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Academic Standards and non-discrimination

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									                                          Academic standards and non-discrimination
                                                                    28 August 2009


Briefing: Academic standards and non-discrimination
Principles
[1] People should not be unfairly discriminated against in entering or
pursuing higher education.
[2] Universities should maintain consistently high standards.
Failing to fulfil [2] would not only devalue the degrees awarded, it would do
a disservice to the people to whom lower standards were applied. Failing to
fulfil [1] would not only be unfair to the people denied the opportunity to
study or to succeed but would also deny society the benefit of their talents.
Fulfilling the two together means providing equal access to high standards of
educational opportunity.


The general approach in equality law
Equality law uses three kinds of provisions:
The first kind of provision addresses principle [1] by making certain kinds of
discrimination unlawful: that is to say, by protecting individuals with
particular characteristics (such as disability) from less favourable treatment,
and by requiring certain kinds of adjustments where those individuals would
otherwise be put at a disadvantage.
The second kind of provision addresses principle [2] by providing a tight
definition of an area of activity – the content of the curriculum, which we
can also think about in terms of academic or competence standards – within
which no adjustments need be made. Within this area of activity, it may
sometimes be that some disabled people are at a disadvantage, but this is
permitted so long as it can be objectively justified: it must be demonstrated
that the curriculum content, or the standard set, is a proportionate means to
a legitimate end.
Finally, public bodies are under a positive legal obligation to eliminate
discrimination and promote equality, which means they must anticipate
disabled people’s needs and work towards making provision inclusive from
the outset. This will require effort to review academic standards and the
content of the curriculum to ensure that they are objectively justifiable.


How it works in practice
In this context, when we talk about an ‘academic standard’ or a
‘competence standard’ we are talking about a criterion which is applied to
someone to determine whether a benefit should be conferred, and which
involves them demonstrating some level of knowledge, ability or skill.
Benefits conferred include, for instance, admission to a course of study,
award of a degree, or registration as a qualified professional.




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                                         Academic standards and non-discrimination
                                                                   28 August 2009

Example: Applicants for a degree programme in Economics must
demonstrate a certain level of competence in mathematics in order to be
admitted.


Example: First-year physiotherapy students must be able to use palpation on
a human subject to identify specific anatomical features in order to progress
to the second year of the degree programme.


Example: Law students must demonstrate a certain standard of knowledge
of specified areas of law in order to obtain a qualifying law degree.



It is important to distinguish the academic or competence standard itself
from the way in which someone demonstrates that they meet the relevant
standard. Only the standard itself is immune from adjustment. Some
standards are relatively independent of the method of assessment, in which
case there may be several ways to assess someone’s level of achievement.
In other cases, the method of assessment is intrinsically connected to the
nature of the skill or ability to be demonstrated.

Example: At University Y, applicants for the economics programme usually
get a good pass in A-level maths. However, ‘having A-level maths’ is not an
academic standard: it is simply one way to demonstrate one’s level of
competence in mathematics. Possessing another recognised qualification in
maths, or successfully completing an Access course, might also demonstrate
that someone meets the relevant standard.


Example: At University Z, first-year physiotherapy students must successfully
complete a directly observed practical skills assessment involving the use of
palpation to identify specific anatomical features. The assessment task is
designed to rely only on the skill being assessed. Here, the method of
assessment is intrinsically connected to the skill in question, so no other
method of assessment would be appropriate.


Example: At University X, law students’ knowledge is ordinarily
demonstrated in an unseen timed written examination. However, the ability
to produce legible handwritten text in a limited time is not part of the
academic standard being evaluated. The academic standard is the level of
knowledge, which might equally well be assessed in an oral test, such as a
viva.



Most importantly, there is an objective test for whether a particular
standard is of a kind which is properly protected from the need to make
adjustments. This means that Universities and qualifications bodies cannot


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                                          Academic standards and non-discrimination
                                                                    28 August 2009

simply claim that something is an academic standard because they define it
as such. It must be a criterion which is
     applied to everyone on whom the benefit is conferred;
     appropriate and necessary; and
     its application must be a proportionate means to a legitimate end.

Example: Ensuring that students embarking on a course of study have the
knowledge and skills which will be necessary if they are to engage with the
learning activities is a legitimate aim. It is appropriate and necessary to
require some proof of applicants’ level of knowledge and skill. However,
there is no single test which is the only appropriate measure of their
knowledge and skill, so a requirement for A-level maths, in particular, would
not be objectively justifiable.


Example: Physio students who begin the second year without basic skills in
anatomy, including palpation, will be unable to participate in essential
learning activities while on clinical placement. It is a legitimate aim to
ensure that students demonstrate those skills before permitting them to
proceed to the second year. A practical skills assessment is a necessary and
appropriate way of achieving this.


Example: Having competent, qualified lawyers is a legitimate aim.
Requiring them to meet a certain standard of knowledge in the course of
qualifying is an appropriate means to that end. It is necessary to assess their
achievement of that standard before awarding them the degree. The
application of the relevant standard is therefore objectively justified.
However, it is not necessary that the demonstration be by means of an
unseen timed written examination, since achievement of the standard could
be demonstrated in other ways. Therefore, if using an unseen timed written
examination places a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage for a
reason arising from their disability, it will be unlawful discrimination.




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                                            Academic standards and non-discrimination
                                                                      28 August 2009

Q: Is a learning outcome always an academic or competence standard?
A: It often will be, but only if the learning outcome can be objectively
justified in the relevant way (outlined above). This means looking at how
learning outcomes are articulated to make sure they don’t build in
unnecessary hurdles.

Q: ‘Graduateness’, employability and transferable skills: for instance, can
it be an objectively justifiable academic standard to require history
students to gain skills in oral presentation? (These are found in subject
benchmark statements and in ‘employability profiles’ such as those at
www.heacademy.ac.uk/ourwork/learning/employability/disciplines )
A: This needs to be addressed with some care. At first sight, it is hard to see
how a requirement for fluency and clarity of oral expression is necessary for
a history degree, and it could certainly result in less favourable treatment of
– for instance – deaf students and students with speech impairments.
However, the relevant passage in the subject benchmark statement for
history reads:
        Marshalling of argument: in written and oral form drawing on and
        presenting all the above skills. Such argument should have structure; it
        should be relevant and concise. In the case of written argument it should
        be expressed in clear, lucid and coherent prose. Orally, it should involve
        the capacity to sustain a reasoned line of argument in the face of others,
        to listen, to engage in sustained debate, and amend views as necessary in
        the light of evidence and argument
And in relation to assessment,
        6.15 Departments should also consider whether single-honours students
        should be given the opportunity to have their critical and communication
        skills assessed in other forms. The development of oral communication
        skills is important in the process of educating a historian and students
        should, where practicable, have opportunity to be assessed on this skill.
        Oral presentations can be of different types including, for example: formal
        paper delivered to a group; general contribution to seminar discussion;
        chairing or otherwise leading seminar discussion; and response to
        contributions made by others.
          (www.qaa.ac.uk/academicinfrastructure/benchmark/statements/history07.asp)
This makes it clearer that the emphasis is not so much on the mechanics of
producing speech but on the ability to communicate face-to-face or in real
time, in a context where questions and arguments must be developed and
responded to on the spot. Someone who uses a communication support
worker (such as a sign language interpreter) or assistive technology could
demonstrate this skill effectively. It is also clear that no single method of
assessment for this skill is recommended, much less required.

Katya Hosking hoskingk@cardiff.ac.uk
Inclusive Curriculum Officer, Cardiff University

Note: A version of this document with references to legislation and codes of
practice is available on request from Katya Hosking.


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