Challenges that higher education face in becoming accessible

Written by Ben Leach on

In the second of our four part series on higher education and accessibility, we look at the challenges higher education establishments face in making their digital services accessible.

At HeX, we work alongside our partners at Terminalfour to provide digital infrastructure for universities across the globe. If there’s one thing we know, it’s the challenges that these establishments face when launching digital services and ensuring they’re accessible. 

But what are the main challenges when it comes to ensuring higher education’s digital estates are accessible. And how can these challenges be overcome.

The responsibility of accessibility on higher education web estates

In our blog about higher education not being exempt from the Accessibility Regulations we discussed the legal obligations of higher education establishments when it comes to adhering to the Public Sector Accessibility Regulations. 

As publicly funded entities, most higher education establishments needed to adhere to the deadline of 23 September 2020 for their web estates to be accessible. This means adhering to the international accessibility standards: WCAG 2.1. To a conformance level of AA. 

But, as higher education establishments have a continuously changing workforce, with some larger establishments having far beyond 1,000 staff members, and web pages for each individual faculty, it can be challenging to monitor and improve accessibility. 

Higher education is not well-equipped to deal with accessibility

In a survey of higher education establishments in 2019, done by our partners at Terminalfour, respondents were asked to rate how well equipped they are to deal with web accessibility within their organisation. 

The response was recorded on a scale of 1 to 10. With 1 being “not well equipped” to 10 being “very well equipped”. On average, higher education establishments in the UK and Ireland answered a score of 5. 

Whilst it’s worth noting that these responses were given in 2019, to go from an average score to a perfect score of 10 in the space of 12 months would be an incredible feat. It signifies that there’s a shortcoming in being equipped to deal with legislation and the upcoming fixes that need to be made. The lack of preparedness can be put down to a number of factors. 

Lack of responsibility for accessibility in higher education workforces

Only 58% of higher education establishments have a person responsible for dealing with accessibility. Perhaps the lack of roles with responsibility for accessibility is a reason for not being well equipped.

It’s essential that organisations have a person responsible for accessibility, ideally in a large organisation this should be an individual who does this as their full time job, not just as part of their role. In small organisations this could be someone who carries out the responsibility as part of their existing employment but has support from different business areas. Either way, organisations need to ensure that they have a person responsible for accessibility, in order to effectively champion it across the organisation.

An ideal solution, within a higher education establishment, would be to create a team of champions with experience from different areas of the organisation. A champions network of people who have the passion to educate and influence others.

Lack of budget given to accessibility improvements

With organisations’ focus being on student recruitment primarily, it’s the expectation that the budget follows a similar path, with the majority being ploughed into additional recruitment efforts. This means that the web and marketing team may have sufficient budget to drive recruitment, they may not have sufficient budget to deal with accessibility.

To add to this, the survey asked, “If you received a complaint or demand, did it unlock the budget for web or digital initiatives that would have otherwise been unavailable”. 27% of respondents from the UK and Ireland responded with Yes. This implies that whilst the budget is there for web accessibility, higher education executives are not making it available until an official complaint has been made.

This is not an acceptable course of action. Why only when someone complains about accessibility is it being made a priority with the additional allocation of budgets. These budget allocations should have been made prior to any complaints being made. 

Lack of accessibility policy and guidance

In order to maintain and champion accessibility, it’s essential that content editors are trained in how to create accessible content and documentation and commit to delivering that at a high standard. The expectation being that procedures and guidance for publishing on the institution’s web estate are comprehensive. Our definition of comprehensive being that editors have a good resource that outlines how content should be created, the accessibility considerations, the accountability, roles and decision-making.

Worryingly though, Terminalfour’s survey found that only 17% of higher education establishments had guidelines and procedures that were comprehensive. A further 42% of respondents said they only had brief guidelines. 16% said that guidelines were in production. And 24% said they didn’t have any guidelines, nor were any in production.

Need help with accessibility? 

As an agency who has worked with higher education organisations for many years, we understand the needs and challenges of higher education.

We offer training and consultancy, as well as website development support. We carry out accessibility audits and produce accessibility statements. 

We can help you to produce a roadmap of key milestones and put an accessibility champions network in place. We can help you work towards, and maintain, accessible digital products and services to become self-sufficient in the line of best practice.

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