Chris Skidmore MP , Minister of State for Universities. Research and Innovation visited the University of Birmingham to take part in a roundtable discussion to hear powerful stories from students with vision impairment about their experience of university and of Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA).
The event jointly hosted by the University of Birmingham’s Vision Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research (VICTAR) and Thomas Pocklington Trust (TPT), was attended by blind and partially sighted students from different universities.
The roundtable took place following the launch of ‘Our Right to Study’ in January in parliament. The report highlights the issues faced by students with vision impairment in England when accessing and using DSA. The report draws from a seminal transitional study by VICTAR that has followed young people with vision impairment from secondary school into employment. The report titled ‘Our Right to Study’ was produced by TPT and supported by the University of Birmingham sets out a number of recommendations for Government to ensure that DSA works for students with vision impairment.
The roundtable was attended by 13 students with vision impairment and Professor Graeme Douglas , Head of the Department of Disability Inclusion and Special Needs and Co-Director of VICTAR. Tara Chattaway, Policy Manager: Children and Young People at TPT and Rachel Hewett, Birmingham Fellow from the School of Education,
Students with vision impairment told Chris Skidmore their own personal experiences of applying for university and, their experience of accessing DSA. They shared how would not have been able to attend their course if it were not for the support that DSA provides. However, they urged the Minister to consider the following issues with DSA:
- DSA assessors lacking the knowledge and skill set to assess students with vision impairment.
- Students not being able to access the human support allocated due to limited availability of trained professionals.
- Students experiencing delays in receiving the equipment allocated.
- Equipment provided through DSA proving not fit for purpose.
- Restrictions in purchasing accessible mainstream equipment.
After engaging with students, researchers from the University of Birmingham and representatives from TPT, Chris Skidmore said:
"As Universities Minister to come here today at the University of Birmingham to meet students who are visually impaired at this roundtable event which was organised by VICTAR and the TPT to talk about their lived experiences was tremendous. After listening to their stories, concerns and difficulties I am keen to do more as these issues are a key priority around access and participation to higher education. We are currently looking at the Disabled Students Allowance, we know students are grateful for it as it helps them continue their courses, but more can be done. The roundtable discussion demonstrates to me around issues such as the supportive equipment for students who are visually impaired need and the technology that is needed to allow students to progress in their courses. Also the issues around exams and how the right educational material is produced and if things go wrong then students should be able to resolve these issues and have an effective complaints procedure. I want students who are visually impaired to have access to higher education and they should not have these barriers in place.’
Eddy Eyad, a Business Management student at the University of Birmingham who attended the roundtable discussion and is visually impaired said:
“I felt the discussion today was very important because vision impairment does not get the spotlight it deserves and it affects many students. It was great to be given a platform to voice our opinions and it could be the beginnings of an opportunity to push our concerns forward for some good outcomes.’
Rachel Hewett, Birmingham Fellow from the School of Education and one of the authors of the Longitudinal Transition Study said:
“Our research study, the Longitudinal Transitions Study, has consistently shown that students with vision impairment in higher education face significant barriers in accessing their studies, as well as the broader experiences of higher education. Importantly, however, the research has also demonstrated that through inclusive practice, the right support and the right preparation, students with vision impairment are able to flourish. We are delighted that Chris Skidmore has taken the time today to meet with a group of students to learn more of their experiences in higher education and to explore how he may work with Department for Education, HE providers and other agencies to ensure that students with vision impairment have an equitable experience.’
Phil Ambler: Director of Evidence and Policy, Thomas Pocklington Trust said:
"We are delighted to have supported a meeting between the Minister of State for Universities. Research and Innovation and students with vision impairment to discuss their experiences of university life and accessing Disabled Students’ Allowance. It was an extremely valuable meeting, and lots of important points were made about what support needs to be in place to facilitate students to achieve and thrive at University. We look forward to continuing our work with the Minister and the Department for Education to identify positive solutions.’
The roundtable discussion was part of a wider visit to the University of Birmingham where Chris Skidmore visited the UK National Quantum Technologies Hub for Sensors and Metrology where he was introduced to the Quantum Sensors Hub for Sensors and Metrology. Chris Skidmore had the opportunity to understand more about the university’s applications of quantum technology research in civil engineering, space, defence, navigation and GPS systems. He also had the opportunity to visit the Centre for Human Brain Health where he was shown the health applications of the quantum sensors research.