Open University closed to disabled students

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2015 National Disabled Members' Conference
11 November 2015

The Open University’s (OU) is a flexible system of learning that supports the largest disabled student community in the UK. Last year almost 20,000 disabled students studied at the OU and a large number were UNISON’s Disabled Members. Conference is concerned the planned closure of Regional Centres announced on 15 September may mean the OU is closing its doors to disabled students.

Regional Centres are at the front line of the OU and dedicated local staff provide essential support to our Disabled Members, and other Disabled Trade union members, who access courses to support career progression. The proposal states “no locally based services will be withdrawn, only the location from which they are managed will change” but while this may appear small change the impact for disabled students will be devastating.

The importance of individual support for disabled students can’t be overstated. Face to face meetings or somewhere familiar to drop in for a chat can be the difference between success and failure. While meetings organised elsewhere or telephone conversations are alternatives these are not suitable for everyone. The knowledge and experience of local staff cannot be replaced. They understand some students are only comfortable with familiar people or environments, they know the services available in their area and can support the development of tutor student relationships when a tutor is not locally based. Individual support is rarely provided by one person and consistent involvement of Regional Centre staff can make a difference.

Tutorials are group meetings, often held in Regional Centres, with arrangements made so everyone can attend and participate. If Regional Centres close tutorials are likely to be held in the remaining offices or arranged in temporary venues that may not be accessible. If a student is unable to attend because of a disability related reason ‘it may be possible to arrange some individual tutor sessions by phone or email’ but this may not be accessible to some disabled people. If a student needs extra support tutors can hold one to one tutorial sessions in Regional Centres. These take account of disabled students needs and may involve BSL interpreters, note-takers or other support services. Under the proposals these will replaced by ‘special sessions’ over the phone. If these are not suitable for a disabled student a meeting will be arranged but may involve the student travelling hundreds of miles to one of the remaining offices.

Regional Centres play a fundamental part in organising exams and local knowledge is vital for disabled students who need accessible venues, extra support, specialist equipment or home examination. How will someone in Manchester know if an exam centre in Cornwall is accessible for a specific student? How can someone in Milton Keynes recruit the appropriate invigilator for a home exam in Newcastle? Is it reasonable or practical for a Birmingham based student having to travel possibly to another country to discuss exam needs? If a disabled students isn’t confident about their exam arrangements how will they be confident enough to pass. Regional Centres are controlled environments with support on hand and make sure exams are well run. The alternative is unthinkable.

OU vice-chancellor Peter Horrocks said “This recommendation allows us to enhance student support in a way that’s simply not possible in our current office network and offer our students the sort of support they expect and deserve”.

But the proposals are a move towards a call centre model of education that will disenfranchise disabled students and prevent disabled members achieving their full potential. The proposals go to the OU Council in November and if approved staff will be consulted before changes are implemented in February 2017. There are no plans to consult students or disabled people and little evidence that equality implications have been considered. Conference calls on National Disabled Members Committee to work with the NEC to:

1)Ensure disability issues are a central part of UNISON’s campaign against the closure of Regional Centres, including liaison with other Trades Unions;

2)Campaign for a full consultation to be carried out that includes students and disabled people’s groups; and

3)Request information on how the OU have complied with the Equality Act 2010 and the Public Sector Equality Duty with particular consideration of disability issues