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Disabled students need earlier support to reach university, says Ucas

Disabled students need earlier targeted support at school to progress onto university courses, a report has suggested (Chris Ison/PA)
Disabled students need earlier targeted support at school to progress onto university courses, a report has suggested (Chris Ison/PA)

Disabled students need earlier targeted support at school to progress onto university courses, according to a new report.

The report from Ucas (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) notes that in 2021, 83,220 disabled students applied to university, a record high, with 80% of applicants gaining places, and 14% of applicants sharing an impairment or condition in 2021 – a 105% increase since 2012.

But it adds that there is “significant variance” depending on the type of disability students have, and that support for disabled pupils going onto university needs to start earlier as disabled students are more likely to defer their courses because of delays in support.

The report highlights that disabled students are 28% more likely to defer entry to university, and recommends that schools and colleges need to start conversations with disabled pupils earlier about how they can be supported into higher education.

The deferral rate for disabled applicants rose from pre-pandemic levels of 7% in 2019 to 8.2% in 2021, compared to a 6.4% deferral rate for non-disabled applicants in 2021.

Ucas data showed that the steepest increase was seen for those with social, behavioural or communication needs – for example being on the autism spectrum – which made students 11% more likely to defer their place than non-disabled peers.

The report said Ucas should also develop its existing guidance to ensure disabled students engage with student support teams in universities at an earlier stage, while students should be encouraged to apply earlier to courses too so that support can be put in place sooner.

The report from Ucas, Next Steps: What is the experience of disabled students in education?, in conjunction with Pearson and the Disabled Students Commission, surveyed nearly 5,000 students who applied to Ucas by the 2022 deadline and shared details of a disability on their application.

Just under a fifth – 17% – said they had accessed inclusive, extra-curricular activities at school or college.

Over half – 56% – said they had researched available support at university before making an application, highlighting the need for clearer information about educational support and physical adjustments on campuses.

University course pages on the Ucas website should include “at a glance” information about the types of support students can access, the report said.

It also recommends that the Department for Work and Pensions extend its Access to Work Adjustment Passport Scheme – designed to ease the transition of disabled graduates into work – to higher education, to make the process a “smoother experience” for students.

Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas, said: “A key takeaway from our research is that students need earlier support to avoid deferring and so we are recommending the extension of Adjustment Passports, which currently only cover the transition from higher education into employment, to make it easier for students to progress to university, college or an apprenticeship, meaning more students can take that next step along with their peers.”

She added that the report had shown 44% of disabled students were optimistic that university life would be “socially richer” than their school experience, but raised concerns over the proportion of deferred places.

Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work Chloe Smith said: “Disabled students deserve the same opportunities to succeed and reach their full potential as everyone else.

“Our Adjustment Passports have been well received by disabled students, providing them with the confidence and certainty they need to enter the world of work and we have had promising feedback from the universities involved in the pilots.

“Over the coming months we will be considering next steps for the passport, building on what we’ve learnt so far and I look forward to following the progress of the students and gaining an understanding of the difference it makes to their transition into work.”

Kevin Gilmartin, post-16 specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We wholeheartedly support the call by Ucas for more support for the transition of disabled students to higher education and apprenticeships through the extension of Adjustment Passports.

“We also think that the findings of this report show the pressing need for better funding for colleges and sixth forms to support these young people.

“Schools and colleges will be concerned to see that only 17% of disabled students say they have access to inclusive extra-curricular activities. Everybody in education cares deeply about ensuring that young people with disabilities are fully supported and included in all aspects of the curriculum.

“The problem for schools and colleges is that the funding they receive from the Government is simply insufficient and extra-curricular activities are run on a shoestring, which means staffing and other resources are very tight.

“Despite the best efforts of schools and colleges, this may affect the level of support that can be provided and could be why a large proportion of disabled students do not feel that activities are inclusive.”