Most PhD students with hidden disabilities ‘unhappy with support’

Postgraduate researchers with non-visible disabilties often struggle to access proper employee-type support, says University and College Union report

June 20, 2024
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Only about one in three UK postgraduate research students with a non-visible disability are happy with the support they receive from their university, a new study suggests.

Examining the support provided to PhD and other postgraduate researchers (PGRs) with a condition that is not immediately observable – including mental health conditions, specific learning difficulties and chronic illnesses – the new research by the University and College Union (UCU) found just 36 per cent are satisfied with the help they receive.

Drawing on responses from 135 PGRs, the study published on 20 June also finds that only 44 per cent of non-visibly disabled PGRs think supervisors have been allocated enough time to implement their adjustment needs, while a similar number (43 per cent) said they were given enough support in relation to their viva.

Only a third (34 per cent) of non-visibly disabled PGRs say their university has provided resources to meet their adjustment needs, it adds.

One major challenge faced by PGRs is that they are both university students and employees, but support systems are primarily designed with undergraduate students in mind, the report explains.

It calls on universities to recognise that reasonable adjustments at PhD level of study are likely to be more similar to staff adjustments than student adjustments, and says that institutions should also think about how they can offer help to postgraduate researchers in finding fairly remunerated part-time, flexible, accessible work, especially that which supports career progression within academia.

Jo Grady, the UCU’s general secretary, said that “for too long, far too many disabled PGRs have fallen through the gaps and not received the support they need”.

“This report shines a light on the issues non-visibly disabled PGRs face, and its findings show universities have a long way to go to fully support them,” said Dr Grady, adding that it was “time they were properly supported and treated as staff by institutions”.

“When disabled PGRs drop out because they have not been supported, academia loses out, as the sector has lost a future lecturer, fellow or professor,” she continued. “We now need to see universities enact the recommendations in full so that every PGR is supported to reaching their full potential.”

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