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Equality of accessibility is a basic human right. Yet, despite a two-fold increase in access to higher education over the past 20 years, inequalities persist. And while much of the gap relates to disparities between rich and poor, discrimination also continues in various forms.

Over 1 billion people worldwide have a disability and face a range of barriers to accessibility. Disabled higher education students, in particular, face differing policies and approaches on equal access. 

In this blog, we’ll take a look at the current accessibility provision for UK higher education students. Then, we’ll review the top-performing countries to check how the UK compares.

How much accessibility support do students get in the UK?    

In line with the Equality Act 2010, UK education providers must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for any student with identifiable accessibility needs. So whether you’re visually impaired, hard of hearing or use a wheelchair, your college or university must take appropriate measures on fair access and equity of opportunity. 

Of course, ‘reasonable adjustments’ may mean different things to different institutions. For instance, your college may already have modern facilities for wheelchair access. But another could find it much harder to make the same arrangements without major alterations or investment.

Some examples of reasonable adjustments may include:

  • Access to college documents, lectures or recorded discussions in the students’ preferred format.  
  • Use of assistive technology.
  • Extra time to read, hear, or interpret exam material.

If your college or university is unable to offer specialised support, equipment or technology, you can apply for a Disabled Students Allowance (DSAs). You’ll need evidence or proof of your disabilities. And you may need a ‘study needs assessment’ to understand the scale of your needs. Applications can take up to 14 weeks to approve, so getting in early is key.

Plus, as with the rest of Europe at least, UK higher education institutions must abide by WCAG 2.1 regulations. This is to ensure digital accessibility for all students.

Despite this, recent findings on accessibility during COVID19 revealed only half of the students receiving DSA funding felt the support they got met their digital accessibility needs.

So what level of support do other top performing countries offer?

To find out how the UK compares with the globe, we’ve reviewed the top 10 highest performing countries for higher education according to Universitas21.

United States

The US regularly polls at number 1 for higher education. And while they have disability and digital access regulations in place, less than 20% of disabled students take up the resources they need.

So, while the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 exist, college undergrads must be proactive in gaining the support they need.  

But, as with the UK, universities must offer funding and make reasonable adjustments where needed.

Switzerland

Like the UK and US, Switzerland has a passionate belief in supporting the rights of disabled students. But what may set them apart is a dedicated university office or team offering advice and support.

For example, Franklin University encourages better accessibility by inviting students to contact their offices before their first semester. And through a process of interviews, their Accessibility Services team support students to make the right adjustments.

Denmark

Denmark stands apart from its international peers with a committed scheme known as Special Education Support (SPS).

SPS wraps legislative support with financial aid to offer a single, convenient scheme. And this is convenient for anyone who seeks parity with their peers during their course of study.

However, physical access to and from a place of study is not included in the SPS. Plus, some of Copenhagen’s older buildings may prevent full wheelchair access from becoming a reality.  

Singapore

Singapore has a world-class education system, but investigations suggest accessibility provision is broad and limited.

Most universities will have a Disability Support Office. But there doesn’t seem to be any structured schemes or legislation in place.

Students should liaise with each institution. Plus, the Singapore Ministry of Education suggests financial aid is available for assistive technology if you attend any publicly funded institution.

Sweden

Sweden is very proud of its education system. And rightly so.

So while there is a national policy, there’s no single approach to managing accessibility. Students need to discuss their needs with each institution.

Plus, in contrast to the UK, Sweden doesn’t offer individual grants or bursaries to students but awards institutions themselves.

Canada

Canada has a fair approach to most things, including higher education.

And because there’s no national policy, notable variations exist between the three main University provinces – Ontario, British Colombia and Alberta.

Despite this, individualised plans are common. And this is great for students. Plus, funding support is available but may vary between provinces.

Finland

Of all the Nordics, Finland takes accessibility to the next level. And in many ways, it’s the ultimate approach.

In 2013-14, Finland launched the ESOK (Accessible Learning and Education) Network. ESOK links HEI’s to civil society bodies and uses a specific framework to drive equity of opportunity through a collaborative approach.

Finland is also carving out innovative pathways using MOOCs and e-learning. This gives learners an advantage during COVID while supporting Finland’s ethos of ‘leaving no one behind’.

Australia

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 governs accessibility in Australian HEIs. So, students facing discrimination must file a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission.

However, in general, inclusivity isn’t promoted.

One survey of students conducted between 2007 and 2013 found disabled student retention to be low. And this may suggest room for Australian universities to improve student accessibility. 

Netherlands

In general, the Netherlands has a progressive attitude towards inclusivity.

So they promote accessibility, however, true inclusivity is something they continue to strive for.

For example, their Action Plan encourages more disabled people to consider going into politics.  Also, a body called ECIO is pushing the needle forward on widening participation and digital access in education.

For students, the fundamentals are comparable to the UK but take a progressive angle. For example, Maastricht University students can apply for a TextAid license to support their reading, writing and text-to-speech needs, regardless of whether they have a disability or not.

Could the UK do more to promote accessibility in higher education?

With the Equality Act 2010 and DSA funding route, the UK has a solid approach to accessibility support. Plus, it’s backed by a strong ethos for inclusivity and equal access.

But when we look over to other successful countries such as the Nordics, it’s evident that progress is ongoing and evolving. Sound structures may be in place for UK students, but the system may be lacking a supportive, collaborative approach.

In particular, the UK could consider Finland’s ESOK Network approach. With this model of encouraging civil society to work together with HEI’s, it may be easier to identify gaps and fill them.

In reality, no student should lack the support, guidance or confidence they need to gain parity with peers. So, by taking inspiration from models used in other countries, particularly with digital accessibility being more important than ever, evidence shows the UK could be doing more to ensure no student gets left behind.