Widening participation (WP) has been a dominant discourse in education policy for more than 20 years. Its original and continued core aim has been to improve higher education (HE) participation of traditionally underrepresented groups, including disabled people (Gibson, 2016; Lewis & Johnston, 2002). It has led to increased efforts in supporting disabled students during their HE experiences, including aiming for students to develop a sense of belonging, experience inclusive practice and achieve in their studies.
Statistics on students declaring a disability on entering HE has increased; recent 2019/2020 statistics show a 47 per cent increase since 2014/2015, with a significant increase of students reporting mental health conditions (Hubble & Bolton, 2021). It could, therefore, be argued that WP is working. However, these statistics may not mean an increase of disabled students entering HE but rather indicate more disabled students are deciding to declare their disability. Importantly, even with this increase, disabled students remain underrepresented in HE (OfS, 2018).
Some argue that WP has resulted in a social justice imaginary (Gale & Hodge, 2014), suggesting it was always about the growth of HE and that the capitalist economy has overridden any social justice aims that WP policy and practice claimed it would achieve. The neoliberal reframing of ‘inclusion’ via WP policy did not consider embedded and complex histories of exclusion, inequality and misrecognition (Gibson, 2016). It is well documented that disabled people face inequalities in many aspects of life, including education, qualifications attainment (DSC, 2021) and employment (HEC, 2020). It is essential that disabled students experience inclusive practice during their HE studies. However, recent studies show there is not enough awareness of the complexities surrounding inclusion and how inclusion objectives should be implemented in practice (Márquez & Melero Aguilar, 2020).
‘It is essential that disabled students experience inclusive practice during their higher education studies.’
The Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated difficulties that disabled students experience in HE with worsening inequalities including life expectancy, income, employment, relationships, education and progression (DSUK, 2020). There is also evidence of much regression in terms of disabled students’ positive education experience and academic achievement (Nolan, 2022).
Disabled students’ experiences during the pandemic
In 2020, we carried out a study using an online survey with Disabled Students UK that investigated 14 disabled students’ experiences of studying in HE during the pandemic. We uncovered three key themes:
- Most of the participants did not feel a sense of belonging in HE. For instance, only 30 per cent of the participants felt their university welcomed disabled students, and just 20 per cent felt a sense of belonging on their course.
- Most of the participants had experienced discrimination. In total, 60 per cent of the participants experienced discrimination or negative bias, and 61 per cent experienced ableism.
- Most of the participants experienced accessibility difficulties. None of the participants felt that staff prioritised their access arrangements, and none felt that there has been consistency in staff approaches to enable access.
While the study sample is small and it can be argued that perhaps those who had negative experiences were more inclined to complete the survey, our findings are in line with recent national studies. The Higher Education Policy Institute’s report (HEPI, 2020), for instance, found that disabled students have experienced inconsistency and frustration, with 25 per cent of their respondents rating the accessibility of their course as 1/5 or 2/5. Furthermore, Disabled Students UK’s recent national report Going Back Is Not a Choice – which surveyed 326 respondents from 69 HE providers across the UK – found that only 23.1 per cent of disabled students received the support they needed over the pandemic, with many feeling deprioritised. Comments included feeling ‘left behind’, ‘alienated’ and ‘forgotten’ (DSUK, 2022, p. 38).
Making positive change
For many years, Gibson has argued that positive change cannot happen without consultation and working with disabled students (Gibson, 2016). DSUK (2022) has evidenced the need for ‘responsible leadership’; that is, positioning senior leaders in the sector along with other key university staff as core to making sustainable change happen. Findings from our study and others suggest that disabled students are now experiencing a worse situation than before the Covid-19 pandemic. It is therefore essential that we work urgently and in partnership with disabled students and our university leaders to investigate inclusive HE policy and practice and devise an effective plan for positive change. As stated in the HEPI report (2020, p. 1):
‘Now is the time to raise awareness of the needs and experiences of disabled students, and to push forward with the changes required to ensure that disabled students are fully supported to succeed in higher education. We implore government and the sector to listen to disabled students and learn from their experiences, in order to improve life outcomes for all.
By taking collective ownership with their disabled students, responsible and ethical University leadership can make equality happen.’
Disabled Students’ Commission [DSC]. (2021). Annual report 2020-2021: Enhancing the disabled student experience. https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/disabled-students-commission-annual-report-2020-2021-enhancing-disabled-student
Disabled Students UK [DSUK]. (2022). Going back is not a choice: Accessibility lessons for higher education. https://disabledstudents.co.uk/not-a-choice/
Higher Education Policy Institute [HEPI]. (2020). New report: The experiences of disabled students in higher education. https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2020/10/14/new-report-the-experiences-of-disabled-students-in-higher-education/
Hubble, S., & Bolton, P. (2021). Support for disabled students in higher education in England. House of Commons briefing paper no. 8716. https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-8716/CBP-8716.pdf
Gale, T., & Hodge, S. (2014). Just imaginary: Delimiting social inclusion in higher education. British Journal of Sociology Research, 35(5), 688–709. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2014.919841
Gibson, S. (2016). Students as core: A time for change in the higher education discourse of ‘widening participation’ and ‘inclusion’. In Z. Brown (Ed.) Inclusive education: Perspectives of pedagogy, policy and practice. Routledge
Higher Education Commission [HEC]. (2020). Arriving at thriving. Learning from disabled students to ensure access for all. https://www.policyconnect.org.uk/research/arriving-thriving-learning-disabled-students-ensure-access-all
Lewis, E., & Johnston, B. (2002). Assessment in universities: A critical review of research. Learning and Teaching Support Network Generic Centre. http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/id/eprint/59244
Márquez, C., & Melero Aguilar, N. (2020). Advancing towards inclusion: Recommendations from faculty members of Spanish universities. International Journal of Inclusive Education. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/13603116.2020.1858977
Nolan, S. (2022). The compounded burden of being a black and disabled student during the age of COVID-19. Disability & Society, 37(1), 148–153. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2021.1916889
Office for Students [OfS]. (2018). Regulatory notice 1: Access and participation plan guidance for 2019–20. https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/regulatory-notice-1-access-and-participation-plan-guidance/