Discussing the disability admissions gap

Further education is a whirlwind of excitement and new possibilities. The promise of independence, the adrenaline of leaving the family home to study for your future career, not to mention all the interesting new faces you will meet and befriend. But first, you have to get into higher education.

There is a significant pitfall for disabled students looking to study in one of the 19 Scottish universities and it has nothing to do with exam results. In fact, it all has to do with the university admissions process lacking inclusivity.


Further education providers in Scotland use contextual admissions to identify successful applicants. This means that universities are actively looking to support those from diverse backgrounds to be able to attend university. At present, disability is not considered on most of Scotland’s universities’ application forms.

The One in Five campaign is challenging universities to make the contextual admissions process support those who identify as disabled. Since the Scottish referendum, One in Five (founded by Jamie Szymkowiak and Pam DuncanClancy) has been encouraging change in Scotland to empower the disabled community, in particular within politics. Now, the team has its sights on working towards accessible university admissions.


Jamie explains: “We’re demanding that disability also be used as an indicator in the contextual admissions. Disabled people do face barriers within education. Not just university, but throughout their school lives; either the increased chances of being bullied as a disabled person compared to their non-disabled classmates, and the impact that can then have on their schooling.”

Present factors within contextual admissions include coming from a care background or going into further education from a disadvantaged background that could have impacted on a person’s grades. As Jamie details, disability can cause barriers in a young person’s education and may limit their opportunities to get into further education.

NUS Scotland Disabled Students’ Officer Lainey McKinlay agrees: “Education can transform lives, but we need to make sure that it is accessible to all. Universities are rightly and increasingly, making use of contextualised admissions when considering underrepresented groups. However, too often disability is overlooked in this process. We need to see existing work built on – and we support any measures by Scotland’s universities to better recognise the barriers that disabled applicants face.”

Statistics revealing the number of disabled students attending Scottish universities makes for unfortunate reading. As inclusivity and acceptance trickles through high profile industries with more calls to get people with a physical, learning disability or mental health issues into work, improved representation in the media, and more, it’s a disappointment that more Scottish universities don’t provide a platform for those who wish to go into further education. Coming from a disadvantaged background is no barrier, and disability shouldn’t be either.


“In 2015/16 only 11.5% of full-time university students undertaking their degree declared a disability. If disabled people are 20% of the Scottish population, there is a big admission gap. As the name in our campaign One in Five suggests: we would be looking for universities to have one in five of their students declaring themselves as a disabled person,” says Jamie. Currently there is only one university in Scotland that has significant representation of disabled students.

Of Open University Scotland’s most recent admissions, 21% of students declared themselves as disabled – it should be noted that Open University Scotland has an open admissions policy instead of contextual admissions. There is no denying that disabled people are vastly underrepresented in the Scottish university system and contextual admissions are causing this divide: more needs to be done for inclusivity in education, which is a right for everyone.

Further education is a fantastic adventure for everyone leaving the four walls of their high school; disabled people should not feel like they can’t fulfil their hopes and dreams at university if that is their goal. “From a personal perspective, as a disabled person who has gone to university, I found university to be one of the most life fulfilling phases in my entire life,” adds Jamie. “It encouraged me to be more independent… It is hard to gauge the impact it actually had on my life so any disabled student who is considering going to university or college, I would absolutely say go for it.”

Jamie and Pam have written letters to the universities who do not class disability as a contextual indicator to clarify the work that needs to be done to allow disabled students to get into further education. One read: “We appreciate that universities are taking steps to widen access to Higher Education; nonetheless, considering an applicant’s disability will reduce the disability admissions gap and ensure that disabled people in Scotland can meet their full potential.”

Since October 2017, The University of Aberdeen, Edinburgh Napier University, Heriot-Watt University and University of the West of Scotland have disability as a contextual indicator. But there’s still more work that needs to be done for Scotland’s disabled students.

Contextual admissions help ambitious and capable students who may not have achieved the best grades due to personal circumstances. Now is the time and university is the place to provide additional support for disabled students to achieve parity.

Learning is one of our basic rights. We’ve come a long way since the days where university was only for the privileged, and it’s time this continues down to incorporate disability, too.

Find out more on NUS Scotland and One in Five.

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