Additional Support Needs - Students struggle to apply online

20th September 2013 at 01:00
College system 'discriminates' against disabled, union says

Edinburgh College's new online application system "discriminates" against prospective students with additional support needs, according to a teaching union.

The requirement for applicants to be computer literate caused serious problems for young people who were not online or were not able to use computers, said Penny Gower, president of the EIS-FELA union, which represents college lecturers.

"At Edinburgh College there is an emphasis on applications for courses to be online and this discriminates against non-IT-literate students and students with additional support needs," said Ms Gower, who is also branch secretary of the union at the college. She added that the online system made it more difficult for students to arrange support, an issue exacerbated by the college now being spread out over four campuses.

The college was formed last year from the merger of Telford, Jewel and Esk, and Stevenson colleges; the application system was changed in the run-up to this academic year, according to the union.

Kelly Parry, president of Edinburgh College students' association, said that a number of disabled students had contacted the association over the summer about their concerns over the accessibility of the online system. She said that the college should ensure that students who needed face-to-face support in applying were given that help.

"Everyone wants to see students supported to make the most informed decision they can, with the least hassle possible," she said. "However, it is important to remember that colleges often cater for students who need a much more individual approach, and cannot simply be reduced to a one-size-fits-all model."

Any online system needed to have "flexibility at its core", Ms Parry added. "While it can serve to reduce the burden on colleges, we need to recognise that teaching and support staff on each campus are often best placed to provide the support, in a one-on-one setting, that many students need."

Another lecturer at Edinburgh College, who did not want to be named, said some students had struggled to fill in "complicated" online application forms. He raised concerns that lecturers had not always been informed that they had students with additional support needs in their classes prior to the course starting, so staff had not been able to prepare materials for them.

"This doesn't just affect non-traditional students, because (other) students can't reach the staff actually in charge of the course," he added. "The new system is so much more complicated and you don't know who to speak to."

But a spokeswoman for the college said the online application system had made the process "simpler and quicker" for students and that other institutions were using similar set-ups.

"Most of our applications are now received online, but potential students are welcome to send paper applications," she said. "Our student advice and support staff are available to assist all applicants with a paper or online application and ensure that any additional support needs are identified."

The spokeswoman added that students could indicate any additional support needs on their application forms. "The student support team will then contact the student in advance of their course starting and draw up a support plan to ensure they receive the assistance required," she said.

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