Clause 12 - Qualifying complaints

Part of Higher Education Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 12th February 2004.

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Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale 10:15 am, 12th February 2004

The amendment and the new clause were tabled at the specific request of the Royal National Institute of the Blind and of Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities. I am delighted to note that not only do they attract the support of my hon. Friends, but that of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell). I am genuinely hopeful that the Under-Secretary will recognise that they were not tabled in a partisan spirit, and that they are not an attempt to trap or inconvenience the Government. They reflect the legitimate lobbying of legitimate interest groups, which believe that the Bill could be improved if the Government were to accept the changes. I hope that the Under-Secretary will reflect carefully on them. The amendments seek to address the entirely understandable concern of those who lobby on behalf of people with disabilities that the Bill should provide the maximum protection for the practical circumstances that may arise.

Amendment No. 184 would allow the OIA to hear complaints against a university or other higher education institution about its failure to make a reasonable adjustment to the assessment process to meet the needs of disabled students. Such students want to ensure that a university's legitimate and desirable defence that a matter falls within the sphere of academic freedom should not excuse it from making proper facilities available to disabled students so that they have as equal a chance of succeeding as other students.

The RNIB entirely accepts, as I am sure we all would, that a student who turns in a very poor piece of work, who does not apply themselves properly or who does not turn up to lectures should be censured and marked down whatever their background and circumstances. If, however, a student is visually impaired and cannot complete an exam because the university has failed to provide them with the appropriate materials to enable them to read the question properly and to reply to it properly, the RNIB argues that the university should not be able to say that the matter falls within the sphere of academic freedom and that the adjudicator should not consider the complaint. I am delighted to say that many hon. Members on both sides of the Committee believe that to be an entirely reasonable point.

I know that the RNIB and Skill have corresponded with the Minister of State. In the material that they circulated widely to all members of the Committee, they explicitly state that they very much welcome the spirit in which he has replied. They do not question the sincerity of his wish to address their concerns, but they note that he concludes in his correspondence with them that the reviewer who works for the OIA should ultimately decide the merits of the case. They believe that it would help to provide proper and appropriate guidance to the reviewer if the Bill made it clear that the needs of disabled students must properly be taken into account within the sphere of academic freedom.

No one on either side of the Committee wants to limit artificially or unreasonably the sphere of academic freedom. We are all signed up in principle to the idea of academic freedom, and the Opposition will want to table amendments to later clauses that are designed to increase academic freedom. We do not believe that universities are malicious, malevolent or incapable of taking reasonable decisions, but we do believe that organisations that lobby for disabled people have identified a possible loophole in the legislation that could unfortunately be exploited in certain circumstances and could injure the interests of disabled students.

New clause 4 was tabled in the terms requested by the RNIB and by Skill. It refers to the disabilities legislation passed in 1995 and to the Special Educational Needs Disability Act 2001. It is intended to ensure that a disabled student has sufficient time to enter an appeal to enter a register of complaint.