AHEAD Welcomes Review of Fund for Students with Disabilities
AHEAD welcomes the Higher Education Authority's recently published review of the Fund for Students with Disabilities (FSD). As a member of the Advisory Group to the FSD for over 23 years we are aware of the significant role the FSD has played in enabling Institutions in both higher and further education to provide the additional supports that students with disabilities need to succeed.
The review is very timely. We have witnessed a steady increase in the numbers of students with disabilities, now at over 11,000, together with a rise in the cost of ADDING -ON individualised, specialised supports and furthermore, the general thinking about what inclusion is has shifted. In the past, students with disabilities, with the provision of specialised supports, were expected to fit into the general practice of institutions. Since the setup of the FSD, there has been a shift in National Policy to building more inclusive learning environments and the HEA emphasizes the need to implement a more mainstream approach to inclusion to “enhance the quality of the learning experience and progression outcomes of all students”.
The challenge facing the sector now is to move from the ADD-ON model of support to a teaching and learning environment that is inclusive, flexible, and innovative and that offers the student a choice of learning activities.
Therefore, AHEAD welcomes all of the recommendations of the recently published review of the FSD, in particular Recommendation 4, that all institutions in receipt of FSD funding be required to demonstrate a “whole institution” approach to supporting students with disabilities as a condition of receiving FSD funding. Creating inclusive learning environments is a challenge but is supported and promoted by the framework of performance compacts 2014-16, which directs institutions of higher education towards their objective of achieving equal access for under-represented groups and increasing student participation. Taking a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach to inclusion across the whole institution, its systems and processes, will provide an effective model for managing a diversity of students across this sector. But the UDL model requires the involvement of all staff, meaning it is everyone’s job to build a culture that respects difference and empowers all students to achieve.
However, our welcoming of the recommendations of this review does come with a word of warning around categorising students with certain disabilities as ‘High Needs’ students (recommendation 4). The definition of what is a high need must be determined by a systematic analysis of the impact of the disability on the student within the complex demands of all aspects of the learning environment they inhabit.
Recommendation 10 is also welcomed. It will provide funding for supports for students with disabilities studying part time, something which AHEAD has repeatedly recommended in our research on student numbers over the last 5 years.