Improving disability access and support in Higher Education

The issue of fair and equitable access for students with a disability will be the focus of an international webinar that will bring together some of the leading proponents for change in the Higher Education sector.

Matters of ‘access’ and ‘disability’: exploring and affecting systemic and cultural change in and for Higher Education is expected to draw delegates from education systems around the world with a view to sharing research, evidence and best practice.

Among those speaking at the webinar will be ex-Paralympic swimmer Lord Chris Holmes, whose report on the Disability Student Allowance earlier this year revealed that just 29% of students in England eligible to receive it actually do.

Lord Holmes will be joined by Kamran Mallick, CEO of Disability Rights UK, and Mette Westander, CEO of Disabled Students UK, whose own report on disabled students’ experiences during the pandemic has attracted national coverage and attention.

“The issue of disability and fair access has been at the forefront of national discussion in higher education this year.” 

says Dr Suanne Gibson, Associate Professor of Inclusive Education at the University of Plymouth, and the organiser of the conference. 

“But if there is to be meaningful change, the momentum has to be maintained. This webinar brings together some of our most significant leaders in disability rights and policy and asks, ‘what needs to change, how and where?’”

Dr Gibson provided evidence to both Lord Holmes’ report, which has now been submitted to the government, and to DSUK’s Going Back is Not a Choice – Accessibility Lessons for Higher Education. The latter report, based upon interviews with nearly 400 students across 30 HEIs, concluded that 85% of disabled students would benefit from a continuation of the online learning options introduced as a result of the pandemic.

“There is a real concern across the UK disabled student community and their allies that HE might go backwards in terms of the more inclusive forms of provision developed during the pandemic,” 

Suanne says. 

“Having online access, contactable tutors, support services and colleagues and being able to download lectures worked really well for many, including those who might experience fatigue as an element of their disability. Yes, we know about the importance and value of face-to-face learning, we need to continue this while broadening our core pedagogic offer to include a broader range of online provision and work to support our disabled students with associated administration burden. University of Plymouth Student Services have developed some notable progressive provision in that space."

Delegates from America, Australia and New Zealand are expected to join the webinar, which will have a strong theme of ‘partnership and empowerment’.

Dr Gibson has earned a national reputation for her teaching and research in areas including disability, special educational needs, social justice, inclusion and critical pedagogy. During that time, she’s developed strong networks with education academics and specialists in USA, Cyprus, Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia.

She is currently leading a collaborative project called ‘Are We Included?’ with Professor Sonia Blandford, Marjon University and Plymouth Education Board, which is focusing on Levelling Up initiatives and inclusive provision in 11 city secondary schools. She has also just completed a pilot project, 'Opportunity Plymouth', which is a new Knowledge Exchange programme developed in collaboration with the University’s Careers Service and a third year BA (Hons) Education student. This has included the mentoring of 10 KS4 pupils at the city’s University Technical College on their post-16 options, with undergraduate Education students.

“A lot of my work over the past decade has been to advance policy, practice and theory in relation to the question of disability and inclusion, in the wider context of diversity and access to higher education,” 

Suanne says. 

“And we have begun to see some progression and change in terms of equitable access and the positioning of disabled students as core empowered voices to policy and practice. Crucially, we are hearing the voices of disabled students themselves about what constitutes good practice and how that can be maintained." 

"It’s about social justice and social mobility, and inclusion, trying to push forward progressive changes,” 

Suanne adds. 

“We need to ensure groups in society traditionally excluded can take advantage of opportunities. It’s through sharing inclusive experiences and their impact that we can push forward and maintain new knowledge and understanding."

Research with Plymouth Institute of Education

Research in Plymouth Institute of Education (PIOE) is both excellent and highly distinctive, with its lifelong and life-wide approach; foregrounding the vital role learning plays in society and culture. Our researchers explore how and why people learn at every stage of life, from babies to the very old. We have strong research links and networks across the world and a wide range of externally funded national and international research projects. 

Find out more about education research at Plymouth

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