HE Commission announces inquiry into the experience of disabled students

The Higher Education Commission has launched an inquiry into the experience of disabled students. Despite hard-fought improvements to equalities legislation in recent decades, disabled students continue to be under-represented, frustrated by their experience and achieve outcomes below their potential.

The Commission is seeking to uncover the reasons for these disparities so as to advise government and the sector on how to remove barriers and give students the support they need.

The HE Commission's latest inquiry is co-chaired by Lord David Blunkett, former Secretary of State for Education; Commission Chair Lord Norton; and Vice Chancellor of the University of Derby, Kathryn Mitchell.

The Commission panel is made up of parliamentarians, academics and sector specialists, including representation from the National Union of Students, the National Association of Disability Practitioners, and Disability Rights UK.

Lord Blunkett, Inquiry Co-Chair said: “We must better understand the needs and experiences of our disabled students. As a former Secretary of State for Education, I recognise the value and opportunities which universities can provide. But not all students benefit from a full and rounded university experience, meaning that the immense potential of disabled students is not always realised. In co-chairing this inquiry, I look forward to engaging with universities and particularly students with disabilites and better understanding their diverse experiences. It is from this basis – with disabled students at the centre of our inquiry – that we will make clear recommendations to the DfE and the sector." 

The inquiry will focus on three strands of student life: teaching and learning, living and social, transition and employment. It will explore the challenges faced by disabled students, the extent to which current interventions are effective, and identify good practice.

2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act (1970), the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) and the 10th anniversary of the Equality Act(2010).

However, despite such landmark equalities legislation, significant barriers mean that disabled students’ experience and outcomes remain unequal to their non-disabled peers.

Disabled students are less likely to complete their course, are lower paid as graduates and are more likely to experience loneliness. The number of students with a disability starting university is also below the 17.5% of working age adults with a disability.

Piers Wilkinson, Inquiry Commissioner & NUS Disabled Students’ Officer said: “As the NUS Disabled Students' Officer, it's encouraging to see the barriers disabled students face brought to the forefront of the Higher Education sector. Whilst there has been improvements to inequity for disabled students, progress has been slow and the sector is far away from where it needs to be. As an Inquiry Commissioner, I look forward to seeing the commission engage with disabled students, and amplify disabled student voices to ensure the inquiry's recommendations can have a tangible impact on disabled people's experiences of Higher Education.”

The launch of this inquiry follows the Department for Education's announcement last month of a Disabled Students’ Commission, a reboot of the Disabled Students Sector Leadership Group. The Office for Students, the higher education regulator for England, has also recently targeted the equalisation of outcomes between disabled and non-disabled students by 2024-25. Meeting this target is a tall order for universities. Assessing the sector’s capacity to meet this target will be a key focus of the Commission’s inquiry. 

Kathryn Mitchell, Inquiry Co-chair & Vice-Chancellor University of Derby said: “As a Vice-Chancellor, I see it as imperative that all students are given the resources and support that they need in order to succeed at university. However, while we have seen pockets of individual best practice which improve disabled student experience, we are yet to understand clear sectoral best practice. In co-chairing this inquiry, viewing the landscape through the eyes of the student, the practitioner and the policy maker will be essential to realising our ambitions. An equitable, equal and prosperous experience for all students, especially disabled students, is of the utmost importance and I look forward to exploring these issues during this inquiry.”

The HE Commission recently launched a public call for evidence for the inquiry, which can be viewed here: https://www.policyconnect.org.uk/hec/events/call-evidence-disabled-students-inquiry. The Commission will publicly report on its findings and recommendations in early 2020.

The Commission is encouraging input to its inquiry from students, practitioners, representative bodies and HE institutions. To find out more, contact: Megan Hector, Senior Researcher in the Education and Skills team, megan.hector [at] policyconnect.org.uk




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    Kathryn Mitchell (VC University of Derby), Lord Norton and Lord Blunkett standing and smiling in front of the Policy Connect / HE Commission banner