Earlier this year I attempted to answer the question “What do you mean ‘inclusive practice’?” Following our review of models of support for disabled students, it’s clear that higher education providers have an answer to this question, but their path to reaching a social model can be difficult to navigate.

Review of models of support for disabled students

In 2016-17 HEFCE increased funding to support disabled students from £20 million to £40 million. It has remained at this level in 2017-18. The aim is to help the sector to move towards more inclusive models and to meet rapidly rising demand for disability and mental health support.

Inclusive practice addresses barriers for students before they come up against them; from unsuitable assessment methods or restricted access to learning materials, to policies that particularly disadvantage certain student groups.

The ‘Models of support for students with disabilities’ review provides a picture of the progress made so far. Run by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and Lancaster University’s Researching Equity, Access and Participation (REAP), the report includes a summary of findings from a survey of 105 providers and 13 case studies.

How widespread is inclusive practice?

It’s clear that a lot of activity has taken place since our reports in 2015, which looked at provision of support for students with Specific Learning Difficulties and those with mental health problems and intensive support needs. Nearly all respondents have recently carried out a review of support or have plans to in the near future. Some providers have made significant progress, rolling out lecture capture across the majority of lectures and conducting accessibility audits of modules and digital resources.

When asked how far along they are towards offering an inclusive model of support, the most common response was six out of ten. To move up the scale, they feel further work is needed around staff training, estates and technology adjustments, and inclusive assessments.

The vast majority of respondents to the survey are adopting elements of inclusive support but there’s a lack of consistency:

  • 45 per cent say expectations of inclusive teaching and learning are embedded within formal programme and module review
  • 78 per cent use lecture capture but only 20 per cent record more than half of all lectures
  • 88 per cent provide lecture notes in advance but 45 per cent of these do so for all students
  • 92 per cent provide alternative assessment methods for disabled students but this is usually done on a case-by-case basis.

Funding remains a key issue, particularly with changes to Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). Budgets can be eaten up fairly quickly by additional support services rather than longer-term investments. While providers are becoming more proactive, many are increasingly drawing on central funds to provide services, particularly for mental health.

What else needs to be done?

The report highlights a number of recommendations. Below are just a few questions that the sector might ask itself:

Are there inclusive champions in my institution and who is championing this agenda at the senior level?

Ranging from vice-chancellors to students, many champions are specialists in particular areas such as accessible technology, lecture capture, and alternative assessments. For widespread change to take place, commitment from senior leaders is crucial.

How effective is our assistive technology?

Around a third (32.6 per cent) of respondents felt that more work was needed here. Lecture capture was felt to be important in creating equal opportunities for disabled students, but is difficult to implement on a broad scale. Some providers have rolled this out successfully and have valuable lessons to share.

How much do we understand about inclusive assessments and what can we learn from others?

Providing variety in assessment methods caters to a range of students, but it takes time to revalidate programmes to incorporate this. Understanding of the equivalency of different methods and learning from other disciplines and providers can help.

How well trained are our staff to provide inclusive support?

Without staff understanding of this agenda and the necessary tools, no progress is possible. For most providers, staff training is most common in key areas, such as library and academic staff, and it is not always mandatory.

Is a monitoring and evaluation programme in place to understand the effectiveness of support?

Most providers (85 per cent) who responded to the survey had recently, or are currently, reviewing their provision. They use a variety of evaluation methods, but more needs to be done in this area.

What next?

The research highlights the need for sustained investment in infrastructure to support disabled students, but also a continued and accelerated effort by providers to make necessary changes.

We hope that the findings and recommendations from this review will help colleagues to drive the improvements needed.

Read the ‘Models of support for students with disabilities’ review

Read more about how HEFCE works with providers to support disabled students