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Things have improved for disabled students, but there’s still much to do

Despite advances, students with disabilities still have worse outcomes than their peers. David Blunkett, Philip Norton, and Kathryn Mitchell call for evidence from universities on how to bring about change.
This article is more than 4 years old

David Blunkett was is a Labour member of the House of Lords and a former Education Secretary.

Philip Norton is the Chair of the Higher Education Commission and a Conservative member of the House of Lords.

Professor Kathryn Mitchell is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Derby

2020 will be a momentous year for legislation protecting the rights of disabled people.

It will mark the 50th anniversary of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act, and the 10th anniversary of the Equality Act. However, despite these hard-fought improvements to equalities legislation, disabled students continue to be under-represented, frustrated by their experience and achieve outcomes below their potential.

Disabled graduates are still less likely to be in full-time work (50.6% compared to 57% for non-disabled graduates) and more likely to be unemployed (5.5% versus 3.8% of non-disabled graduates). Policy Connect’s Higher Education Commission is seeking to uncover the reasons for these disparities so as to advise Government and the sector on how to give students the support they need.

Previous work

As part of the evidence base for this inquiry, we are reviewing existing research into the experiences of disabled students and the support that higher education institutions are providing. The Office for Students (OfS) recently published a review of the support for disabled students in higher education in England, which raised a number of interesting themes and issues. The review highlighted that the number of students disclosing a disability is consistently increasing, rising from 190,000 in 2013/14 to almost 250,000 in 2017/18. There has been a particular increase in disclosures of mental illnesses and specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, which are also the two most common impairment type for students, based on self-reporting.

This increase in the number of disabled students reinforces the requests from providers for greater funding which were described in the review, despite the Disabled Students’ Premium funding already having doubled from £20 million in 2015/16 to £40 million in 2016/17 to help providers adjust to cuts in the Disabled Students’ Allowance. The new level of £40 million makes up 2% of non-research funding received from grants (i.e. not income from tuition fees).

The Disabled Students’ Premium is not currently ring-fenced but the OfS does monitor higher education providers’ investment in support for disabled students, via access and participation plans, and the recent review. The variability of support revealed by the review suggests there may need to be closer scrutiny of how the Premium is used, especially if the funding is increased in recognition of growing need. If this route is taken, it could present a positive opportunity to further improve the support available for disabled students and other marginalised groups.

For example, institutions could be required to demonstrate collaboration between disability services support staff and other staff; the co-creation of services for students with students; and systematically include student opinions and feedback in reviews of said services. These all feature as examples of good practice uncovered by the Office for Students review.

Engaging the students themselves

The HE Commission is also conducting primary research into the experiences of disabled students, and to this end we have held two roundtable evidence sessions with disabled students and disability practitioners in the House of Lords and at the University of Derby. It’s interesting to compare what we heard from students at the roundtables with some of the findings in the Office for Students review. For example, the review reports that 80% of providers surveyed used lecture capture and that 39% covered “more than half of all lectures”, an increase from 78% and 23% respectively from 2017. Lecture capture is used alongside lecture attendance by students with a range of impairments, from dyslexia to visual or hearing impairments, as well as functioning as an occasional replacement for students who miss classes due to chronic illness or a consequence of their impairment.

Despite the reported increase in the availability of lecture capture, this is still far from full coverage. This situation was evidenced by many students at the roundtables describing how they were unable to access lecture capture for the majority of their courses, which often caused them to fall behind in their studies. A possible policy lever to consider is providers’ lecture capture policies, which can be agreed with staff and students; these policies could make lecture capture the default (with an opt-out rather than opt-in system).

However, this would need to be balanced with the rights and needs of lecturers, for example by ensuring that recorded lectures will not be used for performance management or to discipline lecturers, and will not be shown as a replacement for the lecture if lecturers are on strike. In addition to this, it’s important for higher education providers not to prioritise the availability of lecture capture over making in-person attendance of lectures as accessible as possible.

Getting buy-in from academics was repeatedly cited as a challenge by numerous providers in the OfS review, whether in terms of general inclusivity practices, providing alternative forms of assessments, or implementing specific changes like the requirements of the recent web accessibility regulations. The disabled students we heard from agreed, and described how attitudes to their needs could vary widely between academics: some were very supportive, but others were dismissive of their requests for reasonable adjustments and articulated stigmatising ideas about adjustments or alternative assessment formats giving disabled students an ‘unfair advantage’.

Involving staff

Another finding from the OfS review was that training for academic and non-academic staff in how to support disabled students was almost always voluntary. We heard from students that many of the staff members they come into contact with are not aware of or don’t understand their needs – perhaps the time has come to make mandatory some basic level of training for all staff members in supporting disabled students, an option which was suggested by some providers in response to the survey.

The review featured contributions from a number of providers who emphasised the importance of the model of inclusive learning. This model posits that disabled students should not be singled out as needing extra support and resources, but their needs should be catered for as a standard part of the institution’s provision for all students.

For example, resources such as mind-mapping software and alternative assessments could be available to all students rather than just disabled students. This would enable these options to benefit the wider student population, enhancing all students’ experiences of teaching and learning and providing better value for money for the institution’s investment in such technology.

Our work for the inquiry has only just begun, and we look forward to hearing more directly from providers about the challenges they experience in supporting disabled students, as well as sharing more examples of good practice that can be implemented throughout the sector.

We have just published a call for evidence which we hope will allow higher education providers and support providers to tell us what is already working well, what they are struggling with, and what ought to be done about it. It’s only through drawing together the perspectives of these diverse voices that we can ensure that disabled students have the positive and empowering experience of higher education which they deserve.

One response to “Things have improved for disabled students, but there’s still much to do

  1. One of the biggest issues in Falmouth Uni was the lack of Hearing Loops and staff awareness of hidden disabilities in general. Truro College the new buildings which had been built. Interior Design FdA Truro College Falmouth University between 2010 – 2016.

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