The Disabled Students’ Commission: transforming disabled students’ experience

Universities and colleges have made major strides in their desire to focus on the quality of the student experience and to become one of the key driving forces in ensuring greater social mobility. There is, though, still much work to do.

Blue sky and sun rays showing through clouds

The number of disabled students entering higher education has grown over the last decade. In 2017, 13.2 per cent of all students studying at English universities and colleges reported having a disability. We know there are persistent gaps in the experience and outcomes of disabled and non-disabled students.

The Disabled Students’ Commission (DSC) was announced by the government in June 2019 to take forward the work of the Disabled Students' Sector Leadership Group (DSSLG). I am delighted to have been appointed as Chair and I’m pleased to announce today the appointment of the commissioners who will be leading this work and promoting greater inclusivity of disabled students.

Who’s who

The Office for Students (OfS) ran a competitive public appointment process, looking for candidates who were experienced and committed to making change for disabled students. Following this process, the commission will comprise:

  • Sean Cullen, Disability Officer, Brunel University – student voice commissioner
  • Susan Daniels, Chief Executive Officer, National Deaf Children's Society – general commissioner
  • Professor Sarah Greer, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost, University of Worcester – general commissioner
  • Patrick Johnson, Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, University of Manchester – general commissioner
  • Professor Deborah Johnston, Pro-Director (Learning and Teaching) and Professor of Development Economics at SOAS, University of London – general commissioner
  • Piers Wilkinson, Disabled Students’ Officer, National Union of Students – student voice commissioner.

The Office for Students was asked to nominate a commissioner – this will be Chris Millward, the OfS’s Director for Fair Access and Participation.

The commission will be supported by Advance HE. We will also benefit from the knowledge, experience and expertise of Dr Sam Parrett, Chief Executive Officer and Group Principal of London South East Colleges, who will act as our adviser on the role of further education colleges.

Creating inclusive environments

While I’m delighted to chair the commission, I’m also disappointed that it is still needed. There is a huge body of evidence out there which tells us that inclusive environments, curricular and learning and teaching practices are critical to the delivery of successful outcomes and experiences for disabled students. Yet research recently published by the OfS has found that universities and colleges recognise they have some distance to travel before they can offer a truly inclusive higher education experience to their students.

Challenge and support

The task for the commission is to both challenge and support the sector to make further and faster progress on this journey, avoiding delays and removing obstacles to inclusion. It will:

  • advise, inform and challenge the English higher education sector (including providers, sector agencies, regulators and government) to improve models of support for disabled students in higher education
  • identify and promote effective practice that helps those with disabilities have a positive and successful experience at university.

Over the next few months we will be setting our agenda and developing out approach to working with universities and colleges, students, funders, regulators and the government. We want to listen to the whole educational and support community – and we will undoubtedly not only have much to say, but also much to learn.

Forward look

The commission’s primary focus will be to make further and faster progress towards inclusivity for disabled students. Widening access to and supporting successful participation in higher education for underrepresented groups has been linked to the concept of social mobility. But this is just the start. Higher education can certainly contribute to greater social mobility and it has the power to transform the economic futures of disabled graduates. Ensuring that all our students are equipped with the knowledge, skills and confidence they need to secure fulfilling and rewarding careers, regardless of their disability, is of critical importance. This is especially important if we are to maximise our contribution to social mobility and a more equal and just society.

To this end, the commission will be looking at three key issues:

  1. Success and representation of disabled students in higher education.
  2. Experience of disabled students within higher education.
  3. Progress of disabled students post-higher education.

This work will also need to recognise the key issues of multiple disability and intersectionality.

The OfS is to be congratulated on the way it is changing the nature of institutional thinking regarding access and participation. It has focused, quite rightly, on outcomes and gaps in performance. The commission will be taking a broader view, to take account of the crucial unevenness in support for disabled students between and within higher education providers.

An exclusive focus on outcomes can mask the very different ways in which a disabled student might experience higher education. Difficulties with accessing high quality personal and learning support; feeling isolated in the academic sphere; and experiencing exclusion from extra-curricular activities and experiences – all of these things can add to the challenges to be overcome and the additional effort disabled students have to put into the achievement of good outcomes. 

The commission will put the experience of disabled students at front and centre of the higher education agenda. It will be a privilege to work with this group of people, who bring with them great commitment, expertise, drive and a clear determination to ensure that disabled students have a fulfilling experience of higher education and go on to have successful and rewarding careers.

Find out more about the Disabled Students' Commission


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Published 09 March 2020

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