Higher Education PSBAR accessibility requirements webinar with UCISA and The University of Sheffield

Two women sitting at a table, talkingOn Tuesday 7th of February two experienced professionals from the Higher Education sector joined AbilityNet's Amy Low, Service Delivery Director at AbilityNet to discuss the latest in Digital Accessibility in the HE/FE sector. They unpacked sector-focused insights from AbilityNet’s recent research conducted on trends in attitudes to digital accessibility, 5 years on from the introduction of the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations (PSBAR 2018), that requires public sector organisations to make their websites and mobile apps accessible.  

Plus, we learned about trends in attitudes to digital accessibility within HE/FE. The panelists included: 

  • Deborah Green, CEO, UCSIA 
  • Stephen Thompson, Head of Corporate Marketing & Digital, The University of Sheffield

During the webinar, Stephen at The University of Sheffield discussed the institution's experience of being audited by GOV.UK  last year,  as part of its role in monitoring compliance with PSBAR. Stephen outlined the preparation that had been undertaken prior to the audit, the experience of being audited and the actions they took as a result of it, and how they are continuing to embed digital accessibility within the institution.

We also spoke with Deborah Green, CEO at UCISA (The University and Colleges Information Services Association) about the Higher Education results from AbilityNet’s recent Attitudes to Digital Accessibility survey, what this means for the industry and where to go next.  

In the webinar, the panellists discussed: 

  • PSBAR 
  • Being audited
  • How to prevent audit fails
  • HE attitudes to digital accessibility


Higher Education PSBAR accessibility requirements - AbilityNet webinar slides via SlideShare

Meet the panellists:

Deborah green smiling to the camera. Deborah Green, CEO, UCSIA

Deborah is a former Solicitor, recognised as Yorkshire Lawyer of the Year in 2007, who also brings a wealth of marketing and higher education experience following appointments including Director of Student Recruitment at the University of Hull, Chief Executive of Marketing Leeds, and 5 years at Leeds Beckett University, as a member of the Executive Board as Director of Marketing and Corporate Communications. 

Since her appointment as CEO in May 2019 Deborah has led UCISA on a transformational journey drawing together and promoting the expertise of UCISA’s members who are leading and supporting digital transformation and services in educational institutions. 

Stephen Thompson smiles facing the cameraStephen Thompson, Head of Corporate Marketing & Digital, The University of Sheffield

Stephen leads the continual process of making the digital estate and marketing material as accessible as possible and recently launched a brand refresh with accessibility as a core guiding principle. 


Amy Low smiles directly at the camera in front of a teal backgroundAmy Low, Service Delivery Director at AbilityNet (Host)

Amy leads the workplace, education and free services teams. Having spent 15 years working in a variety of leadership and transformation roles within serviced property and IT services, Amy joined AbilityNet in 2016, drawn by the opportunity to leverage technology to remove barriers to participation for disabled people and create a better digital experience for everyone. She works with a wide range of institutions and organisations providing services and support to ensure their digital practices are meeting the needs of the widest audience.

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This webinar lasted 60 minutes and included an opportunity to pose questions to the guests. The panel were able to answer many questions from attendees during the live session, which you can find by watching the webinar playback or accessing the transcript. Here are some additional questions we weren't able to answer at the time:

Q: What free apps/software is available for live captions and transcription?

Stephen from the University of Sheffield: That's a really challenging area. We happen to have kicked off a project about 18 months ago to review over 1000 websites that are owned by people at the University- these are the ones we know about and provide a hosting service for in our IT Services. Whilst the main driver of this has been information security ensuring rather than accessibility, it has meant that many of the worst sites for accessibility were unpublished or migrated to Google Sites, in most cases the accessibility standards of the Google Sites were better.

We have a team of around 6 content designers doing the review and migration work. I think providing that support is crucial. 

In hindsight, I would have asked that accessibility standards were reviewed at the same time, statements made for each and a greater number of accessibility improvements made to content as well. 

Ultimately, we've tried to take a pragmatic priority-based approach to improve the accessibility of sites, based on the volume of users and how critical the information is to areas such as student experience. This means that many of the thousands of sites are lower in priority and therefore are less likely to meet the highest standards. 

Q: Stephen, what were the final comms from the CO after the audit/how was it left?

Stephen from the University of Sheffield: They did re-test the original areas we failed in the test. They followed up and identified one area where they still felt we did not meet the standard. They offered a remedy and we applied that. They thanked us and noted that all issues found in the report were now fixed. They also determined that our statement is compliant.

They also asked that we be clear to users of any outstanding issues under Non-accessible content and compliance status. They said they would recommend to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) that no further action is taken. 

However, they did say the EHRC has the right to overturn this recommendation. They will contact you if they need to take further action. They have not to date.

With respect to future monitoring their monitoring is based on a sampling process. It is possible that our website may be put forward for further testing in the future. It is important that accessibility standards are maintained.

Q: Our issue (Queen Mary University of London) is that we don't have anyone at the university level (or even the faculty level) leading on accessibility. I am a Learning Technologist and we have Blackboard Ally plugged into Moodle to check content on our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Above that, there isn't anyone leading accessibility conversations. So I'm struggling (in a non-managerial role) to engage anyone in senior management to either recruit someone or, as in Stephen's case, for someone to add digital accessibility to their current role. Any advice?

Stephen from the University of Sheffield: That is really tricky as I think some degree of senior management understanding and support is a crucial ingredient. I typically try and look at what risks might be to the University, especially regulatory ones, and the University vision and any related action plans. From this, you might be able to put accessibility into the context of one of these that might help others understand its importance. 

Sometimes comparing your institution to others can be compelling to managers and senior management. Could you have some sort of audit or comparison done that might be shared internally to highlight if you're behind, or that others are investing more?

Ultimately I think you need to find other champions like yourself. That might take a long time, even with other champions it took years for us to get this properly on the agenda. So I'd say to keep the faith and raise awareness as much as you can, at some point others will emerge.

Deborah from the UCISA: I have a senior contact at QMUL and so have made enquiries as to who leads on this. I feel sure someone will. Lead on this and will come back to you when I hear.

Q: I would like to ask both members what processes they have in place to ensure that the content posted is accessible prior to posting? We have noticed that Blackboard Ally identifies different accessibility issues to Microsoft Accessibility checker. Neither can identify if hyperlinks have descriptive text for example or captioned tables. Cabinet Office says that checkers are generally only 30% - 40% accurate. Keen to find out what the benchmark is for content and how to check this if accessibility checkers differ? Also keen to know what happens if content must be published but it is not fully accessible (particularly relevant to content owned by others e.g. awarding bodies).

Stephen from the University of Sheffield:  The tools do only go about halfway to finding the issues. The Cabinet Office used AXE and also manual checks. 

Our model for web publishing is very decentralised. So there is no sign-off and anyone trained as an editor can publish. Whilst we train for accessibility, we know that some content will not meet the standards and we handle that when it comes to light. 

There are some occasions where a case can be made for publishing non-accessible content- where this is the case we ask that a disproportionate burden statement is produced. Sometimes it does simply come down to judgment, whether to publish or not, weighing up the potential benefits vs. drawbacks. Where we know there is non-accessible content, we aim to put a clear signpost to where to contact if an accessible version is required. 

In the e-learning space, we have an ongoing programme of staff development sessions via our Elevate programme that provides support and opportunities for all staff who teach and support learning to engage in professional development.

We have comprehensive guidance on our website to provide guidance to staff on the importance of accessibility and to give specific help in creating accessible content.

We have the mandatory "Digital Core Essentials" standards that we expect all academic departments to attain, comprised of 6 key areas, including the provision of accessible teaching materials.

Deborah from UCISA: At present we ask all of our speakers to run their content through an accessibility checker and in-house we rely strongly on MS tools to check our own content.

Q: What was the University of Sheffield’s rating on the Digital Maturity level?

Stephen from the University of Sheffield: At the time I think we managed a Silver badge for the area of 'Responsibility' but were bronze or unbadged for most other areas. Now I think we'd be higher, especially in areas of skills and expertise and the user's digital experience, potentially Silver or Gold. I think we should re-run an exercise to see the extent of improvement.

Q: What can e-learning content producers do to tune accessible content for Higher Education? How can we best get feedback from actual users rather than just Higher Education procurers?

Stephen from the University of Sheffield: I'd refer back to the Elevate programme I mentioned above in terms of creating accessible content. For feedback, we work with a small number of Disability Champions to user-test our systems and content, and this supplements getting things tested by automated tools and audited by experts. 

We also surveyed all our students about their experience of using our Student Hub and website. We included accessibility as part of this and where permission was granted we followed up with disabled students. 

Q: What methods do you use to get a feel for how things are going? Which way things are trending? Do you collect any data/stats in an automated way?

Deborah from UCISA: I’m afraid we don’t at this stage hence our support for/work with AbilityNet as they help us to be aware of trends.

Q: What are your thoughts on the legal term 'reasonable adjustments'?

Deborah from UCISA: As an employer, we take a very common sense approach to this and try to make any adjustments that will assist the individual concerned. Our only constraint is operational efficiency e.g if the cost would be prohibitive ( although we have found the government’s Access to Work Scheme invaluable here as they have funded adjustments that we could not afford in at least two cases) or if the adjustment requested would significantly disrupt working or our overall efficiency. Saying no would be a last resort after all options had been considered and discussed with the individual though.

Q: What was the name of the published document Deborah used when she first started that she sent to IT directors etc. ?

Deborah from UCISA: It is the 'Digital accessibility directors cut', and you can download a PDF copy.


Useful links

Date of webinar: 
7 Feb 2023 - 13:00