Dismantling barriers to success for disabled students

Specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia consistently make up around half of all self-reported disabilities, but the sector has seen a huge rise in the number of students with mental health problems.

In 2014-15 over 6,000 UK first-degree entrants were reported as having a mental health problem – an increase of 160 per cent since 2010-11. Despite this rapid rise, HE providers will tell you that many students with mental health problems won’t declare themselves as having a disability, hinting at a yet larger figure.

So the sector has made progress in welcoming greater numbers of disabled students. But it seems that support for them is falling short.

HEFCE analysis shows that for students with A-Levels at grades CCC or better, those with a disability were typically two to four percentage points less likely to be awarded a first or 2:1. We also know from the latest longitudinal Destination of Leavers of Higher Education (DLHE) data that employment rates are lower for disabled students.

Percentage of graduates achieving a first or upper second

Recent reforms to the Disability Student’s Allowance place a greater onus on HE providers to make adjustments to their curriculum and learning environment to support students to succeed.

This is an important message and all students will benefit from more inclusive learning environments. The challenge will be to ensure that disabled students do not fall down any cracks in the support available to them, as providers transition towards more inclusive learning, teaching and support models.

What are the issues?

With these changes taking place, last year we commissioned research into the provision of support for students with mental health problems and specific learning difficulties.

The review uncovered the following key issues facing the sector:

  • increasing demand for services
  • proposed changes to the way in which funding is delivered to support disabled students
  • moving to a social model of support
  • working with external agencies
  • increased pressure on resources.

Building on these findings we held two conferences in March focussed on developing strategic responses to mental health and wellbeing in HE. Some of the challenges facing HE providers included: transitioning to more inclusive models of support, encouraging disclosure, linking with external agencies and promoting good mental health.

With these issues in mind, we doubled our funding to support disabled students from £20 million in 2015-16 to £40 million in 2016-17 and 2017-18.

The increased funding aims to help providers respond to increasing demand, particularly in terms of the numbers of students with mental health problems, and move towards a social model of support.

Social model of support

This model of support recognises that institutional systems and processes create barriers to success rather than attributing this to the individual student. It makes HE providers responsible for delivering curricula and resources that are accessible to everyone from the outset, rather than making retrospective adjustments.

Providers are at different points of the journey towards the social model. Even inside a provider, the picture is not always consistent. Inclusive practices might be found in some departments, but others can be slow or reluctant to follow suit.

The issue of accessibility can cause angst in parts of the HE sector – why would our students come to lectures at all if they can access everything from the comfort of their homes? Evidence suggests that these worries are unfounded, but this, along with other issues, can really hinder progress.

What is HEFCE doing about this?

The sector needs better evidence to demonstrate what works and to understand the broader impact of interventions. More systematic evaluation is needed and we know that providers are keen to develop this.

We have recently invited applications for funds designed to address barriers to student success. These funds seek to scale-up successful innovative approaches to addressing differential outcomes for disabled students, with the aim of closing the attainment and outcome gaps for students that still face systemic inequality.

We hope that through these projects we can really begin to share some useful lessons for the sector in dismantling barriers for all students regardless of their characteristics.