Expert panel: Are things improving for disabled students?

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 first 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

Q. Where are we with disability access in HE right now? Are we improving the experiences, and outcomes, of students with disabilities?

Chris Millward: As the regulator of higher education in England, fair access and participation for students from all backgrounds is one of the Office for Students’ (OfS) strategic priorities. Our ambition is that future generations should have equal opportunities to access and succeed in higher education, and to achieve successful and rewarding careers.

We work to deliver on our ambition in two ways. Firstly, we apply pressure on individual higher education providers through our regulatory functions, particularly through requirements for access and participation plans for those providers on the OfS Register who want to charge above the basic fee level. But we also work at the sector level, through strategic use of our funding and the identification and sharing of effective practice that will help the sector to improve outcomes for students from underrepresented groups.

Gail Hopkins: When students apply for a place at university, they can declare on their application form if they have a disability. They can then meet with a university disability support officer and, depending on their needs, with the disability liaison officer of the school to which they are applying. Here they will be able to discuss their needs and talk about what support could be put in place, both generally and subject-specific.

Nottingham offers support including mentors, specialist software (some of it, such as Texthelp, Read and Write Gold and MindView, networked and generally available), note-takers, disabled-access student bedrooms with en suite bathrooms and much more.

Elsewhere, our new autism social network helps students with autism to meet other like-minded people and engage more in social activities. Our network of welfare officers provides a significant first line of support for students. We also have a number of trained mental health first aiders across different staff groups, with all senior tutors now expected to undergo such training.

We need a shift towards a truly universal inclusive environment, where disability is valued as part of the norm – Val Williams, University of Bristol

Val Williams: Many people would expect the answer to this question to involve material resources only. However, I have a different perspective.

From 2015–18 I led a programme of research into disabling barriers and social practices [see further reading box]. Our research looked at the different elements that make up practices in HE, and overwhelmingly we found that the basic issue lay not in material assets but in values, where disability tended to be viewed as a problem to be fixed.

For example, HE processes for disabled people to access “reasonable adjustments” under the Equality Act (2010) were designed in ways that marked disabled people as different. What is need, instead, is a shift towards a truly universal inclusive environment, where disability is valued as part of the norm.

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