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    Widening access and promoting equality in higher education: implications for disabled students Over the past two decades, higher education has transformed from an elite to a mass system, with a significant reduction in per capita funding. At the same time, new public management has grown in influence, reflected in regimes of accountability such as the Research Assessment Exercise and Teaching Quality Assessment. For example, the Quality Assurance Agencys Code of Practice for Students with Disabilities, published in 1999, specified twenty one precepts of good practice concerning all aspects of activity which institutions must adhere to and which may be subjected to external inspection. Subsequently, a raft of equalities legislation was passed, opening up university processes to much closer scrutiny. Universities are required to return information to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) on the number of disabled students in specific categories and, for the purposes of establishing the level of premium funding paid to an institution, the number of Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) recipients. Part 4 of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), implemented in 2002, requires institutions to avoid discriminatory practices, and the Disability Equality Duty, which came into effect in December 2006 under the terms of the Disability Act, requires institutions to publish disability equality schemes which chart progress over time.

    The DDA has far-reaching implications in terms of its requirement for reasonable adjustments to be made to the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, but a number of uncertainties remain, not least in deciding what counts as a reasonable adjustment. There are also uncertainties about who is covered by the DDA and how severe the condition has to be before the person receives legislative protection. It is clear, therefore, that whilst there are significant new requirements on universities to demonstrate fair treatment of disabled students, there continues to be much room for institutional discretion and the likelihood of variation in practice.

    Support for teaching, learning and assessment in higher education Since the mid-1980s, there have been major changes in the nature and mode of operation of higher education in the UK, with major repercussions for learning support, assessment and wider institutional ethos. Whilst the abolition of the binary line was intended to produce greater uniformity between institutions, it appeared that marked differences remained between the academic culture of the pre-92 universities, emphasising the acquisition of knowledge in traditionally defined subject areas, and the post-92 universities, where the acquisition of vocational knowledge and transferable skills was given greater priority. Bennett et al. (1999) noted that attempts to introduce the teaching of core skills into pre-92 universities were met with considerable resistance, since these were seen as alien to the traditional knowledge-based culture (Dunne et al., 1997). There were also major differences between traditional and new universities with regard to the provision of learning support. Wolfendale and Corbett (1997) noted that new universities and FE colleges were far more used to teaching non-traditional students than pre-92 universities. Whereas traditional universities had to establish learning support services to meet the needs of the expanded student population, these were often already in place in new universities and FE colleges.

    Compared with teaching, assessment practices have arguably been even slower to change. Writing in relation to schools, Simpson (2005) has argued that assessment is regarded as a process which is largely separate from teaching and learning, requiring systems developed by technicians and measurement experts to judge accurately and reliably the learning outcomes achieved in relation to pre-determined knowledge or skills. Assessment remains focused on the learning achieved by the individual student, with little attention to the social context in which learning takes place. Similararguments apply to higher education, where the standard forms of examination and written assignment have remained largely unchanged for many decades, despite an on-going focus in development and research work on how to improve assessment technologies (Elton, 2004). Leathwood (2005) and Morley (2003) note that some attempts to modernise assessment in higher education, such as a new focus on student self-assessment and criterion-referenced assessment, which may have their roots in student empowerment narratives (Broadfoot, 1999), may in practice be experienced as new forms of regulation and surveillance by students and staff, and may do little to challenge structural inequalities in assessment systems.

    In response to the requirements of the DDA that reasonable adjustments be made to assessment, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has funded a number of development projects on inclusive assessment practices, such as the SPACE project (Staff-Student Partnership for Assessment Change and Evaluation) at the University of Plymouth. However, such developments have not been without their critics. Sharp and Earle (2000), for example, have argued that the idea of compensation for disabled students is highly questionable. Alternative assessments, they maintain, are only acceptable if they are genuinely equivalent in terms of the skills and knowledge they test, and if this is the case, then all students should be allowed access to adjustments, which might include extra time, the use of enhanced grammar and spell checkers and sheltered conditions. Similarly, the justifications for the use of typical forms of assessment, such as three hour examinations, should be examined much more critically, with a view to establishing whether the knowledge and skills required to succeed in such an activity are intrinsic to the requirements of the course which is being assessed. The

    To cite this output: Fuller, Mary et al (2008). Enhancing the Quality and Outcomes of Disabled Students' Learning in Higher Education: Full Research Report ESRC End of Award Report, RES-139-25-0135. Swindon: ESRC

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    higher education establishment has defended the need for clear qualification criteria based on disability status in order to determine which students should be entitled to alternative forms of assessment. The implications of enforcing a binary divide between disabled and non-disabled students are considered below.


    The main aim of the study was to understand how disabled students academic performance and experience of teaching, learning and assessment varies by disability, subject studied and by type of institution, how this experience develops during their course and how their learning outcomes compare with those of non-disabled students. Specific objectives, and the element of the research which addressed each objective, are summarised below:

    6. Analyse and contrast disabled students experiences of barriers and opportunities in teaching, learning and assessment in four selected universities (student survey).

    7. Examine the relationship between the quality of learning of disabled students and the learning environments provided by specific departments in four selected universities (institutional case studies and case studies of individual disabled students).

    8. Analyse the extent to which disabled students learning outcomes differ from those of non-disabled students. (analysis of institutional level aggregated data and case studies of individual disabled students).

    9. Document and analyse selected teaching staff understandings of and changes to their teaching, learning and assessment strategies in the light of the legal requirement to make reasonable adjustments (case studies of individual disabled students).

    10. Promote, disseminate and embed the findings from the project effectively through communication with the academic, educational development, learning support and disability communities (range of dissemination and professional development activities).

    Broadly, the central aim and specific objectives of the research have been achieved. However, inevitably in a project of this size and duration, some new interests have emerged. For example, the institutional case studies revealed particular tensions between equalities and managerialism, leading to an expansion of the policy dimension of the study (Riddell et al., 2007). In addition, a focus on educational transitions and their links with identity formation emerged during the course of the research (Weedon and Riddell, forthcoming). Finally, an important theme emerging as the research progressed was the issue of fitness to practise standards imposed by particular professional bodies, and their impact on university experiences, labour market transitions and individual student identity.


    Policy and statistical analysis In the background section (above), an overview is provided of legislative and policy pressures on the higher education system in relation to widening access and providing fair treatment for disabled students. An additional analysis of HESA statistics was conducted to investigate the extent to which these initiatives had been successful in terms of participation rates of disabled students in higher education over time. The nature of student reported disabilities, using UCAS categories of impairment, was also conducted.

    Aggregated data were gathered from each institution on the degree outcomes of graduating disabled students compared with those of other graduates. Data were not available for University 4, although from 20