Disabled PhD students can be better supported

Universities are often failing to enable Disabled doctoral students to access their education. Mette Westander and Pete Quinn explain a new research report on what can be done to change things

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

Pete Quinn is an independent consultant working in equality, diversity & inclusion

The number of Disabled postgraduate research (PGR) students has increased by more than 50 per cent in the last 5 years – today making up 1 in 5 of PGR home students.

A new report investigates their experiences and the extent to which they are able to access their education.

The report, which focuses especially on STEM students working in the life sciences, was created in collaboration between Disabled Students UK, Pete Quinn Consulting and the BBSRC funded Oxford Interdisciplinary Bioscience Doctoral Training Partnership.

We found that out of 192 survey participants UK wide, only a third (33 per cent) felt they had received the support they needed to be on an equal footing with their non-disabled peers.

Following doctoral focus groups and structured conversations with doctoral training programme staff and associated colleagues, the report recommends 4 solutions specific to the needs of disabled doctoral students.

Minding the gaps

The web of disability support for research students is less developed than that offered to taught students. Less than half of disabled PhD students felt it was clear where they should get their disability support from.

For instance, there is a misconception among some staff and students that international UKRI funded students are not eligible for the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA), which they are.

Supporting international doctoral students is especially important to improve disability disclosure numbers. Doctoral home students now declare a disability to the same extent as undergraduate students, however international student declarations are lagging behind (HESA, 2023).

To incentivise disclosure we must ensure that international students are aware that they have a right to the same level of support as home students, and that doctoral students have a right to the same level of support as taught students, whether that is funded by DSA or by their institution.

Many survey respondents also felt that the support offered by the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) and universities’ Disability Services was relevant only to taught students, such as being offered the opportunity to record lectures.

The number of disabled students who receive appropriate disability support can be improved by ensuring not only that all parties know which body is responsible for which support but also through educating needs assessors and Disability Services staff about the specific needs of disabled doctoral students.

The supervisory relationship

Our survey shows that the supervisor-supervisee relationship is uniquely important for disabled students’ sense of support and belonging.

PhD students whose supervisors were accepting and supportive of their disability were 12 times more likely to state that they had the support they needed.

We can empower supervisors by better connecting them to students’ disability support staff, offering them accessibility training, providing better support for supervisors’ own needs and improving safeguards to prevent this crucial relationship from going wrong.

The supervisory relationship was one of the aspects of the degree that was most often rated positively. However, some students had negative experiences, and due to the unique importance of this relationship these experiences were likely to have severe consequences, and in some cases could lead to students leaving their degree.

The upcoming “Research SuperVision Project” (RSVP) led by the University of York, which is set to develop professional development resources for supervisors offers an excellent opportunity to take the lessons from this report onboard and embed accessibility and disability inclusion into best practice guidance for supervisors.

Accessible environments

The physical/sensory environment on campus was the aspect of the PhD experience that was found to be inaccessible by the largest number of doctoral STEM students surveyed (50 per cent).

Given this it is perhaps unsurprising that students with mobility difficulties were the least likely to have a sense of belonging at their institution. However labs and open plan workspaces were often thought to be inaccessible by other disability groups as well such as those who were neurodivergent.

The accessibility of the physical and sensory environment can be improved by using universal design to create enabling workspaces for staff and doctoral students with mobility and sensory differences. In addition it is important that funding is earmarked for ergonomic furniture and equipment, as this is not currently provided by UKRI DSA (unlike the DSA accessed by taught students).

Varying the pace

We found a lack of alternatives for disabled students that need to work at a slower pace consistently, or slow down temporarily. Students who felt that their funder was flexible, accommodating and valued their wellbeing were less likely to say that undertaking their PhD had negatively impacted their health.

Funders can provide disabled students with the opportunity to study at a pace that does not negatively impact their health and wellbeing by adjusting their policies around sick leave and part time studies in keeping with common employment practices, offering greater flexibility around extensions and part time studies and offering full time stipends to disabled students who are unable to study full time.

The report also presents three recommendations that are relevant to disabled students beyond just doctoral studies and have been repeatedly put forward in previous reports (see Going Back is Not a Choice and Arriving at Thriving):

  • Reducing the administrative burden students have to undertake in order to be offered support
  • Resourcing decentralised bodies such as academic departments and doctoral training partnerships to enable them to better implement agreed support
  • Cultivating a supportive culture to ensure that disabled students feel a sense of belonging and have somewhere to turn when issues arise.

UKRIs new EDI strategy commits to “include and support a diversity of people and ideas through our funding and partnerships”. UKRI also recently commissioned an equality impact assessment of UKRI training grant terms and conditions, which has highlighted several areas to be addressed that are relevant to disabled students.

This assessment is currently under review by UKRI, with further action expected. Our hope is that doctoral training partnerships and research organisations such as universities, and funders such as UKRI, will take the 7 lessons from our report onboard to better support disabled doctoral students and improve their admission, retention and progression in higher education.

2 responses to “Disabled PhD students can be better supported

  1. Being involved with H&S and being disabled I see a number of issue with supporting not only the student but also their supervisors who are charged with ensuring the requisite provisions are in place across the whole campus, often in buildings they’ve no knowledge of. One Universities Estates & Facilities department I know only too well treats disabled staff/students as little more than a bloody nuisance, their recent efforts have included removing half of all disabled parking spaces in the only carpark that services one quarter of campus, some for use as a builders compound, others so they can widen spaces for electric car charging bays. During recruitment there was a huge poster/sign proclaiming just how much the University cared about enabling disability, right behind the former disabled parking spaces now builders compound, with the bay markings still clearly visible, talk about sending a message!

  2. This resonates with me. I didn’t complete my doctoral studies. I don’t entirely blame the university because I don’t think I was in a position to articulate my needs as related to my disability at that point, but rigidity and lack of support for my ways of working was certainly a reason why I didn’t finish my studies.

    More training for my supervisors in how to support varied ways of working/being and more time flexibility would both have helped.

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