Transitioning to higher education


A useful guide for young people with SEN and disabilities starting university.

The move to university is daunting for anyone, but it is especially so for many students with SEN. Knowing what support is available and getting it set up before starting university is a key part of making the transition to higher education go as smoothly as possible.

Disabled Students’ Allowance

The Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) provides funding for students with disabilities. It can fund non-medical helper support, such as study skills tutors for students with specific learning difficulties and mentors for students with mental health conditions or on the autistic spectrum. It can also help fund equipment, such as computers and assistive technology, with the student paying the first £200 towards the cost of a computer.

All students who apply for DSA have a study needs assessment to determine what support is best for them. There are assessment centres based at universities across the country. After the assessment, the assessor writes up a report detailing what support the student needs.

DSA can be applied for before starting university, which is the best option in terms of getting support in place before starting a course. When I started my undergraduate degree in September 2010, I had my DSA needs assessment in June, so that support was in place before studying began. My computer equipment, which included a large monitor and magnification software, arrived within my first week of university, and someone came to set it up for me, so I didn’t have to worry about doing that myself. I was also given weekly one-to-one sessions with a mental health mentor.

DSA only covers costs related to studying. Students can also apply for Personal Independence Payments (PIP) through the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to help cover the additional costs of living with a disability.

Support from the university

Most universities have a disability support team, who provide support to disabled learners. This team usually has disability advisers who can offer advice on what support is available. It’s worth getting in touch with the university’s disability team early on to find out more about what they offer.

Some students are eligible for extra time in exams, which is put in place by the disability team. You would need evidence of the student’s disability for any support to be put in place. Some universities provide a specific learning difficulty diagnostic assessment service, with the student usually having to contribute towards the cost of the assessment.

Some support can’t be provided by the university. Help with personal care, for example, would need to be provided by the local area.

Getting used to the campus

Getting orientated on the campus and in surrounding areas can be particularly challenging to students with SEN.

Visiting universities on open days is a key part of selecting where to study for most students. It’s a useful opportunity to get a feel for the campus, hear more about specific courses, and talk to current students and staff about the university. It’s well worth going on open days to help decide where to study. It can also be a chance to see how accessible the campus, buildings and accommodation are.

Some universities provide an earlier start date or a summer school for disabled students, before the hustle and bustle of welcome week, with opportunities to get used to the campus. When I worked in a disability support team at a university this “moving on up” event was popular with new students, and allowed them to make new friends early on. It left them better prepared for starting university.

About a month before I started university, my mum and I travelled up on the train to see the university campus when it was quiet for the summer. We also practised getting the bus from the campus into the city centre and had a wander around there to help orientate me. It enabled me to feel less scared about learning new routes when I started university. It also meant I was able to take the lead when venturing to the city centre with new friends, as I already partially knew my way around.

Getting prepared

Learning skills for independent living is important for any new student, but especially for ones with SEN. For most students this is the first time they’ve lived away from home and have to prepare their own meals and plan their own time.

As a visually impaired person, I found getting around independently a challenge as a teenager. So in the summer before I started university, I took part in mobility training, getting me used to using public transport on my own. I also had cane training to increase my ability to get around independently.

I practised skills like cooking, with my mum and I making a recipe booklet together with meals I could prepare for myself. I got used to using aids like a liquid level indicator for making cups of coffee.

It’s worth contacting the local social services team or a disability charity (my mobility training was done via a visual impairment charity in Leicestershire) to see what can be provided. Developing skills for independent living before starting higher education makes it easier to transition to university.

Student groups

A big part of student life can be joining activities, from sports to special interest groups. These student clubs and societies are usually run by the students’ union. You can often find a list of these on the union’s website. It’s worth looking at these while deciding where to study, as joining groups can be an important part of the student experience.

Some university students’ unions have groups specifically for disabled students. When I was an undergraduate I started up a student group called the Disabled Students’ Forum, where disabled students could get together and share our experiences, good and bad, and campaign together to create change on campus. We worked closely with the disability team at the university, as well as other areas including estates, the library and the equality and diversity officer, to highlight areas which needed improving.

The National Union of Students (NUS) runs the Disabled Students’ Campaign. I was lucky to be a delegate to the Campaign’s annual Disabled Students’ Conference, where we shaped NUS policy around disability issues.

Getting involved in a disability group is a great way for SEN students to meet new people and have their say about their experience at the university.

Starting university can be daunting, but with the right support put in place and with preparation it can be a hugely rewarding experience. I was very nervous and apprehensive about becoming a student, but I’m so glad I took the plunge.

Further Information

Caroline Butterwick has worked in two university disability teams and is a current postgraduate student. Caroline has a visual impairment. Her website is:

Information on Disabled Students’ Allowance and Personal Independence Payments is available from:

Caroline Butterwick
Author: Caroline Butterwick

Transition Student with a disability and worked in student support at unis

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Student with a disability and worked in student support at unis


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