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Disabled Students (University of Cambridge)

Volume 598: debated on Tuesday 7 July 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jackie Doyle-Price.)

I am grateful to have secured the Adjournment debate this evening. It is on the important and sensitive subject of unseen disabilities. May I make this speech in the memory of my schoolboy friend, James Adams, who was killed 10 years ago at Russell Square in the 7/7 bombings? James had an unseen disability, which was the disability of a stammer. He had a deep interest in the workings of this House. Although he took a different political position from me, he would have taken an interest in this debate.

Let me highlight the great progress that we have made on how we treat people with seen disabilities. It is perhaps best illustrated by the success of the 2012 Paralympics. But even here, we still have a long way to go. On celebrating his 50th year as a fellow at the University of Cambridge, Professor Stephen Hawking felt compelled to comment:

“I wonder whether a young ambitious academic, with my kind of severe condition now, would find the same generosity and support in much of higher education.”

Professor Hawking was speaking about seen disabilities. The issue I wish to raise today is specifically regarding the treatment of young people with unseen disabilities and the stigma associated with them.

It is now 70 years since Asperger’s syndrome was discovered, 12 years since the publication of the novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon drastically improved public understanding of the condition, and three years since that play came to the London stage. Yet little progress has been made on how we treat vulnerable people, particularly vulnerable young people with unseen disabilities such as Asperger’s syndrome.

Let me talk about a talented and remarkable young man from my constituency with hidden disabilities who was accepted to study at Cambridge, starting in the autumn of 2012. Azhir Mahmood had a long journey from the noise and bustle of Tottenham to the hushed quadrangles of Cambridge. It started with Azhir teaching himself his maths A-level in his bedroom at home aged only 14, while studying for his GCSEs at the local comprehensive, Gladesmore school. A gifted student, Azhir nervously opened his results letter a couple of years later at a local state sixth form college, Woodhouse, to see that he had got the straight As—an A* and 2 As—that he needed to go to Cambridge.

Growing up in Tottenham, Azhir had not known much about the University of Cambridge, aside from its reputation as a school of international distinction. He was unaware that Cambridge has a college system, which means that most teaching, accommodation and socialising takes place within each college. He did not know which colleges had the best facilities, which were arty or which were science-focused. He certainly did not know which societies and activities he might get involved with once he arrived. Azhir did not even really know how far away his college was from the centre of town. In fact, all he really had to go on when he applied was a bewildering patchwork of college websites that all looked remarkably similar, with shiny pictures of fairytale buildings, green fields and wooded grounds. Through a random selection, Azhir picked Homerton College simply because he thought that it looked like a nice place to study.

Azhir had worked hard. That was how he won his place at Cambridge. He had even become a bit of a hero to everyone back home in Tottenham in doing so. It was a source of huge pride in our community that one of our boys was going to study at Cambridge. All that hard work had paid off. He had finally made it. He was there, or so he thought.

Soon after starting at Cambridge, Azhir began to feel isolated at Homerton, which has a preponderance of arts and education students. He felt slightly out of place. He did not know whether it was because of his accent, or how he dressed, or because he was from Tottenham, but living four or five miles away from the centre of Cambridge, where most of his science friends were living, he began to feel utterly alone. His anxiety increased and began to affect the

“flashes of genius and brilliance”

his director of studies could see.

Homerton College seemed unable to support him through this increasingly difficult time as the severity of his panic attacks and anxiety disorder increased. Five months in, feeling utterly isolated and defeated, Azhir was forced to return home to Tottenham, which is known in Cambridge as “intermitting”, without even sitting his first exams.

While he was intermitting, Azhir was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. The following October he returned to Homerton College and was hopeful that, after his struggles, his college would understand the importance of having his needs assessed. He hoped that proper support would be put in place to assist him with his hidden disabilities and to help him feel less anxious and less alone but again, despite many efforts on his part, no successful measures were put in place by Homerton College to help him cope. He was told to get a bike to cycle into town to see his friends, even though his GP said he had

“already had three cycle accidents so I think it’s safe to say this mode of transport is not for him”.

Azhir tells me that by March 2014 he was forced to intermit for the second year in a row. Time passed and by November 2014 Azhir was still stuck in Tottenham. Having been home for eight months, he was desperate to change college within the university. He knew that other students had done it but despite all his emails and phone calls nothing happened. His senior tutor at Homerton had promised the previous July that, if he went home to Tottenham a second time, she would be able to make inquiries to other colleges within the university. Four more months passed by and Azhir was only too aware that current year 13 students’ applications were being considered. Time was running out, yet Homerton staff had not approached even one of Cambridge’s other 29 colleges.

Meanwhile, a friend of Azhir’s, a student representative, had been trying to arrange a meeting with his senior tutor for months. When the meeting finally took place Azhir was not even allowed to attend. His friend, advocating on his behalf,

“got the vibe they didn’t really want him to return at all”.

Azhir reread his senior tutor’s letter of 20 March 2014 and its list of demands, including her order that he must

“focus on recovery from the depression”,

suggesting that he do so by booking himself a room at Cambridge’s YMCA as opposed to remaining on university property, and

“developing skills to live as an independent adult”

before he would be allowed to return to his lectures, which he loved. His tutor’s final paragraph, which said

“it may be in your best interests to move to a different university”

kept repeating in his head. Azhir’s dreams of going into research and of doing something meaningful and worth while seemed to him to have gone. But Azhir’s medical reports from his psychiatrist and GP stated that, if Azhir could transfer to a central college, close to the science society he liked to take part in, and close to his friends and lectures, he would not be socially isolated. He would then be far less likely to suffer anxiety and depression. He would be better able to concentrate on his studies. His supervisor, Louis Kovalevsky, was able to observe:

“Azhir is probably one of the brightest students I met.”

So why cannot Cambridge, one of the world’s oldest and wealthiest universities, which receives at least £260 million of taxpayer funding each year in addition to fees from students and generous bequests, meet Azhir’s disability needs and facilitate a change of college?

In an email dated 21 November, his tutor said that the college had to

“weigh up our considerable sympathy for Azhir’s predicament with the necessity to protect other students.”

Azhir has never put any other student at risk, let alone caused them harm. Why then, in approaches to other colleges, has Azhir repeatedly been told that each college has to “prioritise their other students”, seemingly because of Azhir’s depression? Do they think that depression is somehow catching?

If we are serious about encouraging the brightest and the best from all different backgrounds to attend our top universities, Azhir is exactly the sort of devoted and dedicated student that his university should be encouraging and supporting. He has been told to

“look at other alternatives where he would be under less pressure”

outside Cambridge. He has also been told that he lacks

“a compelling reason why a change of college”

would solve his problems. Worse still, reference has been made to

“the necessity to protect our other students, themselves going through very challenging and stressful times in their lives”.

I was the Minister responsible for higher education when the Equality Act 2010 was passed in Parliament. The Act defines disability as

“a physical or mental impairment,”


“has a substantial and long-term adverse effect”

on a person’s ability

“to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”

Under the Act, parity of esteem is given to physical or visible conditions and unseen disabilities, such as the Asperger’s syndrome and depression from which Azhir suffers. The Act states that disabled students should not be treated less favourably than other students. It places a duty on higher educational institutions to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that, in accessing higher education, students who are disabled are not put at substantial disadvantage compared with those who are not disabled

Section 149 of the Equality Act contains the public sector equality duty, which requires public bodies to comply with a general duty to eliminate discrimination, promote equality of opportunity, and foster good relationships between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not share that characteristic. Does the Minister think these stipulations have been met in the case of Azhir?

I commend my right hon. Friend for bringing this important debate to the House. He has made a number of serious points and anyone listening to his account of his constituent would have huge sympathy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that part of the issue here is the problem of a collegiate university? Often, we talk about the university, but those responsible are in fact the individual colleges. Perhaps the relationship between the two is at the heart of the problem. The university itself has a rather good record of trying to deal with some of these issues and has been singled out for the work that it has done.

The collegiate system is causing a tremendous problem for my constituent. My hon. Friend will understand that we must have a system that bends to the needs of those with disabilities and creates parity with those without disabilities. In this case, it seems that there are huge problems, which I believe this House and the university must seek to overcome.

Cambridge University does not seem to understand that unseen disabilities must be recognised as just as debilitating as seen disabilities. The 2010 Act makes it clear that students with Asperger’s, anxiety or depression are just as entitled to additional support as paraplegic or blind students. What is most shocking to me is that when young Azhir asked for help with his mental health, he felt that the problems he was suffering were used as a weapon to attack him. In normal circumstances, colleges are supposed to act as a kind of surrogate family for young people, but instead of being given help, he was told to go to a different university. Despite there being 29 other colleges at Cambridge where he could successfully complete his course and fulfil his potential, to date that has not happened. My constituent is currently sitting at home in Tottenham.

That brings me to my involvement in Azhir’s case. At the beginning of March this year my office first contacted the vice-chancellor’s office to try to arrange a call between me and him. My office was told that he would not be able to talk to me about the matter because the independent status of each college as a charitable institution meant that when a transfer was requested it was entirely up to each individual college whether to accept a student.

Nevertheless, after some negotiation Lisa Dery of the university’s student advice service took my call. Lisa has been trying to assist throughout this complex process, and we agreed that I would be regularly updated. The student advice service also undertook to make efforts to secure Azhir another college through a “diplomatic, co-operative and professional” approach. Unfortunately, despite Ms Dery’s considerable efforts, no place has yet been found.

When my team was informed that there was only a 20% chance of success, I again sought to contact the vice-chancellor. Again I was given the runaround. My letter of 27 May 2015 met with this reply:

“I would politely point out that my office did not refuse to speak to you… A clearer statement would be that it was suggested that you write to me in the first instance.”

By that point I had of course already written to the vice-chancellor, so I wrote again to express my concerns, in the hope that I could discuss Azhir’s case with him personally. That was followed by a phone call from my office seeking clarification that the vice-chancellor really did not wish to discuss the matter. I received this response on 10 June 2015:

“to confirm, decisions of both admissions and accommodation are matters for the independent Colleges. The Central University has no remit on these issues.

The senior tutors of the Colleges are aware of the case and they have been working with the student for some time in order to find a solution. They are aware of your concerns. Please contact the principal of Homerton College…if you wish to take this matter further”.

On receipt of that reply, my office immediately telephoned the office of the principal of Homerton College, Professor Ward, on 11 June to request a call, and then again twice last week and yesterday. Today I received an email from Professor Ward, and I spoke with him this afternoon. He promised today that he will do his utmost to look after Azhir and support him throughout his studies if he returns to Homerton College this year. That is helpful, but given that Azhir’s psychiatrist’s report supports the move to a central college, and given that Azhir has felt very isolated and excluded at Homerton twice before, does the Minister believe that would really meet Azhir’s needs?

It is clear to me that I have been given the runaround and that until this afternoon the university did not wish to discuss Azhir’s case with me. It ought to be deeply embarrassed that the apparent lack of a joined-up, inter-college transfer policy is leading to students with hidden disabilities being denied a move to meet their diagnosed needs, even when failure to do so is having an adverse impact on a student’s studies, health and, ultimately, their future. It seems it would prefer to sweep the issue under the carpet.

I remind that House that, very sadly, in 2010 Ronjoy Sanyal, a 26-year-old student at Cambridge, took his own life. He, too, had complained that he was not best served by the university. He, too, had Asperger’s syndrome. It is for that reason, and for all the reasons I have indicated, that I have brought the matter to the House today, and I do so with huge regret.

The way I see it, Azhir and surely many other young, gifted but vulnerable students like him have put the work in and overcome many obstacles to win their place at that world-beating, historic institution, yet because of what appears to be a profound misunderstanding of the impact of hidden disabilities, they are being prevented from realising their ambitions and completing their courses. Azhir and many young people like him have shown extraordinary sprit, dedication and determination to succeed against the odds. They are exactly the sort of hard-working, dedicated young people we should be encouraging. I ask the Minister to look carefully at this case, to speak to the university, if he has not already done so, and really to bring this to a satisfactory conclusion.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) has made some very powerful points. I do not think that anyone listening to his account could fail to be moved by it. There are some serious issues to be looked at. As I said in my intervention, this points to the difficult problems in a collegiate-based university system, although there are also strengths. Over the years, I have looked at the college-based system—I am partly a product of it—and sometimes asked myself whether it is the most effective way to operate in the modern world. However, the University of Cambridge is one of the most successful universities in the world. There are some real strengths in the college system but also some weaknesses, as my right hon. Friend clearly identified.

I am sure that people in Cambridge will want to look closely at this, not least because many of those in the university have worked very hard on some of these issues. In fact, when the Quality Assurance Agency looked at the university a few years ago, dealing with students with disabilities was singled out as one of the areas where it did well. Clearly, even getting a good report like that does not mean that the system works in all cases, because it obviously did not work in this case. The University of Cambridge is one of the few higher education institutions that has a person dedicated to Asperger’s syndrome, and the number of students with Asperger’s has risen from 27 in 2009 to 135 today. While there are clearly people making an effort in the university, it is obviously not enough, because it has not worked in this case, as sometimes happens.

I thank my right hon. Friend for bringing this matter to the House. As I say, I am sure that people in Cambridge will want to look at it closely. We all want to make sure that we get a successful outcome for his constituent.

I thank the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) for the opportunity to debate this important topic. Access to higher education is an issue that he has long championed as a constituency MP and as a former higher education Minister.

I was extremely sorry to hear of the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent Azhir Mahmood’s difficulties with Asperger’s syndrome and the difficulties that have arisen in his dealings with Homerton College in Cambridge. The right hon. Gentleman quoted Professor Stephen Hawking’s comments about whether anyone with a condition such as his—motor neurone disease—would find the same sort of generosity of support available now as he did when he was a younger academic. Let me assure the House that they most certainly should, for we want many more Stephen Hawkings in our universities—all of them, wherever they are in the country.

The wellbeing of students is rightly of great importance for our higher education institutions, and I know that they take their responsibilities in this area exceptionally seriously. As autonomous bodies independent of the Government, universities have the responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of their students. This includes making reasonable adjustments for those with disabilities, seen and unseen, including those on the autism spectrum. That includes those with Asperger’s syndrome. Institutions have clear legal responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010 to support such students, and they are best placed to determine the appropriate support and adjustments that they need to provide to them.

When an individual believes that they have been discriminated against and a dispute arises, there are established procedures in place for raising a formal complaint. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, this is initially through the university’s internal complaints procedure. If the complaint is unresolved after completing that process, the student can ask the Office of the Independent Adjudicator to explore the complaint, and that office, which was set up as an alternative to the courts and is free to students, can form its own view. Any complaints can also be referred to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. This is an independent body established under the Equality Act 2006 to stop discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity. It is for each institution to ensure that it is complying with the law and meeting its duties.

Cambridge colleges are independent, and they make their own decisions. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is rightly not able to interfere with the admissions process. Similarly, I cannot comment on individual cases, but I understand, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) himself made clear, that the University of Cambridge has undertaken considerable work in this area, including a project looking at the support for students with Asperger’s syndrome. I am told that it was one of a very small number of such projects operating across this country’s higher education landscape. As the hon. Gentleman has said, before the project started in 2009, very few students with Asperger’s were studying at Cambridge, but today there are approximately five or six times that number. That is a sign of progress and I welcome it.

It is also very positive that data from the most recent national student survey in 2014 showed that disabled students at Cambridge were more satisfied than non-disabled students with their period of study at the university. That is satisfactory.

There are many other examples of the support that universities have in place. Many universities—almost all of them, I would imagine—have induction systems to help students understand university life and people to turn to if they are experiencing difficulties. Institutions offer counselling services to students to help with their health and welfare issues, and most also offer personal tutors. I know that universities are mindful of the fact that many of their students, particularly those who have moved far away from home for the first time to study, will be undergoing a significant transition and may need extra help.

The Government also provide extra support for disabled students, on an individual basis, through the disabled students allowance, which can provide support to students with mental health issues, including those with an autism spectrum disorder such as Asperger’s syndrome. All students applying for the DSA undergo a needs assessment interview to ascertain their specific requirements with regard to their chosen course of study. Support can include items such as specialist equipment—assistive software, for example—and funding for a specialist mentor to provide support to a student to address barriers created by a particular impairment.

It is important that all students, from whatever background and whether they have a disability or not, get the support they need to apply to higher education and be successful in their studies. We are making progress in that respect. The proportion of accepted applicants with a declared disability has increased from 6.5% in 2010 to 8.5% in 2014.

Good progress is also being made on the entry of students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds to higher education. UCAS reports that the entry rate for English 18-year-olds increased for all ethnic groups in 2014. Since 2010 there has been a 4.5 percentage point increase in the proportion of students from Asian backgrounds, and a 7 percentage point increase in the proportion of students from black backgrounds.

We are not satisfied with that, however, and we want to build on that progress, so the Prime Minister has set a goal for increasing the number of students from BME backgrounds progressing to higher education by 20% by 2020. He has also set a goal to double the proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education by the end of this Parliament compared with 2009 levels. Those are ambitious goals, and rightly so, and for entry in 2015 we have lifted the cap on aspiration, and publicly funded universities can now choose to recruit as many students as have the ability and wish to apply.

In conclusion, the higher education sector has much to be proud of in its work to ensure the wellbeing and mental health of its students and to fulfil its duties under the Equality Act. I expect the sector to continue to meet its obligations in this area and to build and develop the support it provides.

Again, I am extremely sorry to hear of this particular student’s experience. The right hon. Member for Tottenham has explained in great detail the steps he has taken to support him, and I commend his work on his behalf as a constituency MP. I must stress, however, the need for both the student and the university to continue to work together for a solution that will enable this talented individual to thrive and flourish in higher education.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.