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You are reading: Calculating the costs of supporting people with disability in Australian higher education

Tim Pitman1, Katie Ellis1, Matt Brett2, Elizabeth Knight3, Darlene McLennan4

Executive summary

This report details findings of the NCSEHE-funded project, Calculating the costs of supporting people with disability in Australian higher education. The project sought to investigate how the Australian Government and universities invest to support the inclusion of people with disability in higher education. The study recognised that higher education today enrols many thousands of people with disability, that many students with disability require supports to enable their successful participation, and that institutions have different strategic orientations that may influence disability inclusion.

The project

This investigation aimed to provide:

  • critical information regarding the ways in which institutions support people with disability
  • a better understanding of how policy incentives might best be focused to support the successful participation of people with disability in Australian higher education
  • a rationale to develop a rigorous assessment tool for calculating the full cost of supporting people with disability in higher education.

This research aimed to provide a better understanding of the costs of supporting students with disability in higher education by adopting a mixed method approach to determine how institutions invest in the inclusion of students with disability.

The three types of investment analysed in the study are:

  • recurrent expenditure: for example salaries for disability support staff
  • non-recurrent expenditure: for example provision of ergonomic equipment on a case-by-case basis
  • indirect expenditure: for example expenditure on accessible enterprise systems.

The mixed methods approach used in this study allows examination of both quantitative and qualitative data. These were:

  • a survey of national and international research in this area
  • a quantitative analysis of data relating to the financial support provided to higher education institutions by the Australian Government for students with disability
  • A qualitative analysis of further evidence of financial support provided by higher education institutions.

Key findings

  1. The Australian Government provides financial support for higher education students with disability through several streams. Chief amongst these are:
    • base funding to support the participation of domestic students which in 2019 included over 70,000 students with disability
    • Additional Support for Students with Disabilities (ASSD) payments made to institutions to help defray the costs of educational support and/or equipment provided to students with disability
    • a Disability Performance Funding (DPF) component which allocates shares of a fixed amount of funding to institutions using a calculation based on access, participation and success indicators for students with disability
    • funding to support the national Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training (ADCET).
  2. Excluding the funding for ADCET, in 2019 the combined ASSD and DPF components averaged $104 per student with disability or $157 per equivalent full-time student load (EFTSL). Institutional funding ranged from as low as $23 per student/$32 per EFTSL, to as high as $347 per student/$466 per EFTSL.
  3. Project analysis showed that levels of Australian Government funding for disability support is not correlated with increased participation, study mode nor improved retention for students with disability. However, this would require further analysis including multiple variables before drawing any concrete conclusions; this may be limited by the current collection of higher education data, specifically as it relates to students with disability.
  4. The study found that the degree of space dedicated to disability and disability funding in Australian university annual reports is highly variable and inconsistent. Critically, what is missing from the annual reports is a fully inclusive approach that proactively welcomes people with disability.
  5. Staff specifically tasked with supporting students with disability were, generally, able to clearly identify and quantify the value of goods and services that their institution dedicated to the support of students with disability, relating to both recurrent and non-recurrent expenditure. They were less confident in identifying and quantifying indirect sources of expenditure. Their estimates varied considerably and did not appear to correlate with the number of students with disability at their institution.


Recommendation 1

  • That the Australian Government conduct a holistic review of the participation of students with disability to ensure that higher education is free from discrimination, aligned with the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) (DDA) and Disability Standards for Education (2005) (DSE), and consistent with Australia’s commitment to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). This review should include reference to the adequacy of financing to support these policy objectives.

Recommendation 2

  • That the Australian Government undertake an independent audit of higher education providers to quantify the financial investment being made in supporting students with disability beyond the additional funding provided to the sector by the Commonwealth. This audit should encompass the full extent of investment, including recurrent, non-recurrent and indirect expenditure.

Recommendation 3

  • That Australian governments (State, Territory and Commonwealth) should require higher education providers to adopt consistent reporting frameworks for describing equity goals and performance, inclusive of activities that enable the participation of students with disability and that quantify financial investment in equity and disability. It is further recommended that the Australian Government work with the sector to redesign and standardise the disability enrolment declaration to capture more valid information about disability services.

Read the full report: Calculating the costs of supporting people with disability in Australian higher education

This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

1Curtin University
2Deakin University
3Victoria University
4University of Tasmania

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