Last month, a leading professor of education argued in Times Higher Education that dyslexia had become a catch-all term for a variety of learning difficulties faced by students and called for its assessment and diagnosis to be rethought.
Julian Elliott, professor of education at Durham University, pointed to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showing that the number of students registered as having the condition had risen 40 per cent in just five years.
But does this mean that all institutions now address the issue seriously and take the same approach to dyslexia assessments and subsequent support? And what are the experiences of those diagnosed with the condition while at university?
To find out, Times Higher Education spoke to a number of disability services in universities around the country. The wide variation in the support on offer suggests that not every institution treats dyslexia in the same way, even after it is diagnosed.
Dyslexic students who have received a full assessment by a clinical psychologist, which usually must have been carried out after their 16th birthday, can apply for the government’s Disabled Students’ Allowance. This grant, which is not means-tested, can provide a full-time student up to £5,161 for the duration of a course. Students can spend this on technology to assist their studies. In their reports, DSA assessors also recommend special exam arrangements to the university.
However, our survey highlighted that some university disability services follow the DSA recommendations but offer no other specialised support for dyslexic students, while others offer extra one-to-one study skills sessions, extended library loans and deadlines, workshops, mentor support and advance provision of lecture notes. Some institutions foot the bill – often amounting to hundreds of pounds – for the full psychological assessment needed to qualify for the DSA grant, but others ask that students pay £150 towards the cost, while a minority make no contribution.
In addition, some services offered by universities for dyslexic students have no government funding for individuals who are not covered by the DSA, including non-UK students and those who have applied but have not yet been approved for the grant. A handful of institutions mirror the funding available through the DSA for non-UK students, while others have a stockpile of learning assistance technology available for those without a DSA report or grant. Some universities, however, may be unable to provide any specific support for those who are ineligible for the grant.
In terms of tailored services for students, some disability departments offered only uniformly identical support regardless of the severity of a student’s problems, while others were able to respond to a student’s specific requirements.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator has dealt with complaints from students whose universities have failed to fulfil even the arrangements granted to them by their DSA report. In one case, a student received extra time in formative, but not summative, assessments; in another, a student was denied a computer in exams, as had been recommended in her DSA report, because, the university said, other dyslexic students did not receive the same provision.
In these cases, the OIA found the students’ cases against the universities to be justified.
Getting help can be hard
Hannah Paterson, disabled students’ officer for the National Union of Students, said that it was “incredibly unfair that the help and understanding available differs greatly between institutions. I have experienced dyslexia and, at times, found the lack of support on campus particularly discouraging – it can be misconstrued as laziness or being disorganised.”
Alexandra Abel, who was diagnosed as dyslexic while an undergraduate, has written about the lack of initial support she received. When she first began to struggle with her workload, she arranged to meet a welfare officer who Ms Abel said told her that the institution “might not be the right place” for her.
A tutor familiar with dyslexia pushed the disability service to arrange an assessment for Ms Abel, which resulted in her being diagnosed with the condition. Two years later, she graduated with a 2:1 and went on to study for a master’s at a different institution, achieving a distinction.
“I think many people just aren’t aware of what to look for with students in higher education,” Ms Abel said. “For me, it was almost as if some people still thought of dyslexia as a form of unintelligence.”
Some advocates for support believe that high-performing dyslexics with developed coping strategies will reach higher education without realising that they have a learning difficulty, and their strong academic performance can make the problem hard to identify.
“Although we have seen some improvements in the past 10 years, staff in some schools and universities are still sadly unaware of their duties in relation to disability issues,” said John Rack, head of research, development and policy at charity Dyslexia Action.
Sheila Riddell, director of the Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity at the University of Edinburgh, co-authored a 2006 paper on the assessment of dyslexic students. She said that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which required educational establishments to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled students, had “focused the attention of universities on their legal obligations”.
But she said she felt that more recently there had been “less focus” on this area. “The present government is less enthusiastic than the previous one with regard to equalities.”
The NUS also argues that the cuts of the past few years are taking their toll on university disability services.
Notwithstanding such concerns, the Hesa data highlighted by Professor Elliott indicate that more students are still being diagnosed with dyslexia. This suggests that any variations and gaps in support may be in the additional measures offered to students rather than in how many undergo DSA assessments.
A spokeswoman for Universities UK said that “each university is autonomous, and decisions are made by institutions themselves”.
But there are moves to try to standardise the support that students can expect to receive. The British Dyslexia Association recently introduced a BDA Quality Mark service for assessing the support offered by educational institutions.
This could help students who have been diagnosed as dyslexic to identify which universities would best cater to their needs. But if this initiative is to have any impact on the sector, it may have a long way to go – at the time of writing, the Faculty of Health at Birmingham City University was the only place with the mark, although a further accreditation meeting is planned for this May.