Universities are spurning students who require special facilities. Josephine Gardiner reports.
Disabled pupils are being discouraged from applying for university places by institutions reluctant to meet the extra financial and administrative commitments involved.
In oral evidence given last week to the Dearing inquiry into the future of higher education, Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, warned that plans to replace the system of student funding with a long-term loan scheme could further disadvantage disabled students.
Disabled part-time students who do not get a mandatory grant are already excluded from claiming the disabled students' allowances, so that some students are prevented from studying at all.
Sophie Corlett, Skill's assistant director, reminded the inquiry that the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, which came into force at the end of last year, excludes education from its provisions. Therefore, while it is illegal for universities to discriminate against their disabled employees, they can still discriminate against students.
Disabled applicants with all the right A-level grades can be refused admission to a course. A student who becomes disabled while at university can legally be asked to leave college accommodation. And a lecturer can legally refuse to clip a radio aid to his lapel to allow a deaf student to hear his lectures.
The Act, however, does require universities to "have regard to" the needs of the disabled, and funding councils must now ensure that the institution produces a disability statement before awarding grants. The point of the statement is to inform disabled pupils about the facilities available at different universities.
A spokesperson for the Higher Education Funding Council said that six institutions had not met the January 10 deadline.
"The situation is improving," he said. "Some institutions have a very positive approach and we are funding special needs projects worth Pounds 6million over next two years, but in the end universities are independent institutions and we cannot tell them what to do. The situation is variable and some universities are based in old, inaccessible buildings. The amount of money needed for every campus to become totally accessible would be vast."
Disabled students are under-represented at university. Statistics show that only 3.7 per cent of first-year students are disabled, while the levels of disability in the general population is around 12 per cent. Skill argues that desirable rates of participation in higher education decided by the Government should apply to disabled people equally.
Ms Corlett said that the Dearing committee had questioned whether it would ever be financially possible for all institutions to make themselves accessible to students with all kinds of disability, suggesting that it might be more practical to encourage institutions to specialise in, say, blind people or wheelchair-users.
"But this restricts choice for disabled students," she said. "It means they are having to choose a university on the basis of its provision for the disabled rather than the quality of the course."
Skill is also worried that distance learning courses will be promoted as a substitute, relieving universities of the need to make changes to accommodate such students.
Ms Corlett points out that it is frequently the refusal of institutions to waive the rules on trivial matters that can throw up unnecessary obstacles in the path of disabled pupils.
She cites the example of a girl doing A-levels at an FE college: the college was accessible, but the computer centre was on the fifth floor. Only members of staff held keys to the lift for security reasons, so that while the other students could access the computers all the time via the staircase, this student, a wheelchair user, was forced to locate a member of staff - often in vain.