University with Disabled Student Allowance – well, that didn’t work!
Sarah Driver’s son really wanted to study Economics and Politics at university, but was failed by the system. Here she tells his story and makes suggestions for change.
I have been meaning to write this blog for some time now and I’m questioning why it has taken me so long. I think the reason is that it marks a very painful time for me. As a parent who has tried so hard to ‘level the playing field’ for Archie, I’ve realised that you just can’t sometimes, and that’s hard.
As a reminder, my son Archie with 2As and 1C at A-Level set off to Manchester University in September to study Economics and Politics. Here is my blog about how we tried so hard to be prepared and here is my blog about how we were thwarted. In a nutshell, despite best efforts on our behalf to get Archie to university, ready to go with his software learnt and in place, he set off with a 2-day old computer and 2 hasty 3 hour sessions with a tutor who didn’t really understand the Reading programme herself.
We were still hopeful. He had £7,000 of support from the government – computer, software, 6 training sessions and the equivalent of 2 hours learning support sessions a week. In addition, we’d been in touch with the Student Support Service (SSS) at Manchester, he’d chosen his modules so his reading list could be sourced electronically, they knew of his needs and he was prepared to work really hard.
Fast forward to mid-January and Archie has left university, his hopes and dreams of a degree in tatters. As he says, ‘higher education is just not for someone like me’ and instead he’s trying to work out what he wants to do, with the prospect of pub jobs on the horizon. Yes, he may end up as the Richard Branson of dyslexia fame, but equally here is a boy who really, really wanted to study Economics and Politics, is capable of doing so – and has been failed by the system.
Here’s what went wrong.
- Because his Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) was late and because the cheapest provider was chosen by the government (Assistive Solutions), he went to University with a brand-new computer that kept crashing, losing everything he’d put on there and meaning he couldn’t use the expensive software.
- David at Assistive Solutions actually was great in that he did his best, but they couldn’t get a ‘real person’ in the whole of Manchester to give Archie software training until he’d been there about 7 weeks. He did try to do it remotely, but the internet in his halls of residence wasn’t strong enough, he booked a room in the library but was constantly interrupted because ‘you can’t have a room on your own’ (why?), and remote training is slow and labourious, especially when your computer keeps breaking. By the way, once he had his computer, Assistive Solutions just weren’t interested in whether it worked or not.
- Manchester University said the computer wasn’t their problem.
- Archie’s study support was provided by Assistive Solutions and given by a lady with no connection or understanding of the systems in the university and in particular no knowledge of how to accurately reference in the required style. Manchester University said Archie was getting support and that was that.
- In addition, the Student Support Services insisted on communicating with him by email, which he couldn’t access half the time and couldn’t read when he could access it, rather than by texts to his phone. He could book the odd 20-minute chat, several days hence, but that didn’t really cut the mustard with a boy who was simply drowning.
- No electronic books were made available, he attended lectures where the software didn’t work, with lecturers who had no knowledge or interest in his problems – save one, a wonderful tutor who seemed incredulous that Archie had got as far as he had.
- He instigated discussions about alternative ways of testing Archie, but the SSS came back and said that would be unfair to other students! I did have to point out that they were about 20 years behind and were they suggesting that the provision of ramps for wheelchair users was unfair to others as well?
- Not only had Archie not received any practice with a reader and a scribe for his mid-term exams, they actually never bothered to give him a timetable of these exams, let alone a reader and a scribe. The lovely Ralf scribed one paper that he got about 80% in, and they then decided he didn’t need to take the rest, despite his having revised.
Incidentally, he had a go at a Politics essay, which took hours and hours and had no referencing and was delighted when he got 75% – having had a sizeable deduction for the lack of references.
I could go on but you get the drift. To their credit, when I wrote to the Vice-Chancellor, Ms Rothwell, she did get some senior people ‘on it’ with the up-shot that Archie can try again in September and they’ll see if they can do better. But it shouldn’t have been like that.
Only 14% of those who have SEND get to university in the first place, and I’d be interested to know how many last.
So how can disabled students be better supported at university?
Here are my suggestions of a way forward, of a way that ensures that those in our society who are capable of meeting the admissions criteria for university, but who have a disability, are able to access the curriculum, to show their ability and to be rewarded for their hard work and time with a decent degree.
- Make the whole issue of DSAs part of school or college university application procedures – what it is, how to apply, top tips (see my first blog).
- Ensure Student Finance deal with these promptly, allowing the public to talk to those managing these applications.
- Do not create bogus rules, e.g. dyslexics only get one hour of support whatever their actual need is – is this even legal?
- Ensure all universities are accountable – create a clear, transparent guide of what universities should be expected to supply in terms of support and rate them accordingly. A web page with all that is on offer is just that, a web page, if in reality, as we found out at Manchester University, it doesn’t translate into real help.
- Universities should have a ‘summer school’ of 2-3 days for all of their disabled students so that they get to know the site, the library, how to reference, where to get help and, more importantly they get to meet each other and build a support network with others who have similar issues. If we can manage this between primary and secondary schools, why not universities?
- All DSA funding in relation to software training and student support should go to the university (apparently this can happen but Manchester opted out) so that students can go to one place when their computer breaks, speak to one department when learning software and have training that relates to the university set-up that they are in.
I’m going to Westminster Higher Education Forum on 6th February and will see what I learn there, but will also try to feedback what Archie has experienced first-hand. Whilst Archie’s comment to this blog is ‘my advice is don’t bother trying to go to university’, I’d like to see a culture change in our society so that in 10 years time, the ‘Archie’s’ of this world will go on to higher education, as they deserve to.