March 04, 2021

Doing More to Understand the Experience of Disabled Students


I’ve often thought that Universities do not always make the most of academic insights into the policy and management issues that we wrestle with. That’s not because we don’t value them, but rather because academic research often has greater visibility externally than it does internally. So I was particularly intrigued to hear about some of the work being done by a colleague in Warwick Business School looking at the employment experiences of disabled people. Partly as a result of this work, Kim Hoque was appointed to the Centre for Social Justice’s Disability Commission and the introductions and connections that he made, gave us the opportunity to understand more about the work that the Commission was doing.

The Commission is particularly concerned to understand issues relating to the education and employment of disabled people and our discussions with members of the Commission (and the evidence that we finally submitted) gave us the opportunity to reflect on the challenges that we face and the value of the initiatives that we have put in place. As recent studies have shown (see for example the Policy Connect Report – Arriving and Thriving), disabled students in higher education continue to experience disparities in continuation, attainment and graduate outcomes. Many disabled students still struggle to fully access teaching and learning in the way that they need. They often face greater administrative burdens than non-disabled students because they must request, organise and often fight for the support they need. And they may miss out on the full range of extra-curricular and social activities that are such a valued and valuable part of the University experience. If you ask our students, they will tell you that we still have a lot of work to do at Warwick to address these issues.

Our evidence to the CSJ’s Disability Commission focused specifically on the student experience; a particular theme was the importance of information and advice to facilitate successful transitions from school to University and from University to employment. At Warwick, we try to work with Schools, both to raise aspirations and to ensure there is an understanding of the type of support that is available - whether at Warwick or at university in general. We work with students and our careers (student opportunity) team to support with the transition to employment – working with organisations that encourage disability confident employers (e.g. MyPlus) and encouraging students to think positively about disability disclosure, marketing their skills that are related to living with a disability – resilience, adaptability and perseverance. Whilst many major employers now have good resources for disabled staff, supportive staff networks and a positive attitude, graduate employment outcomes for disabled students remain an area of concern.

While Warwick, like many other institutions, has a genuine commitment to supporting disabled students, it remains the case that both external and internal policies and practices create challenges that are not faced by non-disabled students. For example, the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) provides support for costs related to studying that arise because of a disability of any type. It’s not means tested and has a value of up to £25,000 per year. But changes in 2016 to control costs mean that many decisions around provision are based more on the lowest quote than on the preferences of the student. We argued strongly in our submission to CSJ that there is a pressing need to look again at the operation of DSA to ensure it genuinely delivers to the needs of students. And it’s not just DSA that needs work – we need to look carefully at our own policy and practice to identify the ways in which we may, unintentionally, be creating unreasonable barriers that make it harder for disabled students to succeed. Unless and until we do, we will not be able to create the necessary climate that will enable our disabled students to realise their full potential.

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Chris Ennew

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