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Advancing equality and diversity in universities and colleges

Competence standards and reasonable adjustments: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences (GEES)

HEIs are not required to make reasonable adjustments to a competence standard. However, a competence standard which can be shown to be unjustified will be direct discrimination with regard to a disabled student or applicant.

Competence standards should cover all essential course criteria at the same time as being as inclusive as is possible.

A partnership approach to drawing up and reviewing competence standards, involving both academic staff but also representatives from the HEI disability services team, can support the development of inclusive competence standards and assessment methodologies.

Providing information

Prospective and current students should be informed of the course competence standards and made aware of the support which can be available to them if they require it.

‘I think one of the key challenges for students with disabilities would be in getting through University systems to speak to people who run / deliver the courses to discuss the course specific support that would be available and to get a sense of the attitudes of staff towards this. There is a lot of information on line but certainly for those whose disability presents a greater challenge to study my sense is that this is not always enough. In particular, having worked with a wheelchair user with cystic fibrosis completing a physical geography course it was only through discussion between programme leader, module leaders, prospective student and parents that the detail required could be discussed.’ GEES academic tutor

‘We have found that it is best to talk to the students individually to assess their qualms, issues and requirements. For dyspraxic students or students with a physical impairment we would talk through access issues at outcrop well in advance of getting into the field.’ GEES academic tutor


Very often there are different ways in which a particular competence standard can be assessed and, under the Equality Act, HEIs are required to make adjustments to assessment processes wherever possible in order to ensure that disabled students are not disadvantaged.

Many HEIs now offer a range of different forms of assessment and wherever possible students should be offered some choice in how they are assessed provided this does not prevent them from meeting specific competence standards.

Decisions about the most appropriate individual reasonable adjustments require input not only from the disability service but also from academic staff who understand the particularities of their discipline.

Academic and disability staff need to ensure that adjustments are reasonable and do not give unfair advantages to disabled students.

‘The main issue that we have encountered involves provision of helpers to disabled students. Where geologically-trained helpers are provided, some disabled students tend to expect additional academic help that may not be justified by their disability. This in turn is (correctly) perceived as unfair by other students. We can best resolve this using non-geologist helpers.’

Examples of adjustments >

Examples of adjustments which have been made by GEES departments include some students being allowed to voice-record fieldwork and others being accompanied by helpers in the field.

Fieldwork placements abroad often require a range of adjustments to be put in place.

Example: a student with cerebral palsy on a field trip to Kenya was able to stay in a nearby hotel instead of camping. The student learnt a lot about her requirements, which she had not been willing to countenance before the trip, so staff were having to change some things while away. Other aspects, such as taking a tutor and PA and having independent transport, were arranged before the trip for her and worked as planned.

Example: an ‘all terrain’ wheelchair was hired to enable access across beaches and rough terrain. These two fieldtrips were 5 days in Dartmoor and 7 days in Brittany.

When aspects of fieldwork which prove too demanding even with adjustments there might have to be instances where students are able to obtain the same learning output and achieve the same competence standard in a less challenging environment:

Example: In mapping, depending on assessment of ability, less mobile students are steered toward areas with less challenging topography or to smaller areas to be mapped in greater detail.

In very rare instances where the student is unable even with adjustments to undertake certain aspects of fieldwork to a virtual environment can be created, for example, with samples and photographs of the area being provided so that the student can achieve requisite learning outputs.

Examples collected in the research showed how it was possible to ensure access even to environments which might at first appear the most inaccessible:

'The buildings are modern and designed to be inclusive. Hearing loops, wheelchair accessible theatres and laboratories, adjustments for scribes and assistants to work with students in lectures. We would provide additional briefings for the student on lab safety measures and any additional specific measures an individual may face. Our main teaching vessel has wheelchair access with an easy access toilet at main deck level. Our smaller vessel can provide access via the aft ramp but is not suited to rough weather for a wheelchair user. Usually such field work for the student would be scheduled for the larger vessel. Alternative means of assessment would be considered as an extreme case, but we have never had to make a decision that an adjustment would affect academic standards. All adjustments have been time based or access based.

The course is partly about working at sea and from vessels which have an inherent danger. After graduation, in order to work at sea, a graduate has to pass an extensive medical. For example, a graduate with a moderate mobility issue would fail such a medical on health and safety grounds, so we ensure that the student gets full opportunities to experience and learn about working at sea whilst an undergraduate, but would also ensure this is a clear pathway to enable them to take a strong theory side to the course. There is a clear and successful path for all students who can rise to the intellectual challenge.'