ERG SES E 07, Policies in Education
This paper describes the rationale for, and outline of, a research project that will examine the effectiveness of higher education policy and practice for students with disabilities through the lens of day-to-day experiences of academic staff of working with student disability policies and procedures. The aim is to gather the perspectives of lecturers working at the point of delivery of disability policy. This is an important perspective because academics are now carrying the legal obligations of universities to students with disabilities in their understanding and enactment of these policies and procedures. The project will also develop a critical theoretical framework that builds on aspects of the social and the medical model of disability along with theories of agency. Economic conditions across Europe have negatively affected disabled people (European Commission 2010), for example: in the UK from 2016, there has been a reduction in state provided financial support for higher education students with disabilities. At the same time European Union member states face increased responsibility under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), now incorporated into the European Disability Strategy 2010-20 (European Commission 2010). In the UK the UNCPD underpins the Equality Act 2010 and the recent reductions in state funding have been justified on the basis that individual institutions rather than governments have a responsibility to provide ‘reasonable adjustments’ under the Act (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills 2014, p.7). This neo-liberal form of policy implementation appears to empower students and institutions to respond in the most appropriate way but also compromises the social justice principles of equality legislation by providing a focus on individual responsibility.
It is important to understand the implications of this newly strengthened duty on HEIs as it occurs alongside a rise in students declaring a disability in the UK, including mental health conditions (UCAS 2015, Williams et al. 2015). In addition the staff who enact the policy are more likely to be on short term temporary contracts (Lopes and Dewan 2014) and\or to face the growing workload of the HEI workforce (Locke, Whitchurch, Smith et al 2016). There are questions about whether such an approach puts students at risk of harm and staff and institutions at risk of prosecution.
This research objective is to gain a new insight into the staff’s experiences of disability policies and their perceptions of how this works for students and for academic staff. It also aims to critically explore and theorise this neoliberal approach and identify the positive and negative effects it is having on staff and students. Ultimately it will also have practical outcomes such as identifying good practice and areas for improvement from the perspective of teaching staff. The new knowledge has the potential to highlight gaps in procedures and contradictions in policy and therefore could benefit disabled students, teaching staff and institutions.
In response to the reduction of state benefits for university students and pressures on HEI funding, the reports to Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) on support for students with disabilities and mental health conditions found that most HEIs aspire to organise their provision around the ‘social model of disability’ by using a universal approach to provision. This aims to remove barriers to learning for the majority of students through changes to teaching and learning practice (Rodger et al. 2015, Williams et al. 2015). However, the aspiration to simply remove barriers in line with the social model may be a simplification of the complexities of disability and equality in HEIs. Shakespeare (2002, p.17) suggests that “the ‘barrier free environment’ is an unsustainable myth...”
It could be argued that the risks of stigmatising differences through the process of identifying students eligible for state assistance are being replaced by the risk of individual needs not being met by the universal approach. This reflects the ‘dilemma of difference’ (Norwich 2006). The context of this research reflects the concept of ‘dilemmas of difference’ in that the changes in financial support for disabled students suggests “a situation where there is choice between alternatives when neither is favourable” (Judge 1981 cited by Norwich 2006, no page). However, research into the experiences of academics could inform the dilemma, for example: their experiences of providing for the individual needs of disabled students versus changing their teaching and learning approaches to include all students. Therefore the primary questions that will guide this research aims to answer are: What are the experiences of academics of meeting the needs of disabled students in an environment that aspires towards the “social model of disability” (Oliver 2013)? What are the day-to-day experiences of academics of collaborative working with disability support departments? The project uses an inductive approach using a “mixed methods multiple case study design” (Plano Clark and Ivankova 2016, p.147) across two anonymised universities. A “sequential Qual-Quan” process (Plano Clark and Ivankova 2016, p.123) means collecting qualitative interview data alongside documents and artefacts, followed by quantitative survey data to corroborate initial results. I intend to contact between twelve and sixteen academics in two universities to provide breadth to the findings. This number is based on the sample size suggested by Lopes and Dewan’s study (2014). Access to participants will be partly through personal networks and reliant on “snowballing techniques” (Lopes and Dewan 2014, 31) but will also include semi-structured interviews with both a disabled student participant in each university and at least one of their lecturers, to provide two different experiences of the same encounter. This will provide further depth to the findings. A questionnaire will be piloted prior to the wider survey and a pilot study is planned to provide data from in-depth interviews and focus groups to establish the issues to be investigated in the main study.
The additional knowledge provided by this research has the potential for influencing higher education disability policy and changing teaching and support practices by contributing to further understanding of disability issues at a time of change. This includes adding to knowledge around “academic precarization” (Lopes and Dewan 2014, p.29) or rising insecure contracts for academics in higher education which has taken place across Europe under neoliberal policies of marketisation (Lopes and Dewan 2014), and its effects on provision for an increasing number of disabled students. The principle of researching into the experiences of stakeholders who are on the periphery of disability support, or providing “informal support” (Williams 2015, p.61) such as academics, could also be used as a reference for future studies on disability in higher education such as the experiences of the careers service, chaplaincy, student union or work placement organisers. It could also be a principle relevant for commercial organisations aiming to increase diversity in the workforce.
Communication (EU) 2010/636 From the Commission to the European Parliament, The Council, The European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions. European Disability Strategy 2010-2020: A renewed Commitment to a Barrier-Free Europe  COM (2010) 636 final. Great Britain. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2014. Higher Education. Disabled Students’ Allowances: Equality Analysis [online]. London: Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS/14/1108). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/392610/bis-14-1108-higher-education-disabled-students-allowances-equality-analysis-revised-16-12-2014.pdf [Accessed 31 January 2018]. Locke, W., Whitchurch, C., Smith, H., and Mazenod, A., 2016. Shifting landscapes Meeting the staff development needs of the changing academic workforce [online]. York: Higher Education Academy. Available at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/shifting_landscapes_1.pdf [Accessed 20 October 2017]. Lopes, A. and Dewan, I., 2014. Precarious pedagogies? The impact of casual and zero-hour contracts in Higher Education. Journal of Feminist Scholarship [online], 7 (8), pp. 28-42. Norwich, B., 2006. Dilemmas of difference, inclusion and disability: international perspectives. British Educational Research Association Annual Conference [online], University of Warwick, 6-9 September 2006. Education-Line. Available at: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/161083.htm [Accessed 21 October 2017]. Oliver, M., 2013. ‘The Social Model of Disability: Thirty Years On’. Disability & Society, 28 (7), pp.1024-1026. Plano Clark, V., and Ivankova, N., 2016. Mixed Methods Research: A Guide to the Field. Thousand Oaks, Ca: Sage. Rodger, J., Wilson, P., Roberts, H., Roulstone, A., and Campbell, T., 2015. Support for Higher Education Students with Specific Learning Difficulties Report to HEFCE by York Consulting and University of Leeds [online]. Leeds: York Consulting LLP. Available at: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/media/HEFCE,2014/Content/Pubs/Independentresearch/2015/SupportforStudentswithSpLD/HEFCE2015_spld.pdf [Accessed 20 October 2017]. Shakespeare, T., Watson, N., 2002. The Social Model of Disability: an Outdated Ideology? Research in Social Science and Disability [online], 2, pp.9-28. UCAS, 2017. End of Cycle 2016 Data Resources DR2_025_05 Acceptances by disability (Applied before June deadline and UK domiciled) [online]. Cheltenham: UCAS. Available at: https://www.ucas.com/file/86286/download?token=Yz8JwdP_ (UCAS 2016) [Accessed 21 October 2017]. Williams, M., Coare, P., Marvell, R., Pollard, E., Houghton, A., Anderson, J., 2015. Understanding provision for students with mental health problems and intensive support needs. Report to HEFCE by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and Researching Equity, Access and Participation (REAP) [online]. Brighton: Institute for Employment Studies. Available at: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/media/HEFCE,2014/Content/Pubs/Independentresearch/2015/Understanding,provision,for,students,with,mental,health,problems/HEFCE2015_mh_.pdf [Accessed 20 October 2017].
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