We must not let our disabled students down

The Disabled Students Commission is launching a consultation building on what it has learned about the needs of disabled students during the pandemic. Geoff Layer tells us more.

Geoff Layer is the former vice chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton

One of the most notable shifts in disabled student support occurred as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the UK higher education sector making enormous strides by putting in place support previously considered not possible.

Progress made during the multiple lockdowns was significant, such as an increase in the recording of lectures, flexibility in assessments, and a novel approach to seeking extensions that placed trust in the student rather than a requirement for evidence.

Not everything was rosy however, as remote learning was not universally accessible for students with a range of impairments, and disabled students’ requirements were compounded by issues such as worsening mental health and a rise in digital poverty.

This enduring tension at the heart of the sector between pockets of good practice, coupled with too many instances in which disabled students have not been supported as well as they could have been, needs to be urgently addressed.

Challenged by Covid

The Disabled Students’ Commission (DSC), an independent body, was established by the Universities Minister just weeks before the first lockdown in March 2020 and so – in a sense – our existence has been entirely characterised by the pandemic. With an agenda to challenge, advise, and inform the sector on ways to enhance the disabled student experience, we have thus set out to hone in on progress made during this time to ensure disabled students are placed at the top of the sector’s to-do list – as recommended in our previous blogpost.

In the DSC’s first year (in a predominantly remote environment), we listened carefully to disabled students and support staff, consulted with relevant sector bodies, conducted research into the disabled student experience, produced guidance for students at all levels of study, and influenced other bodies that produced their own guidance. We have also interpreted available data. We know that the academic outcomes for disabled students are marginally worse in comparison to other demographic groups, and that disabled students face significant barriers in respect of progression into employment.

We also know that disabled students can face a torturous and isolating experience at all points of the higher education journey. The number of times a student faces additional bureaucratic hurdles to prove their disability (often more than once) creates a drawn-out process to access support. None of this is due to a lack of support from our dedicated disability service teams, instead it is our systems, our overwhelming requirement for evidence and the absence of trusting the student.

From learning to acting

We have collected a wealth of evidence, almost to the point of saturation where we know what the issues are, instead we now need to focus on how to make meaningful change.

Today, the DSC launches a consultation on a Disabled Student Commitment that is not only guided by the evidence, but also sets out a vital agenda to ensure that disabled students in UK higher education get a better deal. The principles within the document build on good practice delivered by the sector during the pandemic, calling on higher education providers and other organisations to make ongoing and sustained positive progress rather than simply going backwards. The principles focus on creating an inclusive environment across four key areas of the higher education journey:

  • Information, advice and guidance on accessing higher education: improving the individual experience of disabled students so that they fully understand the nature of the study, the support available and the challenges and opportunities that exist before commencing their studies.
  • Joining the higher education community: ensuring disabled students’ introduction to higher education is fully supported so that they can participate confidently in all activities.
  • On-course delivery: creating a culture in which all students can excel, which includes meeting disabled students’ requirements so that they can fully engage with their course and achieve positive outcomes.
  • Moving on from studying in higher education: creating clear guidance for disabled students moving into employment, as this is where the biggest gap in outcomes exists.

Our higher education sector must be a place where disabled students have the same chance of success. That does not mean treating all students in the same way, instead it is a meaningful commitment to place inclusivity at the core and shape our services, systems and curriculum to support them.

If you would like to take part in the Disabled Students’ Commission’s formal consultation on the Disabled Student Commitment, and to provide your views on how to shape this vital document, please do so here. The consultation is open until noon on 9 December 2022.

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