Higher Education and accessibility in Norway

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Higher Education and accessibility in Norway

By Anne Nylund and Kjetil Knarlag

National Coordinator of Accessibility of Higher Education in Norway

Development 1990- 2009

During the 1990´s there was a development of disability services among some of the higher education institutions (HEIs) in Norway. Prior to this there had been some individual adjustments, but no coordination of adaption for students with disabilities. The University of Oslo started already in 1975 by setting up a council regarding disability matters, and this developed during the years into a disability office. In the late nineties the staff counted four full time employees, offering technical aid, special teaching and individual guidance. During the late nineties similar services started up at the universities of Trondheim and Bergen, and in some of the largest university colleges. Adaption during examinations was already a matter in most HEIs at this time.

From 1999 all the universities and university colleges were required to have a contact person for students with disabilities, and also a plan of action to make each HEI more accessible. This requirement was introduced by the Ministry of Education, partly as a response to the development of a national policy of inclusiveness in all parts of the society.
The demand for action plans resulted in a massive “copy-and-paste” operation between the HEIs, and a lot of the institutions did not have the competence or the resources to comply with their promises. The topic was a bit immature to the HEIs, but the action plans and the request to have a contact person were important steps towards making the HEIs more conscious about disability in higher education.
At the same time there was a change in the overall national policy, and since the mid/late nineties the view on disability changed. Disability was now defined as a result of the gap between the claims from the society and the individual capacities (the GAP-model) rather than being defined as characteristics of a person. The focus on disability went from “user perspective” to making each individual part of the community (in Norway this was declared as “from user to citizen” policy). This approach was also adapted by some of the HEIs which started to investigate if their policy excluded students with disabilities. This is still a matter to staff working with these issues today.
During the period 1999-2003, there were a lot of official reports and studies concerning disability matters, several including higher education. Disability matters received a lot of attention, partly leading to progression of a legal framework. See more about the legal context on pages 3-4.
A significant concept in Norway (as in several other countries) is the use of the term “sector responsibility” which means that different parts of the welfare system are responsible for all citizens in their field. This means that the ordinary public welfare organs are responsible also for persons with different disabilities. Special service and efforts should be integrated within, not in addition to, the solutions offered to the public. In higher education this means inclusive services to all students. Students with disabilities are – first of all – students. Counseling services and disability offices are hence supposed to be a natural part of the student counseling services at the HEIs.
In addition, the concept of universal design became important in how to deal with these questions. In 2009 we more than ever focus on universal design as a tool to make higher education accessible to all.

2003: The National Coordinator of Accessibility in Higher Education

In 2002 the Ministry of Education announced the need for a coordinator of disability matters in higher education. The experience with the action plans and the contact persons was varying; several of the contact persons missed a collegial network, and the plans of action were collecting dust at the bottom of the drawer at most HEIs. In addition, the Ministry needed an organ to solve specific issues related to disability matters in higher education.

Six HEIs applied for the task of being a national coordinator/ initiator of disability matters in higher education, and the assignment was given to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim. The coordinators main tasks are:

  • Contribute to the universities ”plans of action”

  • Support-on-demand to the universities

  • Develop a website for useful info (www.universell.no)

  • Organize an annual conference for employees working with universal design and disability matters

  • Attending different committees as a representative of the higher education sector

  • From 2007: Project management:

    • Several assignments from the Ministry of Education on universal design

From 2003-2007, the fixed support from the ministry was NOK 1 000 000 (€ 120 000), including a staff consisting of just one person. From 2008 the budget was NOK 1 750 000 (€ 210 000) in addition to funding connected to projects on universal design.

In the beginning networking was the most important task. The national coordinator established a working group together with the most active HEIs (four universities, and four university colleges, all of them had disability services with specialized staff). The group had 5 yearly meetings from 2003-2006 and the group were working on how to raise awareness and how to make disability services more valued in the HEIs.
It was also important to consolidate this group to enhance staff development and to make the work of the disability officers more visible to the university boards. The working group was essential to the National Coordinator in that it provided legitimacy to our work. Even though the coordinator was established at NTNU, all of the HEIs are supposed to benefit from the work of the National Coordinator, and all of the experience and competence of the other institutions working with disability matters in higher education supplies with important knowledge to make the national coordinator a success. In this matter, the working group functioned very well.
Since the start in 2003, the coordinator has fulfilled several of its original tasks:

  • A network between the HEIs in disability matters is established

  • The website (universell.no) has around 20 000 visitors every year

  • 5 national conferences is arranged (from 80-140 participants)

  • Two annual forum meetings between employees in higher education since 2007

As far as we know the National Coordinator has been a positive contributor to make higher education more accessible to students with disabilities. The most important success criteria has been bringing the right people together and to make this a joint effort between the HEIs in contradiction to the competition seen elsewhere in higher education.

From 2007 the National Coordinator was given several assignments from the Ministry of Education. These are mainly projects of implementing universal design in different ways. The projects were funded by the governmental plan of accessibility through universal design. In brief, the projects are:

  • Universal design as a tool to make an inclusive learning environment

  • Universal design as at theme in the curriculum (What does e.g. an architect student learn about universal design?)

  • Accessible literature and study materials

The National Coordinator is responsible for the project management, and encourages the HEIs to contribute in the different projects. This secures ownership to the different topics, and makes them easier to implement at the different HEIs.

All the projects mentioned above will be finalized during 2009, but the implementation in the different HEIs will continue for several years.

Funding of accessibility work in Norwegian HEIs

All Higher Education Institutions in Norway receive government funding. The institutions have, however, a large degree of freedom as how to prioritize their budgets. There is no ear marked funding for accessibility work, except for a requirement that 5% of the institutions’ maintenance budget must be used for making their buildings more accessible. However, only 4 of the Norwegian HEI actually own their buildings and have a substantial maintenance budget. The remaining HEI rent buildings, mainly from Statsbygg, the Norwegian Public Construction and Property Management. The focus on accessibility is therefore a matter of priority along with many other matters and consequently varies a lot between different HEI.


The Act of Universities and University Colleges (2003)

This act clearly defines that the HEIs are responsible for the overall learning environment which also includes students with special needs. This focus on learning environment was not a part of earlier versions of the Higher Education Act. The paragraphs that relate to our topic have a two-fold focus. Firstly, the act specifies that the physical learning environment should follow the guidelines of “universal design”. According to the Ministry of Education this includes universal design of buildings and outdoor facilities (entrances, parking lots, pathways at campus etc), but also products and teaching materials. Secondly, the act states that the HEIs are responsible for reasonable adjustments for students with special needs.
Although there are no specific guidelines to either the interpretation of universal design (except for buildings) or to the phrase reasonable adjustments, this part of the act has been important for the progress of developing an inclusive learning environment in higher education. This has been especially important for the smaller university colleges, but also for the larger universities the Higher Education Act has provided a useful tool for students and staff who are concerned about these topics. For the National Coordinator the act from 2003 has been a most valuable aid in our work and a positive driving force for promoting accessibility in higher education.
The most important weakness of the Higher Education Act is the lack of sanctions available in case the requirements of the act are violated or ignored. In addition to the lack of guidelines as how to interpret the concept of “universal design”, this consequently allows the HEIs to independently define the standards of their effort in these questions. As a result, there are substantial differences between the HEIs regarding to services to students with disabilities. Coordinating the services is therefore an important task for the National Coordinator.

Anti-discrimination Act (2009)

After several years of discussion, an anti-discrimination act came into effect on January first, 2009. The act is an important step towards equal access to higher education in Norway. The act prohibits discrimination due to disabilities (individual protection), and similar to the UK it also requires anticipatory activities. This imposes new demands on the HEIs, because all enterprises (also including educational institutions) are required to work for universal design of their physical environment. According to this, the HEIs are obligated to report about activities and progress in these matters to the Ministry of Education.
In addition, the HEIs must provide reasonable adjustments to assure that students with disabilities have equal access to higher education. The main task is to provide universal design (§ 9) which includes all students, but there are needs that cannot be met by universal design alone and these will be secured trough the paragraph of individual adaption (§ 12).
Compared with the act of higher education, the anti-discrimination act does not bring about considerable new rights for the students. However, it will imply a significant difference for the individual student, because lack of adaption and adjustments can now be defined as discrimination, and the HEIs are naturally concerned about avoiding discrimination claims. In addition, the anti-discrimination act will be monitored by the Equality and anti-discrimination commission (LDO, www.ldo.no), and a student can without any costs address a complaint about discrimination to the commission. In case of a complaint, the LDO will collect information about the specific case, and make a statement about whether or not discrimination has taken place. The student can bring the case to the court of law if a HEI that has been found guilty of discrimination does not take remedial measures.
Since the act is new, we have not yet seen any discrimination claims in higher education. However, if a case is brought to the LDO, the consequence would create precedent to other HEIs. An order to make reasonable adjustments or universal solutions in one HEI means equivalent adjustments in other HEIs. The National Coordinator will try to find common solutions to meet these demands in advance.

Services for students with disabilities

On-campus service

All HEI are required to have a contact person for students with disabilities. In most HEI, however, the responsibility of accessibility work is spread on several people. This can roughly be described as a tree-way split: Student counseling, physical/technical accessibility and adaption of exams.
All HEI have student counseling services and some have specialized councilors for students with disabilities. These provide information about which services are available for the students and help students access these services. Many forms of adaption require that the students can provide documentation of their disability and the counselors can in many cases help the students to acquire the necessary documentation and also help the students apply for technical aids and other public services that are not offered by the HEI.
The Technical Division of the HEI is responsible for making buildings, lecture rooms, study areas, cantinas, libraries, outdoor areas etc accessible for students with disabilities. The Technical divisions have their own budgets and work according to long-term plans. In cooperation with the student counseling services, however, they can also make unplanned adjustments for students when needed.
Exam work is organized differently among the Norwegian HEI. Nevertheless, all HEI offer adaption of exam conditions for students with disabilities. The most common forms of adaptation are extended exam time and the use of technical aids.

Student and staff responsibility

The responsibility of the HEI is defined in the University and University Colleges’ Act, and the role of the contact persons and student counselors is to make sure that the information about the possibilities and regulations for adjustments is available to the students who need such adjustments. The students are, however, responsible for seeking out the information they need, providing the required documentation and applying for the necessary adaptation.

Student funding

Student funding is one of the difficult areas where Norway does not have a system sufficient to include all students.
Norwegian students finance their studies mainly by loans from the Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund. Students can apply for educational support in terms of stipends and/or loan.

  • The number of years a student can receive educational support is based on the standardized duration of the study programs. Maximum 6 years (five year program with a maximum delay of one year).

  • In order to encourage students to study full-time and finish their studies on time, parts of the loan is turned into stipend at the end of each semester if the student has passed the standardized amount of credits.

  • Subjects are normally divided into 7.5 and 15 credit courses, and the standardized number of credits is 30/semester. Thus, students normally have 2-4 exams pr semester.

  • Based on this system, a successful student (who takes 30 credits per semester) will receive educational support which is 60% loan and 40% stipend.

  • This system does not apply to students who live with their parents. These students are not entitled to stipend.

  • If a student get ill or injured and needs to take time away from his studies, the loan for that semester may be converted into stipend. This rule does not apply if the student was already ill when he applied for educational support, and will only rarely benefit students with disabilities.

  • If a student is more than one year delayed in his study program, he will no longer receive educational support from The Educational Loan Fund.

For a lot of students with disabilities The Educational Loan Fund is a poor solution. The alternative is NAV - The Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration (the Norwegian social security system). Students who can document that they, because of a disability, have substantial less possibilities to freely chose a profession and are less likely to be able to have a full-time job and repay a educational loan may have their education paid by NAV. This system was originally designed to help people who had been ill or injured back into the labor marked and was not intended for young students.

  • NAV normally only supports 3 year educations (Bachelor degree)

  • Normally this system only supports people older than 26 years.

  • Students are not allowed to freely choose what to study. NAV only supports studies that they consider as suitable for the person and that can lead to suitable employment in the future.

  • On the other hand, NAV help the students plan their studies, allow for delays and provide necessary technical aids, student assistants and in other ways facilitate the students throughout their studies.


Norwegian HEIs do not have residential areas for students (dormitories). However, the Norwegian Student Welfare Organization offers student housing in almost all cities and towns with HEIs. Some of these have apartments that are accessible for students with disabilities, but this varies a lot from place to place. In those cases where there is accessible housing, the rent is normally higher for these apartments than for regular student apartments.

Public services

There is no additional funding or support for students with disabilities that compensate for additional expenses due to their disability. All citizens with disabilities have, however, the possibility of applying for municipal housing allowances although students are not always eligible for receiving such support. Through the NAV system all disabled citizens can apply for various technical aids, sign interpreters, home care and other services. Services from NAV are cost free for all Norwegian residents and are financed by the public social security system.

Challenges: Making higher education accessible

Despite an increased focus on accessibility and equity there are still a number of issues that remain unsolved. We have already mentioned student funding as one area.

Another is the access to literature and study materials for students who cannot read printed text. Today the right to having talking books produced is limited to the relatively small group of blind and visually impaired students whereas the large group of students with other reading disabilities, such as severe dyslexia and various forms of physical disabilities have only rights to borrowing books that have been produced for students with production rights. A project initiated by the National Coordinator together with the Norwegian Library of Talking Books and Braille and three HEI are currently working on developing a model for production of talking books at the local HEI library.
Although there has been a substantial effort to raising awareness over the last ten years, accessibility work is still mainly handled by a small group of enthusiasts. In order for real change and equity in Norwegian HEIs the notion of and need for equity must be rooted in all departments and units at the HEIs. There is still a long way to go before this is reality but the National Coordinator visits universities and university colleges on a regular basis and we hope that this situation slowly will improve.
Despite the fact that more students with disabilities now graduate from universities and university colleges, employment for disabled people is still a major problem in Norway. Research shows that higher education helps more people to find qualified work but nevertheless, less than 50% of the disabled population is employed. Various efforts have been made by several governments to improve this situation but so far we see no real change for the better.


There has been a great increase in awareness about disability matters in Norway over the last decade. Today accessibility work in higher education has two main branches: universal design and individual adaption. Nevertheless, there are still significant differences among the HEIs in terms of level of commitment to solving these challenges, and the level of support the students receive varies to a large extent. This is also due to the public welfare system and educational funding that have not been developed with these students in mind.
In 2009 there is an atmosphere of optimism concerning the anticipated effects of an anti-discrimination legislation. Although the real consequences of this legislation will not be seen for some time yet, several HEIs have expressed concern and initiated investigations of their organizations to make sure they do not exclude students due to disability.


(Mainly Norwegian)

  • www.universell.no – National Coordinator’s website

  • www.universell-utforming.miljo.no – Norwegian government’s website on universal design

  • www.universell-utforming.miljo.no/artikkel.shtml?id=174 – Norwegian government’s plan for accessibility through universal design

  • www.lovdata.no/all/hl-20080620-042.html - Anti-discrimination Act (2009)

  • www.lovdata.no/all/nl-20050401-015.html - Higher Education Act (2003)

  • www.ldo.no – The Equality and Anti-Discrimination Committee’s website

  • www.nav.no – The Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration’s website

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