Criticism of Oxford's failure to admit a well-qualified deaf student has highlighted how careful universities have to be in dealing with the increasing number of applicants with disabilities. The number of procedures universities have introduced to deal with disability is a desirable development: a mass higher education environment should by definition be inclusive, and, as in other walks of life, discrimination should not exist.
It is important that the interests of all potential students are safeguarded, and this is the aim of the Special Educational Needs Disability Act (Senda), which comes into force on September 1. But while the aim is laudable, it is important that the act does not place unreasonable burdens on institutions.
All students, with or without disabilities, should be treated the same at the admissions stage, admission being based on a reasonable expectation that the applicant will be able to fulfil the objectives of the programme. No applicant judged academically suitable should be refused a place on the grounds of disability without compelling reasons.
My own institution, like others, issues comprehensive guidelines to admissions staff and tutors, including guidance on teaching and learning strategies and special examination arrangements. We employ interpreters to help deaf students. And, to deal with "exceptional cases", a disability review panel was established three years ago. The panel is composed of disability advisers, admissions and academic staff, with a remit to make recommendations in exceptional cases on requests for additional student support, and to review existing support arrangements. Awareness-raising sessions have also been run relating to Senda, the Quality Assurance Agency code of practice, the university's disability statement and human rights legislation. Disability issues have been included in the student-satisfaction survey and adjustments have been made to webpages to ensure that students with disabilities have access.
But two aspects of Senda give cause for concern. First, institutions are required to make "reasonable adjustments" to accommodate students with disabilities, but with no clear guidance in the Higher Education Funding Council for England code of practice, it looks as though universities will have to judge on a case-by-case basis what "reasonable" means. Situations will arise where a decision on "reasonable" adjustment involves financial considerations, where the adjustment would cost more than is available through the disabled student allowance. In other instances there is evidence that students with disabilities have made arrangements for support outside the framework provided by a university, and at a level beyond that which the university might deem "reasonable". Unregulated support can result in a student failing to develop the study skills and capacity for independent working that will benefit them in the future.
The second area of concern is a possible conflict between confidentiality and disclosure of information. Responsible bodies need to know about a person's disability, and universities are striving to maximise opportunities for disclosure. But it seems that once a disclosure has been made, even to one person, then the institution can be deemed to "know". Thus, having taken steps to improve the resources and facilities, institutions will need to have in place mechanisms to ensure that any information disclosed is collected and disseminated. How are large institutions, in particular, going to handle issues of disclosure, and then dissemination, and then keep this information confidential?
The act is a welcome step in ensuring equality of opportunity, but it is important that the improvements in resources, facilities and procedures that universities have already made are not undermined by impossible demands.
Co-chair, disability review panel
University of Central Lancashire