The culmination of ongoing student and staff concerns with the under-resourcing of the Student Equity and Disability Unit (SEADU) at UNSW will, in the space of one month, see the loss of three staff members possessing a combined 85 years of experience in disability support, to the alarm of many among the 880 students relying on the service.
SRC Students with Disabilities Officer, Joel Wilson told Tharunka that students had expressed concerns with the loss of experienced staff, in addition to the closure of the SEADU front office from late November to early January, a decision which restricted the ability of current and future students to access SEADU’s services. Further contested changes to SEADU’s operations in 2013 have included the reduced reimbursement of student note-takers from $26 per hour to a voluntary commitment, or in return for $10 vouchers redeemable at select outlets on and off campus.
“I’m concerned that SEADU is under-resourced and that the needs of students with disabilities may not be properly met,” Wilson said.
One student with disabilities, Luke*, shared this sentiment, citing increased stress and trepidation towards his studies as a result of the changes implemented in 2013.
“The amount of support given to students seems to have shifted from what the student needs to what the university can get away with,” he said.
Until recently, SEADU employed three permanent Education Liaison Co-ordinator (ELC) staff, in addition to a fourth temporary ELC position since mid-2012. ELCs are responsible for assessing the needs of students with disabilities, recommending educational adjustments such as Braille resources and text-to-speech software for electronic texts, arranging disability support services, and advising UNSW academic staff on how best to support students with disabilities.
However, as of April this year, the fourth ELC position will no longer exist, due to a lack of funds, and a second ELC with over 35 years of experience in disability support has been forced to leave SEADU following the non-renewal of their contract. A third ELC currently on long service leave, Geoff Maddox, told Tharunka he intends to resign from his position due to the unmanageable workload pressures placed on the ELCs for a number of years.
“It’s just a matter of when I put my resignation in now,” Maddox said. “I’m not interested in coming back to work when there’s only three ELCs.”
UNSW Branch President of the National Tertiary Education Union, Sarah Gregson, said the university had failed to adequately respond to immense staff workload burdens at SEADU, even following a workload review requested by staff in January 2013 in accordance with their enterprise agreement.
“The university has been over-enrolling students for years now, and not recognising the workload limitations on staff,” she said.
Krystel, a blind music education student, agreed that staff are not valued by the university.
“My ELC has definitely made all the difference in my university experience so far. I’m worried about what’s going to happen now, as I haven’t got a contact to go to any more. Even the staff left are going to have a couple hundred more students to help, and they’ve already got a full workload as it is. When there’s people working really hard, like the ELCs who have over 80 years combined experience, this is what happens to them in the end, because someone wants to save money somewhere.”
Luke raised similar concerns, stating he believes management are more interested in putting the needs of the university before those of students relying on the services of SEADU to obtain a tertiary education.
“I do not believe the university is responding to the needs of students as best as they can. They are treating us like lesser human beings who they are obligated to provide services for, under government legislation,” he said.
Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, universities are legally required to make “reasonable adjustments” for students with disabilities.
The Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training further outlines a non-binding Code of Practice for Australian tertiary institutions with regard to students with disabilities. Among its provisions for good practice in disability support are an expectation that staff are provided with the support necessary to enable them to meet the requirements of students, and that universities consult students with disabilities to best develop an inclusive educational environment.
According to Geoff Maddox, ELC and past Chairperson of the professional body for university disability advisors, the Disability Education Association NSW & ACT (DEAN), the extent of “reasonable adjustments” for students with disabilities has yet to be determined by case law. However, he emphasised the lacklustre commitment to students with disabilities at UNSW, compared to other universities in Australia.
“I was the Chairperson of DEAN for three years, and a member for 10 years, so I know what’s going on at other universities in NSW, including the Group of 8 (Go8). I know how badly we’re resourced … For example, at the University of Western Sydney, where I previously worked, there was a big commitment to equity. Senior management understood and really supported us.
“At UNSW, you do not get that feeling. From [Pro-Vice Chancellor] Wai Fong’s level up, there seems to be little understanding of these issues at all. All the talk in public statements is about elite students.”
Professor Wai Fong Chua, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Students), contested this assessment, citing an increase of over $100,000 in the operating budget of SEADU since 2012.
“We had a major review of disability last year commissioned to see how we benchmark against the Go8 universities. And when we looked at the data, my sense is we are not out of line when you look at the actual number of students using the service, which is 880,” she said. “As student numbers have increased, our resources have increased. We have to make sure it’s a sustainable increase; they all have demand that will have to be considered.”
Maddox disagreed. “Everything I’ve been saying is based on statistics from the same external report UNSW commissioned … Our staff to student ratio (three ELCs to 55,000 students) is the worst in the Go8.
“I talk about the ratio of the total student body to advisors, because if you start comparing the numbers of registered students with disabilities, you run into terrible counting problems. Do they all have current needs now? The reliable way is to look at staff compared to the total number of students because the safe thing to assume is that the prevalence of disability in every university, as a ratio of the total student body, is about the same.”
A comparison of university disability services obtained by Tharunka shows that in 2012, UNSW’s employment of 2.8 disability staff (0.8 being one part-time worker) for a total student body of 52,000 was comparable only to the University of Sydney, where three full-time and one part-time staff members serviced 50,000 students. By comparison, close to all universities in NSW and the ACT employed at least three full-time disability officers for considerably smaller student bodies. UWS employed seven staff members for 40,000 students, the greatest of any university listed.
It is understood that in the United Kingdom, the industry standard for employing disability support officers at tertiary institutions is one full time staff member for every 5,000 students.
A second ELC at UNSW, Sam*, told Tharunka the needs of students with disabilities cannot be quantified.
“It’s ridiculous to say we service 800 people, because that doesn’t measure what we actually do. The work is ongoing and it never stops. It’s not about the numbers; it’s about the impact of the conditions. There’s a reason why three ELCs are working late every day. There are about 800 recurring students who come back at various points of their academic life, and 100 students who need constant attention.”
Maddox said the impact of this workload on his life was instrumental in his decision to resign from SEADU. “I’d be working at ten o’clock night after night, the rest of my life falling to pieces. It’s just disastrous. At the beginning of last year, while the big rush was on with registering students, I’d be standing there doing the washing up at eleven o’clock at night, thinking, ‘How can I live like this?’ I can’t do it anymore.”
Following the staff workload review conducted in January 2013, ELCs were advised to limit their work to seven hours per day, irrespective of student needs. Professor Chua told Tharunka additional measures have been implemented to assist staff in managing this workload.
“We were always keen to ensure staff are working within our Occupational Health and Safety regulations,” she said. “And part of the answer to them working within normal, safe hours is to ensure we do look at the workload and provide extra administrative support to offload generic tasks to other people so ELCs can be preserved for their specialist role.”
Both Maddox and Sam criticised the directive to limit staff working hours as a solution to their workload problem.
“Maybe when resources are tight, that’s the only route for management to take, because properly supporting students with complex disabilities is very time consuming,” Maddox said. “But it can be very hard to know that if you say you can’t meet a student anymore, who’s going to survive, fail, attempt suicide, or drop out of the program.”
Sam agreed. “It’s common sense that when students are struggling, we work with them. We can’t do half a job. If their condition is not managed, it will impact on their education. As social workers, we have this duty of care, and it’s all about the wellbeing of students.”
A third ELC, Jamie*, said management had failed to adequately consult staff when making these decisions. “There’s no discussion or dialogue. When we’ve said what would help us, that’s completely ignored. They just keep doing things that make our lives more difficult, not easier,” Jamie said, referring to the decision to employ various casual administrative staff for the entirety of SEADU, as opposed to the preferred option of one administrative staff member responsible for the ELCs.
When asked whether the university would be responsive to concerns with the suggestion to limit staff hours, Professor Chua said changes would only occur “if we had systematic data showing that students are disadvantaged”, suggesting a large spike in complaints from students would be an impetus to change operations.
The three ELCs told Tharunka this approach is patently irresponsible.
“Because we’re so busy trying to stop students being disadvantaged, we’re having to put in the extra hours. If we actually worked to the time we’re supposed to, there’d be a waiting list that goes back half a semester,” Jamie said. “You won’t see the disadvantage until we’ve gone.”
Maddox agreed. “A university which has the resources and expertise to prevent harm from happening should do so. A lot of harm will be done six or 12 months later if rates of subject failure are higher among students who’ve identified as having a disability.”
One student with disabilities, Luke, said the increased bureaucratisation of SEADU has already led to significant delays in students receiving the services they require, or not receiving these services at all.
“Everything seems to need approval from the Director of [SEADU] these days. The ELCs who know their students the best don’t have any autonomy in making decisions … Needless to say, the quality of disability support services has deteriorated significantly as a result of the under-resourcing. Over the years, services were usually put in place from the very start of the university semester. In Week Four this semester, some of the services my doctor recommended for me had yet to be put in place.”
Another student, Lisa LeVan, said she felt supported by SEADU despite minor delays in acquiring a digital format of texts, a problem shared to a greater degree by another visually impaired student, Christine Boutsikakis. LeVan identified less flexibility in the services offered by SEADU in 2013, but regarded her needs as having been met very well.
ELC Jamie noted that before the 2012 external review into disability services at UNSW, ELCs had been able to successfully run the service with little intervention and greater professional discretion.
“Really, it was from that point on that our service started to suffer,” Jamie said. “[Professor Chua] started saying we were over budget, and then they decided to change the way note taking was paid. Even when we paid a good hourly rate, we struggled to get note takers.
“Another service which suffered was offering a couple of hours tutoring to students who, for example, had mental health conditions and struggled with the effects of medication. The external reviewer framed it as ‘coaching’, when it really isn’t that at all. We used to be allowed two hours tutoring per subject, and this year we’re down to two hours total general tutoring, when we’re looking for subject-specific tutoring.”
Expressing concern with the university’s attitude towards students with disabilities, Krystel told Tharunka she did not feel she was being treated equally by UNSW.
“I pay the same amount of fees as everyone else, but I definitely don’t feel like my needs are being met or even taken into consideration. One thing you hear over and over again is it’s because of cost-cutting, but whose money are they saving? And what’s more important than the 20% of the population that has a disability? People who want a further education are being put under ridiculous amounts of stress, not reaching their full potential, and as a result not getting jobs and being valued by society.”
Another student with disabilities, Christine Boutsikakis, agreed. “I don’t want to be spoonfed. I don’t ask for handouts, I work damn hard. I’m paying for a university education, and I just need a little extra help.”
Geoff Maddox told Tharunka he believes the only recourse for students is to exercise their legal rights under the Disability Discrimination Act.
“I urge every student disadvantaged by not getting an adequate service to go to the Human Rights Commission. It won’t cost money, and you’ve got nothing to lose.”
The Director of SEADU, Ann Jardine, declined to comment on funding and staffing matters within SEADU.