Disabled students at university: discussion paper

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

Commissioner's Commentary

In debates about fair access to higher education, most attention is focused on socio-economic deprivation - social class, to be blunt. Rightly so, because it is the main determinant of disadvantage and discrimination. But there are other important factors - gender, despite the great advances made in female participation; age, which is why part-time higher education is so important; and disability, the subject of this discussion paper.

The definition of a disabled person in the Equality Act 2010 is broad - a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect. As a result, disability among potential students takes many forms, including specific learning difficulties and mental health conditions as well as blindness, deafness, physical impairments and other more 'visible' disabilities. As this paper shows, students with learning difficulties are the single largest group - 39 per cent of all disabled first-degree entrants in 2016/17 - while the number with mental health conditions has trebled over the past five years.

This will not surprise academic or counselling staff in higher education, although it may not fit in with the standard image of disability. The adverse impact of learning difficulties and mental health conditions is apparent throughout students' courses as well as at the point of entry. For example, within the larger group of students with learning difficulties most universities have seen an increase in the number of dyslexic students, which has required institutions to modify their teaching methods, and assessment and examination practices. There is also much greater awareness of mental health issues among students, although not all necessarily satisfy the definition of disability. Well publicised suicides among students have even led some in the media to talk of a mental health crisis in universities. Various interpretations, more or less credible, have been offered. These range from claims that contemporary students belong to a 'snowflake' generation to more compelling evidence of increased stress produced by a 'performance' culture and anxiety about future jobs in a more uncertain and competitive labour market.

The basic question of whether, and to what extent, disabled people as a whole are underrepresented in higher education is not as easy to answer as it should be. In 2016/17, just over 12 per cent of first-degree entrants were registered as disabled, and that proportion has increased significantly if not dramatically. This suggests that universities have become more open to disabled students. However, there are a number of complicating factors.

  • First, disability is self-declared, so the increase may be partly explained by a greater willingness on the part of applicants to declare their disability. Of course, a greater willingness to acknowledge disability is a positive development, and reflects a greater openness on the part of both individuals and society;
  • Second, students can develop disabilities while they are on their courses, especially mental health conditions which are already the fastest growing category of disability;
  • Finally, the proportion of first year students declaring a disability in 2011/12 was only half that of the total population aged 16 to 20, according to the census. This suggests that, although progress has been made since, young disabled people are still likely to be significantly underrepresented in universities.

Retention rates for most disabled students are also lower, especially (as might be expected) among those with mental health conditions. This is cause for serious concern, even if media reports of a gathering mental health crisis in universities are exaggerated. Retention is worst for the group of disabled students that has been growing most rapidly. Also, accommodating the needs of students with mental health conditions may be more difficult than the adjustments needed in the case of other disabled students, and pose more of a challenge to existing academic practices.

Disability status has a more limited effect on degree outcomes than socio-economic deprivation. But that is a small consolation. All that means is that the disparities between SIMD quintiles are greater than disability related disparities. There is still a disability related gap: 46 per cent of students from SIMD 20 without declared disabilities get 2:1 degrees or above compared with only 43 per cent of those who are disabled, and for those from the least deprived areas the figures are 67 and 61 per cent respectively. So disabled students pay a penalty at every stage of their journey - in terms of admission, retention and outcomes. Hardly consistent with fair access.

What is to be done? It would be nice to identify a magic bullet that would eliminate all the disadvantage disabled students face. But there isn't one.

  • There must be no let-up in the public focus on the disadvantage experienced by disabled students. NUS Scotland has identified mental health as a key concern among students, and deserves more support. The Parliament's Equalities and Human Rights Committee also produced a report on disabilities and universities in 2017.
  • Institutions should get ahead of the curve on mental health in particular. There is some excellent practice already – for example 25 per cent of staff at Queen Margaret University have been given mental health first aid training. But strategies for counselling and other forms of direct support for disabled students need to be joined up with wider learning and teaching strategies. Courses and the curriculum should be made as disability-proof as possible. It would also help to be able to track the incidence of disability, especially mental health conditions, across the student life cycle;
  • The various strategies and initiatives on disability, and mental health in particular - by Government, the Funding Council, colleges and universities, schools and, crucially, the NHS – need to be properly coordinated. Services should be easily accessible and seamless;
  • Finally, efforts to help disabled students, and applicants, should be linked to the wider efforts being made to promote fair access in general, at the level of individual institutions and through the work of the Scottish Community of Access and Participation Practitioners as well as that of the Funding Council.

Professor Sir Peter Scott
Commissioner for Fair Access


Email: Anna Green

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