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Report shows universities are failing disabled postgraduate researchers

20 June 2024

Less than four in ten (36%) postgraduate researchers (PGRs) with non-visible disabilities are happy with the support they receive from their university, according to a UCU report 'Non-visibly Disabled PGR Experiences of Studies and Careers', released today.

The report looks at the experiences of PGRs with non-visible disabilities. These cover a range of conditions that are usually not immediately observable, such as mental health conditions, specific learning difficulties, and chronic illnesses. The report is based on 135 survey responses and six interviews with non-visibly disabled PGRs. 

Key responses from the survey include: 

  • most (53%) non-visibly disabled PGRs do not feel able to balance their work and personal life 
  • only 36% of non-visibly disabled PGRs are happy with the support they receive 
  • only 44% of non-visibly disabled PGRs think supervisors have been allocated enough time to implement their adjustment needs 
  • only a third (34%) of non-visibly disabled PGRs say their university has provided resources to meet their adjustment needs 
  • less than half of non-visibly disabled PGRs feel they were given enough support to plan for their upgrade (42%) and viva (43%).

The report finds that PGRs face challenges accessing help as they are both university students and employees, but support systems are primarily designed with undergraduate students in mind. It contains a number of important recommendations for that would help improve the experiences of non-visibly disabled PGRs. These include: 

  • universities should recognise that reasonable adjustments at PhD level of study are likely to be more similar to staff adjustments than student adjustments 
  • universities should consider how to better provide support and advice for students who are starting businesses, especially in consulting or the tertiary sector
  • universities should consider what support they can offer to postgraduate researchers in finding fairly remunerated part-time, flexible, accessible work, especially which supports career progression within academia
  • universities should communicate clearly which postdocs and research positions offer flexible working and work from home opportunities.

Commenting on the report, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: '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 do fully support them. PGRs teach and train students. They take ideas out of the university and into the wider world. It is 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. We now need to see universities enact the recommendations in full so that every PGR is supported to reaching their full potential.'  

Last updated: 21 June 2024