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Higher Education Establishments Are Not Exempt From Accessibility Regulations

Written by Ben Leach on

In the first of our four part series on higher education and accessibility, we look at the Accessibility Regulations and what they say about higher education establishments

On the 23rd of September 2020, the Public Sector (Website and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations came into force for all public sector websites. 

Higher education establishments are not exempt from these accessibility regulations. Here’s everything you need to know about the regulations and the responsibility of higher education. 

The Accessibility Regulations

The accessibility regulations first came into force for public bodies on the 23 September 2018. In the regulations, it’s said that public sector organisations must make their websites and apps accessible. 

The accessibility regulations build on existing obligations to people who have a disability under the Equality Act 2010. The Equality Act states that all UK service providers must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled users. 

Under the new regulations launched in 2018, all public bodies will meet the requirements, by ensuring that: 

  • They meet the international WCAG 2.1 accessibility standards to a conformance level of at least AA
  • An accessibility statement has been published that explains how accessible your website or mobile app is. 

Who has to meet the accessibility regulations? 

All public bodies must meet the 2018 requirements. These include: 

  • Central government and local government organisations
  • Some charities and other non-government organisations

The following organisations are exempt under the Public Sector Accessibility Regulations: 

  • Charities that are not financed (in the most part) by public funding. 
  • Public sector broadcasters and their subsidiaries 
  • Privately owned companies that are not publicly funded. 

It’s also noted that primary and secondary schools are listed as partially exempt, their forms and administrative functions need to be accessible, but there is less focus on the website conforming to WCAG 2.1. 

What is required to conform to the accessibility regulations? 

As mentioned earlier in this blog, public sector organisations must have a website that is accessible to level AA in the WCAG 2.0 requirements. They must also have a compliant accessibility statement

What is an accessibility statement?

An accessibility statement is a page on your website that details the following: 

  • Your organisation’s commitment to accessibility 
  • How accessible your website is 
  • Regulations that apply to your website
  • Contact information for those responsible for accessibility
  • A list of inaccessible areas and the WCAG success criterion they relate to
  • When any errors will be fixed

An accessibility statement helps all users identify the areas they may have problems navigating and accessing. It should provide details of who to contact should a user have a difficult time accessing an area of a website, or should a user require an alternative format of content.

This should also outline your commitment to accessibility as an organisation, giving users an idea of when you plan to fix certain items and what the plans are for accessibility in the future.

An example of a compliant statement produced by GOV.UK is available here. 

How is an accessibility statement produced? 

An effective accessibility statement can only be written off the back of an in-depth accessibility audit of a website. To know the areas of inaccessibility, an organisation should have carried out an audit using automated and manual tests. 

You can find out more information about accessibility audits and accessibility statements here.

Are higher education establishments required to meet these regulations?

Dependence on Government funding

According to the Government Digital Service (GDS):

“Higher and further education providers are considered to be in scope for the regulations due to their dependence on government funding”. 

In the UK, as of the latest figures (published in 2015) there were 164 higher education institutions that received an element of public funding. The figures do not include (the 734) further education colleges that may also receive public funding. 

Many UK universities rely on Government grants to fund both teaching resources (infrastructure, investing in innovation, teaching salaries, etc) and research within their establishments. It’s thought that many higher education establishments receive between 18 – 25% of their total funding through Government funded initiatives. 

With this figure being such a large proportion of the income of higher education establishments, they are not exempt from the Accessibility Regulations. 

The non-Government funded higher education

There are very few higher education establishments in the UK that do not benefit from a large proportion of Government grants. 

Those that are mostly self or student-funded and receive little or no Government support are not required to conform to the regulations. However, the amount of universities this applies to is very small. 

If you believe you belong in this small percentage of establishments that do not benefit from public funding, it may be worth contacting a legal professional to ensure that this is correct, and you will not be breaching the Accessibility legislation. 

The figures of higher education establishments gearing up for accessibility

It’s clear from research carried out by higher education web solutions provider, Terminalfour, that many higher education establishments were already gearing up for accessibility back in 2019. 76% of respondents to their survey of higher education establishments in the UK and Ireland said that accessibility was their top priority. These figures suggested a 15% increase from the year previous. 

Helping higher education with accessibility

If you’re not one of those establishments that have made accessibility a priority and believe that you are exempt from the legislation, or have not yet embarked on your accessibility journey, we can help. 

We’ve helped higher education establishments such as Queen Mary University and Winchester University meet the scope of the accessibility requirements.