Going to university

New research points to a need for a more coordinated approach to supporting young people with vision impairment when they apply to university. Sue Keil reports.
Since 2009 researchers at the University of Birmingham, in partnership with RNIB have been studying a group of 80 blind and partially sighted young people. At the start of the research project they were aged 13–16. This longitudinal study has tracked their transition from school into further and higher education and employment.

Transition to university

In autumn 2012, 17 of the young people in our study started university, and a further seven began in autumn 2013. These 24 young people are studying a wide range of subjects including English, history, politics, performing arts, photography and film production as well as science-based courses in universities across England and Wales. Their sight levels are varied and all seven in the 2013 intake are registered as blind or severely sight impaired.

Applying to university

Most found applying through UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) straightforward, although it isn’t clear how much help was provided by other people. Worryingly though, the UCAS website presented access difficulties for 10 of the young people. Three people experienced difficulties in using magnification software, four had difficulties with screen reader software, and three found the website hard to navigate because of its colours and font size. Three reported that it was not possible for them to complete the form independently. Most received some support in applying for university, mainly from their school or college. Only two appear to have been supported in their university application by their Visual Impairment (VI) service.
Three young people did not declare their vision impairment when applying for university. One participant instead sent a letter to the universities he applied to explaining his vision impairment. One chose not to disclose, believing (mistakenly) that his school would pass on details of his support needs. The third, who applied through clearing (when unfilled university places are offered after the publication of examination results in August), said that the clearing procedure did not give him an opportunity to do so.

Disabled Students Allowance

Specialist equipment and support for disabled students in higher education is funded by Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). Students need to apply for DSA before starting university to ensure that support is in place in time. Our participants’ experiences of applying for DSA are quite mixed. There is evidence that no one professional group takes the lead in ensuring that young people understand what DSA is and in guiding them through the application process. The sources of support that some students identified were: parents or carers; special school; VI services and the university disability support office. This support ranged from simple advice on where to access the application form, to someone completing the form on the young person’s behalf. Three young people failed to apply, apparently because they did not understand its relevance to them.
The importance of DSA became clear once the young people had started university. For those who did apply, DSA funded a wide range of assistive technology such as a laptop with specialist software installed and a scanner with optical recognition software, as well as mobility training, sighted guide assistance, note-takers for lectures and specialist support in practical sessions.

Experiences of university

The experiences of most of the students have been largely positive, although not without challenges. However this hasn’t been the case for everybody. Two of the autumn 2012 intake subsequently dropped out of university. One simply did not enjoy their course of study – something that any young person might find. Of more concern is the second student who experienced problems in applying for DSA and in accessing lecture material and exam assessments. As a consequence he was unable to complete his first year. He began a new course in autumn 2013 and we hope to track his progress.

Next steps

The evidence we’ve collected so far indicates that while most of the young people have made a successful transition to university, the information, advice and support available to them is often uncoordinated. This risks critical stages of the process (such as applying for DSA on time) being missed. We are now gathering further detailed information about young people’s university experiences through in-depth case studies of six students. We will include these findings in a report specifically about the university experiences of blind and partially sighted young people.
Sue Keil is RNIB’s National Research Officer for education, transition and Employment


The most recent report from the longitudinal study, published in June 2014, contains information about the young people’s vision, ways that they access information and their access to benefits.
You can download the full report and summary from the Education Research Section of RNIB’s website

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