University Challenge

Disabled people and their families are under terrible strain at the moment. Our access to support and services we need to function at a basic level has been eroded over the last ten years of austerity. And things are getting worse. According to the Office for National Statistics, ⅔ victims of Covid19 in the UK are disabled people. Lockdown seems to be enabling further disadvantages for disabled people. I want to look at the bigger picture. Where can this fundamental support lead for people to whom so much of the world is closed off? For me it was going to university, and it was life-changing.

In 1995 I was nineteen, unemployed and depressed. I had left school at sixteen with a handful of qualifications. With the considerable encouragement and support of my future Wife, I started a foundation course with the Open University studying European Humanities. The course had a Summer School. Five days of using a wheelchair, living as a full-time student at Reading University, going to classes, (and the bar!) confirmed for me that I would thrive at university. I took two more courses and earned a Diploma. I knew this qualification would not be enough for me to join Helen at Oxford, but I hoped it would appeal to a more modern institution.

Far from me having to convince Oxford Brookes University that I was good enough for them, they assured me that I would be very welcome there and encouraged me to apply. I started in the second year of a BA in Modern History in September 2000. At 24, I was older than most students, but thanks to my experience with the Open University, I knew I had picked a course I would enjoy. I applied for a place in Halls too, so I could enjoy the social experience and make the move from home.

I was first to arrive at my new flat and waited nervously to greet my new flat-mates with a cup of tea as they arrived. First was Dave, a man’s man with a heart of gold. Next was Tom, a charming, well-spoken guy, then Melanie from Bordeaux and Asami from Japan. Thanks to all of them, our flat was always full of people. The very first night, there was a fire alarm and all of us were milling around in the chill night air. Some of the male students were wearing brightly coloured and very badly fitting dressing gowns, obviously borrowed in haste from the female students they were spending the night with. What a great way to meet people!

So, what were these fundamental changes in my outlook? One began pretty much as soon as I arrived, I realised how valuable my experience was and I wanted to encourage others to experience it too. I became a student rep for disabled students and was elected as Deputy President of the Students’ Union for a year after I graduated. This powerful desire to empower others set the tone for my career in local government and my volunteering after I retired.

The other change is summed up nicely in David Goodheart’s 2017 book, The Road to Somewhere. Goodheart links the experience of moving out of home to go to university with developing an ‘anywhere’ mindset. For ‘Anywheres’, ties with a place are less physical, as a ‘global citizen’, a move to a new place is not an issue. Conversely, ‘Somewhere’ people feel a strong sense of place and look to stay there. Goodheart suggests that the ‘somewhere’ attitude was exploited to produce the polarised outcome of the 2016 Referendum to leave the EU. Looking back, it is clear to me that my applying to do an exchange in the University of Rhode Island in the first term of my final year and my move to live and work in Birmingham from 2006 were part of my developing ‘anywhere’ credentials.

Back in Oxford, I worked hard for the rest of the year. The Winter mornings were dark when I woke and went to the library and dark again when I went back to my room. I only saw the sun at the weekends! I finished my course and earned a respectable 2:1. I graduated in the summer of 2002, ten years after leaving secondary school with almost no qualifications. I had worked very hard. I describe the excellent support provided by Oxford Brookes University in my post about Media. I was also very proud to be the first member of my family ever to graduate from university.

Richard sits in a wheelchair wearing a cap and gown. His Wife poses next to him, his parents stand behind

Since I went to university twenty years ago, universities have embraced private sector values and have piled debt upon students for qualifications that can have little value in the modern world. Maintenance Loans had just replaced Grants and tuition fees had just been introduced but were capped at £1k per year. I had financial support from the State, but I still graduated with a debt which took me ten years to repay. According to the Government’s recent review of post—18 funding, total student debt at the end of 2002 was £8.4Bn and has risen by over 1400% to an eye-watering 120Bn at the end of 2019. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, Student numbers have only risen by 31% in the same period.

This system fails disabled students. We are more likely to under-perform, struggle with loneliness, not complete our degrees, or be underpaid in our graduate jobs. The Higher Education Commission is currently investigating the experiences of disabled students. The Office for Students has targeted the equalisation of outcomes for all students by 2024-25. To achieve this, Universities must offer a fully accessible experience. Only then will Universities stop seeing adjustments as a ‘cost’ and disabled students no longer have to ‘other’ themselves by asking for them. These issues cut through the entire education system.

Higher Education gives power, and for disabled people, powerlessness is all too common. A degree is not a guarantee of an enhanced understanding, it is not for some people, nor is it the only way to acquire knowledge or the skill to use it. My time at Brookes changed my life and shaped my future, but I simply could not afford to go now. My children are growing up with our aspiration that they can go to University if they want to, but how can we keep that promise to them? Accessible and high-quality education and healthcare must be accessible to all and should be subsidised by the State. If it was, disabled people would be have a strong and positive influence and our Country would be a much better place than one that watches in silence as 22,417 disabled people die in ten weeks.

Richard Brown

July 2020


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