Research

The Role of Inherent Requirement Statements in Australian Universities

Written by Mr Matt Brett, Dr Andrew Harvey, Dr Andrew Funston, Ms Rachael Spicer and Mr Adam Wood

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Australian university disability practitioners have long advocated statements that describe the inherent requirements of academic programs. Students are protected by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth), which makes it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of disability across a range of criteria that include denying access to any benefit provided by the educational authority, and developing curricula that will exclude a person from participation. Similarly, the Disability Standards for Education 2005 (Cth) require universities to make their programs accessible to students with disabilities and make reasonable adjustments to enable student participation. Reasonable adjustments routinely made include provision of additional time to complete assessment tasks and provision of academic information in ways that are accessible to relevant students (such as Braille readings or Auslan interpretation).

However, while reasonable adjustments are required, these accommodations cannot themselves compromise the essential elements of a course that all students must meet. The essential elements of courses are not self‐evident. Universities publish descriptions of courses and subjects in publications that include handbooks, course and subject materials, graduate attribute statements and promotional materials. Indeed the Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) 2015 (Cth) requires universities to specify course learning outcomes and provide students with plain language statements of relevant information including course design and prerequisite knowledge. Some universities have made a judgement that routine course and subject descriptions are not sufficient as a reference point for informing consultations about identifying reasonable adjustments. These universities publish inherent requirement statements that are designed to aid the process of identifying reasonable adjustments. To illustrate, in nursing programs at Western Sydney University, these statements include a requirement for strength and mobility using both fine and gross motor skills to be able to undertake tasks such as patient transfer and aseptic wound dressing. Inherent requirement statements are described in some cases as a mechanism for streamlining the process of determining reasonable adjustments and minimising the possibility that students unknowingly commence a course for which they do not have the characteristics required to complete satisfactorily, or where professional registration would be unlikely or impossible. The provision of inherent requirement statements is growing across the sector.

Specific examples of inherent requirement statements, that are representative of those commonly used across the sector include:

  • Ability to understand and respond to verbal communication accurately, appropriately and in a timely manner
  • Ability to work constructively in a diverse and changing academic and clinical environment
  • Knowledge, understanding, and compliance with legislative and regulatory requirements, as pre‐requisites to clinical placements in order to reduce the risk of harm to self and others
  • Ability to complete tasks that involve fine motor skills including being able to grasp, press, push, turn, squeeze and manipulate various objects.

Despite the rapid recent growth in university participation of students with a disability, there has been little research conducted on the prevalence, consistency and characteristics of inherent requirement statements across Australian institutions and fields of education. We know little about the relationship between inherent requirement statements and other publications used by universities to describe their academic requirements at an institutional, course, or subject level. There also remains a dearth of research on the impact of these statements. In particular, little is known about how prospective students are accessing, interpreting and responding to them. Assessing the nature, extent and impact of inherent requirement statements is therefore central to understanding how Australian universities are promoting the participation of students with disabilities while complying with their legislative obligations and upholding academic standards.

This report represents the first stage of this research and analyses the prevalence, accessibility, and form of inherent requirement statements within the Australian university sector. We begin by considering the broader national context for this project, including the increasing participation of students with disability in higher education, and recent developments in employment law, education standards, and professional registration requirements. The origins of inherent requirement statements are examined with reference to key milestones associated with Curtin University, The University of Melbourne and Western Sydney University, and relevant literature is explored to situate university activities in relation to historical policy, legislative, and research trends. International literature is also examined to reveal the significant influence of overseas policies, particularly in the United States, on Australian legislators and educators.

The broader legislative, demographic and policy context helps to explain the origins and expansion of inherent requirements, and the multiple demands now faced by Australian universities. Universities are simultaneously seeking to: increase enrolments by promoting the participation of students with a disability; provide transparency for all prospective students on essential course requirements and skills; ensure that reasonable adjustments are made for enrolled students as required by legislation; promote the employability of all students; and satisfy the demands of professional and registration bodies, all in an increasingly complex and competitive environment. The potential tensions between these objectives, and their implications for prospective, enrolled and graduating students, require further research and investigation.

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Brett, M., Harvey, A., Funston, A., Spicer, R. & Wood, A. (2016). The Role of Inherent Requirement Statements in Australian Universities. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.

Posted 6 May 2016 By ncsehe