Topic briefing

Disabled students

Published 27 July 2020

The issue

The proportion of students who disclose themselves as disabled or as having a mental health condition is rising. Despite this, disabled people remain underrepresented in higher education.

We know that undergraduate disabled students perform less well than non-disabled students in continuing their course, degree attainment and progression into highly skilled employment or postgraduate study.

There is lots of existing evidence which tells us that inclusive practices are critical to the delivery of successful outcomes and experiences for disabled students.

Key facts

  1. Between 2010 and 2018, the proportion of UK-domiciled students self-reporting a disability increased from 9.5 per cent to 16.7 per cent.
  2. Our student characteristics data shows the proportion of full-time, first-degree UK-domiciled undergraduate students disclosing a mental health condition has increased rapidly in recent years, from 0.9 per cent in 2010-11 to 5.1 per cent in 2018-19.
  3. According to a study in 2017, two thirds of participants with a declared mental health condition thought about dropping out of higher education. This compares with one third of those who did not have a declared mental health condition.
  4. The 2019 National Student Survey found that disabled students are slightly less satisfied with their course and wider learning experience than their non-disabled counterparts (81.4 per cent compared with 84.3 per cent).
  5. Disabled graduates are also less likely to progress onto highly skilled employment or postgraduate study (our data shows a 1.8 percentage point gap for full-time students graduating in 2017).


Under the Equality Act 2010, a person has a disability if they:

'have a physical or mental impairment, and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities'.

'Substantial' is defined by the Act as 'more than minor or trivial'.

An impairment is considered to have a long-term effect if:

  • it has lasted for at least 12 months
  • it is likely to last for at least 12 months, or
  • it is likely to last for the rest of the life of the person.
Published 27 July 2020

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