In 2020, the Higher Education Commission, with Policy Connect and the University of Derby, published the report, Arriving at Thriving: Learning from disabled students to ensure access for all.
Three years on, applying that report’s recommendations, the University of Derby has eliminated both the continuation and attainment gaps for students with a disability, as well as enhancing the quality of their experience more broadly. In the context of increasing numbers of students with a disability, this is a significant achievement.
Arriving at Thriving uncovered the reasons for continued disparity in higher education in the representation of disabled students, the quality of their experience, and their attainment, continuation and graduate outcomes.
The data gathered in the original research, and particularly the voices of disabled students quoted in the report, made for uncomfortable reading. For example, 57 per cent of respondents said that they had felt excluded from social activities, societies, or clubs at their university.
In addition, multiple students reported the administrative and financial burdens they face, emphasising the stress associated with burdensome processes; one student talked about “six people from the university contacting me at different times.” Another pointed out that the requirement repeatedly to provide medical evidence to support mitigating circumstances claims “cost upwards of £80 every single time.” The challenges we must tackle for our disabled students are administrative, not intellectual.
Since the report’s launch, policymakers have heeded calls for greater join-up of support between HE and employment by piloting an “adjustments passport”. Planned reforms to the Disabled Students’ Allowance remain a topic of interest for the sector. However, a truly holistic approach to these mechanisms is still needed for them to be truly effective for students.
Fixing the foundations
Responding to the recommendation for providers to undertake a review of disabled students’ access to teaching and learning, Derby introduced a new curriculum design framework and learning, teaching and assessment framework, created in partnership with the university’s Union of Students. Establishing the core principles of our approach to learning, teaching and assessment, they not only ensure the embedding of research-informed curricula that are applied and industry-relevant, but put inclusive design and scaffolding for personal development at their heart.
Inaccessibility of digital learning resources is a consistent challenge for disabled students. To address this, Derby included in its learning and teaching development programme completion of an online course exploring the creation of accessible content for users with specific impairments or requirements. Over 1,200 staff have completed the course, including 92 per cent of academic staff. This has served as an important foundation for staff to develop further their accessibility knowledge and practice.
As we continue to develop our approaches to mixing face-to-face learning with digitally advanced and enhanced virtual learning environments, we must also not lose sight of the need to embed accessibility in our electronic tools and software. Universities must consider how they provide support on the use of assistive and accessibility technologies, as well as embedding accessibility considerations into procurement processes when seeking to supply new software and develop new approaches.
Successes at the level of individual universities are important, but they are still to be met by sector-wide improvements in promoting successful transitions into graduate employment, which was highlighted in recommendation 12 of the report. The challenges faced by students with disabilities while at university can continue to face them in the workplace, and structural inequalities shape their prospects post-qualification.
Investment in the development of new models of supported work placements and post-graduate internships are two ways of starting to address this persistent gap that, increasingly, cannot be explained away by institutions due to disabled students’ lower degree outcomes. This will require substantial efforts in co-production and collaboration between academic institutions and industry, and an appreciation that adjustments required for education will not necessarily be the same for employment.
The report’s recommendations are not complicated, though their implementation of course requires careful work. There is, however, a consensus that while there are many universities whose senior leadership will readily engage their organisation in making meaningful change, there are also some who will not.
There remains a question, then, as to how best to assess progress across the sector, and whether that should include regulation or monitoring. A core risk with any regulation, whether or not it becomes linked to things like access and participation plans, is that actions and activities become tokenistic, something the report authors, and the students whose experiences shaped it, are exceptionally keen to avoid.
Our students do not exist in a vacuum from national issues, and the current cost of living crisis is a significant threat to the progress being made by institutions to improve disabled students’ experiences and outcomes. Recent research published by the Office for Students has emphasised that the effects of the crisis are not being felt evenly. One third of disabled students have considered dropping out because of increases in the cost of living, compared to 14 per cent of those without a disability. 82 per cent of disabled students indicate that the crisis has had a negative impact on their mental health. Our students cannot thrive and succeed if they cannot afford to eat or put the heating on.
As institutions, we must remove the known and predictable barriers wherever we can, and act to mitigate those that are outside our immediate control. All this must be underpinned by a strong focus on students’ voices and supported by policy reform that fosters accessibility by design as an embedded approach, not as tokenism.