Universities are to receive funding to enrol more autistic students and those with intellectual disabilities under an initiative aimed at boosting access to higher education.
There are no official figures on the number of autistic students in higher education, although it is estimated there are at least 1,400 in college with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.
The plan, which forms part of a proposed national access plan, will allocate ring-fended funding of €12 million — or €3 million a year between now and 2025 — for colleges to implement universal design, staff training and inclusive practices on their campuses. This includes improving campus accessibility with spaces such as sensory rooms or quiet zones.
Technology solutions that support inclusive practices in teaching and learning, and training for students to support learning and utilising assistive technology and upgrading students’ digital skills, will also be supported.
In time, policymakers hope universities will develop initiatives along the lines of the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities, which has provided hundreds of students with additional needs the opportunity to fulfil their potential in a higher education setting.
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris said there has never been a focus on how many students with an intellectual disability or autism have entered or completed third level.
“These new proposals will allow us to assess how we are doing but crucially, we will be introducing new policy changes to ensure we do better,” he said.
“Education is the greatest leveller in society. A key ambition for me is to ensure that supports and opportunities are provided for learning to all. This means recognising the needs of vulnerable learners, people who are most marginalised and people with special and additional needs and assisting them in accessing and progressing through third level education.”
The proposals will form part of a new national plan for equity of access, participation and success in higher education, due to be published over the summer.
Mr Harris there are examples of very good practice in the higher education system and encouraging signs of commitment to the extensive process of change required to make such programmes a success.
“However, there are also examples where, despite strong commitment, it was not possible to deliver programmes which were sustainable over time,” he said.
“The Government is also seeking expertise to support the Department and Higher Education Authority to ensure this roll out meets the needs of students. This is an important day and I really want to thank everyone for working with us to make this a reality. This has the potential to change the lives of autistic students and students with intellectual disabilities.”
Later this year, a competitive funding call will issue to colleges seeking proposals for three-year “pathfinding pilot programmes”, aimed at supporting students with intellectual disabilities. Funding for these approved programmes/courses will be rolled out over three years commencing in 2023.