Conference Opening: Mary Doyle, Deputy Secretary General, Department of Education & Skills

Good morning, friends, colleagues, delighted
to be here. I’m speaking on behalf of the Department of Education at this important
conference, Universal Design – A License to Learn, and I suppose in the title of it,
we can reflect on a number of things around inclusiveness, access and, in particular,
the role which the education system in all its various parts can play in supporting this
agenda. When Ann asked me to open the conference, she brought be back almost … just over a
decade now, I worked in the Department of the Taoiseach, and one of the roles I had
related to Social Policy/Social Inclusion, and in that role, I chaired the inter-departmental
group which developed the disability strategy and looking this morning and yesterday at
the Act, the 2005 Act, I was brought back, right back all those years to the provisions
in relation to the establishment of the Centre of Excellence and Universal Design which was
very innovative at that time, very relevant. And since the enactment, the establishment
has proven to be a major part of the infrastructure that we’ve put in place in Ireland around
disability and around access. So … again from 2015, looking back a decade, it’s very
interesting to see how policy is made in one decade impacts in the next decade and I know
in decades to come. So in thinking about the conference, we, in
the Department of Education, we very much welcome the initiative which AHEAD have taken
to put this conference together and to … bring people into a room, into a space where they
can discuss these really important issues, and we look forward to hearing about the conference
deliberations because it’s in this way that we add to the overall sum of our knowledge
and help us as policy makers who, as you know, can sometimes be quite removed from the day
to day reality of people’s lives. It’s conferences like this and it’s conversations like the
ones you will have today and tomorrow which are tremendously valuable to people like myself
and people I work with in terms of policy development and implementation. And as Ann said, Universal Design, it’s
a work in progress, but it does seem to me and it did seem to me all those years ago
that the concept of the heart of Universal Design in relation to making things accessible
to everybody and I remember well pushing my children in buggies thinking we could do with
a bit of universal design here … so if we can get that right and if we can – at the
heart of our design, very often it’s about keeping it simple, doing it well. That gives
us a basis then to mainstream good practice so that’s very much in tune with the objectives
of a number of the Department’s policies and, in particular, the forthcoming National
Plan for equity of access to higher education which I’ll talk about in a moment. But also
relevant to those working across all levels of education and again that’s, I think,
an important theme, that while we’re very much focused, I think, today, on the higher
education piece of the jigsaw, the reality is that there is … much more work that needs
to be done across the continuum of education from early years right through to lifelong
learning and that’s an agenda that we, in the Department, are taking very seriously
and attempting to put together a set of policies and inter-linkages across the various parts
of the Department. As you know, that’s not an inconsiderable task so the kinds of issues
which will emerge at this conference which are relevant to all parts of the education
system make it extremely rich and valuable. So let me talk for a minute about equity of
access to higher education and how it’s a national policy priority. As you know, equity
of access to higher education for all citizens is a longstanding priority in policy terms
for both the Department and the HEA. It’s in the interest of both economic and social
inclusion to ensure that equity of access and participation is a reality for all citizens
to develop their potential skills and abilities through further and higher education and at
the core of this policy agenda is the belief that we cannot afford to leave anyone behind
and I know that that would be shared by everybody in the audience today. So this was the concept underpinning the work
of the Disability Strategy which I mentioned earlier and which the legislation was passed
in 2005. 2005 is actually a really important year. As I say, we had the Disability Strategy
in that – the launch of the Disability Strategy in that year and since then, there have been
two national plans for equity of access to higher education, the aim of which have been
to target increased access and participation by groups that were under represented in the
sector including people with disabilities, so all part of a whole of Government approach
to inclusion. I think that’s a very important … perspective to take on this work. So we have had, as I say, two National Plans
for equity of access and in each successive plan, targets for increased participation
by people with disabilities have been set and the good news – and it is good news, is
that for the most part, these have been exceeded, and sometimes we can not meet targets or something
happens, but I think it’s really good that … when we work together particularly in
this area, we have been actually very successful. So in terms of policy in higher education,
we have, as our policy framework, the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 which
sets out a broad range directions in Irish higher education and we have … moved to
the next step in implementing that strategy by putting in place … a higher education
systems performance framework for 2014-2016. The Government has set out a number of objectives
which it wants the higher education system to achieve and it has – and again I think
this is really important – it has placed equity of access to higher education as the
second of seven key system objectives so it’s right up there and that’s not just symbolic.
It’s actually in terms of managing a complex agenda. When something is right up the top
of – of the list, it does get a lot of attention and I think there’s ample evidence that
… a lot of effort has been put in to the equity of access agenda in recent years and
will also … be placed in the years to come. So this is a very significant and positive
development … to put equity of access as a mainstay of the system. So how does that
then get worked out in practice in the Irish context? Well, each of the individual Higher Education
institutions or HEI’s then agrees a performance compact with the HEA, so there’s, if you
like, a contract or a compact between the Government and each HEI around what they can
achieve in relation to the Government’s objectives for the system, so the compact
includes the commitments that institutions make, both individually and working in clusters
to the achievement of objectives for access. So I think it’s – it’s really important
that, for the first time, we have a clear line of sight about what is happening in the
system, who is doing what where, where are the resources going and some metrics by which
to measure achievement and I wouldn’t underestimate how important and what a big change that is
in the management of a higher education system. I think Ireland is very much out in front,
certainly in European terms in developing this approach. So looking back, I would argue there has been
a positive outcome from the sustained focus on access in national policy. In particular,
the outcomes so far demonstrate the value of national planning and the setting and monitoring
of national targets. So what has happened? Rates of participation
by students with disabilities in higher education have, in overall terms, grown remarkably in
the last two decades. A recent AHEAD report records our participation by students with
disabilities in higher education has grown from less than 1,000 students in 1993 so 20
… just over – well, 22 years ago, so 1,000 students and in 2013 the number was nearly
10,000, that’s by any standards, by any benchmark, I think, a phenomenal achievement
and it’s an achievement – it’s a collective achievement because many people contributed
to … that development. The HEA survey estimates that 6% of entrants
to higher education in 2013 were students with disabilities, again a really significant
increase and improvement over preceding years, and it’s all the more remarkable when you
consider that in 2001, the action group on access reported that less than 1% of entrants
to HEA institutions were students with disabilities. So I think there’s – there are big lessons
here to be learned in terms of implementation science where targets for improvement were
set, both in the report and in successive National Action Plans and that gave a basis
to align and mobilize the achievements … across the system. New targets to achieve further
increases in participation will be set in the next National Access Plan and my colleagues
from the Department and the HEA are here – we’re … we’re nearly there and we hope that
plan will be published over the next little while. These targets will seek to increase
both overall participation by people with disabilities in the sector as well as by groups
where higher levels of under representation and barriers to progress remain, in particular,
for those with sensory and physical disabilities. So a lot more to do, we know, but we’re
building on a really strong foundation. I just want to talk briefly about the key
factors which we believe have supported progress over that period. Firstly, the legislative
framework which I alluded to, has underpinned the evolution towards a rights based environment
for students at all levels of the education system and that has been important. Secondly,
disability advocacy and support organisations like AHEAD and the Disability Federation of
Ireland have raised the profile of people with disabilities and showcase the benefits
for all of more inclusive participation in the education business, arts and other spheres
of Irish life. Thirdly, within higher education, the tireless
activity and advocacy of access and disability services and officers throughout this sector
has enabled many cohorts of those with disabilities to enter higher education and ensure that
they are supported to successfully complete their studies. Since 2009, the disability
access route to education, the DARE scheme, operated by our higher education institutions,
supported by the HEA, has greatly increased the number of school leavers with disabilities
entering higher education and over a third of all students with disabilities now enter
participating institutions via this scheme. So again another important piece of infrastructure
on which to build. The fund with – for students with disabilities
has, since the early 90’s, also been a crucial component in ensuring that resources are allocated
to institutions to provide the necessary supports and assistance to students with disabilities
to fully participate in and complete their courses. Finally, at second level, the National Council
for Special Education and the Department are supporting an increasing number of students
with special education needs. Thanks to increased resources in this area, there are about – there
are over 20,000 students coming through the system. These young adults are achieving success
at Leaving Certificate level and have an expectation and an entitlement to go on to further and
higher education in order to fulfill their education ambitions and progress to the career
of their choice. As I mentioned earlier, collaboration between
second level and higher education to improve transitions and pathways for learners has
been a major theme in education policy over the last number of years. As part of the work,
I’m aware of good examples of joined up thinking and practice between higher education and
second level around the area of assistive technology provision for students with sensory
and physical disabilities and indeed, I was talking to my – to colleagues in my alma
mater, the University of Limerick about some of that before we started. The objective of this is practical but essential
and has been to ensure that the necessary equipment and training are available to students
and their teachers in second level to ensure a seamless transition for the student to further
or higher education. Work by clusters of higher education institutions with second level schools
and other local partners will be an opportunity to advance similar models and the Department
would be very anxious that this will happen and will support activity in this area. These
types of collaborations align with the more integrated policy on social inclusion from
pre-school on to higher education, work on which is being – we are working on those
policies. So equity of participation and outcome. There’s
been a much stronger emphasis in recent national policy discourse on the importance of equity
of outcome as well as access for students. The focus is on the quality of the student
experience including that of students with disabilities with a view to how this can be
both assured and strengthened. The monitoring of the experience of students through both
local and national surveys is a vital barometer including the recent innovation of the Irish
survey of student engagement which is our flagship by which we engage with students
and seek their views of the system. It’s a really, really important initiative which
has been taken and led by the HEA. So monitoring of data on rates of progression and retention,
levels of performance and labour market destinations further study pathways are essential to gauging
outcomes for different groups and again we are putting systems in place to allow us to
do this. I want to mention briefly and just refer to
the work of the national forum on teaching and learning which I think is another really
important part of the infrastructure in higher education strategy. The forum are undertaking
research at the moment on the reasons for non completion in higher education and on
the provision of more effective supports for students transitioning into, within and out
of higher education, so again and I know this is of concern to people in the room, we need
to understand better the reasons for not – non – not successful transmissions or progression
or completion so we’re trying to look at that in a very structured way and we believe
that all of this research will enable development of more effective supports for students including
those with disabilities. There are new initiatives going into place
such as student mentoring schemes and increased mainstreaming of student supports in higher
education institutions and they are being emphasized in the new national access plan.
They’ll increase the engagement of all students with the educational institution. We are also
looking at employment outcomes for students with disabilities. They have been transformed
in recent years and we will have more systematic monitoring of labour market and other outcomes
for graduates with disabilities and will be exploring this as part of our higher education
data strategy. The AHEAD willing, able, mentoring, WAM work
placement program is bringing together graduates and employers – sorry, employers and graduates
with disabilities in ways which allow a genuine learning experience for all partners and I
think that’s been a really successful programme. On a global level, the principles of universal
design are used in some of the most innovative workplaces in the world to ensure that they
can attract and retain the brightest employees and I think there’s lessons in there for
us. So I want to say a word about moving from
reasonable accommodation to universal design. National policy in the next national access
plan will set targets to achieve further increases in access by students with disabilities so
that will be our policy foundation. But this will create its own challenges for our institutions.
Putting in place supports and accommodations for students with disabilities is a legal
requirement. This is where the principles of universal design can be used most effectively
to support those with disabilities and this can go well beyond reasonable accommodation.
So instead of adaptations of traditional systems and accommodations that label those accessing
them as different, the tools are developing to rewrite the rule book and create a teaching
and learning framework that can be accessed by all users on an equal basis and I think
that’s a very powerful vision, and one in which I think we will all be striving. So we believe in the Department that the principles
of universal design are as applicable to the design of a curriculum or course as they are
to a physical environment. Examples of best practice are emerging throughout the Irish
further and higher education sector. We want to disseminate this best practice and we very
much welcome the conference which will help researchers and practitioners to share these
ideas and to move them into the policies sphere. I think it’s very clear that we need to
innovate in order to meet the needs of students with disabilities in the further and higher
education sectors and those coming through from second level. The application of universal
design has the potential to create a system that from student induction course design
teaching and learning method supports and physical accessibility is open to everyone
and allows everyone’s talents and abilities to flourish. So in conclusion, I would like to reiterate
the strong support of the Department for the theme of today’s conference, the discussions
and debate that will occur here today will contribute to the sum or our knowledge and
I look forward to hearing from the keynote speakers and national and international experts.
We recognize and I think we should recognize that we have come a long way, but we also
have a long way to go in addressing the issue of universal design and I hope that the experienced
gained globally and presented to the conference will give us an insight as to how it might
be successfully applied in the further and higher education sectors. And finally, I would like to thank Ann and
colleagues in AHEAD for bringing us together today, for their dedication over the years
of advocates for students with disabilities, their continued commitment to highlighting
and building on progress and for raising the collective awareness of those of us working
in education as well as the general public on where further change is needed and I wish
Ann and AHEAD every success both today and in the future. Thank you very much indeed.

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