Engaging diverse students – the case of students with disability
28 August 2012, by Dr Nadine Zacharias
Dr Nadine Zacharias is Director, Equity and Diversity Unit at Deakin University. The Unit supports students and staff with disability, manages the University’s outreach program and administers the Commonwealth equity programs for students with disability and those from low SES backgrounds on behalf of Deakin University.
What dismays me, as a senior manager in a contemporary university and an equity practitioner, is that the university experience of students from equity groups continues to be so hit and miss. The ways in which universities and policy makers conceptualise, design and fund the intersection between accessibility, inclusion and student engagement is critical for the higher education experience of individual students and whole cohorts.
Meet Alex and Leigh*. Alex works as a software developer in the company where he started his graduate program 2 years ago. Leigh dropped-out in first year. Uni didn’t work out for him. All too hard. Alex and Leigh have much in common: they started uni in the same year, at the same institution. They both have cerebral palsy. What happened?
If you ask Alex, what he says is that he felt included. His lecturers knew his name and knew about his needs and knew not to treat him any differently when it came to the things that mattered: assessable tasks, working independently, delivering the goods. Sure, Alex had more flexibility than others, more reading time in the exam, skyped into tutes from home. The other students didn’t make a fuss. Alex was a funny guy, came at things differently. They didn’t say it but they sensed that he worked harder at home than any of the others did. Uni worked for Alex, it came together for him. But it didn’t work for Leigh. At the same time. In the same institution!
Universities are changing rapidly. Universal access is the political goal and increasingly the lived experience in the post-Bradley university. The arrival of disruptive technologies presents serious challenges and real opportunities for higher education management and widening participation. Teachers and administrators are coming to grips with an increasingly diverse student population; diverse by demographic but also within-cohort diversity. What do you think of when you talk about ‘the student with disability’? A wheel chair? A panic attack? Dyslexia? Who do you think of when you talk about ‘the student from a low SES background’? The label doesn’t tell you half the story. And this is where things get tricky.
Access rates for students with disability have increased remarkably across the sector. However, success rates remain low. Worse, the Graduate Destination Survey paints a gloomy picture for those students with disability who complete their studies. Conversations about student engagement and graduate outcomes are equally if not more important for students with disability than their able-bodied peers.
The concept of ‘student engagement’ is gaining prominence in tandem with the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE) as a way to measure quality in learning and teaching. Not unlike the framework of transition pedagogy developed by Sally Kift and Karen Nelson at QUT, student engagement is underpinned by the assumption that students are independent and responsible learners but that, at the same time, it is incumbent on universities to create an environment that supports and encourages students to effectively manage their own learning.
If we take the goal of enhancing student engagement seriously, we need to start with the student and their individual learning needs. The only possible assumption is that our contemporary student cohort enrols with needs as diverse as those in the Australian community as a whole. We must anticipate diverse needs rather than trying to limit an institution’s exposure to them.
Funding remains the sticky point. At the end of the day, Leigh dropped out of uni because he literally couldn’t use the toilet. He needed a hoist which wasn’t available at his campus. Accessibility issues are real and solutions are often costly. The current disability funding model focuses on reimbursement of costly support services and equipment to individual students through the Commonwealth’s Disability Support Program (DSP). It is under-funded and does not sufficiently encourage innovation to develop more inclusive systems and practice.
To make an inclusive model affordable, a university’s curriculum and support system need to be based on principles of universal design to benefit all students, not just those with disability, so that the intersection between accessibility, inclusiveness and student engagement is redefined. A live-captioned lecture for which a transcript is available on the unit’s webpage after delivery benefits not only the deaf student in that class but everyone for whom English isn’t the first language or who is a visual learner or who likes to go back after the lecture to re-read a specific example. The cost is the same as for Auslan interpreting but the benefits reach far beyond the individual with disability and result in a more inclusive learning environment for all.
The way universities ‘do business’ has to be as inclusive as possible to accommodate the broadest array of student needs so that only the most complex require individual adjustments. This is a cultural change agenda and a re-vamp of how we do higher education. Nothing less. However, the disruptive technological changes already playing out in many of our institutions can be our ally in this journey. Because they force us to ask the important questions: why do we need to keep doing it this way? Can it be done differently? To facilitate student learning, to enhance student engagement, to increase inclusiveness.
We know from the Higher Education Participation and Partnership Program (HEPPP) that the Gillard government is prepared to put significant funds into widening participation. Currently, the two major federal equity programs, the HEPPP and DSP, allocate approximately $1,100 per current student from a low SES background and $166 per student with disability. It would be difficult to make a needs-based argument for such unequal allocations. However, combined, the two programs have a value of $184m in 2012. Amazing progress would be possible with a long-term commitment of such money to a higher education equity program which addresses educational disadvantage and remaining barriers holistically and from the perspective of student need.
Nadine will be speaking in the upcoming National Student Engagement Conference, 29-31 October 2012 in Melbourne.
* Not their real names.