Investigation: Specific Learning Difficulties

Whilst the term Specific Learning Difficulty (SpLD) can be used as a diagnosis in itself, it is often used to refer to diagnoses of dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, ADHD or ASD. The University of Oxford: Equality Report 2013/14 contains the university’s official statistics on admission and performance of students with SpLDs.

These most recent statistics state that, “As of 1st December 2013, 1,546 out of 22,116 students at the University were recorded as having disclosed a disability (7 per cent): 3 per cent had a specific learning difficulty (SpLD) and 4 per cent had another disability. These proportions were identical to those of the year before.” What these official figures do obscure, though, is the number of students who are diagnosed with a SpLD at the university. In our student survey, we found 59.5 per cent of students were not diagnosed until reaching Oxford.

This discrepancy has consequences on the acceptance rate of SpLD students. On the topic of application success rate, the Equality Report states, “There was no substantive difference in the offer rates for applicants with or without a disability, though those with “other disability” were less likely to convert their offer into a firm place, lowering their overall success rate. 97 per cent of applicants who had disclosed a SpLD successfully converted their offer into a place, compared with 90 per cent of students with no identified disability.”

Most students spoke of the great assistance Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) had provided them so far. Benjamin Peacock told Cherwell, “The University has not only supported me but is part of how I made the realisation that what I was experiencing was not normal. It has been brilliant in diagnosing and support from that point forward.”

However, a significant proportion of the students we spoke to emphasised flaws in the current system. Jared Green told us, “The Oxford system is not only demanding in quality of work, but it is demanding in quantity. I have found that the sheer quantity of work was unachievable. The university offered me study skills tuition but it simply took up too much time on a science course and so I had to give it up just for those extra hours to cram work in. Whilst the extra time in exams compensates for dyslexia within exams, it needs to be recognised that dyslexic students are at a significant disadvantage generally on the course.”

Another source of dissatisfaction was tutors underestimating the effects of SpLDS. An anonymous student told Cherwell, “Oxford is intensive enough for the average student here, let alone those with SpLDs. I have the same amount of work, but it takes me far longer to read for and write it. I may get extra time in my exams, but nobody can give me extra time in the week. It may seem obvious, but I think it’s a fact that’s often missed and one that tutors don’t often consider.”

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Similarly, one anonymous student stressed that whilst the University system was quite competent, often people have been quick to dismiss her SpLD, “The way Oxford deals with diagnosing and getting help with SpLDs is quite hard to work out – such as how to access support – but once you’re in, it is really good and free, unlike school.

“They treat you a lot better than the counselling service in the same building – i.e. you’re offered tea and coffee. Part of the problem with having SpLDs in Oxford is that because you’re obviously relatively clever and did well at school, I always feel like a bit of a fraud, like I’m making it up to get free stuff.

“That’s partly how it interacts with my anxiety disorder though; my anxiety really affects my work a lot more. I think and I know I wouldn’t have got any extra measures to help me with my anxiety even though often it means I can’t really read and the words don’t string together. With dyslexia, reading might be harder but I’ve adapted to it more or less.”


Miscommunication and misunderstanding between tutors and students with SpLDs was thus one of the main problems mentioned by the respondents of our survey. Emma Jones, a first-year biochemist, told C +, “I spent the first two terms sending hundreds of emails trying to find some help as I have been really struggling. Although I have the DSA support, with my reading speed being low I am having to work continuously just to hand stuff in and have found it extremely hard to gain information from lectures effectively.”

The quality of provision evidently bears on the quality of examination performance. With regards to Finals performance of students with SpLDs, the Equality Report states, “Of the 3,111 undergraduates who took Finals in 2013, 287 (9 per cent) had disclosed a disability. Students with a disability were less likely to gain a first class degree than those without: 31 per cent of students with no disclosed disability achieved a first, 19 per cent of students with SpLD and 24 per cent of those with ‘other disability’.”

A major complication in the support SpLD students receive are the planned cuts to DSA. As reported by The Times, “[Nearly] £150 million was spent on DSA for about 60,000 students in 2012-13, providing a range of specialist equipment, such as computer software for those with dyslexia.”
Indeed, provisions for disabled students at Oxford can be expensive, even for students with SpLD: according to the Study Support costings, revised by the Disability Advisory Service in March 2014, the hourly rate for Examination Support Workers – ‘examination scribes’ – and Study Assistants – ‘buddying support’ – is £26.50, whilst Specialist Mentors for those with ASD or SpLDs can be up to £82.50 an hour.

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Essentially, for 2015/16 the DSA will be cut, mainly affecting students who require assistive technology: disproportionately SpLD students. Students will have to contribute the first £200 towards their laptop (which means many disabled students will have to pay for their laptop in full, while those who need very state-of-the-art technology only pay £200 towards it).
The more difficult cuts will come in 2016/17, which will mainly be aimed at making universities and colleges take on the responsibility for ‘reasonable adjustments’ so the government doesn’t have to, but this is incredibly vague, especially given the uncertainty in the government.

Anwen Jones, Head of the Disability Advisory Service at the University of Oxford, told Cherwell, “The Disability Advisory Service works with students as individuals whose needs are considered on a case by case basis, taking into account the range of support that might be required. This can vary regardless of background. As with most issues, transcriptions only come under our remit if there is evidence of a disability. If there is disability-related evidence of illegibility, students might be offered the use of a computer, or some other reasonable adjustment, but this depends again on individual circumstances. We do not keep figures on the number of students deemed ineligible for support provisions.

“Unfortunately, at this point we do not have any firm information about the impact of possible cuts specifically to students with SpLD. The government’s policy remains unclear at this point. In early statements, there was mention of restricting DSA support for students with an SpLD to those with complex study needs, but the scope of this remains undefined.”

Members of Oxford Students’ Disability Community (OSDC) have suggested some improvements could be made to the current system, One anonymous member told C +, “Changing the system to be more accommodating of Modern Language students, because for some reason they seem to assume that SpLDs preclude studying languages, and this means they don’t give us text-to-speech software in languages other than English.”

Another anonymous member told us, “It would have been a massive support for me if I’d had an older, more confident student to talk through my academic panics and what have you. If it were to become institutionalised, training (how do different SpLDs manifest, what are good coping strategies, how to support somebody struggling with one, what things are available in the colleges/university/more widely that could help) would be amazing!”