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ADCET Manager Joins Panel Discussion on University Accord

Darlene McLennan, Manager of ADCET was invited to speak at a recent panel discussion hosted by the University of Technology Sydney and Equity Practitioners Australiasia (EPHEA) on the Australian Universities Accord and raised the question of whether the Accord has inadvertently perpetuated low expectations around students with disability. 

The facilitator Sonal Singh, asked Darlene "We are setting population parity targets for LSES, RRR, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, but not for people with disability. What are your thoughts on this?" 

Darlene: It was very disappointing to read in the report that the recommendation is to maintain and not grow the participation rates of students with disability. Significant concerns have been raised within the education and disability communities on the implications of this for students access to tertiary education.

Looking at the data the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare identifies from the 2019 ABS data that 18% of people in Australia have a disability, and another 22% of people have a long term health condition. 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health condition in any one year, and 50% in their lifetime.

This is in stark contrast to the report which shows that swd have reached parity at 8.4%!

University services that support students with disability use the disability definition from the Disability Discrimination Act. This definition is very broad and can be experienced as a result of a wide range of impairments or conditions, can be long term or temporary. 

The governments own data collection identified that the participation rate of undergraduates with disability in 2022 was 11.6%. We know there has been a significant increase in the numbers with some universities now reporting in 2023 as high as 15%.

 Much of this increase is accounted for by the large increase in students seeking support from disability services (highest increases are for students with mental health conditions, neurodiversity and medical conditions). Another factor is the associated increase in reporting, as universities work with students to ‘tick the box’ on enrolment as Disability Support program funding is linked to the enrolled numbers of students with disability.  

It is also telling that more and more students are needing support as they require adjustments in the university environment.

Although the report identifies a number of times that there are challenges in the data collection and quality, there appears there was no effort in checking the accuracy of this data, and conclusions were drawn based on incorrect data. Asserting that the university sector has supposedly achieved parity in disability representation at 8.4%, is again in stark contrast to the 24.4% of students receiving adjustments in the K-12 school sector in 2023!  Someone put it to me like we are barrelling down the road with 24.4% of students with disability coming out of the school system, and suddenly they hit a barrier at the entry into the higher education sector, which is quite concerning.

I want to acknowledge that being accurate with the data will be difficult, however it is clear that the accord report is incorrect and we would encourage that the report is updated to reflect aspirational targets for student with disability.    

But more importantly I want to reflect on the  the statement that was provided in reaching the 8.4% …….The report identified that the share of the Australian population for people with disability is an expected enrolment share “estimated by the Department of Education, based on the proportion of the 15 to 64-year-old population with disability, adjusted for age profile and profound disability.” 

This one statement undermines all of the work that people with disability and advocates have been advocating for over many years in equal access to tertiary education. But it also flies in the face of I would have thought was the intension of the accord. “Frowth through equity” – but only some equity? Rosemary Kees the Australian disability discrimination Commissioner  on X summed it up beautifully. “The expected enrolments is estimated on the proportion of the population with disability adjusted for age profiles and profound disability which is assumed to preclude participation in higher education ……….. Have we just assumed away the next Stephen Hawkins? “I think that statement is so powerful.

Can you imagine the uproar if any other equity cohort had an exclusionary statement in the report! The fact that this hasn’t made front page news has made me realise we still have a long way to in ensuring people with disability have full access to tertiary education. 

By accepting the data and claiming parity, the accord panel inadvertently reinforces a negative perception of people with disability accessing tertiary education.

But I am saddened to say It’s not just the accord, setting a culture of low expectations. The National Disability Strategy, the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, and Exploitation of People with Disability, and the National Disability Insurance Agency education strategy show minimal focus on tertiary education, and it becomes evident that this culture persists beyond just the education sector.

Although the question that sonal asked was about data I also want to briefly talk about some of the other recommendation and how they may impact of swd. One example is the naming up that there will be a First Nations Commissioner, an Equity Commissioner, and the Regional Education Commissioner. but as Sally previously stated no disability education commissioner? Why this omission?

Also I just want to make mention the needs based funding proposals. ADCET and the Australian Tertiary Education Network on Disability (ATEND) have long advocated that the current funding provided under the disability support program is inadequate. And true needs based funding could be transformational if done right. But there also need to fund a national approach that provide strategic and systematic guidance, that supports the capacity development…… to showcase good practice….. to provide advice, and coordinate efforts and to ensure there is value for money across the sector. This may fall in the remit of the commission in the future but in the short term we need to ensure students with disability have equal access in tertiary education, now. 

To put this into perspective, currently the Australian government provides millions of dollars and I mean millions-plural a year to a number of resources such as the National Consistent Collection of Data for the K-12 and JobAccess for the Employment to build capacity and provide advice around disability. In contrast, ADCET who has a similar remit and is the only resource for the whole of the tertiary sector, is funded $170,000 per annum. Let that sink in….

ADCET has proven the positive impact of a national response through the content we develop, webinars we run and many projects we have undertaken in partnership with the sector to help inform and guide inclusion. 

We continue to identify and work on ways to improve the capacity of the sector with training and support for Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and we are seen internationally to be a leader in this area. 

We work to find solutions for removing barriers such as digital accessibility – where we have developed an accessible ICT procurement guide with the sector that’s guides the procurement process with accessibility as a core criterion helping institutions to make informed decisions about the software and hardware they procure, ensuring that students and staff will be using is accessible, cost-effective and future-proofed technologies.[DM1] 

ADCET has also advocated since 2021 for a National Tertiary Education Strategy for People with Disability to drive leadership and coordination in relation to disability in tertiary sector.   The National Union of Students are calling for a Tertiary Education Roadmap to enact systemic reforms in disability and higher education in response to the Disability Royal Commission & Universities Accord. Whatever it is called there is a need for national strategic work given the complexity of the barriers that exist in the transition, participation and success of students with disability in tertiary education. 

Now coming back to Sonal initial question…. A shift in culture about disability is needed more than ever. The absence of accurate parity data on disability and the exclusionary approach of the data presented, the lack of attention to retention and success targets, and the failure to provide commentary and recommendations to address the needs of students with disability to succeed in tertiary education further reiterates a culture of low expectations within the Universities Accord. 

There is a pressing need to address the shortcomings in current approaches to disability inclusion in higher education in fact the whole of the tertiary education.  We need to ensure the government response is co-designed and integrates the students lived experience and expert advice. 

I’m passionate about getting this right and encourage us all to work together to address these issues and strive for a more inclusive and supportive environment across the tertiary sector ensuring that individuals with disability are not left behind in a landscape where tertiary qualifications are increasingly essential for employment. 

(11 March 2024)