In summer 2021, TASO announced two new research themes to be added to our existing portfolio, one of which was Theme 4: What works for mental health and disability. This theme was developed through a consultation and prioritisation exercise with key stakeholders, including our sector network, using a series of iterative surveys. The results of the exercise showed that disability and mental health are clear priority areas for the sector that were not being met by our existing research themes. TASO consequently launched a new research theme to help us better understand how to support learners with mental health issues and disabilities to succeed in higher education (HE).

Understanding and supporting the mental health and wellbeing of young people is more important than ever, in the context of the fallout of a global pandemic and a rapidly changing jobs market. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, mental health concerns were already on the rise in the UK, while support services were becoming increasingly stretched. The proportion of HE students disclosing a mental health issue to their university rose sixfold between 2010 and 2020, and data from the Office for Students (OfS, 2021) shows that students with a declared mental health condition are more likely to drop out, less likely to achieve a 1st or a 2:1, and less likely to secure high-level employment or progress to postgraduate study.

Research suggests that some groups of students are more likely than others to experience poor mental health, including students from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, students from a low socioeconomic-status background, mature students, LGBTQ+ students and care-experienced students. Given that these groups also experience poorer HE outcomes, it may be that poor mental health compounds other HE inequalities. Consequently, a clear aim of this research theme is to understand what works to support student mental health, with particular regard to at-risk groups of students.

The number of disabled students accessing HE also continues to climb. From 2013 to 2019, the total number of disabled students in English HE providers increased by one third, accounting for 14% of all students (OfS, 2021). However, similar to students with a mental health issue, students with a disability are less likely to receive a 1st or a 2:1, regardless of their pre-entry grades, and less likely to be in highly skilled employment or further study (OfS, 2018). The gap between disabled and non-disabled students is even larger when just focusing on disabled students who are not in-receipt of Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). A recent report from the Snowdon Trust highlighted how Covid-19 has amplified existing challenges for disabled students, including assistive technology not meeting student needs, funding/support being fragmented and inflexible, and support in transitions being limited. The report also demonstrates the complex intersectionality of factors which contribute to the student experience alongside disability, including age, ethnicity, and socio-economic status.

It’s therefore clear that more needs to be done to overcome the challenges experienced by students with disabilities, establishing what works for the diverse range of disabled students entering HE.

Read our published reports on mental health and disability.

Find out about current research we are undertaking within this theme.