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Transitions into and out of Higher Education: The experiences of 'disabled' students'

4th Centre for Research in Lifelong Learning (CRLL) International Conference
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  • Education
  • Literature


This paper examines the experiences of two disabled students from a UK university. Data from this four-year longitudinal ESCR/TLRP study explored how these students made the initial transition into university and their progress towards the end point of their university career. These two biographies were selected from groups of 10 to 14 students from four institutions who had been followed for nearly three years with semi-structured interviews augmented with key informant interviews, observations in learning contexts and interviews with academic staff. In turn, these had been selected from an initial sample of 1000 disabled students from the four institutions who were surveyed over a four-year period. There was considerable variety in the type of disability reported. Although these students share the label ‘disabled' they also hold another perspective that they are not disabled. These two students are typical of the sample in that they emphasise the ‘atypicality’ of the average disabled student. The way that these students experienced and managed the transitions both into and out of the institution differs. These differences cannot be accounted for solely by reference to their impairment. Within-institutional differences such as the practices of different departments, attitudes among staff at all levels towards disability and, possibly more importantly, the social and cultural backgrounds of the students also played a role. In examining the differences between the students the paper also considers how transitions in and out of education are becoming increasingly a part of the lifelong learning agenda of policy makers. Higher education in the UK has undergone considerable change in the past two decades (see e.g. Riddell, et al, 2006) with a decrease in resources and an increase in the management of higher education which includes performance targets for specific groups such as disabled students. Institutional transitions from school to university or college to university are thus part of our social system and cannot be seen from a purely individual perspective (Ecclestone, et al, 2006). While transitions in and out of institutions and possibly within them, e.g. progression from the first two years of a university course into the honours part of a degree can be identified, these transitions have to be seen in the perspective of an individual’s overall learning career. Bloomer, (2001) notes that in order to understand the choices a student makes in order to become and continue as a student it is essential to take into account gender differences, family background, prior educational experiences and attainments and institutional cultures. The experiences of these students add to earlier studies (Riddell, et al 2005) and provide institutions and policy-makers with evidence that can be used to enhance the experiences of disabled students in higher education.

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