Cuts to Disabled Student Allowance

Last month a written ministerial statement from David Willetts (not widely reported) outlined changes to the Disabled Student Allowance. A brief reference to this was reported to our Learning Teaching and Assessment Committee. In future I anticipate we will be considering the wide-ranging impact this will have, on recruitment, on student satisfaction and on budgets.

This change potentially has serious impact on the individual educational experience of many students, has a potential legal impact on universities, and at a more local level, a possible impact on university and faculty or school budgets.

From the ministerial statement:

We will look to HEIs to play their role in supporting students with mild difficulties, as part of their duties to provide reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act. These are partly anticipatory duties and we expect HEIs to introduce changes which can further reduce reliance on DSAs and help mainstream support. However, we believe that HEIs are better placed to consider how to respond in many cases, including giving greater consideration to the delivery of their courses and how to provide support. The need for some individual non-medical help (NMH) may be removed through different ways of delivering courses and information. It is for HEIs to consider how they make both anticipatory reasonable adjustments and also reasonable adjustments at an individual level.The key changes are set out below:We will pay for higher specification or higher cost computers where a student needs one solely by virtue of their disability. We will no longer pay for standard specification computers or the warranties and insurance associated with them. We will no longer pay for higher specification and/or higher cost computers simply because of the way in which a course is delivered. We are changing our approach to the funding of a number of computer equipment, software and consumable items through DSAs that have become funded as ‘standard’ to most students.Students with Specific Learning Difficulties will continue to receive support through DSAs where their support needs are considered to be more complex.We will fund the most specialist Non-Medical Help. HEIs are expected to consider how they deliver information to students and whether strategies can be put in place to reduce the need for support workers and encourage greater independence and autonomy for their students.The additional costs of specialist accommodation will no longer be met byDSAs, other than in exceptional circumstances.

In the Guardian, Sarah Lewthwaite writes:

Willetts stresses universities’ role in bridging the gap in DSA support. However, universities will receive no monies to cover the financial gap at a time of economic stringencies and pay freezes.Willetts emphasises the importance of new technologies for anticipatory inclusive teaching and learning within the established frame of “reasonable adjustment” required by the Equality Act (2010). However, technological solutions are limited. University eLearning environments cannot ensure universally accessible educational opportunities without (DSA funded) assistive technologies deployed by students, among a raft of other measures and costs. In the short term, at least, prospects for disabled students experiencing cuts to DSAs are bleak.Concerns do not end here. Proposed changes to DSA funding may fundamentally redefine disability in higher education. Students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs), such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADD/ADHD, have been singled out for the largest cuts, and there is a real danger that their needs become invisible.Willetts has chosen to restrict focus to more “complex” SpLDs and those requiring “most specialist” support. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between a medical diagnosis and the support requirements that students may have. Indeed, it is ironic that the one group singled out for cuts to academic support are those whose disability explicitly affects learning.

So for students with some of the more common learning disabilities – and we have subject areas where this affects large numbers of students – there might be no more support from the DSA, and universities will be expected to make up the gap.


It might be argued that some of the technologies currently provided (eg computers) are those that we expect all students to already own when they arrive at university. This unfortunately ignores the fact that some disabled students will be those who are also from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, and so are least likely to be able to buy such equipment.To me these proposals are to provide support for  “those who deserve it”. Not unlike our changing benefits system that is moving from being one of universal benefit when needed, but one that is only for the deserving poor.


There are different responsibilities for universities here too – the use of the Equality Act and how this could be interpreted to make changes to delivery of courses is an interesting proposition. Smita Jamdar of Martineaus has provided an excellent blog piece on this very subject. She identifies:

Clearly, once the changes take effect there will be less support via the DSA and there are obvious risks to participation levels among students with disabilities, but it is also likely that HEIs will be asked to fund a greater amount and diversity of adjustments once this support stops.

She identifies 2 significant aspects of the ministerial statement:

  1. HEIs are expected not to think reactively about how a particular student’s needs can be accommodated in a particular course, but rather proactively about how their entire portfolio of courses might be made accessible to students with a wide range of disabilities thus obviating or substantially reducing the need for further specific support.
  2. From 2015 it is intended to instead adopt the Equality Act definition of “a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day to day activities”.  HEIs may find themselves in debate more often with students as to whether or not their condition meets the definition of a disability, if only to give students support to apply for DSA

Smita identifies that disability discrimination represents the greatest number of student discrimination cases that her law firm deals with, and that “the changes to DSA are likely to increase the pressure from students and campaign groups alike for greater focus on this area from HEIs.”

So in conclusion, we have a change to policy which will save a tiny fraction of the overall benefits bill. For universities though we need to consider the following:

  • how do we proactively change our courses to make anticipatory adjustments?
  • how do we learn to use the Equality Act to determine what support might be needed?
  • how do we minimise the opportunities for legal cases?
  • how do we manage our internal budgets to cover the increased costs that might be coming our way?






HEPI/HEA Student Experience Survey

This year’s HEPI/HEA Student experience Survey has been published, and can be downloaded from here.

The key outcomes highlighted are:

  • Full-time undergraduate students in UK universities express high  levels of satisfaction with their courses: 86% are fairly or very satis?ed with their course
  • While 50% of students experiencing classes of between 1 and 5 other students
    ?nd them ‘a lot’ bene?cial, the ?gure is only 10% for those  with classes of more than 100 students. On average ?rst  years have 3.0 of their weekly contact hours in classes of  over 100.
  • Undergraduate students in their ?rst and second years  have an average of 14.2 contact hours per week during term time and complete another 14.3 hours of private study on top
  • Those with between 0 and 9 contact hours  are notably less satis?ed than those with between 20 and 29 contact hours
  • More than four out of ten full-time undergraduate students (44%) think they are receiving very good or good value for money, compared with one-quarter (25%) who consider they are receiving very poor or poor value for money
  • When asked about their top three priorities for  institutional expenditure, 48% of undergraduates chose ‘reducing fee levels’
  • However, four further clear priorities emerge, each chosen by over one-third of students:
    • more teaching hours (35%);
    • smaller class sizes (35%);
    • better training for lecturers (34%); and
    • better learning facilities (34%)

Digging further into the report, then differences appear based on which mission group universities are aligned to, and also by subject discipline.

I was particularly interested in some of the information presented around contact hours, and specifically why students chose not to attend sessions (bearing in mind the current narrative of students as customers who are paying up to £9000  a year where one might expect 100% attendance).

Students wanted more contact hours, yet many times don’t attend for the following reasons:


Looking at the top two reasons for failure to attend raises questions –

  • How do we make the classes more relevant and unmissable?
  • Does putting notes online reduce the need to attend a lecture?

With regard to having notes or slides online – this can only be a good thing for those students who genuinely miss a class, or who want to read in advance of attending class. Online learning materials should be more than just the lecture handouts.

On student workload, it’s notable that many students appear to be engaging with fewer learning hours than is expected by QAA. As a possible way to remedy this, do we really think enough about what self directed study entails? Are we, certainly for level 4 students, providing enough guidance on what they should be studying, reading, engaging with, outside of the scheduled time in class? Can we make a very simple change of spelling this out in module handbooks and guides to ensure our students learn in the way that we would like them to and that we manage their expectations of how much work they should be doing?

Not surprisingly, under expectations of value for money, students are less satisfied with what they feel they are receiving.


When asked what their spending priorities would be, students replied as:


As identified in the report, after fees the priorities are: “increasing teaching hours: decreasing  class sizes; better training for lecturers; and better learning facilities (as
distinct from better buildings, which is not ranked so highly). It is notable that the higher ranked areas relate to improving the quality of teaching and learning and the lower ranked areas relate more to extra-curricular and environmental issues such as sports facilities and better security on campus. Giving academics more time for research was not ranked highly despite the promotion of ‘research-led teaching’ in many institutions.”

I think there are some interesting areas for further discussion here, with implications for different constituencies:

For the university:

  •  How do we make sure we deliver the right kind of learning in small groups?
  • Can we manage expectations of workload better?
  • How do we provide a focus on student experience?
  • How do we explore the reason students don’t attend ?(do we know if they are not attending?)
  • What could we do to make class sessions unmissable?
  • Can we square the circle of providing more smaller classes, with greater contact hours with better qualified lecturers?
  • How do we improve our online materials?

For senior staff:

  • how do we respond to the challenges on spending priorities?
  • How do we lobby the next government on student and university financing?



Times Higher Student Experience Survey

Another day, another league table. This time it’s the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey.

Rather than the large sample used in National Student Survey, this survey is based on a focus group of students recruited through UCAS, who were questioned in 2012-13. For this university the sample size was 116.

The article alongside the data states:

All respondents were members of YouthSight’s student panel – who are recruited via Ucas – and their views were gathered between October 2012 and June 2013.

The Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey is broken down into 21 attributes of universities, chosen by students as key indicators. Participants were asked to rate how their university performed in each of the areas using a seven-point scale. Each attribute was assigned a weight reflecting its importance within the overall student experience.

The same wording and weighting methodology have been used for the past five years, with the greatest weight applied to the attributes that correlated most to whether or not the respondent would recommend the university to a friend.

Only universities achieving 50 or more ratings have been included in the final dataset, and each university’s score was indexed on a scale from one to 100. A total of 111 institutions (102 last year) met the minimum sample threshold required based on respondents from a total of 14,300 respondents.

The difference in scores of similarly ranked institutions will not be statistically significant. When results are based on a sample of 100, we have to accept some imprecision to arise from sampling variability. But that does not mean to say that these results are without meaning. In this context, the relatively high level of consistency in our data from year to year is reassuring. For example, in each of the past four years, the universities of Sheffield, East Anglia, Dundee, Oxford, Cambridge and Leeds have all featured in the top 10 – this consistency demonstrates the impacts of best practice as opposed to sample variability.

So of the universities that showed significant rises or consistent high rankings – what do they suggest is the reason?

Sheffield – academic skills classes and the chance to learn a foreign language, culture of listening to students

Bath – good industry connections, sports facilities, involving  students in decisions, even the design of some of the new accommodation buildings, dedicated student experience forum made up of students, senior academics and service staff heads

Falmouth –  investment in teaching facilities, the development of a mentor scheme for incoming students and the introduction of more counselling and living support staff

Stirling – Reduced class sizes, improved student feedback and having employability embedded into its degrees

The article notes that post-92 universities, and in particular those aligned to million+ tend to have a more diverse student body, with mote mature students, and who are likely to be less satisfied.

Common themes from the article about how to succeed in student experience seem to revolve around involving students in decision making, genuinely responding to concerns and providing a wide forum for debate as well as embedding employability and improving feedback.

And as for the score for our university – well a disappointing drop (and difficult to understand when in the same year our NSS figures improved). Mind you in the previous year we had a significant climb of 14 places, which does bring into question how reliable such a small sample can be.

Comparing our scores against the means, then our biggest outliers are: Good social life; Good extra-curricular activities / societies; Good community atmosphere;Good accommodation.

Complete University Guide 2015

The league table season for UK universities has started, with the publication of the 2015 CUG table.

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Looking at the top 10, there are  no surprises – the same 10 universities as were there last year, albeit in a slightly different order. There’s not that much surprise at the bottom end of the table either!

From the press release from CUG:

The strongest climbers (rising ten places or more compared with last year) include two specialist art-focused universities – the University of the Creative Arts (up 24 places) and the University of the Arts Bournemouth (up 18).
They are beneficiaries of a revised approach to classifications of staff, which has enabled them to treat many of their technical staff as academics, thereby significantly improving student: staff ratios.
Other climbers are Abertay (up 20), Derby (up 16), Manchester Metropolitan University (up 15), Cardiff (up 13), Winchester and Sheffield Hallam (up 11), and Bath Spa, De Montfort and Queen Margaret (all up ten places).
Ten universities fell ten places or more: Royal Agricultural University (down 32 places); Aberystwyth (down 17); Birmingham City (down 16); St George’s, University of London (down 12); Hull, Northampton, Buckinghamshire New, and Anglia Ruskin (all down 11); and Bedfordshire and Ulster (down ten).

The good news for Staffordshire University is that we have risen by 8 places, which is testament to work we have done in the last 2 years, focusing on student attainment and student satisfaction. In fact in all of the criteria measured, bar research which is unchanged for all universities, until the outcomes of REF, our actual score has improved. Of course everyone else has been improving too, but we are now going in the right direction!


So for Staffordshire, some good news, but as Paul Greatrix (@registrarism) at Nottingham University observes, “Overall, there is not a whole lot to get excited about this year”.


Listening to Students

In a moment of serendipity, in the last week I started looking at some online solutions for gathering and sharing feedback and evaluation of modules by students. In the same week, articles appeared in the press on the involvement of students in providing feedback, and how, when and why we listen to them.


In the first instance, the Times Higher provided a piece by Martin McQuillan of Kingston University, on selective hearing.

He starts with:

In recent months universities up and down the country have been engaged in a frenzy of activity in an effort to ensure a favourable report from their students in the National Student Survey. Slides are presented to students and articles written for campus newspapers detailing improvements to teaching and services made in response to student feedback; survey responses are solicited via emails and phone calls; course reps, societies and clubs are asked to encourage undergraduates to take part; and participants are offered the chance to win book tokens, printer credit, graduation ball tickets, iPads and Kindles.

So far so familiar. But the key point is in the next line where he emhasises that the universities who receive the most positive feedback (and possibly attain elevated league table positions because of this) are those who listen to student feedback throughout the year, not just in the time period of the NSS.

In terms of us at Staffordshire, then we will be looking to reinforce this in two ways – firstly by changing the way in which we advertise NSS to students – the emphasis in future will be on a continuous dialogue between school managers and their student bodies, starting in Welcome Week. Secondly, a more focused module evaluation system, with the right processes sitting behind it (ie not just a technological solution to get people to fill in questionnaires) will also provide a basis for dialogue.

Of course this is all very well when things are going right. as McQuillan says in the article:

However, universities are not as good at listening to the student body when it questions management decisions or criticises government policy.

On such occasions, dissenting voices are not considered co-creators of an academic community, but are instead frequently dismissed as part of a minority of troublemakers. In the rare event of student criticism that is accompanied by open displays of dissent, such as occupations and demonstrations, it is usually met with the full rigour of institutional procedure and more often than not criminal law.

The challenge then, is to accept that if we are regarding our students as co-creators (and it appears in our Academic Strategy) then we have to be prepared to deal with tough questions accordingly.

Balanced against this though, is how well prepared are students to act as co-creators, and to provide the right kind of feedback. In a linked article, Joanna Williams of and Jennie Bristow of the University of Kent argue that the student voice has been “tamed, domesticated and institutionalised”.

Noting that the rebelliousness of students seen in previous generations, has for the most part disappeared, or is swiftly put down by forces of law, they note that the student voice:

 is encapsulated in the image of the good student who gives feedback when asked, contributes to staff-student liaison committees and makes only realistic suggestions that confirm a consensus. Regardless of the type of institution attended or the diversity of the student body within an institution, the student voice proves itself remarkable in its homogeneity. Demands for assessed work to be returned more quickly and with better feedback echo around every university in the country.

As I suggested above, I think it key that dialogue occurs between the two parties. Williams and Bristow write:

Lecturers who do not take heed of the student voice risk a poor departmental performance in the National Student Survey, and a low ranking for their university in institutional league tables. The following year, “customers” may not be so forthcoming.

This can make it difficult for academics to challenge the student voice, resulting in what Duna Sabri, visiting research fellow at King’s College London, has termed “the sacralisation of the discourse of ‘the student experience’”.

The first paragraph is true – and if customer” or students do not come, then subject areas might be under threat. But rather than dismiss the student voice, again the need is to recognise the benefit of engagement. Williams and Bristow do usefully identify that there is work to do by universities, in developing their students so that:

For students, the aspiration to be the intellectual equals of their lecturers and critically engaged in the search for new knowledge or the reinterpretation of existing knowledge is entirely laudable. But this should be a privilege students earn after having engaged in an intellectual struggle to master the foundations of a discipline.

Student voice however does need to go beyond just the challenge of the discipline. Students are paying or borrowing substantial sums of money to be at our universities, and rightly expect certain standards of provision to exist, however they won’t know everything (although I’ve met plenty of undergraduates who think they do. And not a small number of staff too).



In a separate piece in the Guardian (student feedback is a waste of everyone’s time) , an anonymous academic rails against the way in which students are able to comment on his or her lecturing, on the content of courses and how enagaging the lectures are.

Comments included: “They are not experts in the field and are not well-placed to assess the relative merits of a course.”, “The course content reflects academic research and theory on the subject and is not up for discussion.”

In more detail:

Student feedback is a waste of everyone’s time. It’s disingenuous to ask students constantly to complete feedback forms that will probably do little more than fester on a hard drive until someone needs to cherry-pick the good comments for annual reports or applications for promotion.

It’s also completely redundant: universities appoint external examiners who review course content and marking annually, and there are regular peer observations by colleagues. These ensure professional standards are maintained. As to the question of whether students are satisfied, I’d rather they had an education.

Really? Feedback from students can be powerful and useful, if used properly. And teh reference to external examiners is a red herring – their role is to assure academic standards, not the overall experience of students. Peer observation has a place, provided it is genuinely developmental, but does rely on our peers being prepared to challenge us.


The perceived arrogance in the piece prompted debate on Twitter and in the comments under the article are well worth reading. All I would say, is that this is an approach to take that is guaranteed to disengage students. We’re not here to make it difficult for the sake of it. The subject might be difficult, but we want students to have an experience that allows then to engage with their learning and to become schooled in the discipline, and when necessary  have that conversation with us, with respect on both sides, to allow us to improve it.


The Learning Curve: Education and Skills for Life

A new publication from Pearson and written by The Economist Intelligence Unit is reported in the Times Higher.

Although it is not just about higher education, there are some useful points to draw out from it as ther report “seeks to distil some of the major lessons on the links between education and skill development, retention and use”.

Skills for the success in the 21st Century are identified, as shown in the diagram below.


From a higher education perspective, it is worthwhile questioning if we are developing and delivering programmes of study that enable our students to develop these skills to an enhanced level. Most universities these days have statements on graduate skills and attributes – how closely do these match?

A key point from the report however, is that people need to keep practising and developing these skills: lack of use leads to atrophy.

From the Times Higher article:

“Sir Michael Barber, Pearson’s chief education adviser, told Times Higher Education that in the 21st century “it’s clear that however great your first degree is, you’re going to have to keep learning”.

Because there is so little certainty about what the jobs of the future will involve, universities must train graduates with the right “attitudes and attributes” to keep learning for life, he said, noting that this was something the “best” higher education already did.

Universities should focus on this when trying to improve employability, he added, rather than on “preparation for a specific job”.”

An interesting item in the list of essential skills is “digital literacy”. This is an area that we will be doing more work on the next year at Staffordshire University, and not just with our studentts, but staff as well. Linking this to the idea of learning for life (above), then many  mightsee online education and MOOCs as a way of supporting that continuous learning and redevelopment. Interestingly the report states:

“One question is whether technology, which is becoming increasingly entrenched in the modern learning environment, can be used to encourage low-skilled adults to pursue further education. In the last couple of years many of the world’s top universities have launched massive open online courses (MOOCs), broadening access to high-quality educational resources. But a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania found that 83% of its MOOC participants already had a post-secondary degree – far higher than international averages. Broadening access through technology, then, appears to be not enough. A culture of learning and understanding the value of bettering oneself needs to be fostered at an earlier stage in life before new technologies can start to have a real impact on lifelong learning.”

Fascinating, when Pearson’s report last year on “An Avalanche is Coming” suggested that MOOCs were about to sweep away traditional university education!



Uncapping the Future

A few months ago I wrote a piece here on  my views of how the changes announced in the Autumn Statement might affect universities like ours, specifically the impact of removing the cap on student numbers.

Since then, this has been written about and discussed in detail. Until we get throug hteh next two years of UCAS entry then we can’t draw conclusions completely. In the last week or so, two new articles have appeared on this very subject.

One thing to bear in mind is that the next General Election is not that far away, and over on the wonkhe website, Debbie McVitty suggests:

prudent analysts may be withholding judgement pending confirmation that a future government is ready to stand by this commitment and to source the sustainable flow of funding that would make it a reality

She proposes 4 scenarios, based on ranges of supply and demand for HE places, and concludes that:

A more robust approach would be to consider what interventions will best secure a sustainable pipeline of qualified and informed applicants to higher education (significantly enhanced IAG springs to mind) and how policymakers can identify and share the risks of innovation with higher education providers in order to ensure a meaningful social benefit to increased participation.

Over on the Times Higher websiteBahram Bekhradnia  (president of the Higher Education Policy Institute) writes:

Recently the pages of THE have been filled with more cheerleaders urging the government to go further and faster. My advice to these credulous souls is that they should be careful what they wish for.

He worries that the market in HE that the coalition government has sought to create does not exist – indeed capping numbers, setting a limit on fees and tinkering with core and margin numbers has had little effect in creating a free market.

At first, the coalition government introduced a pseudo-market, involving competition around “highly qualified students”, but that has had a dysfunctional and erratic impact. The complete relaxation of student number controls appears to be a final and desperate attempt to create a market in higher education where there has been none so far.

It is an experiment that is unlikely to succeed. The additional student numbers will have to be paid for. Given that the sale of the student loan book is unlikely to cover the cost, either the funds will be found by the government itself, which is improbable, or students will pay even more, which is possible. Otherwise the additional students will have to be accommodated without a commensurate increase in funding and with negative consequences for quality and standards.

This last point is worth noting – as costs in universities rise, and while the top end of fees is capped then gradually the money available to support teaching and learning will reduce.

For the financially secure institutions which easily recruit their self-identified quota of undergraduate numbers, removing the student number ca may not be a problem: they will have no new entrants into the “market” to compete against, and will  be able to campaign to remove the cap on fees and tackle that contradiction in market philosophy.

Removing the cap on recruitment creates a challenge for those universities who might struggle to recruit in future One outcome might be a further increase in private provision, particularly for low delivery costs subjects, or more delivery of HE through FE and commercial partners. Both of these will create a challenge for some universities. These lower ranked institutions, or those who find to harder to recruit undergraduate numbers, will find themselves more exposed to a market environment, with aggressive competitors who will be prepared to differentiate on price.

In terms of what my university can do to address this challenge, well I’ll return to that in my “we can be better than this” series of blog posts.