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It’s time to make English higher education institutions accessible: Disabled students’ representatives lead the way to change

  • 18 January 2023
  • By Francesca Peruzzo, Rille Raaper and Mette Westander

This blog was kindly contributed by Francesca Peruzzo, Research Fellow, University of Birmingham; Rille Raaper, Associate Professor, Durham University; and Mette Westander, Founding Director, Disabled Students UK

‘Choice not chance’ is the Office for Students’s intention in setting out its latest plans for promoting equality of opportunity for disadvantaged students in higher education. 

In our latest research, we put this to the test by interviewing disabled students’ representatives in collaboration with Disabled Students UK, which is the largest disabled students-led umbrella organisation in the UK.  The research has enabled us to shine a light on disabled students’ conditions, participation and possibilities, and the importance of upholding their rights in higher education.

Disabled students’ rights are clearly stated in the 2010 Equality Act, which requires institutions to make reasonable adjustments to avoid disadvantaging disabled students compared with non-disabled counterparts. We are also seeing an increase in the number of students disclosing one or more disability, with 15% of students studying in English universities in 2020/21 declaring at least one disability.

The Disabled Students’ Allowance makes an important contribution to this by funding individualised support and covering extra learning costs. Nonetheless, disabled students are still likely to take longer to complete a degree programme, demonstrate higher levels of dropout rates and have lower levels of satisfaction with their studies.

Disabled students also continue to endure discrimination and worse experiences than other students in higher education. In this context, it is crucial for universities honestly and rigorously to scrutinise the accessibility and inclusivity of their learning and services for disabled students as they set objectives for themselves.   

Our latest research shows how disabled students’ representatives and communities can provide a wealth of insights on strategies to improve accessibility, participation, attainment, and quality of higher education provision and experiences. Through the voices and experience of disabled students, our study reveals three key issues that hinder equitable participation, quality of experience, and successful outcomes.

  1. Failure to value and rely on the insights of disabled students at university management, professional services and governance levels: Disabled students’ representatives consider that their perspectives, competences and expertise are undervalued and their accounts are often overridden in institutional governance and management processes. The same experience is reported with professional services, where lack of trust in disabled students’ reports on their academic and life necessities causes a slow and bureaucratic burden in accessing individualised support.
  2. Lack of institutional data on disabled students’ experience of higher education: Data is crucial to make inequitable processes and outcomes visible. Currently, institutions are required to evaluate access, attainment, and outcomes of disabled students, but not the quality of their university experience, in a way that accounts for the differences across disabled students’ needs and the intersection of disability with other social markers such as gender, race and class.
  3. Too little has been learnt from the pandemic and pedagogical and assessment practices still put disabled students at a disadvantage compared to their non-disabled peers: Classes are going back to be face-to-face, with limited offering of hybrid teaching and learning, returning to rigid teaching and learning practices. This conflicts with the requests made by disabled students’ organisations not to go back to the approaches deployed pre-pandemic and the inequities and exclusions arising from this.

Building on the issues identified, our research recommends approaches that will challenge the current situation for disabled students in higher education. This requires systemic changes that can enable institutions to be fairer, more welcoming, and more effective in tackling discrimination, drop-outs and poor attainment and outcomes, so as to make disabled students’ university experience more successful.

  1. Disabled students should be consulted more thoroughly and on all matters concerning their university experience. It has already been recommended that universities take a whole-institution approach to accessibility by creating a group to oversee and coordinate accessibility work in different parts of the institution. This group should be structured in a way that disabled students’ voices are fundamental to its decision making. In addition, disabled students’ officers need the funding and support to be able to represent their community. Currently the only university with a sabbatical (fully funded) DSO is the University of Cambridge.
  2. Universities should regularly gather data on the experiences of disabled students to understand the current state of accessibility, devise solutions and measure progress longitudinally. It is crucial that this data gathering takes an intersectional approach, evaluating the experiences of disabled students with a variety of disabilities and identities to better understand the causes of inequity. Disabled Students UK is currently piloting such an evaluation in collaboration with a number of sector stakeholders – see DSUK website here.  
  3. The higher education sector needs to realise that flexibility does not necessarily lead to reduced standards. This includes measures to provide a choice of assessment that reflects learning outcomes without standardising practices, as well as pedagogies that are student centred. The same applies to measures to reduce the evidence burden of applications for support.
  4. Universities could learn from the compassionate practices of disabled student activists and change their cultures and practices. Our research finds that disabled student activist communities use strategies of community care in dealing with injustices, for example encouraging a slower working pace and breaks. For universities, this could mean simplifying the process to opt for part-time studies. A caring culture ultimately only becomes possible when the university cultivates a strong sense of community who care for each other.

As universities re-visit their plans to promote equality of opportunity in order to meet the regulator’s expectations, our research shows how they can: consult and draw upon disabled students’ experiences to make them more central; collect longitudinal and intersectional data to understand the effect of institutional investments and efforts; and how this approach can be developed alongside changes to teaching and learning and learning practices, which build on the compassionate and flexible approach demonstrated during the pandemic 

By heeding these lessons from disabled students’ representatives and communities, universities and colleges can really make the difference to life chances they often claim.  

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