OPINION | ‘Digging, a deep dark trench’: students left unsupported in wake of COVID-19

15 April 2021

There is a truism, first circulated in public space by artist Jenny Holzer in 1977, “abuse of power comes as no surprise”. This is the exact reason that the University of Melbourne has an independent student advocacy service—to provide students with a source of procedural fairness when they face the inequalities that often plague this institution. 

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic within the University have seen a disintegration of support for students, as well as a sharp discontinuation of response to the ongoing (and worsening) crisis of inequality.

A report released this month by the University of Melbourne Student Union’s (UMSU) Advocacy and Legal services shows that 241 students were assisted by the Advocacy service in April 2020, compared with just 69 in April 2019. This 350% increase reflects the immense student need emerging as a result of COVID-19 and a changed education model. 

The report states that “it is well overdue for the University to take a break from digging a deep, dark trench to hide from its obligations towards students living with disabilities.” Saying further that “the University needs to urgently put its resources into a coherent strategy to improve Disability Access and Inclusion and proactively address mental health outcomes for its students.” 

While demand for the advocacy services did stabilise across 2020, 2748 students were assisted in 2020—compared to 2222 in 2019. Despite this stabilisation, students seeking access to the service are still being told that they will need to wait up to ten business days for a response. For urgent legal advice, students are being told to contact Victorian Legal Aid. With a significant proportion of the University’s international students unable to return from overseas, this means some students may not have access to independent legal advice in relation to disability discrimination or family violence, for example. 

In its transition to operating remotely, the Advocacy and Legal services also closed their phone line,. This remains in place despite the relaxing of restrictions in Melbourne. 

UMSU President Jack Buksh states that the phone service was “subject to a planning review prior to the lockdown, because we were not finding it the most efficient way of fielding enquiries.” He said the decision to suspend the phone service was in response to an overload of calls, which resulted in some students missing out.

UMSU’s Advocacy and Legal services receive financial support from both Victorian Legal Aid and a percentage of the student-paid Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF). In 2020, Victorian Legal Aid provided a substantial additional grant of approximately $70,000 to assist the service with increased demand. However, the University did not provide any increased SSAF funds to UMSU for service delivery, despite the heightened demand. 

“[The] increase in demand was recognised by external organisations such as the State Government who provided additional one-off funding to the Legal Service, yet the University did not do so”, said Buksh. He also added that increased University funding would be welcome for these services he deemed “very important to students.”

University axes Student Support Coordination Team

In May of 2020, the University cut funding to the Student Support Coordination Team: social workers set up within the Student Equity & Disability Support division of the University. The team’s function was to assist students with disabilities, to obtain and negotiate reasonable adjustments to studies, and to help navigate the often oppressive structures of the institution. This team was funded via SSAF, meaning it was directly funded by students. 

This funding cut came despite the University of Melbourne achieving an ‘operating surplus’ of approximately $8 million in 2020  (during a once-in-a-century global pandemic).Buksh says that this surplus on top of existing financial reserves delegitimises the numerous cuts to University services.

“The University can clearly afford to provide more support to students – these cuts to the Student Support Coordination Team will have an impact on students and it’s not good enough.” 

However, a recent change in the leadership of the University’s Student Equity & Disability Support division is cause for some optimism amongst students and staff—the division will now be led by a social worker. The Code of Ethics of the Australian Association of Social Workers mandates a commitment to ‘respect for persons’ and ‘social justice’ by practitioners. Whether such a commitment is adhered to with such a lack of capacity within the division remains to be seen. 

Disability, Accessibility & Inclusion Policy still not ‘finalised’ as policy gap remains

While intended as a policy change primarily for student benefit, the University’s long-awaited Disability, Inclusion and Accessibility Policy seems sorely lacking in adequate student consultation.

According to an explanatory note, the drafting of the policy began after disability and accessibility were identified as a “key policy gap”. This policy draft was written by the Diversity & Inclusion Steering Committee, of which Vice-President of Strategy & Culture Dr Julie Wells is a member. 

After 6 months of silence from the University, Dr Wells said of the policy: “[it] was developed late last year and has been through an extensive process of both targeted and University-wide consultation through the University’s Policy Network. Staff and student stakeholders were consulted. It is being finalised to take into account the rich feedback received during consultation.” 

Questions remain about this ‘extensive process’ of consultation. The UMSU Disabilities Department, which is led by a committee of students with disabilities, provides peer-led support services and inclusion-focussed activities for students with disabilities. However, the 2020 UMSU Disabilities Department Office-Bearers claim they were never approached to provide insight to policy discussions. A lack of consultation with this department would seem to suggest a fundamental oversight in stakeholder engagement on the policy. 

However, Dr Wells also stated that the draft policy was “part of a continuing program”, which she asserted included a “range of measures”. One planned measure is to develop a new University-wide Disability Action Plan in 2021. 

It remains the case that the disability policy has not been approved by the University’s governing bodies. Of course, policy change takes. Meanwhile the University takes six-plus months to consider whether it will indeed integrate the ‘consultation’ and draft policy into its policy framework, students with disabilities continue to bear the burden of inequality. The report from the Advocacy and Legal Services highlights multiple examples of students needing to fight tooth-and-nail for support that the University ultimately deems reasonable. 

One deaf student asked the University that interpreting and captioning services be provided for live and pre-recorded material. After receiving a significant amount of push-back initially, an agreement has been struck that those services will be provided. The Advocacy and Legal service, which assisted the student, calls on the University in their report to allow this decision to set a precedent.

Buksh noted that UMSU prepared a submission for the draft policy consultation, which can be viewed in full hereMost students don’t participate in policy reform while juggling their studies. The end-result is changes to policy that rarely engage genuinely with students’ lived experience. However, the promise of the draft policy derives from its commitment to reversing the onus of accessibility. 

What is missing from the draft policy is a specific commitment to embedding the elimination of indirect discrimination from University decision-making. To maintain compliance with the Equal Opportunity Act 1982, the University must ensure that where a decision of the University impacts on the rights, privileges and benefits, or causes obligations, penalties and other determinants of a person with a disability, decision-makers considers whether the procedure or criteria used to make the decision has, or is likely to have, the effect of disadvantaging that person as a consequence of their disability. The University’s responsibility for eliminating indirect discrimination is outlined in the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (vic) and is subject to a reasonableness test.

A reversal of the onus of  would see the University, and not the individual student, bear responsibility for ensuring reasonable adjustments corresponding with students’ disabilities. Doing so is likely to streamline the difficult administrative process experienced by marginalised students accessing help, and partially address the crisis of inequality at the University. 


Rhys Kierkegaard* – is a student and artistic researcher within the University of Melbourne, as such they have published this article under their artist name, pursuant with the University’s Academic Freedom of Expression Policy. 

IMAGE SOURCE: Holzer, Jenny (1977). Truisms: Abuse of Power Comes As No Surprise. New York.

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