Policy on disabled needs a more strategic approach

October 6, 1995

Your article on university access and support for disabled people (THES September 29) took a narrow focus. It is correct to highlight the continuing personal struggles by students with disabilities to secure the support they need. It is also right to identify real gains made in the 1970s.

Already by 1975 The Open University included 1,200 disabled people among its registered students and Skill was founded in 1974 (as the National Bureau for Handicapped Students). And there has been progress since. In our case the number of disabled students on undergraduate-level courses climbed by 40 per cent from 1990 to 1994 alone (to 4,825) and the allocation of additional resources within The Open University and in collaboration with other agencies - the RNIB for example - have enabled us to continue to expand services.

The Open University now faces a challenge shared by other universities and colleges. We must secure funding to maintain and develop equal access and quality support for disabled students. The Higher Education Funding Council for England special initiatives in 1993/94 and 1994/95 have provided pump-priming funds to encourage widened participation, but a more strategic approach to policy and funding is required. We need a debate in the United Kingdom about how best to fund access and support in higher education for disabled students. More self-confidence among disabled people, better public understanding of disability issues, and wider changes in higher education - including the scope for application of new technologies to benefit disabled students - increase the urgency of the debate (and the pressure of costs). And can it be fair that part-time students are denied access to disabled Student Allowances? Your article was very timely.

R. W. Lewis

Pro-vice-chancellor, Open University

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