Whoever you are, whatever your motivations, hitting ‘submit’ on your UCAS application is a big moment. It is the culmination of months (sometimes years) of research, soul-searching, discussions about the right choices … not to mention the work that goes into crafting your personal statement. Everyone responds differently: some students feel absolute certainty in their decision, others feel more trepidatious. As the decisions roll in and the start of the course looms closer, anticipation and nervousness can set in because starting university or an apprenticeship can feel daunting – it marks a significant change in your life, after all. Ultimately though, it’s a time of excitement: there is the promise of a fresh start where you can be yourself and open yourself up to new experiences, both social and academic.
Higher education is about more than the academic side. Developing new friendship groups and support networks through the myriad social opportunities available are all part of the experience. Students are often worried about fitting in at university, but also see this as a prime opportunity to really be themselves and be part of a community – and that sense of belonging is central to good mental health and wellbeing.
It was heartening then, that our latest report, in collaboration with Pearson, Next steps: what is the experience of disabled students in education?, found that a university’s reputation for diversity and inclusion is a priority for those students who research support before applying. They also told us that they are looking forward to the social aspects of university, with 44% expecting this to be good or excellent. Only 17% had been able to access inclusive clubs and extra-curricular activities at school or college, so university is seen as a great chance to get involved and meet new people.
At UCAS we consistently talk about the need for students to do their research and make informed choices that are right for them – and this extends beyond the course choice. We want students with individual needs to have full equity of experience, so making sure they can access the support that enables them to do this is vital. And we found that they are doing the research: in our survey of 5,000 disabled students, 56% had looked at the university’s support for disabled students before making their application. However, not all students had been able to find the details they needed easily, which indicates that improvements are needed to help students make those important informed choices. UCAS believes it can play a key role in helping them locate the relevant information more efficiently, and we are already considering how we can do this for the future.
Of course, individual needs vary from person to person, so we need to help students feel confident in speaking to university support services directly to discuss the level and type of support they can offer, and set realistic expectations. In order to do this, they must feel comfortable talking about their impairment. While 90% of those who shared a disability told us that felt comfortable or neutral doing so, 10% felt uncomfortable – and we know that some will have chosen not to share this information at all because they were worried about how it would be used. The report highlights some challenges here, including the difference in terminology used in secondary and tertiary education, and the particular challenges for those with hidden disabilities.
In fact, we found that students with hidden disabilities are having a more difficult time generally. Their experiences to date had been less positive, their expectations for higher education were lower, and they also felt less comfortable sharing their impairment. As we looked at the data, it became increasingly clear that students with hidden disabilities (such as autistic spectrum conditions) need stronger support along their whole educational journey – both in terms of what works to help them achieve success but also in terms of helping them feel more comfortable with sharing their support needs and confident in asking for the support they need.
At UCAS, we think that the process of getting support for an impairment or condition could be better. The government is currently piloting the Access to Work Adjustment Passport that aims to ease the transition from higher education into employment for disabled people – we would like to see this scheme extended to include transition into higher education to ensure consistency of support, and to remove the current onus on students to organise and oversee adjustments – many of whom are not experienced in making such arrangements, and which can detract from the excitement of going to university. The higher rate of deferrals outlined in the report offers further evidence that disabled people cannot always make the transition to higher education alongside their peers due to delays in support, so this must be a priority for change if we are to ensure true parity of access and participation.
In short, disabled people need to have absolute parity of experience when taking their next steps to higher education. We want them to experience the full diversity of emotions, and feel just as included in those all-important social occasions, as well as their academic discoveries.