Developing inclusive approaches to supporting disabled students in higher education

Newsletter articles

20 Dec 2017

Employment Studies Issue 26

Emma PollardEmma Pollard, Principal Research Fellow

IES, working in partnership with colleagues at REAP (Researching Access, Equity and Participation, Lancaster University), has continued to build on its work exploring how higher education (HE) providers in England support disabled students with a new study commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)[1]. This forms part of our wider body of work focused on equality and diversity in the workforce and in education.

The new study focused on inclusive models of support. It investigated what is meant by inclusive teaching and learning; explored how institutions provide this and wider inclusive support and the challenges they face in doing so; and assessed levels of support and the progress being made towards becoming fully inclusive. The increased focus on inclusive support has in part been driven by changing funding arrangements for disabled students. In 2016/17 the government reformed one of the key funding mechanisms, the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). The changes placed further responsibilities on HE providers – making them responsible for the provision of certain levels of medical help, specialist accommodation and costs for some computer accessories – and required a shift from the medical (or ‘deficit’) model of support, to the social model of support. The latter assumes that barriers to individual success in HE are a result of institutional processes and therefore promotes the development of inclusive learning and teaching practices. This was further encouraged by the Government, which identified inclusive approaches as a priority in its 2016 grant letter to HEFCE, and was supported by increased funding from HEFCE to help HE providers move towards inclusive models of support.

Developing inclusive approaches to supporting disabled students in higher education

The new study updates our previous research for HEFCE[2] which considered institutional support for students with mental health problems and/or other impairments with high cost and intensive support needs. A mainstay of support for disabled students has tended to be provided through making individual ‘reasonable adjustments’ to learning support, assessment arrangements, and accommodation (which can include provision of specialist accommodation). These reasonable adjustments are an equality duty placed on all public sector bodies, including HE providers, under the Equality Act 2010. Our original 2015 study found that institutions were starting to develop inclusive curricula. Institutions believed this would help them to provide more support using fewer resources, which was seen as particularly important at the time, in the light of proposed changes to DSA and growing numbers of disabled students. It was recognised that making large numbers of individual adjustments could be inefficient, particularly if they are duplicated multiple times across an institution. Instead, global changes could prove more effective (ensuring accessibility for all regardless of characteristics).

Our new research involved a baseline online survey including factual questions about the nature of provision and also open questions to describe key aspects and characteristics of provision, and to capture views on progress. It was designed so that it could be repeated in 12 to 18 months’ time, in order to measure progress over time at an individual institution level and a wider, sector level. The survey gathered responses from 105 HE providers. In addition, 13 provider case studies were undertaken to allow for more detailed insights to be gathered into the issues surrounding the development of inclusive provision. Case studies were chosen to be representative of the range of providers and their experiences across the sector, and included both further- and higher-education provision, specialist institutions and those offering a wider portfolio of subjects. Case studies consisted of a mix of face-to-face and virtual visits and involved discussions with 59 individuals.

What is inclusive support?

Inclusive learning has been defined as that which is ‘meaningful, relevant and accessible [in both content and delivery] to all’, and is ‘enriched by the varied experiences of students’[3].

A key aspect of this new study was to explore how providers understand inclusivity and the ways in which it is manifested. Most commonly, an inclusive model of disability support – ensuring teaching, materials and resources are fully accessible – was associated with pedagogical changes to teaching, curriculum and assessment/examination, and with assistive technology. Staff talked about using a diverse range of approaches to teaching and assessment to support different learning styles; having course materials available online (often through institutions’ Virtual Learning Environments); providing lecture notes in advance; providing course materials in a variety of formats; considering inclusion right from the start to embed inclusive learning into module and programme development and evaluation; and providing access for all students to a wide range of assistive technology.

One form of assistive technology is lecture capture – the audio or video recording of lectures and workshops – and 78 per cent of responding HE providers used lecture capture for at least some lectures. Other forms of assistive technology include: software for mind-mapping; document-reading; document conversion; speech recognition; and note-taking/recording. Assistive technology (generally digital) was felt to have a key role in moving towards greater inclusivity and accessibility for all students. Technology can increase accessibility, by providing material in a format the students can read or engage with, and can aid inclusivity as it may involve thinking about the programme content and examples used, as well as providing content in different forms.

Inclusive models were also associated with accessible ‘estates’ (eg campuses). Institutions were more likely to report having almost fully accessible social and recreational spaces (47%) than teaching and learning facilities (38%) or residential accommodation (19%).

For institutions, inclusive models could therefore be understood as a whole-institution approach, involving thinking about the design and delivery of courses and services; the physical and virtual space that students engage with; and proactively anticipating the needs of the whole student body. Inclusive approaches meant having invisible practices; support that students are not specifically aware of or that that doesn’t appear different or special; and support that could reduce (but not entirely remove) the need for specific adjustments for individual disabled students.

Moving forward with inclusive models of support

The research found strong support for inclusivity: 60 per cent of providers rated themselves as at least halfway towards being fully inclusive and all providers reported that they are moving forward with an inclusive support agenda. However, providers felt that more could and should be done to move towards a fully inclusive model. Specifically, providers reported that they needed greater staff engagement with training, further adjustments to estates and technology (ie greater adoption of assistive technology), and more work on creating inclusive assessment, teaching and learning approaches.

Institutional culture appeared to be a key stumbling block, as there may not yet be a widespread commitment to, or awareness of, inclusive support within institutions. Indeed, our research identified a high degree of variability in the implementation of inclusive models within institutions, which leads to patchy and inconsistent practice. Providers felt that they needed greater buy-in from academic staff for inclusivity in curriculum design and delivery, and that there needed to be cultural change in order to move to greater inclusion.

The survey and case study feedback highlighted how shifting the culture was felt to be about helping and enabling all staff to think more broadly about inclusive practice, to think beyond making individual reasonable adjustments for individual students and to think about accessibility for all. Shifting the culture is about recognising that all staff have a part to play, that inclusive practice is not just a technical issue that needs to be dealt with by someone else, and that changes can be small but yet still make a big difference. It is also about overcoming individual staff fears and worries that inclusive practice means a complete overhaul in a teaching style perfected over years.

Staff training across the institution is important in shifting the culture as it raises awareness, provides practical information, guidance and support, and encourages action. Staff training also ensures a shared understanding and commitment, and indicates an investment on the behalf of the institution. The research found that institutions offered a range of training to staff but that this tended to be voluntary, focused on general disability awareness or on supporting specific conditions rather than on inclusive practices. Training was also found to be directed at certain staff groups rather than at all staff (academic staff, library staff and those in teaching support roles). Institutions therefore felt that they needed more help and support in furthering staff understanding of inclusive practices.

It is clear that HE providers are passionate about inclusive teaching and learning, and inclusive models more broadly. Some institutions have had a commitment to adopting an inclusive agenda for some time and have made significant progress, but others are new to this. All institutions do recognise, however, that they still have a way to go and will need funding to continue to move in the right direction and to trial proactive, anticipatory approaches to support the whole of their student body. If a second, follow-up survey is commissioned under the new Office for Students, this will provide an excellent opportunity to track progress made.

[1] Williams M, Pollard E, Langley J, Houghton A-M, Zozimo J (2017), Models of support for students with disabilities, Higher Education Council for England (HEFCE)

[2] Williams M, Coare P, Marvell R, Pollard E, Houghton A-M, Anderson J (2015), Understanding provision for students with mental health problems and intensive support needs, Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)

[3] Disabled Student Leadership Group (2017), Inclusive Teaching and Learning in Higher Education as a route to Excellence, Department for Education