As an international scholarship programme, funding around 750 scholarships and fellowships per year, the CSC recognises that it has an important role to play in providing a further increase in equal opportunities for potential scholars. For several years now the CSC has been working towards improving access to its scholarships. As is the case around the world, all too often it is an individual’s background that determines the extent of their opportunities, not their talents and abilities. Whilst there are many factors that impact access to higher education, in celebration of World Access to Higher Education Day, Susie Burpee, CSC’s Programme Officer Policy, reflects on how the CSC has recently undertaken to improve access to scholarships and fellowships for students with disabilities.

Global Disability Summit: The CSC’s commitment

In July 2018, the UK government hosted the first Global Disability Summit – an international conference designed to draw the world’s attention to the stigma and discrimination faced by people with disabilities. It is well known that students with disabilities often struggle to access higher education. Practical and attitudinal barriers mean many capable disabled children and young people fail to get the education they deserve. To try to help improve this situation, at the Summit the CSC publicly committed to spending £300,000 to ‘support outreach activities and to encourage scholarships for people with disabilities and in subject areas related to the rights of people with disabilities’.

To deliver this commitment, the CSC worked with organisations such as UCL’s International Disability Research Centre , Shaw Trust, Leonard Cheshire, Disability Rights UK and the Pacific Disability Forum. We undertook a range of different activities including practical support such as ensuring our application system and website were fully accessible, introducing a formal independence support payment for disabled scholars, and creating opportunities to advance research in disability related subjects. 25 Master’s scholarships were ring fenced specifically for this.

Furthermore, several of the activities focused on scholar engagement, an aspect of the project worth highlighting in the context of World Access to Higher Education Day.

Student engagement: The central piece

Effective student engagement was central to this piece of work for several reasons. Primarily, when planning the project, despite consulting with experts and conducting extensive desk research, the range of contexts the CSC works in meant several assumptions had to be made in the project’s design. For example, perceptions of Commonwealth Scholarships in different countries and what Scholars’ expectations of support would be. It was important to us that we explored these assumptions and made sure we had as accurate a view of the CSC and the needs and expectations of Scholars as we could, to ensure any decisions were as informed as possible.

It was impossible for us to measure the success of the interventions that we were introducing without speaking to Scholars about their experiences.Talking to disabled Scholars about every stage of their scholarship and understanding challenges and enabling factors was the most effective way of identifying any potential gaps.

The Scholars we fund are experts, having between them a wealth of professional and personal experience. We wanted to recognise and learn from this expertise. Part of the project involved sharing what we had learnt with other professionals in the sector by taking part in educational conferences – at every event at least one disabled Scholar spoke about their personal experience and how universities had supported them, as well as where additional assistance was required. These events also gave the CSC Secretariat staff the opportunity to spend time with these Scholars, getting to know them on a personal level.

Confidence and awareness through workshops and interviews

In February 2020, the CSC ran a Disability Confidence workshop in our London office led by Professor Nicola Martin, Head of Research, Higher Degrees and Student Experience at London South Bank University. The session was open to all Scholars and was attended by several Scholars with disabilities. The session provided the CSC with another opportunity to hear the thoughts of our disabled Scholars, allowing the disabled Scholars to engage with and educate the wider Scholar community on the rights and experiences of people with disabilities.

Finally, the largest piece of engagement that took place as part of the project was a series of one to one interviews.These interviews explored disabled Scholars’ experiences of the UK, their view on policies and procedures and how they thought the CSC could further enhance its approach to disability inclusion.

As a member of staff engaged over the course of this project the ability to meet and get to know Scholars over a long period of time ultimately meant I was able to have open, honest conversations in the final interviews. The findings of the interviews are in the process of being written up and will be considered by the Commission in its consideration of future policy and procedures related to disability inclusion.

I believe our work on the project has demonstrated to Scholars that the CSC is committed to its work to support students with disabilities and that we value highly the participation of Scholars in our programme design. It is our aim that scholar experience will directly inform future policy at the CSC and that this type of engagement will lead to better policy making. It is also our hope that moving forward we can continue to use this model for different groups that are underrepresented and continue to prioritise the student voice in our ongoing efforts to widen access to CSC Scholarships and Fellowships.