Last week I heard a story about a university that postponed giving students their essay titles for three weeks, to avoid a drop in lecture attendance. Part-time, full-time, disabled and non-disabled students took to social media to express their frustration with the change, which would disrupt their planning and compound existing challenges in meeting deadlines.

Was the potential increase in attendance for three weeks worth all this angst? An inclusive approach to teaching and learning would suggest not. Inclusive practice is about recognising the diversity of students, and removing unnecessary barriers to success from the outset.

Why look at this now?

The number of entrants to HE who report disabilities is increasing year-on-year, including a rapid rise in reported mental health issues (see Figure 1). Yet we know that disabled students who do not receive Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) are not achieving to the same standard as their non-disabled peers, or indeed their disabled peers who do receive DSA. (Figure 2 shows this trend, broken down by attainment level on entry.)

Figure 1: Number of students with declared mental health problems

Number of students with declared mental health problems

Figure 2: Degree classifications of graduates by disability and entry qualification

Degree classifications of graduates by disability and entry qualification

We also know that a lower proportion of disabled graduates are in work or further study six months after graduation than graduates with no known disability.

In 2016-17 the Government made changes to the availability of DSA, placing a greater responsibility on HE providers to support their students through reasonable adjustments and inclusive practice.

How can providers develop inclusive teaching and learning?

The Disabled Students Sector Leadership Group has produced guidance for the sector on how best to support students with disabilities through their studies: ‘Inclusive learning and teaching in higher education as a route to excellence’. It includes simple actions to effect change, such as ensuring reading lists are focused and up to date, allowing the recording of teaching, and diversifying the range of learning opportunities and assessment.

The benefits of these actions are felt, not just by disabled students, but by all students, each of whom faces their own challenges while studying at university.

The guidance also highlights HE providers’ duties under the Equality Act, and how they can take a strategic approach to providing ‘reasonable adjustments’. For instance, disabled students can be treated more favourably than non-disabled students if this is needed to provide them with a high-quality learning experience and the requirement to make learning as accessible as possible to disabled students always applies under the Equality Act.

Of course, nothing is as easy as it sounds. Universities and colleges can be vast organisations, and for any widespread change to take effect, a change in culture is fundamental. A key message from the guidance is that effective senior leadership is crucial in driving change across the entirety of the institution. This means training for senior staff, reviewing teaching and learning practices and evaluating success.

Involving students

The higher education sector is full of enthusiastic staff who are experts in teaching and learning and understand what students need to succeed. However, HE providers have many policies that directly affect students. Even those that have overhauled their entire teaching and learning strategy with inclusivity in mind may still find barriers facing students.

If you are one of these staff, please listen to students if they tell you policies aren’t working for them, whether individually or through student representation. And then involve them in evolving those policies, or creating new ones.

The university I mentioned above has agreed to release the essay titles earlier than planned (if not by the original three week deadline) following a meeting with their student representative. This is a step in the right direction.

How can HEFCE help?

Our previous research into support for students with mental health problems, intensive support needs and specific learning difficulties found that many providers are already moving towards inclusive models. But budgets are tight.

We have therefore boosted our funding for disabled students in 2016-17 and 2017-18, to support providers to make this transition. During those two years we will review what models of support look like, and will share examples of good practice.

We are also using our catalyst fund to fund projects addressing differences in student outcomes, including for those with disabilities.

We hope that over the coming years, inclusive practice will become the norm across the HE sector, ensuring that all students can make the most of their time in HE and achieve their best possible outcomes.