Needed Now: Real, tangible supports for students with disability combined with sector leadership and systemic supports
Large scale enquiry and policy reform which impacts people with disability has been a theme over the last few years. The Universities Accord process, the Disability Royal Commission, and national skills reforms could lead us to think that disability policy in tertiary education will improve.
In fact, it must. We’re facing a profound and genuine issue. Nine out of 10 jobs being created in our labour market will require a postsecondary education, putting people with disability at significant risk. This is an equity group which is already behind when it comes to having a post-secondary education and a job, so our policy response and resourcing must be commensurate. The improvements we need to make are not small; they are huge and system wide.
For now, people with disability in our universities have individual (person vs. institution) legislative protection in Australia. The mechanism for this is via the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) and the Disability Standards for Education 2006 (DSE). And yes, quite obviously, we need to ensure our universities are meeting their minimum obligations and are resourced, or are resourcing themselves, to do so.
But – should all institutions invent wheels to make this happen? What if there was a website which has already served disability awareness training to 35,000+ Australians, and is considered a world-leading resource on matters relating to disability and tertiary education? We already have one. But it is being quietly dismantled and incapacitated.
In other sectors relating to disability, we fund a meaningful, systemic, and direct response to support the relevant sector on disability matters. In the employment space, we fund JobAccess, the national hub for workplace and employment information for people with disability, providers, and employers, which had a starting budget of $9 million over three years. In schools, we fund the NCCD ($20 million over four years), which enables schools, education authorities and governments to better understand the needs of students with disability and how they can be best supported at school.
In the tertiary sector we have funded ADCET, which has been in receipt of base funding of $160,000 per year (only), operating on 12-month contracts (only). Worse, ADCET is now hanging over the cliff, and not because it’s done a poor job. ADCET’s work was heavily cross-subsidised by the efforts and goodwill of incumbents in the now defunded National Disability Coordination Officer (NDCO) Program, a move that occurred in this year's budget, without consultation or negotiation.
The impacts of defunding the NDCO Program have been poorly considered. Should we let our critical response to disability be merged into a broader initiative like the National Centre for Student Equity for Higher Education (NCSEHE) and hope disability does not get lost in the other equity priorities of the day? Why are there well-resourced disability specific responses in the employment and school sectors, but not for the tertiary sector, which will likely be set an attainment target to achieve parity of participation by 2035 out of the Universities Accord process? Is it because only sectors other than tertiary education recognise the legal protections to which people with disability are entitled and the effort and skill required to get this right? In its Interim Report, the Universities Accord Panel (p 71) explicitly recognised that enabling equitable access to tertiary education for people with disability is expensive. The Panel cited the ADCET submission on this point and stated:
“Support for people with disability in tertiary education has been largely overlooked in terms of appropriate strategy, policy and funding settings which properly support access, participation, retention and success.” – Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training
ADCET has, for over 20 years and on a very limited budget, supported the sector by promoting disability inclusion through collaborative, evidence-based, person-centred good practice to build a disability confident tertiary education workforce.
As a sector, we really need to ponder why funding for meaningful systemic support, directly focused on disability in tertiary education, has not materialised as an idea from the Accord process so far. Do we have such a low expectation of tertiary students with disability, that it’s okay to support people with disability to go to school and work, but not at the critical in-between, postsecondary education and training stage? Let us not forget – 9 out of 10 future jobs will require a postsecondary qualification.
We need to have high expectations for our sector and its students and not leave educational equity to chance, hope and goodwill.
People with disability deserve an individual, deliberate, and systemic response in tertiary education. Anything less is lip service.
Darlene McLennan, Manager, Australian Disability Clearinghouse for Education and Training (ADCET) Admin@adcet.edu.au