Expert panel: Are universities adapting to disabled students’ needs quickly enough?

Is UK HE becoming more accessible to students with disabilities? And if so, is it happening fast enough? Steve Wright asks the experts in the second in our series

The panel

Dr Gail Hopkins: Assistant professor and disability liaison officer, School of Computer Science, University of Nottingham

Professor Val Williams: Emeritus professor, Norah Fry Centre for Disabled Studies, University of Bristol

Chris Millward: Director for fair access and participation, Office for Students

Nicole Reid: Higher education manager, Texthelp


Q. What about the number of students with disabilities accessing HE – is this increasing? And if so, is HE adapting quickly enough?

Gail Hopkins: From our perspective, there does seem to be an increase in numbers of students with disabilities accessing HE. A lot of these are students with more ‘hidden’ disabilities, such as those on the autistic spectrum and those with long-term mental health difficulties.

Students who declare a long-term mental health problem are classified as disabled, and the numbers of students coming forward for help due to this has significantly increased over the years. This is particularly in terms of depression and anxiety.

In my computer science department at Nottingham we have quite a lot of students with learning differences – such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia/dyspraxia. However, we also have a significant number of students with mental health difficulties. An increasing number of students now come forward with chronic and acute depression and anxiety. I have seen a huge increase in this over the past few years and the numbers of extenuating circumstances claims related to this has increased a lot. Additionally, those students who are on the autistic spectrum are more susceptible to depression and anxiety.

Nicole Reid: When we look at figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), over the past five years there has certainly been a steady increase in the number of students enrolled who have a known disability. However, what we must remember is that not every student will declare their disability, which is why it is so important that reasonable adjustments are anticipatory. A one-size-fits-all solution does not work – learning, teaching and assessment methods and materials need to work for everyone. We’ve attended many events throughout the year in the higher education sector and it’s clear that universities understand this and are striving to be more inclusive of every student, which ultimately will improve student outcomes for the university.

Val Williams: Disabled people form about 15–20% of the UK population, but disabled students at university still represent a smaller proportion than that. Staff who self-identify as disabled are even fewer – only 4.1% in 2016/17. At present, disclosure (or self-identification) as disabled is often difficult, particularly for those with unseen disabilities, since they are made to feel that they are the problem and that they do not fit into the ordinary practices of teaching, learning and research. Thus, for instance, disability support services are often praised by disabled students – yet there is frequently a lack of connection between these and the rest of the university.

Chris Millward: The number of students with a declared disability entering higher education has increased from 107,585 in 2010/11 to 192,320 in 2017/18. Nearly 15% of first-degree students now report a disability, compared to 9.5% in 2010/11. The highest rates of declaration are for cognitive or specific learning difficulties – followed by mental health conditions, where declarations are continuing to rise.


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