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Disabled students: the experts we forget we need

  • 17 August 2021
  • By Rensa Gaunt

This week we will be running a selection of chapters from our recently released report, ‘What is the student voice? Thirteen essays on how to listen to students and how to act on what they say‘ edited by Michael Natzler, HEPI Policy Officer. Today’s piece is by Rensa Gaunt, Former Disabled Students’ Officer 2020/21, University of Cambridge.


I see two separate eras of my activist career: before the ‘Participatory Action Research Project’ and after it.

I had been involved in disabled people’s organising at the University of Cambridge for several years before becoming a sabbatical officer at Cambridge’s Students’ Union. Lobbying always felt very antagonistic: although students on the ground had a good understanding of what was and was not working, by the time an issue filtered up to senior management through various committee structures and representatives, any solutions had either been watered down beyond relevance or, more commonly, abandoned. External or internal staff consultants might have been asked to work out what students needed, but we were very rarely meaningfully consulted ourselves.

This led to a very strong sentiment that marginalised students were being deliberately ignored and their concerns sidelined. Meanwhile, in our student-led organising, we were building exactly what we needed: spaces with accessibility and inclusivity at their core, unconstrained by bureaucratic structures and regulations.

As part of their Access and Participation Plan, the University of Cambridge committed to reducing the grade awarding gap and the gap in non-continuation rates between non-disabled students and those with a declared mental health condition. In other words, to find out why these disabled students were dropping out more and receiving lower grades on average, and to try and reduce it between 2020 and 2025.

Instead of unilaterally imposing a solution, we were to codesign it, and thus the Participatory Action Research Project was born.

Example student-led research project

My project (‘Double Time’), one of the ten to be researched in 2020, gave a simple answer to a simple question: why are so many disabled students dropping out or taking time away from their course? As it turns out, it is because that is the only option they are offered.

Full-time study (100 per cent rate of study) is the default mode of study for undergraduate degrees at the University of Cambridge. The only other option normally available is 0 per cent rate of study or ‘intermission’.

Intermission is taking time out, usually a year, to recover, for example, from an illness or a bereavement, before resuming full-time study. It is a familiar process for many staff and students and is therefore wrongly assumed to be appropriate for all disabled students, and to be the only alternative to a 100 per cent rate of study. Students may also discontinue their course permanently

Under the Equality Act 2010 definition, a disability is an impairment which has a ‘substantial and long-term adverse effect’ on your daily life.

Many such conditions fluctuate substantially, take a significant portion of the day to manage and will not be ‘cured’ by a break in one’s studies. The barriers a disabled student faced prior to the break may still be there upon their return if adjustments are not made.

Officially, part-time study is only available for some postgraduate courses, at a lower rate of funding than fulltime, as you are expected to be able to work alongside your studies. ‘Double Time’, as it is known colloquially, or switching to a form of part-time study with full-time maintenance funding as a reasonable adjustment, is a possibility at Cambridge which is not advertised or widely known about and is therefore hardly ever offered to the students who need it. It enables disabled students to access their undergraduate degree at a rate of study that is appropriate for them, usually around 50 per cent, without having to also get a job to pay for their student accommodation.


The research involved speaking to disabled students at Cambridge and found that:

  • almost half of the respondents did not know about Double Time; and
  • over half of the respondents had considered intermission for a chronic health problem, even though many of these problems are unlikely to be cured within a year, if at all, and studying at a reduced rate may be more appropriate for them.

Previous lobbying on Double Time had shown that staff had even lower awareness of this mode of study and therefore the awareness-raising had been almost exclusively student-led.

The project’s simple recommendations included that the University raise awareness of Double Time among both staff and students, urgently review the application process and specifically make sure that students were made aware of the option of Double Time before submitting an application for intermission. As of 2021, this has prompted a review of the overarching policy on disabled students, but not yet a change in procedure.

Impact of the research projects

The research projects were a meaningful opportunity for both students and staff alike to work towards common goals.

Efficiency of message: As opposed to previous, mostly frustrated, attempts to influence university policy, these research outcomes were communicated directly from some of the most affected students to the most powerful senior members of staff. The research did not need to be filtered through the universities’ committees which might deprioritise or water down the recommendations before they reached senior staff: it was a frank conversation about what was going wrong and – importantly – what would help most to improve it. While the project conclusions might seem obvious when stated so clearly, it was not an issue that was previously considered at such a high level.

Research skills: Students were given direct access to staff researchers at the Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning, where they gained valuable research experience. The staff involved also recognised that they were able to learn from students in their work, rather than see us as the opposition. It is the only time that my lived experience was genuinely valued by the University, despite many years as an engaged activist.

Legitimacy and genuine collaboration: It is very difficult for any student-authored report or appeal to get traction with staff, especially senior staff. Producing the reports as collaboration between students and staff not only gave legitimacy to the joint work, but also produced outcomes that both sides would have a stake in achieving. It was important that the student co-researchers, like the staff researchers, were paid for their research time in recognition of the work’s importance. Far too often, the most exhausting self-advocacy is left to the most affected students to undertake unpaid with no thanks and with no material support, as has also been explained by former Cambridge sabbatical officer Amatey Doku in a previous HEPI report on racial inequalities. The costs constituted a fraction of the costs previously paid to consultants – and in my view produced a more purposeful outcome.

Policy recommendations

Do not guess at a solution – speak to the students most affected. We will tell you if you ask! It is often difficult for us to get a clear message to senior staff, and the wider sector, and we routinely face barriers from well-meaning individuals who assume to know what the problems and solutions are without having talked to us. It is imperative to create formal structures to support meaningful consultation, not just to tick a box.

Treat students as valued team members, not as the opposition. Just as you would with professional experts, make sure we have the research support needed and the funding available to conduct a proper investigation and present the findings. Paying student co-researchers costs less than consultants, and we will tell you how things really are. Students can be costeffective co-researchers with lived experience; it can be that simple! While staff are accustomed to defending their ideas on their own to a large group of superiors, students may not be, so engage in dialogue in a genuinely collaborative way, rather than a combative way and take feedback. This will ensure we can use our existing experience and knowledge to find solutions that will genuinely help.

Take our recommendations seriously and do not water them down. Students, especially marginalised students, have exceptional insight that university leadership is so often lacking. Believe us and do not be defensive! We are experts on our own lived experience and we want a positive outcome just like you do. Instead of jumping to compromise or delay, consider developing an implementation strategy with us. If there is any lesson that we disabled students learned from COVID-19, it is that what we were told was unobtainable yesterday suddenly became readily available today.

Make sure you read the rest of the collection here.

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