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Topic briefing: disability

Case study: Coventry University

Coventry University’s Maths Centre and Centre for Academic Writing provide dedicated support to students with dyslexia or dyscalculia as part of the university’s commitment to supporting disabled students throughout their studies. In three years, continuation rates for disabled students have risen by 6.7 per cent to 90.8 per cent, indicating that the programme is having an impact.

Other support for disabled students at the university includes a pre-entry residential summer school for new students with disclosed disabilities, and a social group for students on the autistic spectrum. The university’s Welfare and Disabilities Office offers disability screening, faculty-based Learning Support Co-ordinators, specialist equipment loans, study support drop-in sessions and disability awareness training for staff and students. For further information contact Jo Merry, Deputy Director of Planning (

Case study: Weston College

Following discussions with its disabled students, Weston College holds a summer school for students with Asperger’s or those on the autistic spectrum. The seven-day residential programme aims to develop students’ academic and social skills to ensure they have a smooth transition into higher education, and includes activities to increase independence and confidence in order to reduce the possibility of withdrawal.

For further information contact Sadie Skellon, Assistant Director, Academic Registry (

About this briefing

This briefing gives an overview of current challenges around access, success and progression for disabled students and explains how universities and colleges are working to support disabled students through their access agreements. It also suggests questions that institutions might wish to consider when further developing this work in future.


Universities and colleges have a duty under the Equality Act 2010 to ensure equal opportunities for disabled people. Disabled people are also one of the under-represented groups covered by access agreements.

What do we know about disabled students?

The proportion of all students who disclose themselves as disabled is rising, but disabled people remain under-represented in higher education and there are significant variations in the success and outcomes of disabled students compared to others.

The Equality Challenge Unit’s (ECU’s) Statistical Report 2014 shows that:

Differential outcomes for disabled students

The chart below shows differences in attainment and outcomes for students in receipt of DSA, those who declare a disability, and students not known to be disabled. Once other factors which may affect outcomes are taken into account, students in receipt of DSA do better than either those students declaring a disability that do not receive DSA and students not known to be disabled.

HEFCE research has found that students who declare a disability but are not in receipt of DSA are less likely to receive a good degree. With the exception of medicine and dentistry, and business and administrative studies, in every subject area a higher proportion of non-disabled qualifiers received a first or 2:1 than disabled qualifiers.

Figure 1: Percentage point difference of the outcome from the sector-adjusted average for four outcomes, by disability status


Source: HEFCE 2013/15 Higher education and beyond: Outcomes from full-time first degree study.

Note: Where a bar is filled in the graph, this indicates that the difference is not statistically significant. “Sector-adjusted average” means that we have controlled for other characteristics which may be statistically influencing the group’s overall result (for example, their ethnicity, sex or age). Using a “sector-adjusted average” tells us what outcome would be expected after accounting for these other factors. We can then see if there is a significant gap between the group’s sector-adjusted average and actual outcome, and if so, we can infer that there are other factors affecting the group’s performance, apart from those accounted for in the sector-adjusted average.

In terms of student success and outcomes, the ECU’s Statistical Report has found:

The national strategy and disabled students

The national strategy for access and student success calls for more detailed data concerning disabled students to be collected, so that higher education providers can tailor support more effectively to the specific needs of their disabled students. The strategy says this could include information on the nature of a student’s disability and the impact that this may have on their integration and success in higher education.

Disabled Students’ Allowance

Changes to DSA are scheduled to take place in 2015-16 and 2016-17. It is therefore  timely to consider what activities and programmes have most impact  in supporting disabled students. OFFA’s guidance note on the government’s proposed changes to DSA set out that expenditure on DSA that is above “reasonable adjustments” can be included in access agreements (for further clarification on what may or may not be counted, contact your institution’s key policy adviser at OFFA).

How are institutions addressing disability in access agreements?

We have seen a growing commitment to support disabled students in access agreements in recent years. This is in response to our increasing focus on this area in our access agreement guidance. Institutions are increasingly considering a more inclusive teaching and learning approach so that the needs of the whole student body can be met rather than disabled students being targeted as a separate group.

Almost all institutions (over 95 per cent) mentioned disabled students within both their 2014-15 and 2015-16 access agreements. This included activity across all stages of the lifecycle. But only a very small proportion of institutions, around 5 per cent, reported this in a way that disaggregated between different types of disability.

Looking across the student lifecycle, we can see some significant differences in the support offered by institutions through access agreements.


Student success


Financial support


Questions for universities and colleges to consider

  1. How are you collecting evidence of the gaps in access, student success, and progression of disabled students at your institution?
  1. How could you better listen to and engage with disabled learners, so that you can provide effective support and address any barriers facing them?
  1. What systems do you have in place to robustly evaluate the impact of your work in relation to disability?
  1. How do staff members at your institution work flexibly and collaboratively with others at all levels across the institution to support disabled students?
  2. How do you work with external partners to build a shared infrastructure to support disabled students?
  1. What systems do you have in place to develop and test new, impactful approaches to target disabled students in your unique institutional context?