A significant disadvantage
The inaccessibility that disabled students face at university makes their experience qualitatively different from non-disabled students. The Higher Education Commission (HEC) writes: “We found that disabled students face a number of additional pressures in comparison to non-disabled students, including the heavy administrative burden created by having to apply for, be assessed for, organise and chase up the support they need.” They go on to describe how the equipment and support allocated sometimes is “of poor quality, provided extremely late, or not provided at all”. A 2020 report from UCL found that 58% of disabled students had been made to feel unwelcome at the university due to their disability.
Law versus practice
The Equality Act 2010 dictates that disabled students have a right to accommodations that prevent them from being put at “a significant disadvantage” at university. However, there is often a difference between what is enshrined in law and what universities practice. Evaluating universities’ accessibility statements, for instance, AllAble found that only 17% are in line with current regulations.
In the last few years, a number of reports have painted a grim picture of the situation for disabled students in Higher Education. They find that disabled students often face inaccessible teaching, are insufficiently supported to request accommodations and face overwhelming administrative, financial and attitudinal barriers if they do.
The outcomes of the situation are damning. Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows the proportion of disabled people who have a degree is almost half of the proportion of non-disabled people, a situation that has not improved over the last 9 years. The HEC writes: “Disabled students often interrupt their studies because of the financial burden, a lack of support, and struggling to fully access their teaching and learning”.
Inadequate oversight and knowledge
In the context of the poor access we have seen here it is perhaps unsurprising that disabled students in England are more likely than others to make a complaint to their ombudsman, the Office of Independent Adjudicator (OIA) and to have their complaint upheld. However, the OIA can only look at individual cases, and only after the issue has already occurred. As such they do not help universities take the anticipatory steps required by law.
What is needed is a body that holds universities accountable to have certain structures in place which would allow them to provide adequate access. There is currently one body in England that has this power, but they are not using it. Office for Students (OfS) collects and publishes information about only 4 key measures and does not provide comparisons between universities. Despite a framework that specifies that their members must follow the law and provide an equitable experience, we have yet to see a case where OfS has implemented consequences for a university that has had inadequate access. In fact, OfS does not evaluate the accessibility of the universities, despite annually feeding £40 million into universities for access alone.
Without being able to evaluate the state of accessibility at specific universities, the sector does not have the necessary knowledge for change to happen. Even those universities that wish to change find themselves lacking incentives and appropriate insight into the problem.
On disabled students’ insight and accountability
A recurring theme here is that universities, as well as oversight bodies, fail to have structures in place which would give them access to the insight of disabled students and would allow disabled students to hold their universities to account. The lack of student surveys, accessible complaints processes, and other forms of student’s voices creates a self-reinforcing vicious cycle where the university and oversight bodies are unable to understand the problem and put adequate structures in place. This causes disabled students to be unable to raise issues around inadequate accessibility and so the cycle continues. In this way, the current system blocks disabled students from holding their institutions to account and prevents improvements from taking place.
Read about how DSUK is addressing these issues in Our Work & Strategy