Addressing the disabled satisfaction gap means understanding disabled students

As Disabled Students UK publishes its annual survey, Deborah Johnston and Mette Anwar-Westander call for a deeper understanding of the Disabled student experience

Deborah Johnston is deputy vice chancellor (academic framework) at London South Bank University

Mette Anwar-Westander is the founding director at Disabled Students UK

The Office for Students’ publication of its 2023 NSS data a few weeks ago showed that students who disclosed a disability were one of the groups least positive about their student experience.

If universities want to reduce the experience gap for disabled students, they need to focus on the specific concerns that disabled students have.

Today Disabled Students UK launches the results of the Annual Disabled Student Survey, a key moment for UK universities to get involved to learn how they can improve their NSS results and start working toward fulfilling the Disabled Students Commitment.

The experience gap

The release of the NSS data shows deep-seated differences in the degree of disabled student satisfaction in a range of areas: Assessment and Feedback; Organisation and Management; Learning Resources; and Student Voice.

Given that disabled students make up 20 per cent of the home student population on many campuses, this should set alarm bells ringing for student experience leads across the country – this is a strong indication that generic student experience interventions are not providing equality for the entire student body.

Looking in more detail shows that the level of dissatisfaction is even greater and more pervasive for students with a mental health condition (making up 5 per cent of all students), a cognitive or learning disability (making up 6 per cent of students) or with multiple conditions.

A disabled student specific survey could fix the gap

In order to improve disabled students’ experiences we must first understand them. Unfortunately the range of factors that bring down disabled student satisfaction are not well identified by the NSS.

Earlier this year TASO called for improved data in this area, in keeping with previous reports by the Disabled Student Commission, Higher Education Commission and Institute for employment studies.

Some of the starkest differences between disabled and non-disabled students on the NSS were in the way students perceived that their voice was valued. The pandemic report Going Back is Not a Choice revealed that listening to the disabled student voice was the second most important lesson disabled students wanted universities to learn from the pandemic.

To fully understand how to improve disabled student satisfaction, more universities are now turning to the Annual Disabled Student Survey by Disabled Students UK. In its first year the survey gathered responses from 1372 disabled students, making it the largest survey into HE accessibility. The ADSS does what the NSS cannot, revealing information about aspects of the student experience that are specific to disabled students.

For instance, the ADSS shows that UK wide, only 36 per cent of respondents state that all the adjustments that have been agreed for them are actually put in place – showing that implementation of support is a clear problem area for the sector.

The data also uncovers solutions, such as providing academics with accessibility training – of students who find that non-disability staff are knowledgeable about the practicalities of implementing disability support, two thirds have had all their agreed support implemented, while less than a third where staff aren’t knowledgeable have had those support needs met. The full UK wide results are due to be released today – a key moment for universities to get involved.

Taking action

With the awareness that different institutions will face different challenges in improving the disabled student experience, Disabled Students UK’s Access Insights project offers universities with sufficient respondents a snapshot of their results.

In addition, a wide range of universities such as University College London, University of Exeter, University of Essex, London South Bank University and Bath University have signed up to Access insights Membership to receive a full report of their institutions’ results allowing them to tailor their work to improve the disabled student experience to their specific institution.

With knowledge of the current situation for disabled students, as well as insight into which areas need work, some universities are going a step further and signing up to the Disabled Student Commitment, vowing to take concrete steps toward improving disabled students’ experiences. The commitment involves the university publishing a tailored action plan with sign off from a senior lead.

What the latest NSS data show is that sooner or later this is a journey that all universities will need to take, and it starts with understanding disabled students.

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