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Tailored support needed to make PhDs accessible


Disabled research students face barriers that are still poorly understood, says Pete Quinn

Even though disabled people are protected by equalities legislation, they have historically been marginalised in higher education and academia. This is especially true for PhD students, for whom many of the adjustments and accommodations available to disabled people on undergraduate or taught postgrad courses are not appropriate. 

A 2022 report from Disabled Students UK (DSUK), the largest disabled student-led organisation in the UK, found that a large majority of disabled research students were unhappy with the support they received from their institution during the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has resulted in increasing numbers of disabled PhD students reporting chronic health issues, including with mental health and long Covid.

The experience of disabled PhD students in the UK is still under-researched. To remedy that, I’m working with DSUK and the University of Oxford’s Interdisciplinary Bioscience Doctoral Training Partnership, with funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), to conduct a survey of disabled PhD students in the life sciences across the UK. We are investigating the lived experience of disabled and neurodivergent PhD students, looking at challenges as well as examples of good practice. The project covers every stage of doctoral training, including admissions, funding, transition, progression, placements and fieldwork. 

Challenging the challenges

A report published last year, Inequality in Early Career Research in the Life Sciences, found that 12.4 per cent of students beginning a postgraduate research degree in these disciplines report having a disability. It also found that disabled students take longer to finish their PhDs, and that students who self-reported a mental health difficulty were more likely to drop out of their course.

Doctoral candidates funded by the research councils, including the BBSRC, can apply through their institutions for a Disabled Students’ Allowance. This provides funds for things such as specialist equipment and transport. However, the take-up and effectiveness of this support is unclear. Assessment and recommendations can also be overly influenced by a focus on adjustments around lectures and assessments that are less relevant to doctoral learning. 

Whether a disabled PhD student receives adequate support often depends on individual supervisors or academic administrators having a good knowledge of disability and how best to support disabled students. 

When these are lacking, disabled PhD students can face difficulties in securing accessible study areas and labs, and in obtaining appropriate adjustments during assessments, especially the viva exam. They may struggle to obtain necessary extensions to their studies due to funding arrangements that fail to take into account the impact of disability. 

There can also be a failure to acknowledge the damage that inaccessible environments do to the academic progress of PhD students, and on their wellbeing more generally. DSA funding does not always compensate for the ‘disability tax’ represented by the need for extra time and resources, or the need to use specialist equipment or lab space at particular times. 

PhD students exist on the edge of professional academia while retaining student status. Current provision needs to be investigated if disabled students are to be better supported to meet their academic goals and complete their studies without any detrimental effects. The quality of support will shape their professional goals and careers, whether in academia, industry or other sectors. 

The survey has received a good response and the team has held structured conversations with academic and professional support staff from many BBSRC-funded doctoral training programmes and across associated institutions. Data are being analysed, but we welcome further written reports or conversations about the experiences of supporting disabled doctoral students. All this will inform our final report, created using feedback from both staff and doctoral students. This aims to provide a detailed insight into the lived experience of disabled PhD students, to identify examples of best practice and to offer recommendations for improvements.

Pete Quinn is an independent consultant and former head of the disability advisory service at the University of Oxford and director of student support at the University of York