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Learned societies to back academic progress of dyslexic students

A group of scientific learned societies has set out to investigate why students with dyslexia rarely choose further study after completing a first degree and what can be done to support the academic careers of people with learning disabilities.

This follows the publication of Supporting STEM Students with Dyslexia, a report by the Institute of Physics that offered advice to universities on how to help science and engineering undergraduates. It estimated that between 3 and 5 per cent of students have what it terms a specific learning difference such as dyslexia or dyscalculia, a closely related condition that affects the acquisition of arithmetic skills.

The report said that such students in science subjects at undergraduate level may face particular problems in absorbing and processing information, but that these can be ameliorated with extra help from the university. For people wanting to study for a research degree, there are greater challenges to overcome.

“The representation of people with these sorts of disabilities does fall away between undergraduate and postgraduate level because there are additional barriers in their way. There is a big drop-off in numbers with certain impairments and in certain subjects,” the IOP’s diversity programme leader, Jennifer Dyer, told Research Fortnight.

Interviews with recent science and engineering graduates, carried out for the report, highlighted one of the reasons for this lack of progression. “They said they had to work a lot harder than their contemporaries to get the same results, so it is likely they would rule themselves out of doing a postgraduate degree,” Dyer explains.

Financial pressures may be another reason. “One of the biggest barriers is funding. If you are a home undergraduate student you can access disabled-student allowances provided by the local education authority. The sums available are way ahead of those that you could access as a postgraduate student,” Dyer says.

Dyer is the IoP’s representative on the STEM Disability Committee, along with members of the Royal Society, the Campaign for Science and Engineering, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Society of Biology and the Royal Academy of Engineering. She says that investigations into the barriers preventing progress towards higher degrees will be part of the committee’s agenda over the next year. “We have to look at the patterns and take-up in the different academic areas and see if there is anything that we can do to improve the situation.”

The report by the IoP has already offered a number of suggestions for helping dyslexic students at undergraduate level. These include making lecture notes available in advance on the departmental website and providing materials printed in layouts and typefaces that are as easy as possible for people with dyslexia to comprehend. “The committee will be looking at what else is needed to overcome the extra barriers that may be present when these students start to do their own research,” Dyer says.