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Easing the transition into higher education for disabled students

As a new UCAS report is released, Clare Marchant says it’s crucial to continue the progress made in widening access and participation for people with disabilities
This article is more than 1 year old

Clare Marchant is chief executive of UCAS.

The transition from school to university or college can be a daunting experience – leaving home and moving in with strangers in a new city and exploring greater independence. For many people with disabilities, this life change can be more difficult.

Today, we have published a report called Next Steps: What is the experience of disabled students in education?

Our findings have shown us there is a need for the journey of disabled students into higher education and apprenticeships to be easier and start earlier.

Record numbers

Our report is based on a detailed analysis of the record number of UCAS applications (83,220) made by people with disabilities between September 2020 and the start of the academic year in Autumn 2021.

We also carried out a survey of almost 5,000 UK people who applied to UCAS by our January 2022 deadline and shared details of a disability on their application. We ask for this voluntary information about disabilities on the application form to help our applicants flag early any important conversations they may wish to have about their needs with their university or college choices.

Our survey revealed anticipation that life in higher education would be socially richer than it was at school. Forty-four per cent said they expected the social aspect of life at university or college to be “good” or “excellent” compared to just 17 per cent who responded that they had access to inclusive extra-curricular activities at school or college.

Deferrals on rise

Yet despite this optimism about life in higher education, our analysis of our last cycle of applicants with disabilities shows that some are deferring and delaying the experience and are up to 28 per cent more likely to defer than their counterparts.

The deferral rate for disabled applicants rose from the pre-pandemic 7 per cent in 2019 to 8.2 per cent in 2021. It’s understandable that the pandemic prompted a need for all sorts of new adjustments for all students and is a factor in increased deferrals. But even so, the deferral rate for non-disabled applicants in 2021 was lower, at 6.4 per cent.

The steepest increase in deferrals was seen by those with social, behavioural, or communication impairments (for example, an autistic spectrum condition), making them 11 per cent more likely to defer than non-disabled applicants.

From our findings, we believe the journey into higher education can be made easier and faster so that more students with disabilities can make this transition alongside their peers.

We recommend the extension of Adjustment Passports, which currently only covers the transition from higher education into employment, plus earlier engagement with university and student support, including the Disabled Students’ Allowance.

Seeking support

More than half (56 per cent) told our survey they researched available support before applying, commonly looking at the general and educational support available, and facilities and physical adjustments on campus. They said an institution’s reputation for equality, diversity, and inclusion was of particular importance.

Students use a range of resources to research the support available to them – from university and college websites to UCAS’ channels to peer-to-peer engagement, via social media. We are constantly striving to make this easier for applicants by linking into it and giving personalised and inspiring content to students based on their background via our Hub.

Not all disabled students need the same information. In fact, their needs can be very specific, so it is important for most students to discuss their needs directly with the university since their support needs will differ from person to person.

These may be some of the first conversations young people instigate about their needs, so we carry checklists on our website to help them think through what they need to ask to help them navigate those early conversations.

Widening access

Diversity is already a real strength of UK higher education. When I joined UCAS in 2017, I was keen to celebrate how universities and colleges bring together people – from different countries and starting points, from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and with very different personal circumstances and ambitions.

Five years on, I’ve witnessed some real strides forward in widening access and participation and our own commitment through the UCAS Fair Access Programme means we are supercharging our efforts to drive forward improvements.

With the increase of 18-year-olds in our population, we are now on a phenomenal “journey to a million” undergraduate applicants in 2026. However, this period of increased competition for higher education places means we cannot lose the progress we have made in widening access and participation for students with disabilities.

In fact, we want to build on record numbers of these students applying for and taking up their places and make the transition even better for them. It’s crucial that under-represented and disadvantaged students are not sidelined as demand for HE places rises.

UCAS’ Next Steps: What is the experience of disabled students in education? is published in collaboration with Pearson and the Disabled Students Commission.

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