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University of Sussex accused of "discriminating against disabled students" after breaching equality law

The University of Sussex has allegedly breached legal requirements after failing to consult disabled students before their “proposal for change” to student support services, sparking new conflict between the university and the University of Sussex Students’ Union (USSU).

The new policies include the closure of Unisex, which according to their spokesman, has “nearly 600 students coming through our doors each year”. The USSU claims this “breaching” of requirements is likely to impact negatively on the reported 20 percent of Sussex students who seek student support for disabilities.

The USSU, which is an integral part of student welfare, added that the university failed to engage cooperatively with them on their attempts to address this important matter. Although regular meetings are held between the university and the union, this does not constitute proper consultation as they were not with disabled students.

The university’s proposals to change student services should follow the standard procedure in carrying out an Equality Impact Assessment (EIA). University spokesman Rob Read said: “The process of development and consulting on EIAs is to help a public body like a university identify ways in which the impact of proposed changes can be assessed and if necessary mitigated, as well as used positively to promote equality.”

The law stipulates that EIAs should always use data before the proposals are made. However, no data was included in the original assessment, which was approved by Academic Registrar Owen Richards.

The EIA that was issued in November 2009 stated, without evidence, that there were “no identified” risks for the target groups concerning disability, gender and racial equality. When consultation did take place with the affected disabled students, it was after the proposals were published, and this falls far short of the legal guidelines for EIAs.
Lexcel, an accredited law society, states: “Due regard must be paid to these needs before and at the time that a particular policy that will, or might, affect disabled people is being considered by the public authority in question. It involves a conscious state of mind.”

The university only managed to provide data in week two of this term, despite the proposals being put forward before the beginning of this academic year, which started in September 2009. The statute issued by Lexcel continues: “Attempts to justify a decision as being consistent with the exercise of the duty when it was not, in fact, considered before the decision, are not enough to discharge the duty.”

USSU Welfare Officer, Ciaran Whitehead is also a subgroup member of the Equality and Diversity (ED) committee forum, and therefore has been trained in impact assessments by the university itself.
He said: “The EIA for student and academic services deals with the closure of Unisex, the severe reduction of student advisers and also the proposed plan for the new ‘student life centre’. These proposals directly affect disabled students in a number of ways: HIV is covered by the Disability Equality Duty (DED) so the closure of Unisex directly impacts on disabled students. Student advisers are responsible for the majority of referrals to the student support unit.
“Therefore disabled students, by law, should have been involved in this EIA from its formulation to its implementation. They were however not involved in this process and are still yet to be engaged with.

“The university has failed to adequately consult with disabled students in a meaningful way. The university failed to give sufficient reasons to allow disabled students to give intelligent consideration, or in fact any consideration.

“This failure to comply with Disability Equality Duty is completely unacceptable and I believe the university are discriminating against disabled students.”

The university’s response regarding the EIA was that Council had “noted the report and endorsed the work which had been undertaken.” But the USSU made clear that because there had been no proper consultation, it seemed the Council were effectively endorsing an improper assessment.

Ciaran Whitehead attempted to bring this to the attention of Vice Chancellor Michael Farthing, “after exhausting all other avenues”, but he did not receive an adequate response, adding that “he ignored his responsibilities.”
He is also distressed by the poor organisation of the ED committee meetings wherein the proposals would have been discussed. The number of meetings was reduced this academic year from three to two, but until week two of summer term, there had in fact been no meetings at all.

The recent meeting only took place, claims Ciaran, after his two written requests. In one email to the Vice Chancellor, he wrote: “The committee has not met since the end of the last academic year, the minutes of this meeting are still yet to be made available despite numerous efforts.

“I emailed Professor Paul Layzell on 19/10/09 requesting the minutes, to which I received a response telling me that he would check with HR [Human Resources] and see what had happened to them, and ask that a copy is sent ASAP. I never did receive a copy.”

Ciaran added he is “extremely concerned” by this situation, and that this apparent neglect of proper structure could “be viewed as indicative of Sussex’s attitude to equality and diversity.”

He feels he has been unable to raise “what I believe to be extremely serious concerns: that the university is failing in its Disability Equality Duty.”

“I find there to be a total lack of commitment to ED [Equality and Diversity] at Sussex beyond the bare minimum legal box ticking. I welcome the opportunity to constructively engage in this process for the good of the students I represent.”

Rob Read said: “The university rejects completely the suggestion that problems with the timing and issuing of minutes for a specific committee meeting means that the university does not consider student welfare and equality a top priority.”

Several USSU officers believe this would not happen to the university-based groups such as the Teaching and Learning Committee, or the Student Experience Forum, and feel they have been treated “unfairly”.

University and College Union (UCU) Sussex representative Paul Cecil said: “The UCU is dismayed at the failure of the university to engage adequately with equality issues, particularly in view of the very significant number of disabled students who will be directly affected by the university proposals. This, we believe, is a breach of the Disability Equality Duty and leaves the university open to legal claims from those affected.”

The UCU recently carried out an analysis of the scale of the impact on students by looking at the four largest disability groups and what percentage of these groups are registered with student advisers: Dyslexia (70%), multiple service users (82%), unseen (51%) and mental health (93%).

This rate is vastly different to the reported average institutional rate of 33 percent, suggesting that the impact at Sussex could have been underestimated.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission have been contacted about “breaches of the equality requirements”. Ciaran Whitehead hopes more investigation into the matter will be carried out by the public body Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), one of whose duties it is to oversee the needs and equality of students.

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