Higher Education Policy: squaring the circle for students with disabilities in the UK and Spain.

Rachel Forrester-Jones, Maria Del Carmen Carpio de los Pinos

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


The UK, The Green Paper: Fulfilling Our Potential (Nov 2015) Cm 9141 proposes a Teaching Excellence Framework aimed at driving up the standard of teaching. Within this new landscape, quality of learning experiences and outcomes has become more significant. At the same time, the proportion of disabled students entering and attending higher education (HE) internationally is increasing.
Disability discrimination legislation in the UK, particularly the Disability Discrimination Act (2005 amended), has driven HE institutions to ensure equal opportunities for disabled people. In Spain, the Organic Law on Universities (2001, amended 2004) requires universities to guarantee equal opportunities, outlawing discrimination and to take measures to ensure the ‘full and effective participation in the university’ of students with disabilities. As a response to this need, many European universities now have what are generally called ‘Disability Support Units’ (DSUs), aimed at developing systems supporting HE learning for students with disabilities.
Research has tended to concentrate on the views of students with disabilities, consistently showing that they are likely to experience increased anxiety during university, often requiring bespoke support to both their academic and social needs. Yet, there are also tensions between the provision of individualised support and ableist notions of disabilities.
This study explored how two European (UK and Spain) university DSUs attempted to support individuals with disabilities in both their academic and social lives, whilst at the same time avoiding their marginalisation. The objective was to find out if support arrangements differed between the two universities, and what interventions staff felt best aided students’ well-being; an important learning outcome for future practice. The results were then compared to a published study of the social lives of students with disabilities by the authors. To our knowledge, this is the only Spanish-UK comparative study of Disability Support Units.

Fourteen open-ended in-depth interviews were conducted (7 in a Spanish DSU, 7 in a UK DSU) exploring both the attitudes of staff and their practices in relation to students with disabilities. Thematic analysis drew out the aspects of support most important to DSU staff.
Both positive and negative aspects of supporting students with disabilities were delineated including three overarching themes: systemic issues; academic attitudes and student responses to support.
Recommendations are made for further, more comprehensive evaluations of DSUs and for closer working relationships between DSU staff and academics in order to provide less piecemeal support to students with disabilities.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2016
EventSocial Policy Association Conference - 2016 : Belfast - Belfast Metropolitan College, Titanic Quarter, Belfast, Belfast, UK United Kingdom
Duration: 4 Jul 20166 Jul 2016


ConferenceSocial Policy Association Conference - 2016
Country/TerritoryUK United Kingdom
Internet address


  • Students
  • Disabilities
  • Higher Education


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