CUSU disabled students' officer, Florence Oulds, highlighted problems faced by DRC users CUSU

A Varsity investigation has found significant challenges facing the University’s Disability Resource Centre (DRC), from slow response times to major inconsistencies in its interactions with colleges.

While almost unanimous in their praise of DRC staff, student testimonials suggest a pattern of excruciating waits for email responses and an patchy provision of services. These problems appear to be caused in part by a major rise in demand on the service, and its small number of staff.

This view was echoed by the CUSU disabled students’ officer, Florence Oulds, who described DRC staff as being inundated by cases. She also suggested that colleges cause further complications, saying that it is “the luck of the draw” whether they were accommodating and understanding of disabled students’ needs.

Though the DRC performs well in terms of student satisfaction, with overall satisfaction placed at 85.9%, some students experience severe problems. Some praised their colleges, while others felt that colleges were not using DRC resources effectively.

‘A significant caseload’

Varsity’s analysis of DRC statistics indicate the severity of its current struggles over staffing, caused by a rise in demand. The ratio of staff to disabled students, according to its 2016-17 annual report, stands at 1:503.

The report itself admits that this “represents a significant caseload”, with the most pressing issues for advisors being “the increase in volume of support demands and increase in cases which require significant advisory time.”

Coping with long waits

Problems with the DRC’s ability to cope with demand appear to be creating strain for students. The DRC’s automatic email response to new queries tells students that it could take up to three weeks to receive email responses, with some student testimonies mentioning an “expectation” of waiting between 4 and 6 weeks.

When approached for comment, the University Communications team said that they take “all concerns very seriously,” and aim to “review and improve services in response to feedback”. They claim to prioritise cases according to “urgent need,” and wrote that, “prioritising urgent cases sometimes mean others have to wait longer, particularly at peak times such as in the run up to examination access request deadlines.”

Oulds commended DRC staff, but described them as “overworked”. She is aware of slow response times: “it’s one of the most common things that students talk to [her] about.”

Combatting funding cuts

The DRC has also faced funding issues in recent years, as Government Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) have undergone severe cuts. Previously, the DRC administered funding to students and claimed it back from the DSA. However, now the University relies increasingly on internal funds, although reduced DSA grants currently compose up to £500,000 of the DRC’s budget. There has been a silver lining to this: the DSA’s replacement by the Reasonable Adjustments Fund (RAF). The University provides the fund, and currently supports some 240 students. Harding described the funding as “sufficient,” with “no shortfall between the RAF and previous DSAs funding for non-medical help.”

The RAF has been praised by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) as “an example of good practice.” Oulds praised the RAF for improving the DRC’s ability to provide students with grants quickly, with the previous wait of 3 months being cut to 3 days. Harding spoke positively of the changes, noting a 77% increase in take up of one-to-one study skills sessions.

‘Betrayed and dismayed’

Student testimonies indicated variation in the provision of services across colleges. One recounted how their Student Support Document (SSD), a record used to convey the specific academic needs of a student, was not updated by the DRC for use by their college, creating issues setting up special arrangements for their exams. Close to their exam period, it added “substantial stress to an already stressful time.” They understood that “the assumption was that [they] must have failed to provide the appropriate updates to the appropriate people,” despite having followed the correct procedures, and were made to feel it was their fault “that the correct arrangements weren’t in place.”

Another testimony echoed this, stating that their new director of studies had not received their SSD. However, the student said that, in this case the fault lay with their college – whom they suggested were not using the documents the DRC provided. Their tutor confessed to not having “studied [the SSD] in detail.” The student found this “disheartening,” hoping the SSD would give them “more confidence to study [in Cambridge.]” A lack of communication between their college and the Centre when organising exam arrangements led to a frustrating period of back-and-forth meetings. The situation was only resolved when a member of DRC staff spoke directly to the college and discovered that there would be no issue with the arrangements they had suggested – despite what the student had been told by the college previously. The student felt “betrayed and dismayed that college seem to be ignoring the advice of the DRC.”

Another student found that despite DRC attempts to train academic staff, there is a “lack of consistent education,” adding: “it is very much person-to-person the extent people go to help you and the understanding they have.” The DRC trained over 350 members of staff on disability support in the year 2016-17, an increase on the previous year’s 292. They also produce best practice documents and online resources. Nevertheless, this does not encompass the entire staff body, and some students continue to feel unsupported.

Praise for DRC staff

Virtually all of the testimonies gathered by Varsity praised DRC staff. One said, “for what it’s worth, I do think the DRC are great,” despite them being “inundated.” Another called their disability advisors “expedient and helpful,” and were “grateful to the hard working people at the DRC,” regardless of detrimental “underfunding and understaffing.”


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Florence Oulds also praised the DRC’s provisions when put in place: particularly their short-notice disability screenings. There is no DRC waiting list for specialist mentors and specialist 1-1 study skills tutors, although specialised learning difficulty advisers have a waiting list of 10-15 days, which the centre claimed have been affected by staff illness.

Regarding future improvements in the DRC’s services, Florence Oulds notes that it has staff specialising in a wide range of disabilities, and would like to see more with these capabilities. She would also like better implementation of reasonable adjustments to students’ study and exam conditions - referencing some students who feel that they must “fight for their adjustments,” despite it being a “legal right”.

The University’s response

When contacted, the University stated that “staffing levels are reflective of those across the sector” and emphasised that “student satisfaction levels are reflective of the excellent experience that the majority of students have when engaging with this service.” However, Varsity’s testimonials demonstrate a sense among some students that it is possible to fall through the cracks.