Assessing progress towards improving disabled students’ experiences in higher education

27 March 2023

The University and the Higher Education Commission at Policy Connect held a parliamentary event, chaired by Professor Philip Lord Norton of Louth, to assess what progress has been made towards improving the experience of disabled students in higher education.

This follows on from the report Arriving at Thriving: Learning from disabled students to ensure access for all, which sought to uncover the reasons for continued disparity in higher education regarding the representation of disabled students, the quality of their experience, and their attainment, continuation, and graduate outcomes.

Since the report's launch in October 2020, policymakers have heeded calls for greater co-ordinated  support between HE and employment by piloting an 'adjustments passport', while planned reforms to the Disabled Students' Allowance scheme remains a topic of interest for the sector.

On 22 March 2023, report co-chairs the Rt Hon. The Lord Blunkett, former Secretary of State for Education; Professor Philip Lord Norton; and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Derby Professor Kathryn Mitchell CBE DL reconvened the Higher Education Commission and its stakeholders to discuss recent developments and emphasise the need for a continued focus on the topic.

In particular, they reiterated the importance of senior leadership responsibility and accountability to the audience of policymakers, academics, and accessibility leaders. However, this must be complemented by culture change and leadership at all institutional levels to avoid tokenistic, remedial actions which do not address the underlying issues.

Led by Professor Kathryn Mitchell CBE DL, presentations from the University of Derby showed the institution’s success in eliminating both the continuation and attainment gaps for students with a disability, resulting in enhancements in degree outcomes. Professor Neil Fowler, Associate Provost Learning & Teaching at the University of Derby, presented evidence that the University has taken a holistic approach to embedding the recommendations made in “Arriving at Thriving” and in so doing successfully reduced inequality for its disabled students.

The discussion on 22 March, however, revealed that successes at individual university level are still to be met by sector-wide improvements to reduce regional variation and an imbalance in resource distribution. As shown by Professor Deborah Robinson, a researcher in Special Educational Needs, Disability and Inclusion based at the University of Derby, another focus must be on promoting successful transitions into graduate employment through, for example supported internships. This will require substantial efforts in co-production and collaboration between academic institutions and industry, underpinned by a strong focus on students’ voices and supported by policy reform that fosters accessibility by design.

Professor Kathryn Mitchell CBE DL said: 

“The event provided an excellent opportunity to reflect on the report’s recommendations and to celebrate where significant progress has been made for students at the University of Derby, particularly in relation to eliminating the continuation and attainment gaps. Centring the student voice and experience in this work is critical if we are to achieve greater progress across the sector. It is essential that we continue to take a holistic approach to removing barriers for disabled students, recognising that the challenges they face are administrative, not intellectual."

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