Over the past five academic years, the number of UK students with a declared disability has increased by 46 per cent, today making up almost one in five home students (OfS, 2022). This increase is likely to accelerate as 3.3 per cent of the UK population is suffering from long-Covid (ONS, 2022). To legally and ethically accommodate the increased variety of students, the higher education sector will need to become more accessible.
Fortunately, higher education has an enormous untapped potential for accessibility, as has been demonstrated by the pandemic. By forcing universities to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, the pandemic encouraged them to develop capacities which might otherwise have taken a decade to realise. The challenge now is not sliding backwards but rather building on this momentum to create a higher education sector that is accessible whether you are autistic, going through cancer treatment or are a full-time carer.
In our latest report, Going Back Is Not a Choice, Disabled Students UK analyses the survey responses of disabled students from 69 universities across the UK, finding key lessons that higher education providers can learn from the pandemic to become more accessible to disabled students going forward (Disabled Students UK, 2022). Despite protective legislation, disabled students have historically been marginalised in academic settings, and in some ways, this has continued during the pandemic – only 23 per cent of the disabled students surveyed agreed that they had received the disability support that they have required during this time.
‘Despite protective legislation, disabled students have historically been marginalised in academic settings, and in some ways, this has continued during the pandemic.’
In other ways, however, accessibility has taken leaps forward. A few institution-wide changes – such as offering recordings of lectures – have provided enormous benefits to disabled students as well as to a number of other groups. Many students with fatigue or auditory processing issues, for instance, have had a level of access that they had never experienced before. Eighty-five per cent of disabled students in our survey report that they would benefit from online teaching/learning being an option for them after the pandemic.
Our report highlights the following five lessons from the pandemic for universities to become more accessible going forward.
Lesson 1. Take an anticipatory approach. To the degree that accessibility has improved during the pandemic, it is largely due to a few institution-wide policies such as online access to lectures and removing time limits from assessments. This shows the enormous influence of a few key universal policies, applied equally to disabled and non-disabled students. Taking an anticipatory approach to find and implement such policies going forward will allow higher education providers to increase accessibility more efficiently.
Lesson 2. Resource staff to be able to provide accessible education. There was a lack of individualised disability support during the pandemic and a failure to incorporate accessibility into the delivery of institution-wide policies. This emphasised the need for staff to have the appropriate resources and training to be able to implement accessibility in practice.
Lesson 3. Build on compassionate attitudes. Many universities implemented more flexible and compassionate policies for their students during the pandemic, demonstrating that such approaches do not have to come at the expense of ‘academic rigour’. Considering that disabled students face difficulties during non-pandemic times as well, students in our survey wished to see such policies applied to a disability-specific context as well.
Lesson 4. Reduce the administrative burden. The pandemic provides a clear example of the fact that when disabled students have to shoulder a large administrative burden, their access to education on equal terms is effectively blocked. Reducing the administrative burden is one of the most cost-effective ways to increase accessibility for disabled students.
Lesson 5. Take responsibility for disabled students’ access to education through effective leadership. The survey results paint a picture of disabled students being consistently forgotten while abled students are accommodated. The only way to ensure that accessibility is prioritised is through leadership that enables a coherent whole-institution approach and a culture of responsibility.
As pandemic restrictions in the UK disappeared, the ‘modal’ student no longer needed provisions such as lecture recordings. The main groups that would benefit from continued provision of such practices were now marginalised students – for example students who were disabled, had caring responsibilities or spoke English as a second language. As this shift in beneficiaries happened, we have seen some universities stop their provision of lecture recordings, requiring students to go back to a completely in-person education. This disregards the fact that for some students ‘going back’ is not a choice – pre-pandemic education was never accessible to them.
On the bright side, we are seeing other universities growing and learning from the pandemic, creating more accessible higher education institutions than ever before. We will see the results when DSUK publishes our comparison of universities across the UK in summer 2023 (for more information go to www.accessinsights.co.uk).
Disabled Students UK. (2022). Going back is not a choice. https://disabledstudents.co.uk/not-a-choice/
Office for National Statistics [ONS]. (2022). Prevalence of ongoing symptoms following coronavirus (COVID-19) infection in the UK: 7 July 2022. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases/bulletins/prevalenceofongoingsymptomsfollowingcoronaviruscovid19infectionintheuk/7july2022
Office for Students [OfS]. (2022). Student characteristics data. https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/data-and-analysis/student-characteristics-data/