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A Glaring Omission – but why?

February 2010

Let me explain.

Newcastle University is currently presenting a number of public lectures in the Curtis Auditorium under the banner of INSIGHTS. Sir Martin Harris gave the first of them this week on Excellence and Inclusion in Higher Education. Sir Martin is a heavyweight. Amongst other things formerly Manchester University Vice chancellor and then Vice Chancellor of the University of Salford, but here as the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education.

There was a lot about Sir Martin’s lecture that I applauded. He espoused the pursuit of excellence. He endorsed meritocracy. He drew a distinction between excellence - which he favoured - and elitism which he disapproved of. He assured his audience that universities had to remain one hundred per cent in charge of admissions. Not a teeny weeny bit of pressure to admit more students from working class backgrounds? No positive discrimination in favour of some that becomes actual discrimination against others, such as all-women MP shortlists under Harriet Harman’s banner of equality? Well I wonder, but never mind. Of course he saw his remit as the pursuit of ‘equality of opportunity.’

What was quite startling to me was that in a fifty minute lecture on a subject with the word “Inclusion” in its title, from first to last he never once mentioned inclusion for students with special educational needs. It is interesting when you come to think about it; I have read a lot about inclusion of children with special needs into mainstream schools over the years but I have seen nothing that I can recall about its provision in Higher Education. Not once.

You would have thought that someone who was a Director of Fair Access to Universities would have this within his remit. This is where inclusion ought really to click in for those who have survived the bullying, overcome their learning difficulties and started to embark on their adult lives.
This is where I fully endorse it, but where the educational establishment and academia would appear totally to ignore it. Ah well. Maybe they thought, quite mistakenly as it happens, that inclusion would save money, but here they knew it would cost money in terms of access and support. Perhaps they didn’t even acknowledge that there would be some children with special needs that would aspire to higher education. Perhaps it was providing them with unequal support.
By strange coincidence part of a BBC report states figures from the Student Loans Company showing that 12,500 students in England are still waiting for grants to pay for specialist equipment.  The statistics also reveal that two thirds of students with a disability or special needs are still waiting for money.