Westminster Higher Education Forum

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Priorities for supporting disabled students in HE - student experience, academic attainment, preparation for the labour market, and the impact of COVID-19

December 2020


Price: £95 PLUS VAT
Format: DOWNLOADABLE PDF


***Full-scale policy conference taking place online***
This conference will examine policy priorities for improving support for disabled students in higher education.


The discussion is bringing together stakeholders with key policy officials who are due to attend from the DfE; DHSC; the Department for Communities, NI; the Department for the Economy, NI; and the Welsh Government.


The discussion at glance:


  • inclusion and accessibility - in the context of socially-distanced campuses
  • educational attainment - priorities for improving it for disabled students
  • the labour market - preparing disabled graduates in a challenging economic environment
  • the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) - delivery, awareness and the impact of reform
  • the Disabled Students Commission - progress following its setting up, and the priorities it foresees as it begins its work advising and influencing policy and the HE sector

Policy developments at a glance:


  • COVID-19:
    • impact on study - closure of university campuses, as well as the increased use of online learning, leading to significant changes to the daily lives of disabled students
    • economic impact - with the pandemic expected to particularly hit young people, and following concerns over potentially an even greater competition for jobs for graduates
    • guidance - OfS’s The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on disabled students, with advice to students and giving examples of university best practice and innovation during the crisis
  • Arriving At Thriving: Learning from disabled students to ensure access for all - the outcome of the Policy Connect Higher Education Commission inquiry with recommendations on: 
    • accessibility - for disabled students to teaching and learning, and in their accommodation, with findings indicating that reasonable adjustments are often missing
    • getting support - addressing the bureaucratic burden on disabled students and ensuring the provision of Access and Participation Plans
    • social inclusion - with the need for greater awareness to support improvement, and involvement of students’ unions
    • government support - a new system for support transition into work, as well as greater funding with reforms to the DSA, including simplification and a new maximum cap
    • senior leadership - at pro vice chancellor level with responsibility and accountability for the experience of disabled students 
  • Changing Places toilets for severely disabled people to be compulsory in new public buildings - changes to building rules in England, including for universities
  • Widening participation in higher education: 2019 - DfE progression data showing 8.5% for pupils with an EHCP or Statement of SEN by age 19 compared with 48% of pupils with no SEN
  • HE student enrolments by personal characteristics - HESA data showing 14% of home students have some kind of disability in 2018/19, a 38% increase since 2014/15
  • How do student outcomes vary by disability status? - OfS finding that achievement of a first or 2.1 was 3 percentage points lower for disabled students lower than those without a disability
  • DWP unlawfully blocked support for disabled students for seven years, says court - the Disability News Service reporting that disabled students claiming personal independence payment claims have been unlawfully denied access to universal credit while at university

The discussion in detail:


The Disabled Students’ Commission


  • initial insights - and assessing progress of the Commission, funded by the OfS and managed by Advance HE - with an address by its chair, Professor Geoff Layer
  • priorities - the Commission’s approach to evidence gathering, assessing policy priorities for improving support, and ensuring that the voices of disabled students are heard
  • campuses re-opening - examining the Commission’s Three months to make a difference report on the needs of disabled students for the coming academic year in the wake of COVID-19
  • how universities can adapt - including recommendations on:
    • communication - ensuring clear and timely information for disabled students on changing arrangements
    • accessibility - making sure that needs for disabled students are considered when making campuses COVID-19 secure
    • participation - facilitating continued inclusion in induction weeks under social distancing rules, and providing accessible in-person as well as online versions of social activities
    • technology - ensuring that digital resources are accessible for disabled students as institutions are required to have now standardised their website to ensure accessibility for all

The Disabled Students Allowance (DSA)


  • delivery - options for improvement and adjustment with the possibility that the pandemic may cause delays in students’ receiving their DSA 
  • awareness - how it can be boosted, with findings of low awareness amongst by students who are eligible for the bursary
  • DSA reform - including transfer to HEIs of financial responsibility for some non-medical support, and the expectation of HEIs offsetting removals of DSA funding by providing reasonable adjustments
  • legal obligations - assessing progress and outstanding issues in the compliance of HEIs with Public Sector Equality Duty and other provisions in the Equality Act 2010 including:
    • eliminating physical features that may put disabled students at a disadvantage
    • ensuring information is in an accessible format
    • taking steps to ensure the provision of auxiliary aids
  • communication with students - addressing reported issues related to a perceived lack of clarity over eligibility, availability and applications
  • wellbeing - priorities for supporting the mental and general health with heightened concern over issues such as access to healthcare, and groceries and other essentials

Improving academic attainment for disabled students


  • study and the pandemic - the support needed by disabled students to thrive in higher education and close the disability gap
  • learning from the pandemic - how the experience of different forms of learning and assessment may inform the support HEIs offer to disabled students in the future
  • inclusivity and participation:
    • best practice and innovation during lockdown - how this can be built on going forward
    • access - with some disabled students reporting improvement in access to educational resources, alternative ways of learning and assessment compared to pre-lockdown
    • blended learning - can be incorporated into long-term practice to create more inclusive learning environments
  • innovation - the integration and utilisation of the latest assistive technologies, as well as wider services and facilities such as sensory rooms, for students with hidden and physical disabilities
  • creating more disability-friendly spaces - opportunities and next steps for policy

Outcomes and preparation for the labour market


  • closing the gap - with OfS Differences in student outcomes data showing that those in receipt of the DSA were less likely to be in highly skilled employment or further study following graduation 
  • maintaining progress - the pandemic’s possible impact on government’s ten-year aim of 1m more disabled people in work by 2027, and priorities for ensuring work towards this goal stays on track
  • careers guidance - best practice in providing disabled students with effective and timely advice that prepares and supports them for entering the post-COVID-19 labour market
  • engagement with employers - ways that universities can work with employers to support improved outcomes for disabled students:
    • continued access to internships
    • recruitment of disabled graduates
    • provision of reasonable adjustments
  • policy:
    • the impact of measures already put in place by government for mitigating against youth unemployment, such as the recently announced Plan for Jobs
    • priorities for extending targeted support for disabled young people

The agenda:


  • Supporting disabled students - the current state of play and initial insights from the Disabled Students Commission
  • The experiences of disabled students in higher education
  • Welcoming disabled students to university - inclusion and accessibility, improving awareness of support services and the DSA, and arrangements in a socially-distanced campus
  • Improving educational attainment for disabled students - inclusivity in blended learning, use of assistive technologies, and provision of alternative assessment
  • Preparing disabled graduates for the labour market - holistic approaches to career guidance, partnerships between universities and employers, and improving outcomes
  • Policy priorities for the Disabled Students’ Allowance

Policy officials attending:


Our forums are known for attracting strong interest from policymakers and stakeholders. Places have been reserved by parliamentary pass-holders from the House of Commons, and officials from the Department for Education; the Department of Health and Social Care; the Department for Communities, NI; the Department for the Economy, NI; and the Welsh Government.


Overall, we expect speakers and attendees to be a senior and informed group including Members of both Houses of Parliament and officials from BEIS, DfE and other Government departments and agencies, university and college leaders; academics and other higher education professionals; representatives from students' unions; the health sector; disability groups; businesses and their advisors; technology providers; architects’ interest groups and the voluntary sector; along with commentators and reporters from the national and specialist media.


This is a full-scale conference taking place online***


  • full, four-hour programme including comfort breaks - you’ll also get a full recording to refer back to
  • information-rich discussion involving key policymakers and stakeholders
  • conference materials provided in advance, including speaker biographies
  • speakers presenting via webcam, accompanied by slides if they wish, using the Cisco WebEx professional online conference platform (easy for delegates - we’ll provide full details)
  • opportunities for live delegate questions and comments with all speakers
  • a recording of the addresses, all slides cleared by speakers, and further materials, is made available to all delegates afterwards as a permanent record of the proceedings
  • delegates are able to add their own written comments and articles following the conference, to be distributed to all attendees and more widely
  • networking too - there will be opportunities for delegates to e-meet and interact - we’ll tell you how!

Full information and guidance on how to take part will be sent to delegates before the conference



This pack includes

  • Dropbox video recording of the conference
  • PDF transcript of the discussion, including all speaker remarks and Q&A
  • PDFs of speakers' slide material (subject to permission)
  • PDFs of the delegate pack, including speaker biographies and attendee list
  • PDFs of delegate articles