a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the individual's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities that has or is likely to persist for more than 12 months.
Another misconception is that the Act requires adjustments to be made to genuine competence standards. Schedule 13 of the Actdefines a competence standard as an 'academic, medical or other standard applied for the purpose of determining whether or not a person has a particular level of competence or ability'. As the application of a competence standard does not come under the Act's definition of a 'provision, criterion or practice' there is no requirement for providers to make reasonable adjustments to the standards themselves.
What providers should do is take all reasonable steps to ensure that disabled students are not disadvantaged in demonstrating their competence whilst protecting the integrity of academic standards and learning outcomes. This position is reinforced by both the Equality Act Technical Guidance for Higher and Further Education and the quality assurance regime overseen by the QAA. Under the latter: “academic assessment practices must ensure that disabled students are given the opportunity to demonstrate the achievement of learning outcomes and competence standards.” [Precept 12] and “whilst there is no duty to make any adjustment to a competence standard itself, the duty does apply to the assessment of that standard, that is, to the process of enabling a student to demonstrate that they meet the standard”. This may include alternative assessment tasks and, if necessary, consideration of transfer to another suitable course. True inclusive practice is of course far more than 'lecture capture', important though that is. It means developing programmes where competence standards are considered carefully and taking anticipatory action is a matter of routine.
Inclusive practice chimes with the social model of disability, which recognises that inequality is the product not of individual limitations but of a failure to remove the obstacles that prevent disabled people from participating equally. This is a key message of the best practice guidance on the subject produced by the Disabled Student Sector Leadership Group (DSSLG) for HE providers (including colleges) published in January 2017 and will inform HEFCE's latest sector review.
Historically, disabled students have been significantly more likely to make complaints about their course, both to their provider and to the OIA, than their non-disabled peers. This is reflected in the OIA's new draft 'Good Practice Framework - supporting disabled students' guidance. Whilst emphasising that the general principles of the Good Practice Framework apply to all students, disabled or not, the guidance also makes inclusivity recommendations with disabled students in mind. These include the improvement of procedural accessibility and clarity, through considerate language use and formatting as well as the adjustment of normal process where it would be reasonable to do so to remove disadvantage.
The consumerisation of higher education under the watch of the Competition and Markets Authority and implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework, with its focus on student opportunities and outcomes irrespective of background, and the growing importance of student surveys,means there are further benefits for institutions moving towards greater inclusivity. It is increasingly apparent that students investing more in their higher education experience expect institutions to provide a more widely accessible learning environment whether or not those students happen to be disabled.
The case for inclusive teaching and learning is now well-established and being embraced by an increasing number of institutions. Indeed, it has already resulted in a clear move away from the focus on individual needs that was fostered by the old DSAs system. This does not mean there is no longer a role for DSA funded individual support, only that it should be joined by a pervasive move towards inclusivity for all. HEFCE's decision to double the funding available to disabled students to £40m and to publish a sector review, confirms there is top-level interest and support. But it remains the responsibility of individual institutions to make inclusive practice an integral part of their culture. Legal compliance is important but the benefits of inclusivity offer so much more.
Adapted from article originally published in University Business.