New independent commission aims to boost support for disabled students

A new independent group formed to challenge universities and colleges in England to improve support for disabled students will meet for the first time today.

Outline of a lightbulb with various cogs and gears inside

The Disabled Students' Commission (DSC) will help universities and colleges to remove the barriers preventing disabled students from accessing and succeeding in higher education and having the best possible experience during their studies.

The commission’s activities will include providing recommendations and research that aims to:

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

The DSC was announced in June 2019 with Professor Geoff Layer appointed as Chair. Today the Office for Students (OfS) has confirmed the six new commissioners appointed to the panel. They are:

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

Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the OfS, has also been appointed as a commissioner. Dr Sam Parrett, Chief Executive Officer and Group Principal of London South East Colleges, has been appointed as further education adviser to the commission.

Advance HE has been commissioned to provide secretariat support and oversee the management of research and other activities.

Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of the Office for Students, said:

'Disabled students should be able to enjoy and benefit from everything that their university or college offers – including inclusive teaching and learning, appropriate living spaces and opportunities for extra-curricular activities. It is essential that disabled students get the right support and opportunities to thrive during their time in higher education.

'We are pleased to have appointed such a strong and effective group of commissioners who will bring passion, expertise and experience to the commission and will challenge and support us to ensure the best possible outcomes for disabled students.'

Professor Geoff Layer, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton, and Chair of the Disabled Students' Commission, said:

'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.  

'Over the next few months we will be setting our agenda and developing our 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.'

Alison Johns, Chief Executive at Advance HE, said:

'We are delighted to be the secretariat to the Disabled Students’ Commission, and help guide research and enhance the work of the commissioners.

'We have a long history of research into the barriers facing disabled students with a range of impairment types and producing guidance on how to remove barriers. However, we know that there is a continuing need to interrogate the issues and make higher education more inclusive and we look forward to working with the commissioners to improve equity of outcome for all disabled students.'

Between 2010 and 2017, the proportion of students in English universities who self-reported a disability increased from 8.1 per cent to 13.2 per cent.

OfS data shows that disabled students are currently less likely to continue past the first year of their course, graduate with a good degree, and progress into skilled work or further study:

  • there is a gap of 2.8 percentage points between the proportions of disabled and non-disabled students graduating with first and upper second-class degrees
  • a gap of 0.9 percentage points between the proportion of disabled students continuing their courses past the first year, compared to non-disabled students
  • a gap of 1.8 percentage points between the proportion of disabled students progressing into highly skilled employment or postgraduate study.

Data from the National Student Survey (NSS) also shows gaps in the responses of disabled students compared with non-disabled students. According to the data:

  • overall, UK-domiciled disabled students are less satisfied with their course than their non-disabled counterparts. In 2019, 81.4 per cent of disabled students said they were satisfied with their course, compared to 84.3 per cent of non-disabled students
  • in 2019, just 66.2 per cent of disabled students agreed that their ‘course is well organised and is running smoothly’ – compared to 70.4 per cent of students who did not declare a disability.

Furthermore, a separate 2019 survey of 67 higher education providers showed that only 53.3 per cent compared their own NSS results for disabled and non-disabled students. Such comparison could, if supplemented by relevant text comments, help universities and colleges to respond more effectively to the concerns of disabled students.

In its regulation through access and participation plans, the OfS has challenged individual universities and colleges to address the gaps between disabled and non-disabled students.

Professor Geoff Layer has written in more detail about what the Disabled Students' Commission hopes to achieve in a blog post, also published today.

For more information please contact Richard Foord on 0117 905 7676 or email [email protected].

Find out more about the Disabled Students' Commission


  1. Disability information (including whether a student has a mental health condition) is recorded by providers at the point of entry to higher education. Students may also declare disability information during their time in higher education and this information should be recorded by the provider.
  2. The DSC will collaborate with higher education providers, students, sector agencies, regulators and the government to deliver its agenda. It will contribute to work across the sector on student mental health, and to TASO (Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education) by gathering intelligence on disabled students’ access to, experience of, and progression from higher education.
  3. The Office for Students recently published an Insight brief which asked if universities and colleges are doing enough for disabled students. It also commissioned research into the state of support for disabled students in higher education in England.
Published 09 March 2020

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