ADHD is thought to be a particularly under recognised and under supported condition amongst Higher Education (HE) students in the UK. Due to the lack of awareness about ADHD and its effects on people, ADHD students are unnecessarily marginalised  – possibily particularly within higher ranking universities in the UK.

Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) are legally obliged to provide equal opportunities for students. Moreover, with high correlations between ADHD and poor educational & employment outcomes, making employment and education more ADHD-friendly should be a key priority for our government and should be invested in accordingly. 

However, students with ADHD continue to receive little to no appropriate support from British HEIs. This is partly because ADHD is often miscategorised as a specific learning difficulty (SpLD) by HEIs. Whilst there are many overlaps with SpLDs such as dyslexia and dyspraxia, which are often comorbid with ADHD, this is an inaccurate and problematic categorisation. ADHD is a diagnosable, neurodevelopmental condition for which there are effective medical & psycho­social treatments. Neither medical nor psychosocial treatments would ever be considered for use as SpLD support, and SpLD support alone will not address the all the challenges faced by students with ADHD in HEI. 

Specialist “reasonable adjustments” for university students with ADHD should be made in accordance with the individual’s presentation, and should take into account not only their ADHD symptoms, but also the symptoms of the comorbid conditions that at over 70% of people with ADHD have developed (no doubt due, in part, to their experiences of adversity) by the time they reach adulthood. This is because providing only the typical SpLD sessions currently offered which focus on notetaking or reading techniques, for example, would overlook the difficulties that individual may have in even managing to attend lectures, or having any time or mental capacity to be able to think about reading. In contrast, the list of London universities that we reviewed and put right here found that, on the instances where any support is in place for students with ADHD, it’s usually limited to what would normally be provided for students with dyslexia.

This is a huge problem that needs to be addressed, especially given that recent research (such as Jane Sedgwick’s seminal work on ADHD in university students) has found that up to 50% of all university students with dyslexia and other SpLDs are likely to also have undiagnosed ADHD.

The high rates of dyslexia amongst university students has emerged as a critical issue for both HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) and the DSA (Disabled Students’ Allowance),­ who now require HEIs to move towards more inclusive practices to accommodate for dyslexia.

If anything, this has put university students with ADHD at even greater risk of not receiving appropriate reasonable adjustments, because the current practice model for SpLDs in HEIs is to provide funding for educational psychology, which is all that is required to receive DSA for an SpLD at present. A student without any visible disability presenting to their Disability Services with problems relating to studying will often be assumed to have an SpLD and be referred directly to an educational psychologist for an assessment (at a cost of up to £500).

If an SpLD is diagnosed, a report is written which facilitates access to reasonable adjustments and DSA. If the educational psychologist also finds “indicators of ADHD” ­ then the student is advised to go and visit their GP for a referral. However, at this point, the student may as well be abandoned by their university – once referred, it generally takes anywhere between one and three years for the student to receive an actual ADHD assessment. Until the assessment has taken place and the student finally has their diagnosis, up to two years later, the student will not receive any ADHD-appropriate support.

This model of practice perpetuates the marginalisation and exclusion of students with ADHD. Not only is there no pathway to provide timely support to students with ADHD (unlike the support pathway and provisions for students with other disabilities), the waiting times for adult ADHD assessments at present are so long that students with ADHD are at significant risk of dropping out of university, never getting treatment, and of resorting to using illicit substances or other forms of self-medication to control their symptoms.

Students with ADHD are spending the duration of their time at university on a waiting list for assessment and support, until which they are unable to study. A few London universities have set a precedent by creating pathways of support to enable their students with ADHD to get timely support. They have done this by ensuring that at least one member of staff at the University’s Disability Support Centre is trained in screening for ADHD. As soon as the typical ADHD markers are identified, the University refers the student directly to an ADHD psychiatrist who will do a full psychological assessment (including for possible SpLDs, if necessary). The students get fast access to medical treatment, and can also receive reasonable adjustments much quicker.

For further information about the appropriate support required for students with ADHD in Higher Education, please see this publication by the Royal College of Psychiatrists:

For a comprehensive look at the support available for students with ADHD from each and every London university (with contact details), take a look at the list we made here

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