Henry and Quade

Submission Concerning University of Melbourne’s “Business Improvement Program”

To whom it may concern,

My name is Henry Macphillamy, and I am undertaking the Juris doctor Program at the University of Melbourne Law School. I also happen to be completely blind, and moderately hearing impaired. I realise that you are deeply concerned with access and equity within the University of Melbourne. To this end, I am writing to express my growing concerns and profound disappointment in the processes associated with the proposed Business Improvement program (BIP) restructure.

It is my understanding that the restructure includes plans to significantly reduce staff employed by the disability liaison unit (DLU), and to amalgamate and centralise the functions currently performed by equity officers within faculties. Regrettably, I am unable to be more specific, as the University of Melbourne has made no effort to make such information publically available to students.

I am a full fee paying student who has moved interstate in order to attend the University of Melbourne. I am also completely reliant upon the delivery of quality disability services in order to perform to the best of my academic ability. For these reasons, I view myself as a stakeholder with a significant interest in this matter. I am not aware of any formal mechanisms of disseminating relevant information to those students who will inevitably be most affected by the proposed changes. I am therefore of the strong opinion that the lack of transparency in this consultation process is wholly inadequate.

In order to facilitate full participation in and engage with course materials, I have requirements that are specific to my individual circumstances. For example, I require course materials to be produced in an accessible alternative format; I utilise the support of an academic support worker to access seminar content on slides and assist me with undertaking research; I utilise lecture theatre hearing loops; and I rely on the invaluable support of faculty staff in dealing with personal challenges if and when they arise, and before such time as my academic performance is hindered. This includes ongoing support from the centralised DLU, and the law faculty’s equity officer.

When selecting a university, the standard of their disability support services is, without doubt, the most important consideration for a student with a disability to take into account. It may well prove to be the difference between achieving optimal results and dropping out of the chosen course. I have personal knowledge of far too many cases in this latter category. The positive impressions which I formed of disability service provision at the University of Melbourne in general, (and within the law faculty in particular), informed my decision to move interstate and away from my support networks.

By contrast, I received substandard support throughout my undergraduate Bachelor of International Studies at the University of Sydney. I attribute this substandard support to inadequate funding, and low morale and high turnover amongst staff within the centralised DLU. There were no equity officers integrated into the faculties to ensure student welfare. In addition, the University of Sydney failed to retain staff with specialised knowledge and expertise, leaving students such as me in a tenuous position. As a direct consequence, my academic performance and emotional well-being was severely impacted; my personal goals and aspirations became unclear; and I was left feeling completely marginalised within the university system. It saddens me to learn through informal conversations that the University of Melbourne appears to be going down the same path, and it angers me that very little consideration appears to have been given to students with disabilities in the consultation process.

For the first time in my nine years of tertiary education in Australia, I now feel confident in fulfilling my academic potential. This perspective is reflected in my academic results. For these reasons, I consider myself to be privileged to attend an institution and faculty that is willing and able to proactively respond to my requirements at the present time. I would go so far as to describe the support structures which the law faculty have developed in conjunction with the central DLU as best practice, and as a sustainable model that is worthy of emulation by other faculties and institutions in the provision of support services to individual students with many and varied needs.

I would like to make the following points to the BIP committee as they relate to my personal circumstances, and on behalf of other University of Melbourne students who happen to have a disability.

  1. The University of Melbourne should be proactively reaching out for comments and providing information through formal processes.
  2. Providing adequate support to students with a disability is a complex and involved matter that requires expertise and one on one, face to face consultation.
  3. To treat the services of the equity officer and disability liaison unit as able to be performed by enrolment administrative staff and via online forms is misguided and will lead to problems. To take one example, web accessibility is a big issue for anyone who is blind, and who is reliant on screen reading software.
  4. If adequate support is not provided, the student with a disability will inevitably be further disadvantaged, and their ability to continue in their chosen course will likely be negatively impacted.
  5. Each student with a disability is different, and requires tailored accommodations, which need to be provided as quickly as possible and before their academic performance is hindered. The existence of a staff member who is able to provide proactive personal student support within the faculty is essential in this regard.
  6. The plan to employ fewer staff at the DLU without first implementing steps to ensure that services will remain at an adequate standard will have disastrous consequences for existing students with unique needs and requirements. It is also more than likely to effect the decisions of potential students on where to study.
  7. The costs savings which are sought by cutting back on staff numbers at the DLU may actually make service provision less efficient and more costly, as gaps in service provision are filled by whatever means are available in the short term.
  8. Centralising and amalgamating faculty pastoral care functions will close off a crucial avenue of effective and proactive student support. It is well-utilised, and it is a system that works. Referring students to the counselling service will not remedy this in the slightest.
  9. These decisions, if implemented, will send a terrible signal to the domestic tertiary sector with respect to disability service provision. The University of Melbourne is highly regarded in terms of the support structures that have been developed over many years. Other institutions may decide to follow the University of Melbourne’s lead in an attempt to make efficiency savings at the direct expense of quality service provision.
  10. As I am sure you are aware, the Abbott government wishes to move more disability support pension recipients off this benefit and into the workforce. I agree with this broad objective in principle. However, if adequate support is not provided to students by the educational institutions in which they are enrolled, it is difficult to see how an individual’s education goals will be met, and a higher proportion of individuals with a disability subsequently engaged in paid employment. I passionately believe that the University of Melbourne has a moral responsibility in this regard.

I await your considered response, and I am happy to constructively engage in this process further however I can.

Best regards,

Henry Macphillamy

This article was first posted on Macphillamy’s Musings on July 7, 2014.