HEDSA appeals to vice-chancellors to prioritise the disability policy framework to enable its implementation

Published On: 13 April 2022|

Disability units appear to be the only structures within universities that take the Strategic Policy Framework on Disability for the Post-School Education and Training System seriously. Ms Martie Miranda (left), Chairperson of the Higher and Further Education Disability Services Association (HEDSA), expressed this opinion at the first sitting of the Transformation Managers’ Forum (TMF) on 8 March 2022.

Speaking as an invited guest to the TMF meeting and focusing her input specifically on the Strategic Policy Framework on Disability, Ms Miranda said members of HEDSA had picked up that at many institutions, the contents of this document had not filtered through to Vice-Chancellors’ offices. As a result, officials responsible for assisting with the Framework’s implementation were not on board and, therefore, disability units struggle to secure appreciation of this policy instrument, and the support they need from different stakeholders, such as those overseeing the universal design of teaching and learning.

The TMF is one of the now nine active communities of practice within Universities South Africa (USAf). Comprising transformation managers from all 26 public universities, it is a key advisory, advocacy and capacity building forum in support of higher education’s transformation agenda. The meeting of 8 March was the first of three scheduled annual meetings of the group.

Ms Miranda posited that institutions ought to consider inputs from staff working in disability units as they are the people working on the ground, who must deal with day-to-day challenges facing students with disabilities – such as inaccessibility.

Other issues she raised concerned the monitoring and evaluation of performance as outlined in the Policy Framework. This, she said, was about whether institutions aligned their performance against the set indicators, targets, timeframes and responsibilities, and whether they adhered to the Strategic Policy Framework’s reporting requirements.

So much more could be done with a little more resourcing

She also mentioned funding models, citing that the Framework provides for the funding for students with disabilities in the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). However, NSFAS funding disqualifies students whose annual household income exceeds R350,000. Ms Miranda said disability units receive funding requests from part-time, postgraduate and international students with disabilities who are registered for support from their offices. But, regrettably, because of the often limited and sporadic external funding, disability units do not have a budget to assist most of these students.

Still on funding, she said although institutions receive infrastructure grants from which they must facilitate access to all — including students with various forms of disability — surviving off the university allocation and not necessarily directly co-funded by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) means that disability units struggle to put in place appropriate technologies, licencing and proper staffing to render the requisite support. As a result, she said the disability units are often either not resourced at all or under-resourced, leading to non-existent or poor service delivery when so much more could be done.

Lastly, she spoke of access to higher education for students with disabilities, saying these students continue to struggle to get into institutions of higher learning. She said this goes against the national targets stipulated in South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP) – which recognises that students with disabilities have a role to play in SA’s mainstream economy. She recommended that, similarly to the quotas guiding international students’ enrolment, universities could adopt a model to govern the enrolment of students with disabilities – to accelerate realising the NDP goals in this regard.

As she concluded, Ms Miranda reminded the audience that, although South Africa was struggling to reach the current 2% target for the employment of persons with disabilities, the 2030 target, as stated in the NDP, is 7%, hence the need to fast-track the enrolment of students with disabilities and to enhance their throughput rates and future employment.

Are there guidelines to align institutional policies with the Disability Framework?

During a discussion session at the inaugural TMF meeting, Dr Ruby-Ann Levendal (left), Director: Transformation at Nelson Mandela University, who is also the Deputy Chairperson of the TMF, asked Ms Miranda the following questions:

Question 1: Has HEDSA worked towards providing guidelines for policy formulation – seeing that most institutions do have policies in place — but would need to realign them with this framework?

Response: Although HEDSA does not have templates for institutional policies, we do provide templates and guidelines on different issues, such as the establishment of a disability unit, because most issues stem from institutions not knowing what ought to be considered when forming such spaces. I will, nonetheless, escalate the question on policy guidelines to the HEDSA executive committee for consideration.

Question 2: To what extent are there resources, at a sectoral level, that universities can tap into, to enhance accessibility and capacity development? Is there a special application to DHET?

Response: I am not aware of any sectoral resources available, currently. We do have a platform, however, where all disability units from our different institutions communicate, share information on institutional policies, best practices and experiences. I do not think there are a lot of institutions with policies that speak to universal access, though.

However, as HEDSA, we do have regional structures which, this year, have planned roadshows to help capacitate disability units and share best practices. Because institutions differ, we cannot adopt a one-size-fits-all type of approach –hence the need to find the best possible means for each institution to accommodate students with disabilities. That is the main objective of the roadshow.

Question 3: Would it be possible to have the technologies you spoke of, negotiated at the sectoral level so that there is a cheaper rate at which we can acquire them for use at our institutions?

Response: It would be a great idea to contact our suppliers and see whether there is a way of negotiating better prices for institutions.

Students’ voice needed to strengthen institutional performance

Question 4 (from another member of the TMF): To what extent does HEDSA work with students’ associations

Response: That is an essential element of our work. We have now incorporated the South African Union of Students (SAUS) Disability Subcommittee into the HEDSA Executive Committee. This necessitated a change to HEDSA’s constitution which now makes provision for listening to the students’ voice. That said, it is our desire to see students’ representative councils (SRCs) taking a stand on representativeness, in their structures, of students with disabilities. We do not see a lot of that in South Africa.

Wrapping up, Ms Miranda said it was concerning that only pockets of institutions can vouch for accommodating students with disabilities in one way or another, whereas others plead a lack of resources to make meaningful change.

That said, she said she believes the relationship established with the TMF will help raise the profile of the Strategic Policy Framework on Disability for the Post-School Education and Training System at institutions, thus placing disability at the centre of institutional transformation.

Enhancement of TMF priorities for 2022

The invitation to HEDSA was extended to give expression to the TMF’s prioritisation of disability issues in the broader transformation agenda.

Priorities of the TMF for 2022 are:

  • Placing students at the centre: reconstitution of institutional cultures by focusing on the design of the universities to optimise student development and growth.
  • The Engaged University: establishing a national project to theorise and build models of universities that are engaged in the local context in which they find themselves.
  • Review of universal access and disability support in higher education: placing people with disabilities at the centre.
  • Gender-based violence, health and safety with a focus on mental health.

According to Mr George Mvalo (right), Chairperson of the TMF, who is also Director: Social Justice and Transformation at the Vaal University of Technology, the Transformation Managers’ Forum is mindful of the asymmetries in the staffing, resourcing and support for disability units across the 26 public universities, the universal access constraints for students and staff and the inability of the sector to meet the minimum 2% threshold of employment of staff with disabilities which should be urgently addressed to ensure inclusive disability transformation at both students and staff levels.

“The partnership with HEDSA is one of the first steps we’ve taken towards realising one of the TMF’s priorities of placing people with disabilities at the centre of public universities’ operations and the Post-School Education and Training sector as a whole — including TVET Colleges,” Mvalo explained this relationship. “Indeed, we look forward to collaboration with HEDSA as an ally in making university spaces progressively accessible, welcoming and inclusive to all.”

Nqobile Tembe is a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities South Africa.