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Subjects of study and students with disabilities

Data from HESA gives David Kernohan the chance to drill deep into the subject hierarchy, and examine the representation of students with disabilities.
This article is more than 5 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

This 2019 season of HESA data releases may be the best yet – there’s more open data and more detail available than ever before. This latest update lets me examine the number of qualifiers by subject, taking into account domicile and declared disability.

Data is only a part of understanding the sector, but it can often prove counter-intuitive if you are used to the more qualitative sector mythology that has built up around various key questions. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the question of students with disabilities.

Hidden disabilities

We only have data on students that declare their disability to their institution – many choose not to – and we generally (at a top level) get no information on the type or severity of such disability. As legislation puts a duty on providers to make adjustments for students with disabilities before it is notified of these disabilities, it is likely that some types of disability (were significant and specific support is needed) are over-represented in these figures and that others that may be less visible are under-represented.

It is very easy to think in stereotypes. Mobility difficulties or vision impairment might be the first examples that come to mind, but learning disabilities and speech impediments will also have a huge impact on an individual’s experience of student life, and the support that a provider may be able to put in place. This diversity is apparent when we examine what subjects disabled students are qualifying in (i.e. studying successfully) in the UK.

[You’ll need to click full screen to see all the way down]

Every single subject on offer in UK higher education, down to principal subject level (more than 1,000 subjects of study) saw at least one student with a declared disability qualify last year. In some subjects – like fine art, ceramics, combined social studies, Latin, archaeology, drama, photography – more than a fifth of all students who qualified had a declared disability. In most cases, 10-15% of any given principal subject cohort will have declared a disability.

How many subjects?

The data for students with disabilities only drills down as far as principal subject, but there is another layer below there that – until now – has languished unexplored on Wonkhe. Welcome to the quite frankly dizzying variety of UK higher education – four-digits JACS codes.

Here, I’ve used the domicile dataset to drill right down to the specifics of what people are studying. You can filter the top graph by academic year, level of qualification (various undergraduate or postgraduate options), mode of study (full-time, part-time) and student domicile (in broad groups).

Clicking on one of the bars in the top graph drills down to principle subject, as above, and clicking one of those bars presents four-figure subjects as a time series over the four academic years available. There is a ridiculous amount of data in here – I built the thing and I’ve only been able to scratch the surface.

As a few examples:

  • First degree qualifiers in forensic science still rising year on year, despite there being next to no UK demand for forensic scientists currently. That’s not to say it isn’t a great subject of study and a useful general scientific skill set (it is), but the national forensics service is a shadow of what it once was.
  • There’s a huge UK demand for midwifery graduates – but the numbers are stable-to-falling for first degree students – which is a worry. It’s getting harder to import the staff we need, and shortages are verging on the dangerous.
  • Artificial Intelligence is hyped as the next big technical boom but only around five people (HESA rounds to the nearest five) were awarded a PG(R) qualification in Artificial Intelligence last year.

There are (literally) hundreds more. But we should add a caveat – coding practice at these lower levels of JACS is far from great, and it is not really safe to take these figures as accurate in anything other than the broadest terms.

[Again, this is one best viewed full screen]

3 responses to “Subjects of study and students with disabilities

  1. Given your – perfectly correct – caveat about the quality assurance of detailed JACS codes, how do you justify saying ‘only around five people … were awarded a PG(R) qualification in Artificial Intelligence last year’. These data don’t remotely support that statement, as you know very well, because they have never been collected or quality-assured to support that kind of use, and the coding frame wouldn’t be up to the job if they were.

  2. Mental health either is or is fast becoming the most frequently declared disability accounting for most of the increase in reporting. Second most common category is special learning needs (including ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, autistic spectrum). Impaired mobility, visual or hearing impairment lagging behind. Any reporting needs to break down the data to illustrate these distinctions.

  3. Hi Bradbury, SpLD = Specific learning difficulty or difference including the categories you highlighted. Autism Spectrum Disorders (now classified under the DSM as ‘Autism’) are treated as a distinct category. Many of these are co-morbid with anxiety and other disabilities and health conditions so the categories are challenging in themselves.

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