The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Digital accessibility: meeting our ethical and legal obligations in the inter- and post-pandemic university

by Richard de Blacquiere-Clarkson

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. The author’s statement can be found here.

The question of how to apply the relatively recent web accessibility legislation to teaching materials is complex, as it was seemingly written without higher or further education in mind, and several key terms in the legislation are undefined. At University of Leeds we have rapidly developed an approach and guidance for colleagues regarding accessible teaching materials which we believe meets – and exceeds – the legislative requirements as well as modelling pedagogic good practice, and which has been received well within the institution. Our approach is by no means the only valid one, or even suitable for all contexts, but may prove helpful to those in the early stages of developing their own guidance or who wish to compare approaches across the sector. This blog post will give an overview of key decisions behind this work, which I was fortunate to be involved in.

The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations (2018) are best understood as a continuation not only of the Equality Act (2010) but also the Disability Discrimination Act (1995), whilst adding some new elements. Reasonable adjustments remain, but are intended to be minimised by proactively developing more accessible materials in the first instance. Specific standards (WCAG 2.1 AA) for content were set, as well as deadlines for compliance and the need for an accessibility statement. Whilst one of the core values for University of Leeds is inclusiveness, and we have a policy commitment to ensure all learning and teaching practices, activities and supporting materials can be used by all, we face the same challenge all universities do in complying with the details of the new legislation.

Who benefits? Who loses?

Everyone, but in different ways. Students with diagnosed learning disabilities will hopefully already have been receiving reasonable adjustments, in practice there should be less of a burden on them to request changes. Students with undiagnosed learning difficulties are the biggest beneficiaries from this work, as more accessible materials should meet their needs better, whilst all other students will benefit from the greater flexibility and choice frequently offered by accessible resources.

Teaching staff have the opportunity to reflect on and develop their pedagogy, admittedly whilst needing dedicated support and development opportunities to do so. Not to mention the time commitment for learning new skills and updating existing content, hard enough when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic or (one day!) the aftermath.

What are we aiming for?

Compliance may be necessary but it is not sufficient for inclusive practice, and focusing heavily on achieving an arbitrary standard by a fixed deadline risks encouraging a tokenistic approach. Instead we hope to engage all teaching staff in a process of ongoing enhancement, albeit one which also meets our legal obligations in a timely way. Hearts and minds, not ticking boxes. 

That said, colleagues involved in the process of creating and revising teaching materials need something specific to work with, so we set a minimum baseline standard for all teaching materials which is a synthesis of the WCAG 2.1 AA standards plus good practice from across the sector and relevant professional bodies including JISC. This is expressed in FAQ style as a series of questions and answers based on issues raised by teaching staff in workshops, both for clarity and ease of comprehension and to incorporate more explanation than a list of rules. All teaching materials are in scope, including emails.

Our own legal advice is that this baseline exceeds legal requirements but it is essential that all institutions seek their own legal advice, not least because this legislation is so far untested in the courts.

Interpreting undefined terms in the legislation

Assuming that VLE spaces are treated as intranets, resources created before 23rd September 2019 do not need to be made accessible until they undergo “substantial revision”, whatever that is. Arguably this will vary by pedagogic approach and subject discipline, so we are interpreting this phrase at school level whilst providing a set of exemplars as prompts. Where the ideal balance between contextualised nuance and cross-institutional consistency lies remains to be seen.  It’s also worth asking if and when cumulative small changes to many documents trigger a substantial revision for a website or module. Do module or programme redesign processes trigger a wholesale substantial revision? I’d say yes, but there’s room to argue.

The legislation only applies to materials which are used for “active administrative purposes”, but what does that mean in the context of teaching and learning? Our view is that it applies to absolutely everything which a student is expected to engage with, or to be able to engage with. After all, if you are presenting material to a student as important but they cannot perceive or understand it, what message are you giving them? The exception would be module content from previous years which is available for students to look back on but is not being used in current teaching, this is classified as an archive and so legally exempt.

Difficult cases

By far the most common objection we have encountered is regarding alt text for complex diagrams – flow charts, scientific processes, mathematical expressions, graphs etc. This alternative text is required for students who cannot visually access the diagram, but it seems impossible to include all relevant details succinctly, and proactively creating detailed explanations for every diagram seems onerous and inefficient when they may not actually be accessed by any student. Our baseline requirement is to give a short description plus a standard statement to contact the module leader if they need further explanation. Compared to nothing this is an enormous improvement, and we think it is legally compliant, but is it good practice? There seems to be nothing like consensus across the sector here, with a fair few intellectual ostriches ignoring the issue entirely.

Pdfs are also problematic, challenging to edit even with suitable software and copyright issues abound where they are provided by publishers or other external bodies. Where the university or its employees own the copyright we are asking them to edit or re-create documents, ideally moving away from pdf due to its limitations for accessibility. Where copyright is held externally we are using links as far as possible, though this likely does not absolve institutional responsibility. As to how the conflicting demands of copyright and accessibility legislation will be resolved, it seems impossible to say and might just play out in court at some point.

Captions for audio-visual content including lecture capture are now automatically generated by software, and teaching staff are only expected to correct these in response to student requests. There’s potential for significant and inconsistent demands on staff, not least because some accents are better recognised than others. Some colleagues also feel the need to at least correct egregious errors up front, which has its own workload implications. No easy solution here either.

Looking forward

Facilitated workshops where colleagues bring examples of problematic teaching resources and work through them together have been exceptionally well reviewed. We are recruiting student accessibility interns to work in a number of faculties, with eight in place and already having a noticeable impact within weeks. Getting everything accessible is a slow process, realistically measured in years, but it’s good to have got the ball rolling. 

Richard has taught in inclusive educational settings for 13 years, with a particular focus on use of technology and supporting students with specific needs including dyslexia and autism. In his current role at the Lifelong Learning Centre, University of Leeds, he is responsible for the strategic development of digital pedagogies and hybrid/online learning, as well as accessible teaching materials.

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Organising, funding and participating in care-friendly conferences

By Emily Henderson

SRHE member Emily Henderson (Warwick) runs the ConferenceInference blog with Jamie Burford (La Trobe), offering a unique gateway to research about HE conferences. Her recent post is adapted and reblogged with permission here.

Conferences are highly exclusionary spaces for all manner of reasons. They are also vital sites for learning, knowledge production and dissemination, career development, and the formation of collaborations and partnerships for publications and research projects, sites where jobs are directly and indirectly advertised and secured, and sites of friendship, mentoring and all kinds of relationships. Conferences are recognised in research on academic careers as important sites which have a plethora of indirect benefits. Furthermore, attending, organising and being invited to speak at conferences are also expectations which are included in many promotions criteria and also in some hiring criteria (particularly for early career scholars who may not yet have a publication record). The role of conferences is often downplayed in practice and in research; amassing research and evidence on the impact of conferences on careers has resulted in a clear and irrefutable conclusion: missing out on conferences disadvantages academics in multiple regards. 

While the role of conferences continues to be downplayed – often by those for whom it is easiest to attend – there will continue to be hidden inequalities which contribute to overall inequalities in the academic profession and which cannot be addressed until fully acknowledged.

Based on some initial understanding of this problem from my doctoral work on knowledge production about gender at Women’s Studies conferences, and from personal experiences, I decided to explore the exclusionary nature of conferences – with a particular focus on caring responsibilities. The particular features of the stance taken in this project were: (i) a wide definition of care, to include partners, children, other relatives, pets, friends and kin; (ii) a focus on how care interacts with both access to conferences and participation in conferences while there.

In December 2016, I won internal funding from the University of Warwick Research Development Fund for a small-scale project on the relationship between conference participation and caring responsibilities. This was originally intended as a ‘pilot study’ for a larger project, but it touched a nerve and became much more than a pilot study – producing important findings and provoking widespread interest, including several invitations to present the research at events on inequalities and on care in the academic profession. The discussions in turn highlighted the need for further discussions – and for concrete outputs to influence the actions of those involved in organising, funding and participation in conferences. To develop the project’s trajectory further, in 2017 I applied for funding from Warwick’s Institute for Advanced Studies and embarked upon the production of a range of outputs for different audiences.

The project was assisted by Julie Mansuy in the first phase and Xuemeng Cao in the second phase, and I offer my sincere gratitude to them for their assistance with the logistics and implementation of this project. The outputs from the project, ‘In Two Places at Once: the Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation’, can all be downloaded or viewed from links included here (see also the events and outputs page on the project website).

The Conference Inference blog has already told parts of the story. ‘Conferences and caring responsibilities – individual delegates, multiple lives‘, explained how the project stemmed from the realisation that conferences are often designed for unencumbered delegates, and much conferences research (and indeed HE research in general) constructs an individualised academic subject who has no ties. The project explored conferences in their own right as sites which contribute to the development of knowledge, careers and collaborations, but also as a lens through which the academic profession as a whole can be viewed, given that conferences are both representative of and resistant to the institutional norms of academia (see Henderson, 2015).

Overwhelming care: reflections on recruiting for the “In Two Places at Once Research Project”‘, marked the moment where I realised that the project had touched a nerve. I was inundated with requests to participate – messages flooded in with enthusiasm and relief that someone was finally researching this – with snapshots of the complexity of academics’ lives, juggling care and academic work. The project research used a diary-interview method with 20 academics; a further 9 participants just filled in the diary. ‘Conferences and complex care constellations‘ revealed early findings, showing the range and complexity of different care constellations. This included temporary and long-term caring, shifting and dynamic care needs, hands-on and virtual caring, and a variety of different caring responsibilities.

The project has since produced a number of different outputs for different audiences, which all emerge from the study, with inflections from various discussions with colleagues, the project’s stakeholder groupreactions to the project I have received, and questions and comments from the various events at which I have presented the research.

Output 1: Recommendations briefing for conference organisers (view)

 This briefing, produced in collaboration with Leigh Walker and the Impact Services team in the Warwick Social Sciences Faculty, outlines how conference organisers can facilitate access to and participation in conferences for academics with a variety of caring responsibilities. Many considerations can be implemented at little or no cost (eg indicating evening social events in advance, or ensuring the wifi is easily accessible), but with significant impact. Care provision at a conference does not amount to providing a creche (see also Briony Lipton’s post, ‘Baby’s first conference‘). The briefing is targeted at both larger association conferences and smaller one-off events, which are often hosted in HEIs but tend to fly under the radar of institutional equalities policies.

Output 2: Recommendations postcard for Higher Education Institutions (Human Resources, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion personnel, Department Chairs) (view)

This is a short set of priorities for HEIs as a reminder that institutions expect their academics to attend conferences, but do not necessarily take responsibility for ensuring that academics are able to do so. While conferences are often portrayed as something like leisure – an optional extra (see ‘Conferences are (not) holidays‘), HEIs have a responsibility in this regard as long as academic promotions and hirings include conferences and the indirect outcomes of conferences such as publications and collaborative research projects – as well as ‘esteem’ and ‘reputation’ indicators. The postcard highlights the role of HR/EDI professionals in drawing together different relevant policies (eg relating to expenses claims, right to childcare, travel bursaries – see also the post about La Trobe’s carers’ travel fund) and the role of department chairs in being aware of and implementing policies.

Output 3: ‘Juggling Conferences and Caring Responsibilities’ short film (view)

 This short film, freely accessed on Youtube, aims to raise awareness of how conference attendance and participation are affected by the challenges of managing caring responsibilities. The film, produced by Mindsweep Media, includes reactions to ‘In Two Places at Once’ from: an EDI professional; a higher education and equity researcher; and academics with caring responsibilities (including a doctoral researcher with a young child, a dual career couple with a young child, and an academic who had cared for her elderly parents). Academics with caring responsibilities benefit from knowing that this is a shared issue and the film can be shown in training sessions and meetings for senior decision-makers.

Output 4: ‘In Two Places at Once: the Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation – Final Report’ (view)

Henderson, EF, Cao, X, Mansuy, J (2018) In Two Places at Once: The Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation: Final Project Report, Coventry: Centre for Education Studies, University of Warwick. DOI: 10.31273/CES.06.2018.001

The project report is a more comprehensive but accessible resource, with recommendations for action by different parties, including EDI and HR professionals and people involved in the ATHENA Swan process or other equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives. The report is also an academic resource for research in the areas of care, higher education, gender and the academic profession.

Next steps

A chapter focusing on the diary data was published in Accessibility, Diversity and Inclusion in Critical Events Studies (Routledge, 2019), with two journal articles and a conference presentation planned. I am developing a broader research agenda focusing on intersectional issues of access to and participation in conferences. Updates will be reported at Conference Inference, on Twitter (#I2PO), on the project website, or email me ( to join the project mailing list.

Follow Emily Henderson on Twitter @EmilyFrascatore.

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Pedagogic rights and higher expertise in the post-truth society

by Jim Hordern

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education that will be published in March 2019. The founding idea behind this special issue was to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which will be accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

Bernstein’s three pedagogic rights (enhancement, participation, inclusion) set out the ‘conditions for effective democracy’ (in discourse and practice) at the ‘individual’, ‘social’ and ‘political’ level (Bernstein, 2000: xxi). Developed as a reflection on political transition in Chile in the 1980s and remaining to an extent ‘enigmatic’ (Frandji and Vitale, 2016), the rights have recently been employed to discuss the South African higher education context (Luckett and Naicker, 2016) and the role of universities in human development and capability expansion (McClean et al, 2013). Consideration of the relationship between the three pedagogic rights aids reflection on the role of higher expertise in contemporary societies facing ‘post-truth’ challenges. If fully exercised the pedagogic rights could mitigate against the destructive potential of ‘alternative facts’ – but does the current context of higher education allow the rights to be exercised?

The right to ‘individual enhancement’ is described as a ‘a condition for experiencing boundaries’ and ‘tension points condensing the past and opening up possible futures’ (Bernstein, 2000: xx). This is the process whereby individuals acquire expertise through engagement in higher education, and become equipped for future thought and action. The right to enhancement assumes the existence of expert communities that can judge when boundaries and tensions have been experienced and enhancement has taken place, as part of a trajectory towards greater expertise and understanding (Winch, 2010). However, the process by which enhancement occurs is not static but rests on the potential for imagining ‘new possibilities’ (Bernstein, 2000: xx). As Luckett and Naicker point out, this is the right ‘that realises both the private and public goods of HE’ (2016: 12). However, it is heavily compromised without the other two rights (participation and inclusion). If higher education is only concerned with individual enhancement rather than ensuring all have the right to participate and to be included, then there is a risk not only that the most powerful individuals will dominate access to expertise, but also that expertise itself becomes increasingly moribund and irrelevant to contemporary society.

The right to participate means participation in the ‘procedures whereby order is constructed, maintained and changed’ (Bernstein, 2000: xxi). This extends to participation in the re-shaping of expertise to meet new requirements as societies change, while not losing the condensed lessons of the past. Participation is the condition for ‘civic practice’ (ibid: xxi), and affects the extent to which an expert body of knowledge maintains or loses relevance to contemporary concerns. A fully democratic society is founded on a right not only to access expertise but also to become an expert oneself. When participation becomes problematic democracy starts to break down, leading to increasing alienation from expertise and the potential for mistrust of the ‘experts’ themselves.

Lastly, the right to inclusion suggests ‘the right to be included, socially, intellectually, culturally and personally’, but also ‘a right to be separate, to be autonomous’ (Bernstein, 2000: xx), and therefore to have one’s individuality and minority view respected while nevertheless remaining ‘included’ in a community. Inclusion must occur, importantly, ‘without absorption’ (Frandji and Vitale, 2016: 16), allowing new perspectives to thrive and challenge existing expertise. Without this subtle conception of inclusion, higher expertise risks retreating to a notion of ‘received truth’ which all must accept with deference. Expertise may be transformed if new and convincing claims come to light that authentically improve understanding, but this can only be achieved through a mode of inclusion that respects difference and independence.

But are these pedagogic rights practised together in contemporary higher education? Some higher education institutions risk becoming increasingly distant from the communities in which they are located, answering instead to the demands of league tables and notions of the ‘global research university’ (Marginson, 2006). Furthermore, academic work is often defined in terms of narrow output measures, irrespective of concerns for participation and inclusion. Market and bureaucratic logics actively undermine the potential for expert communities to operate, and dismiss the criteria of excellence upon which notions of higher expertise are based, replacing them with a belief in the ‘inevitable obsolescence of accumulated knowledge’ (Beck and Young, 2005: 191). Are these promising conditions for the upholding of an open and iterative model of higher expertise which can effectively challenge ‘post-truths’, while valuing the full participation and inclusion of all citizens?

One thesis might be that the post truth context is a consequence of a collapse of deference for ‘authority’, both in institutional and epistemic terms. An alternative argument would assert that ongoing assaults on deference are necessary to expose dominance and bias, and that a ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-enlightenment’ context allows multiple voices to be heard and undue influence to be exposed. Arguably these views foreground either enhancement or participation at the expense of the other pedagogic rights. A further view might suggest that the post-truth context illustrates how expertise is increasingly ‘divorced from persons, their commitments, their personal dedications’ (Bernstein, 2000, 86), partly as a consequence of the extension of market logics into higher education (and the professions). Truth has become commodified so that knowledge can ‘flow like money to wherever it can create advantage and profit’ (ibid), allowing opportunists to exploit increasing levels of public and private disorientation. Enhancement, participation and inclusion are all threatened – and all must be re-thought for the future vitality and relevance of higher education, and for societal ownership of expertise.

Higher education institutions and professional communities responsible for higher expertise have thus far insufficiently recognised the implications of a non-deferential society in which all assertions are challenged, and need to work harder at ensuring inclusion and participation to make enhancement a possibility for all. Making pedagogic rights central to a refreshed notion of higher expertise thus requires a commitment to all three rights: enhancement, inclusion and participation. Commitment to one or two without the other is almost as detrimental to the future of higher education as commitment to none.


Beck, J and Young, M (2005) ‘The assault on the professions and the restructuring of academic and professional identities: a Bernsteinian analysis.’ British Journal of Sociology of Education 26 (2): 183-197

Bernstein, B (2000) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity 2nd edn New York: Rowman and Littlefield

Frandji, D and Vitale, P (2016) ‘The enigma of Bernstein’s ‘pedagogic rights’.’ In Vitale, P and Exley, B (eds) (2016) Pedagogic rights and democratic education: Bernsteinian explorations of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, pp13–32 London: Routledge

Luckett, K and Naicker, V (2016) ‘Responding to misrecognition from a (post)/colonial university.’ Critical Studies in Education, DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2016.1234495

Marginson, S (2006) ‘Dynamics of national and global competition in higher education.’ Higher Education 52(1): 1–39

McClean, M, Abbas, A and P Ashwin (2013) ‘University knowledge, human development and pedagogic rights’ in Boni, A and Walker, M (eds) (2013) Human development and capabilities: Re-imagining the university of the twenty-first century, pp30–43 London: Routledge

Winch, C (2010) Dimensions of expertise: A conceptual exploration of vocational knowledge London: Continuum.

Jim Hordern is Reader in Educational Studies at Bath Spa University, U.K. His research interests are in educational knowledge and practice, particularly in higher, professional and vocational education. He is Book Reviews Editor of the Journal of Vocational Education and Training and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Internationale Berufsbildungsforschung Springer book series.

You can find Jim’s full article, ‘Higher expertise, pedagogic rights and the post-truth society’ in Teaching in Higher Education 24(3): 288-301 at

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Mind the Gap – Gendered and Caste-based Disparities in Access to Conference Opportunities

In an interview with Conference Inference [1] editor Emily Henderson, Nidhi S. Sabharwal discussed inequalities of access to conference opportunities in India.

Figure 1: Participation in Conferences by Gender (in a high-prestige institution)Figure 1: Participation in Conferences by Gender (in a high-prestige institution)

EH: Nidhi, can you explain first of all where conferences come into your wider research on inequalities in Indian higher education?

NS: Equitable access to professional development opportunities such as conferences is an indicator of institutional commitment to achieving diversity and inclusion of diverse social groups on campuses. Continue reading