We must learn from the experiences of disabled students

Former universities minister Chris Skidmore introduces the Higher Education Commission's report on the experiences of disabled students.

I set up the Disabled Students’ Commission in 2019 to explore the barriers faced by disabled students, and to improve the support they need to succeed.

This work has become even more relevant this year, which is why I am proud this morning to be launching the report for the Higher Education Commission’s inquiry into the experiences of disabled students in higher education.

The report, “Arriving at Thriving: Learning from disabled students to ensure access for all”, comes at a vital time of change and upheaval for the higher education sector. The sector has been forced to spend the past seven months responding to the unique situation of the Covid-19 pandemic, rapidly shifting to online learning before trying to tackle the challenge of a safe return to campus for students and staff. This task presents a number of hurdles to be overcome, but the sector must be sure not to lose sight of the most disadvantaged students as it does so: and disabled students are particularly vulnerable to being left behind.

Student voice

Listening to disabled students has always been a priority for me, which is why as Minister for Universities, last year I met with a group of visually impaired students at the University of Birmingham to hear about their experiences. The discussions that took place made very clear to me the barriers which disabled students still face, and these are reflected in the Higher Education Commission’s inquiry.

The Commission examined the student journey from beginning to end, exploring the challenges experienced by students in teaching and learning, living and social life, transitions into and out of higher education, and into the workplace. It held roundtable evidence sessions with disabled students in Parliament and at the University of Derby, and ran an online survey to which over 500 disabled students responded.

The report highlights that 26 per cent of disabled students surveyed rated the accessibility of their course as only 1 or 2 out of 5. We have heard recently about the ways in which the shift to online learning during the pandemic has benefited many disabled students, giving them access to teaching in a way that is more flexible and adaptable. Despite this, some disabled students, particularly those with visual or hearing impairments, have sometimes been let down during this period by insufficient adjustments for their accessibility needs. This highlights the importance of recognising the diversity within the disabled student cohort, and shows that we must consider every student’s individual needs.

Social and transition

However, barriers aren’t just felt in teaching and learning, but also in living and social experiences, as well as transitions into and out of higher education. More than half of disabled students surveyed revealed that their physical and mental access needs were not fully met by their accommodation. In addition, 26 per cent of 513 respondents said they always or often feel excluded from social activities, societies and clubs because of a lack of disability awareness. Supporting disabled students isn’t just about enabling full access to teaching, but also about ensuring that students can participate in social life, and can move into the workplace with confidence.

This report provides welcome evidence for the Disabled Students’ Commission’s work, not just by illuminating the obstacles that exist, but also by promoting the wealth of good practice already taking place in the sector. During this time when it has become necessary to rethink modes of higher education delivery, the sector must harness the opportunity to embed accessibility into course design, and to make consideration of disabled students’ needs the norm.

I know that many of us share a vision for disabled students to have a positive experience in higher education, able to expand the horizons of their knowledge and to develop social capital which will support them to succeed in life. To achieve this, we must break down the barriers which have been uncovered by this inquiry, and work to create a future of equal access and inclusion for all students. I hope that this report will help to provide the momentum needed to carry us into that future.

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