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Disabled students dropping out amid ‘inadequate’ support, charities and unions warn

Eleanor Busby

Students with disabilities are dropping out because of a lack of support, charities and unions warn, as the regulator has called on universities to do more to tackle the “concerning” trend.

Institutions are relying on individuals to disclose their disability and request adjustments, rather than providing all the provision they need, the Office for Students (OfS) has warned in a new report.

Universities need to give much more support to students with disabilities to prevent higher drop-out rates and fewer employment opportunities, the regulator said.

Of the full-time undergraduates who declared a disability, those with mental health conditions had the lowest continuation rate (86.8 per cent), compared to non-disabled students (90.3 per cent).

“This is concerning," said Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the OfS.

"We want universities and colleges to identify and address any weaknesses in the support they are offering to all disabled students.”

He added: “The impact of having a degree on the job gap clearly shows what a huge difference they are making to disabled students’ chances in life. But these achievements are still too often reliant on an individual student being able to navigate the barriers in their way.

“It is time for universities to ensure genuinely equal opportunities for disabled students. This means not only meeting their legal duties to individual students, but learning from each other to create learning environments in which all students can thrive."

The warning comes after The Independent revealed that a shortage of support in universities is driving deaf students to consider abandoning their degrees.

Waits of up to a year for assistance such as interpreters, specialist tutors and note-taking in lectures are leaving undergraduates feeling ostracised, according to the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS).

Martin McLean, policy advisor at the NDCS, said: “It’s appalling to see higher university drop-out rates for disabled students, particularly when so many have spent their lives overcoming countless barriers put in front of them just to secure a place.”

He added: “Deaf students are just as capable as their hearing peers, pay the same fees and have the legal same rights, but when they need support it’s often unavailable or not good enough. This cannot be allowed to continue and universities and the government both need to stop resting on their laurels, investigate why this is happening and ensure that deaf students are given the same chance to succeed as everyone else.”

Piers Wilkinson, disabled students’ officer at the National Union of Students, said: “The current provision isn’t just inadequate, it is intentionally not given. When it comes to disabled students, we are always measured up against a price tag, and once we become more expensive than profitable, we are forced to go into debt or seek charity to access our basic right to education.”

Universities minister Chris Skidmore said: “We know that higher education has the power to transform lives and it’s fantastic to see the difference it can make to those with disabilities. However, we know that gaps still remain in attainment and career opportunities, and we need to level the playing field.”

He added: “I want to see universities stepping up to the challenge to improve support for students from all backgrounds, including disabled students, so everyone can flourish in higher education and have the best possible chance of a successful career.”

A Universities UK spokesperson said: “We are pleased to see that going to university significantly improves employment rates for disabled people. Universities want all students to reach their full potential and encourage open conversations about disability and disclosure. Universities UK is supporting the new Disabled Students’ Commission which will advise on how universities can further improve support for disabled students.”