Date Category
31st March 2020 Blog

As Higher Education moves to online delivery in the light of Covid-19, library and information resources are following suit. As libraries close their doors and/or students stay at home, traditional physical resources are becoming unavailable and digital alternatives are the only realistic option. This will shine a light on the accessibility of broadband networks, but what about the actual resources themselves? How well suited are they to disabled students? How intuitive are they to use? What can procurement do about it?  Here, SUPC Category Manager, Gavin Phillips, breaks down the challenges of students accessing content and some solutions for procurement.

As a starting point, SUPC has joined forces with other sector bodies to petition content providers to make content available. The aim is to ensure that universities maintain their teaching and research activity during this time of crisis.  This addresses one element of accessibility – making resources and systems available.  However, even if the content is available, there are a number of challenges.

How big is this challenge?

A look at the Office for Students website gives us a good idea of the size of the challenge.  The proportion of all students who disclose themselves as disabled is rising. Office for Students (OfS) equality and diversity data shows that between 2010 and 2017, the proportion of students in England self-reporting a disability increased from 8.1% to 13.2%.

“The most common type of disability is a cognitive or learning difficulty, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (5 per cent of students in 2017-18).” says the Office for StudentsOfS data also illustrate that disabled students are less likely to complete their studies, less likely to attain higher class honour degrees, and less likely to progress to higher-level study or highly-skilled employment.

So, let’s break this down.

Accessibility challenge 1: the box-checking trap

Before diving into the world of procurement, I spent over 20 years as an academic librarian.  I worked with many of the digital resources that are available via framework agreements. Accessibility of these resources is a significant issue and I remember attending a seminar that was particularly poignant.  A blind student demonstrated the text-to-speech functionality of two e-book platforms. Both platforms adhered to the same accessibility standards, but they performed very differently. The first platform performed as expected with the text read aloud and clearly. However, text-to-speech on the second platform picked up all the digital watermarking attached to each page and rendered the functionality unusable.

This seminar took place several years ago, but it has always stuck in my mind. The lesson here for supplier evaluation is that we often need to consider industry standards as a starting point. Effective supplier evaluation may need to look at the application of those standards to the overall usability of a product or service.

Accessibility challenge 2: usability

Overall usability is probably the key principle here rather than accessibility. Of course, we want to abide by accessibility regulations. By ensuring digital resources and web content are more accessible, are we are actually ensuring that they are more usable, in general.  We should really be striving for usability from a user experience perspective, adopting an inclusive approach that ensures all student requirements are met.

Here are a couple of examples to illustrate this:

Accessibility challenge 3: the regulations

In September 2018 the UK adopted the EU Directive on Public Sector Web Accessibility into law – Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No.2) Accessibility Regulations 2018.

The two key elements of this are that universities must meet an accessibility requirement and that they must have an accessibility statement. This responsibility is extended to third-party content that a university may have a licence for, either perpetually or on a subscription basis.

The first element can be addressed by ensuring compliance with WCAG 2.1 AA

Much of the second element can be achieved by linking to the platform’s own accessibility statement, but only if that statement contains the correct information. Happily, our friends at ASPIRE provide an independent verification service for this. A platform with a Gold score provides a statement that covers requirements and which institutions can link to. The university can then provide an internal link for processing queries or complaints.

So, what are some of the potential solutions?

Potential solutions

Developing and sharing best practice

We obviously want to ensure that framework suppliers comply with standards that allow institutions to meet regulatory requirements but we should not fall into the trap of assuming that a minimum standard will equate to excellence. To achieve excellence, we need to think about how we can encourage the innovation of platforms to make them usable and inclusive. By establishing a set of best practices to build tender specifications around, we can ultimately allow institutions to make more informed decisions. This will be the work of the SUPC Tender Working Parties in 2020.

Metadata will save us all eventually!

It is generally the way with information resources that metadata is an incredibly powerful but sometimes underused tool. Metadata is essentially ‘information about information’.  It is used to describe the content, authorship, and nature of a resource. Some good work is being done in the publishing industry to describe the accessibility of resources, but this is not necessarily finding its way into the bibliographic metadata used by university libraries. Imagine if a student could search their library catalogue and then filter the results according to their preferred functionality!

SUPC is engaging with metadata experts within the sector and the publishing industry to better understand how we might realise more of this potential. Working directly with a metadata advisor from one of our member institutions – Jenny May from Imperial College London Library Services – we are exploring these possibilities in partnership, combining our expertise. This work will also continue parallel to the Tender Working Party and into the future.

Understanding our own need to deliver accessible platforms, SUPC is currently deep into a website redevelopment project.  Our sister business units, SUMS Consulting and the Procurement Shared Service, have already launched new websites that meet accessibility guidelines and aim to provide an accessible and inclusive user experience.

We would welcome examples from universities on how they’re implementing new platforms and digital content while ensuring it’s accessible.  Proud of what you’ve done? Contact us at