The ESMHE project has investigated how each country address accessibility to Higher Education for students with disabilities. First, this includes an overview of support and services inside the HEIs. What kind and level of support does the institutions offer to students with different disabilities, and what kind and level of support does the institutions offer to students with disabilities who want to go abroad as part of their studies.
Secondly, the project has briefly looked at crucial arrangements and services outside the education sector. This includes arrangements in the public welfare system, the municipalities and suppliers in other parts of the public sector.
In addressing these topics, the main purpose has been to investigate:
- Which arrangements from the sending country can students bring to another Nordic country
- Which arrangement can students achieve from the receiving country when going abroad as an exchange student to another Nordic country
As part of the investigation, the ESMHE partners has included statistics (if available) of the number of students with disabilities, the number of students going abroad, and the number of students applying for additional funding/ support grants out of disability reasons.
Addressing disability in Nordic Higher Education
There is no formal common definition of disability used by the HEIs in the Nordic countries. All countries have ratified the UN Convention on Rights for People with Disabilities (CRPD), and adopts the social (relational) model of disability, which defines disability as including long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, which in interaction with barriers in the environment may hinder participation on equal basis with other.
In spite of the ratification of the CRPD, the ESHME project members state that the implementation of the CRPD into sectoral legislation and regulations, like the different HE acts, has been a slow process. According to this, there are substantial differences between the countries when it comes to support, which affect incoming students.
All countries offer reasonable accommodation, defined as an adjustment made in a system to accommodate or make fair the same system for an individual based on a proven need (CRPD). All HEIs offer reasonable accommodation requested by their students, but the level of support varies substantially between the counties.
In Norway, the level of support is defined autonomously by the different HEIs. The Higher Education Act defines the framework for support, but prioritisations (budget and personnel) are set locally. Furthermore; There is no code of practice following the legislation, but the Ministry of Education recently have claimed quality assurance of all services given to students with disabilities. This leads to differences between the support given by the HEIs. and which also includes support to incoming exchange students. On the other hand, the term universal design is a more prominent strategy similar to the other countries.
Equally important is the support given by the public welfare sector (NAV and the Municipalities). A great deal of support given to students with disabilities is financed through public welfare, and to achieve these kind of support you must be staying in Norway for more than a year. This support (transport, technical aids, financial support for housing etc.) is dependent on individual needs assessment. What is a considerable barrier, also for Norwegian students, is that this support is due to an inquiry made by the student’s native municipality or county municipality when it comes to utilities/ technical aids etc.
The main barrier for students in Norway, both Norwegian students and incoming students, is the imbalance between services provided by the HEI and the Public Welfare system, like NAV, municipalities and county municipalities. If a student has financed the education through NAV, a lot of support is available. If only supported by the HEI, the support is more limited. Still, a lot of students manage very well on State Loan funding, and universally designed learning environment combined with individual accommodation given by the HEI. But important areas like transport and technical and pedagogical aids, is dependent on diagnose and citizenship. This is proved to be challenging for incoming students.
In Denmark, the national system of special support (SPS), gives clear regulations on the level of support given to students with disabilities. The HEIs carry out a screening investigation of the student, which leads to documentation approved or refused by SPS. An approval leads to a verification for both the student and the HEI about support, and the HEI can apply for refund of expenses from the SPS system. This is support for the individual student, as personal support or technical aids.
Most important, this system has a clear benefit in streamlining the level of support, securing equity for the students. The support is verified nationally, and support is given regardless of programme of study or affiliation. The disadvantage is time lost in administrative procedures, and that a special equipment must be listed by the SPS to be offered. In this matter, this system looks a bit like the Norwegian NAV system, but more students seem to be inside the solution than in Norway. Only full time students from abroad are included in this arrangement.
Communication between the municipalities and the HEIs are challenging, and there are difficulties regarding to define responsibility. Danish legislation on a municipality level5 can provide extra funding and service for students with disabilities, like to have extra money if you are unable to work alongside your study, training programmes, mentoring, cover of additional costs due to a disability and so on. As the financial support often is placed in small funding systems, there is a lot of work for the individual to receive extra funding. Moreover, there are no clear lines between the SPS systems and support given by the municipalities, and it is challenging to have an overview of all kinds of support. Finally, sectoral responsibility is challenging support given by different sectors to the students. The system is seen by the HEIs as too stiff and inflexible.
In Finland, key words in Finnish education policy are equality, efficiency, equity and internationalization. Great effort is done to ensure individual accommodation at a local level, still more national guidelines are requested to define the level of support given to the students by the HEIs.
Higher education has a significant role in Finnish society aiming to a world-class knowledge society. There are 14 universities and 24 applied science universities. Their common objectives for 2025 are:
- strong higher education units that renew competence
- faster transition to working life through high-quality education
- impact, competitiveness and well-being through research and innovation
- the higher education community as a resource.
In light of the role, aim and objectives it is somewhat surprising that there is hardly information and knowledge on access and participation of students with disabilities in the Finnish higher education.
Municipalities and the Social Insurance Institution of Finland (KELA) bear the responsibility for providing support needed by persons and also students with disabilities. Also students with disabilities apply for necessary medical and technical devices, personal assistance and interpreter services from their home municipality health and social services. KELA (2016) offers financial assistance:
"Disability Allowance for persons aged 16 years or over is aimed at making it easier for disabled persons to manage their everyday activities and to cope with their work and studies. The allowance can be awarded to persons over 16 years who have an illness or injury which will reduce their functional capacity for a period of at least one year. A person is concerned to have a functional impairment when his or her ability to
- look after him- or herself
- perform necessary household chores or
- cope with work or study demands.”
According to this, most services offered to students is provided by the municipalities, and not the HEIs which offer only counselling and advice. This differs considerably from the other Nordic countries, and might also affect the possibility for support to incoming and outgoing students.
In Sweden there are several regulations of how to include students with disabilities in Higher Education, including the Higher Education Act, regulations of state authorities for implementing disability policy, and more recently the Discrimination Act, including provisions about pedagogical availability and physical accessibility.
The support system for students with disabilities is well organised, where all universities and institutions of higher education in Sweden there is at least one contact person / coordinator, working with issues relating to educational support for students with disabilities. The coordinator is also involved in the work with plans and strategies for the development of accessibility and equal opportunities, and is a source of knowledge and guidance for the university staff. Equally important, each university and higher education institution in Sweden is obliged to set aside the funds to cover extraordinary costs for educational support measures for students with disabilities. A large part of these costs is financed and distributed annually from a common national pool. The support seems to be equal, and not dependent on local strategies, ambitions and budgets. Each university and higher education institution offers special support to students with disabilities but each decides what form that support is to take. There are frequently possibilities to receive various individual support measures (i.e. talking books, note takers, accommodations at exams), although their availability cannot be promised to all students in all study programmes.
Outside the HEIs, there are several well established support systems. The National Agency for Special Needs Educations and Schools (SPSM) covers some costs at universities for services in the area of personal support to students with mobility difficulties and mentor support for students with cognitive difficulties due to for example ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome. Secondly, the Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil Society, ensures young people’s access to important areas like information, communication and physical spaces. Thirdly, the Swedish Library of Talking Books and Braille, MTM ensures that all persons with reading impairments can access literature and daily newspapers through media appropriate to them. One special mandate is to provide university and college students access to their required reading through media appropriate to them. Finally, the Equality Ombudsman can receive complaints about discrimination related to disability.
The system seems to be very well organised to the benefit for students with disabilities. Sweden has a clear legislation and financing strategy to support the students, leading to a lot of support systems described in detail in the Swedish country report. Support also includes arrangements for incoming and outgoing mobility students (see chapter 3.4).
In Iceland, disabled people’s rights are guaranteed by the constitution, general laws, and regulations, as well as international conventions and declarations that Iceland is a part of.
As well as services guaranteed by the university, and rendered to disabled students, there are various services specified by law that are available through the state and municipalities but at times it seems unclear who should administer a specific service, whether it is the university or other public parties concerned. Nevertheless, The University of Iceland has developed regulation on disability services, providing registered students with various services, concentrated around individual accommodation of examinations, digital study materials etc. Some services are not supported by the university, and the students are dependent on support from the municipality. As in most Nordic countries, the roles and responsibility seems to be unclear, and the need for systematic approach on best practice when it comes to areas like transport, personal assistance must be sorted out.
The University of Iceland Student Counselling and Career Centre (USCCC) is responsible for organizing services within the University of Iceland for students with disabilities and learning disabilities. This includes all student enrolled at the University, regardless of nationality.