Publication - Publication

Disabled students at university: discussion paper

Published: 5 Feb 2019

Independent paper from the Commissioner for Fair Access considers representation, entrant trends, retention and degree outcomes for disabled students by disability group.

14 page PDF

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14 page PDF

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Contents
Disabled students at university: discussion paper
Discussion paper: Disabled Students at University

14 page PDF

1.0 MB

Discussion paper: Disabled Students at University

This is one of a number of discussion papers being published by the Commissioner for Fair Access on key issues relating to fair access. The aim is to bridge the gap between detailed research (where it exists), which is often only accessible to experts, and the wider public conversation, especially in political circles and the media. The hope is that these papers will contribute to, and stimulate, that conversation by presenting data and evidence as accessibly and objectively as possible. Each paper will also include a commentary section by the Commissioner.

Summary of key points:

  • The number of first degree entrants declaring a mental health condition/Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has trebled over the last 5 years, now making up over 3% of first degree entrants;
  • Despite recent upward trends in disabled entrants to full-time first degree courses, disabled people are still likely to be underrepresented at university;
  • Retention rates are lower for some disability groups, particularly for students in the mental health/ASD or multiple impairment groups;
  • Degree outcomes for disabled students are slightly worse, while analysis suggests that socio-economic deprivation has a larger effect on degree outcome than disability status.

Background

The Commission on Widening Access (CoWA) focused its efforts on access to Higher Education for learners from socioeconomically deprived areas or with a care experience but acknowledged regret for not having the time to look further at "additional barriers faced by people with protected characteristics". The Commission's final report made a specific recommendation (33) for the Commissioner for Fair Access to look at such groups of learners. This paper is part of the work being undertaken by the Commissioner to address this recommendation.

Unlike the groups of learners considered by the Commission, there is already considerable legislative provision and policy in place in Scotland to support disabled learners. Information on key developments in this area is available in Annex A. The aim of this paper, therefore, is to explore, from an analytical perspective, whether there is evidence of continuing barriers for disabled students in accessing university and, if so, which particular groups of students may require additional support to access university or succeed in their studies.

Defining disability groups for analysis

Under the Equality Act 2010, a disabled person has "a physical or mental impairment, and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on [their] ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities".

The disability information collected by universities is self-declared, so the terms 'disabled'[1] and 'declared disabled' will be used interchangeably throughout, while students who do not declare a disability will be referred to as 'non-disabled'.

Due to the small numbers of entrants declaring particular disabilities or impairments in any given year, the following aggregate groups are used throughout (see Annex B) to provide robust analysis:

  • a specific learning difficulty (SpLD);
  • a mental health condition/Autism Spectrum Disorder (MH/ASD);
  • a physical or sensory impairment (Phys/Sens);
  • other disability or long-term health condition (Other);
  • 2+ impairments and/or disabling medical conditions (2+);
  • no known disability (None).

Data for multiple academic years have been aggregated in several cases to allow data to be broken down using these categories.

Analysis of disabled students in university

This paper is comprised of two sections:

  • 'Representation and entrant trends' considers the numbers and proportions of Scottish domiciled entrants from the above groups in Scottish HEIs, and looks at representation for disabled students in general;
  • 'Retention and degree outcomes' provides analysis of retention and degree outcomes for Scottish domiciled students in the groups outlined above and the relationship between disability and deprivation in this context;

Annexes are provided at the end of the paper.

Representation and entrant trends of disabled people

Entrant trends

Figure 1 shows the distribution of disabled entrants by disability group between 2011/12 and 2016/17. Two out of five disabled entrants declared a specific learning difficulty.

Figure 1: All disabled first degree entrants, by disability group

Figure 1: All disabled first degree entrants, by disability group

Source: HESA (2011/12 to 2016/17)

Figure 2 shows the trends in the number of entrants to full-time first degree courses at Scottish HEIs between 2011/12 and 2016/17. The overall rise in disabled entrants was mainly driven by steady and marked incremental increases in both SpLD (rising from 1,195 to 1,535) and MH/ASD (rising from 275 to 910) entrants. The physical/sensory group was relatively small throughout (225 individuals in 2016/17, accounting for less than 1% of Scottish domiciled full-time first degree entrants).

Figure 2: Full-time first degree entrants, by disability group and academic year

Figure 2: Full-time first degree entrants, by disability group and academic year

Source: HESA (2011/12 to 2016/17)

Figure 3 shows the corresponding trends in entrants to part-time first degree courses at Scottish HEIs between 2011/12 and 2016/17. Entrants in the MH/ASD group have shown the largest growth in numbers, particularly over the last two years (growing from 135 in 2014/15 to 230 in 2016/17).

Figure 3: Part-time first degree entrants, By disability group and academic year

Figure 3: Part-time first degree entrants By disability group and academic year

Source: HESA (2011/12 to 2016/17)

It is important to note, however, that since disability is self-declared, it is not possible to determine whether entrant trends are driven by changes in the number of disabled people entering university or changes in the willingness of disabled entrants to disclose their disability.

In 2016/17, 885 of the 4,430 disabled first degree entrants studied part-time. Due to these relatively small numbers, it is not always possible to provide robust further analysis of part-time disabled students by disability group. Therefore, throughout the rest of this paper, only full-time first degree students will be considered.

Key points:

  • The number of entrants with a mental health condition or ASD has trebled since 2011/12, rising from 370 to 1,140 in 2016/17. These students comprised around 1% of first degree entrants in 2011/12, and over 3% in 2016/17.

Representation

An increase in the number of disabled entrants does not necessarily mean that disabled people are better represented at university. To understand representation we need to compare the percentage of disabled university entrants against the general population. This section explores the available data, and looks at the overall representation of disabled students. A robust analysis for different disability groups is not possible because different categories are used across the different datasets.

In order to provide a baseline estimate for the level of representation, historic university data can be compared against Scotland's Census. Long-term health conditions were recorded in the 2011 Census and the categories used were similar to the disability categories used in the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data collections (see Annexes B and C). The Census showed that the percentage of the population with a long-term health condition increased with age. Since the vast majority (98%) of Scottish-domiciled full-time first degree entrants are aged 16-39, this age range will be used when considering the representation of disabled people at university, to avoid skewing the analysis.

In Figure 4, 2011/12 HESA data is compared against data on long-term health conditions in Scotland's 2011 Census. Figure 4 suggests that in 2011 there was a difference between the percentage of disabled people in Scotland, and the percentage of disabled entrants to full-time first degree courses at Scottish HEIs. The largest differences were in the 16 to 20 age group, where 7% of entrants were disabled, compared to 14% of the population. This age group accounted for three quarters of full-time first degree entrants in 2011/12. This historical comparison suggests that disabled people were underrepresented in the 2011/12 university entrant cohort.

Figure 4: Full-time first degree entrants/Census, percentage disabled, by age

Figure 4: Full-time first degree entrants/Census,percentage disabled, by age

Source: HESA data (2011/12), Scotland's Census 2011

The next Census is in 2021 but we can use other sources to help determine whether more recent trends suggest an increase in the representation of disabled students at university. Figure 5 shows trends in disabled university entrants while Figure 6 shows trends in the disabled population from the Annual Population Survey (APS; see Annex D). Whilst the two sources are not directly comparable, the general upward trend in disabled entrants seen in the university data in recent years is also observed in the disabled population data from the APS. This suggests that the increase in disabled entrants since 2011 does not necessarily denote a substantial increase in representation. Moreover, for 16-24 year olds, the proportion of full-time first degree disabled entrants is still markedly lower than the population proportion was in Census 2011. Since 86% of full-time first degree entrants are aged 16-24, our analysis suggests that disabled people are likely to still be underrepresented at university, albeit not to the extent that they previously were.

Figure 5: Full-time first degree entrants, percentage disabled, by academic year and age

Figure 5: Full-time first degree entrants, percentage disabled, by academic year and age

Source: HESA (2011/12 to 2016/17)

Figure 6: APS respondents, percentage (Equality Act) disabled, by year and age

Figure 6: APS respondents, percentage (Equality Act) disabled, by year and age

Source: APS (2014 to 2017)

Key points:

  • Disabled people were underrepresented in full-time first degree study at the time of the last Census, particularly among younger age groups.
  • Analysis suggests that disabled people are still underrepresented at university, despite recent growth in numbers.

Retention and degree outcomes of disabled students

In this section we consider retention rates and degree outcomes for different groups of disabled entrants and by Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation[2] (SIMD) quintile. Some disabled groups are excluded from the SIMD analysis due to the resulting numbers being too small.

Retention

Figure 7 displays the retention rates[3] of full-time first degree students by disability group, between 2012/13 and 2016/17. There was a 4.3 percentage point gap in the retention rate between MH/ASD students and non-disabled students. Students in the 2+ group also had a notably lower retention rate than their non-disabled peers.

Figure 7: Full-time first degree retention rates, by disability group

Figure 7: Full-time first degree retention rates, by disability group

Source: HESA (2011/12 to 2016/17)

Retention by SIMD

Figure 8 shows the retention rates of full-time first degree students by disability group and whether a student is from SIMD quintile 1 (Q1, SIMD20) or quintile 5. Retention rates for each of the groups shown were lower for students from Q1 areas than students from Q5 areas. MH/ASD retention is lower to the extent that MH/ASD entrants from Q5 areas had a retention rate (89.4%) closer to that of non-disabled entrants from Q1 areas (87.7%) than non-disabled entrants from Q5 areas (93.7%).

Figure 8: Full-time first degree retention rates, by disability group and SIMD (Q1/Q5)

Figure 8: Full-time first degree retention rates, by disability group and SIMD (Q1/Q5)

Source: HESA (2012/13 to 2016/17)

Key points:

  • Retention rates are lowest amongst students with a mental health condition or ASD.
  • Within disability groups there was still a SIMD-related gap in retention.

Degree outcomes

Undergraduate degrees which are unclassified generally fall into one of two categories. They are either degrees in subject areas such as Medicine and Dentistry, which are generally not given an honours classification, or they are ordinary degrees. Qualifiers from Medicine and Dentistry, Subjects Allied to Medicine, and Veterinary Science have been excluded from the degree outcomes analysis since the majority of first degrees in these subjects are unclassified and these subject areas account for a large proportion of all unclassified degrees.

Figure 9 shows the proportion of students receiving a 2:1 or above (First, 2:1), lower than 2:1 (2:2, Third, Pass) and unclassified degree outcome, grouped by disability group. Non-disabled students had a slightly higher rate (60%) of qualifying with a 2:1 or above, while less than half (49%) of qualifiers in the 2+ group achieved this outcome. Overall, outcomes for each of the disability groups were worse than for non-disabled students, but the difference was small for most groups, particularly if subject and institution were accounted for.

Figure 9: Full-time first degree qualifiers, outcomes by disability group

Figure 9: Full-time first degree qualifiers, outcomes by disability group

Source: HESA (2011/12 to 2016/17)

Note: percentages may not sum to 100% due to rounding

Degree outcomes by SIMD

Figure 10 shows the degree outcomes of full-time first degree qualifiers by SIMD quintile and disability status. Disabled qualifiers were less likely to obtain a 2:1 or above than non-disabled qualifiers from the same SIMD quintile, and more likely to obtain a lower/no classification. The difference between the percentage of disabled and non-disabled qualifiers that obtained a 2:1 or above is relatively similar across SIMD quintiles (between 3 and 7 percentage points). There is a larger disparity, however, between students from Q1 and Q5 areas, even amongst non-disabled qualifiers (around 20 percentage points).

Figure 10: Full-time first degree qualifiers, outcomes by disability and SIMD quintile

Figure 10: Full-time first degree qualifiers,outcomes by disability and SIMD quintile

Source: HESA (2011/12 to 2016/17)

Note: percentages may not sum to 100% due to rounding

Key points:

  • Degree outcomes are slightly worse for disabled students, particularly those in 2+, MH/ASD or SpLD groups, than for non-disabled students.
  • These differences in degree outcomes remain when SIMD is accounted for; however, analysis shows that differences between SIMD quintiles are substantially larger and suggests that socio-economic deprivation has a greater effect on degree outcome than disability.

Contact

Email: Anna Green