This blog was written by Dr Rille Raaper, who is an Associate Professor in our School of Education, along with Francesca Peruzzo, Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, and Mette Westander, Founding Director of 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.
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.
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.