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Michelle Donelan: harbinger of Augar? Or Michelle Donelan: something more?

  • 13 March 2020
  • By Michael Natzler

It is fair to say that many of us working in higher education policy knew little about the new Universities Minister Michelle Donelan and the new Science Minister Amanda Solloway at the time of the recent reshuffle. Some commentary focused on the wider reshuffle, interpreting the appointment of many new faces, including Donelan and Solloway, as a sign of the centralisation of policy in No. 10 and the attempt to weaken the autonomy of departmental Ministers. Another striking narrative which emerged was the impressive rise of Michelle Donelan, from teenage speaker at the 1999 Conservative Party Conference, to her first ministerial position within five years of arriving at Parliament in 2015.

Some combined these two narratives and billed Donelan as a ‘career politician’, asserting that she could become a supine unresisting Minister and that her appointment was surely the harbinger of Augar. There are two reasons I find this focus and outlook frustrating.

First, this narrative is strangely similar to that of Chris Skidmore’s. Skidmore became Universities and Science Minister off the back of Sam Gyimah’s resignation, which was billed as the removal of the vital voice in opposition to a university funding cut. The future looked bleak as one ‘ultra-loyalist’ Skidmore took on the post only for him to hold off from implementing Augar, to defend the university sector to the point that he was eventually removed in the pre-Valentine’s Day reshuffle, after which he defiantly spoke out against university bashing and in favour of a period of stable funding.

Secondly, the response to Donelan’s appointment ignores the fact that, like her predecessors, Donelan can influence the sector in areas which even the most centrally-run Downing Street will leave alone. Even if Augar and some of the bigger issues are in the hands of the No. 10 Policy Unit, one would be foolish to disregard the other areas she might influence.

Effective ministers can choose a small number of areas where they can make a real difference: Chris Skidmore focussed on care-leavers and students with visual impairments; Jo Johnson tried to improve access to the market for smaller private providers like NMITE; and Sam Gyimah was keen to work with students to bolster student voice and choice, despite the occasional photo mishap. We must not lose sight of the positive impact these personal projects can bring.

In the case of Michelle Donelan, we can expect her to bring experience of working on disability issues in Special Educational Needs and disabilities and the workplace to bear. Furthermore, Donelan’s experience of Lyme Disease has led her to campaign extensively for raised awareness and better treatment including chairing the APPG and talking about the disease on radio and on her blog.

It is this experience along with her work on disability in education and the workplace that makes me think she could make a fantastic disability champion for the sector: just as she considers there to be low value courses on the basis of student outcomes, she may understand that the issue of low value is more complex for students with disabilities and that even the courses with the best student outcomes can fail to deliver for students with disabilities.

I think it is worth dwelling on her work in Parliament on Lyme Disease and Lyme Disease itself. Lyme is a badly understood disease, most commonly caught from a bite from an infected tick, which leaves a “bullseye” rash. Unless treated quickly with a long course of antibiotics, the symptoms complicate and can lead to death. For many, even once the infection comes up negative in the blood, symptoms still persist for months, years or even for life: this is commonly referred to as post-Lyme. These symptoms typically include joint inflammation, heavy limbs, brain fog, poor short-term memory and chronic fatigue which, when they last for more than 12 months, are considered (by HESA) as a disability.

By chance, when I was a student representative, it was through LJ’s experience, a student suffering from post-Lyme, that I learned about both the disease and how university was inaccessible to those with Lyme in ways which even the fantastic Office for Students-commissioned report on support for students with disabilities does not include. As an able-bodied person trying to understand disabled student experiences, I found working with LJ invaluable helping me to understand some of the challenges students faces when studying with a disability. I reconnected with LJ to compile a few reflections on their experience of navigating university. These experiences highlight a couple of areas where students with disabilities are currently being let down.

Lyme and university

Those with Lyme often move from being able-bodied to disabled. This transition gives students the rare experience of having two very different student experiences. LJ knew what they were able to do before and what is no longer available to them. This is illustrated in LJ’s experience with sport, which is the first area they flagged to me as vital to confront – the failure of making sports accessible at university.

Generally, the sector’s focus on sport when it comes to policy making has been removing bullish and dangerous initiations and encouraging activity for social interactions and mental health. But in the experience of LJ, disability sport takes the form of one-off sessions where the emphasis is on temporarily opening sport to those with disabilities. Similarly, the general perception of disability sport is that it is a visible disability, perhaps manifested in prosthetics or wheelchairs. For those with invisible disabilities like chronic fatigue, the structures are often not there, even when societies have disability representatives. A positive experience LJ had was when the person in charge of the event was expressed openly who they were and where they could be found and contacted at the event.

Universities can lag behind the workplace in terms of disability access. Disability access is not just a wheelchair ramp, a working lift, lecture recording and a suitable place to sit – which still some universities seem unable to provide. It goes deeper, to the whole provision and idea of a degree.

LJ secured a graduate job following an internship at a Times Top 10 employer. They were able to adjust where LJ worked, for how many hours and worked around LJ’s needs. At university, if you have a disability which affects your ability to keep to deadlines, generally you are given extensions. If an extension is not applicable, then you get adjustments to your marks. Naturally, with conditions like chronic fatigue and brain fog which come and go for weeks at a time, these can pile up.

For LJ this reached the point where they were told either they had to complete the work, or defer their year, hence losing their internship. The time frame for completion was so short that LJ would run the risk of losing their First class grades.

This may not be the fault of the university per se. Rather it is that the system for awarding a degree relies on everybody on the course submitting the same amount of work regardless, which is surely a flawed way to test ability.

With a track record of high Firsts and a university award for academic excellence, the question for us was what was the degree actually trying to measure at this point? Why should LJ have to complete their modules if it is not ability being measured, but energy levels? This highlights the final reflection, that in many ways universities are still functioning on principles which worked for a less diverse and generally able-bodied student population which is now a feature of times gone by.

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