Why are university meetings still so inaccessible?

Jim Dickinson reflects on conversations with student leaders and their experiences of committees, boards and meetings - calling for accessibility by design to be a concern for the encounters, rather than just the agenda

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

For well over a quarter of a century now, I’ve been listening to student leaders as they convey miserable experiences of being on university boards, committees and working groups.

Over the years the catalogue of complaints – unsuitable rooms, poor chairing, late and incomprehensible papers, endless acronyms and unintelligible presentations have led me devise all sorts of tricks and tips framed as survival – for the fittest.

In many ways, that’s why I suspect I’m still reading reports here in 2023 that have a tendency to bemoan that student reps change every year. It’s only towards May that they get the hang of it, goes the folklore – and then we (and they) start all over again.

The problem is that the approach I’ve been adopting only gets those students so far. And the more diverse the student body and therefore the more diverse their representatives get, the more that the focus ought to be on making those meetings more accessible.

Well that’s typical

If I think, for example, about the significant increase in neurodiverse students on campus and the way in which that’s feeding through into the training rooms that Livia and I facilitate over the summer, there’s all sorts of ways in which our practice – which is almost certainly rarely perfect – has adapted over the years.

I try to take more breaks than I ever used to. I try to signal that doodling, or playing with fidget toys, is both allowed and encouraged. I’ve tried to reduce my reliance on powerpoint presentations and having lots to read on short notice. And we now deliberately ask SUs about any access requirements that they’ve identified in advance so we have both the right materials on the van, and are taking those needs into account as we deliver.

As I say, there’s still plenty of ways that I think we can improve things, and still plenty of days where we’ll get that wrong. But what has come to alarm me in recent months is not just the lack of evidence that that sort of conversation has been happening in the context of university committees – but some evidence to suggest that where it is attempted, it’s met with indifference, incompetence or even suggestions that that environment “might not be right for a student like you”.

A glance around the extensive resources available from the likes of Advance HE or the CUC does imply the source of the problem. There’s lots of material on board diversity, especially from a recruitment perspective. And there’s plenty of material that argues that diversity issues should be front and central to the discussions happening in both academic and corporate governance. There’s endless stuff on explaining and/or warning folk about meetings and their demands. But there’s very little on making the encounters themselves easier to access.

Masking the problem

The results can be pretty devastating. I’ve heard numerous stories this summer from returning neurodivergent student leaders who’ve had to expend enormous amounts of energy to adapt to what they see as neurotypical meetings. Issues like difficulties with eye contact, auditory processing and timeliness are impacting their participation and contribution.

An over-reliance on one or two full-time student leaders to sit on frankly too many committees doesn’t help either. And the student leader whose apparent “rudeness” and “lack of engagement” was given short shrift by the SU CEO who the senior manager thought they could treat as the parent of the naughty schoolgirl.

So many I’ve spoken to express deep discomfort at the idea of disclosing their condition to Chairs, clerks or other participants – on the basis that “they’re already treated like second class citizens”, and don’t want to make matters worse. And so the mask goes on.

On one level, the good news is that the sorts of adjustments that universities ought to be making for Disabled students’ effective participation ought not to be insurmountable. There is considerable expertise in disability departments and teaching and learning and teaching teams that could straightforwardly be adapted for Teaching and Quality Committee or Council. Causing those sorts of encounters and resultant assessments to take place should be the norm, rather than something an SU officer or rep feels they have to push for.

If nothing else, we ought to consider full-time student leaders as students for the purposes of disability support, with teams engaging with SUs and university officials over the sorts of reasonable adjustments that should be made in these contexts.

As with teaching and learning, so many of the adjustments that might be made are likely to make for better meetings for everyone to take part in. Taking a hard line on papers timeliness, building in breaks, allowing some participants to be supported by someone, being careful to find ways to facilitate that aren’t the usual “hands up, contributions in order” thing and building in buddy schemes will improve decision making in general. If the law requires adjustments to provision to be anticipatory, the bodies making decisions about that provision ought surely to adopt similar principles too.

Not all universities

Before you dive into the comments below to point out that your university is amazing at this, I should say that the experiences I’ve described aren’t universal. At the University of Reading last year, for example, one of the areas explored in a workshop was how documents and papers might be made more accessible for neurodivergent colleagues. At another university I’m told that the neurodivergent clerk to the committee ostentatiously doodles through meetings, signalling clearly the ways in which different people can contribute effectively or concentrate when some may read their participation as disinterest. There are examples of good practice. There just aren’t enough of them.

For physical meetings, having to sit still, staying trapped in a room with people for hours on end and not having the freedom (or nameplated authority) to move around can impact significantly on effective contributions. As ever with online provision, it’s clear that while some online meetings are more accessible for some by definition, they are providing additional and new challenges for others that deserve discussion and exploration. And in either mode, the way papers are presented, the pace of meetings and the flow of discussion can make things much better, or much much worse.

Much is made these days of executive decision making as a way of cutting through bureaucracy and getting things done. That may be true – but the democratic character of our universities remains an important characteristic of the institutions that students enrol into.

Making those encounters more accessible by design to student reps will not only reassure staff and lay contributors who may also be apprehensive about their disability that they can disclose too, it will make those meetings more effective, productive and mindful of the diversity of the student and staff community. And if that requires divergence from centuries of so-called “good” committee practice, so be it.

One response to “Why are university meetings still so inaccessible?

  1. Nice article Jim. I’m sure the OfS could also learn a thing or two from it!

    Also, re:”right materials on the van”
    I’m now picturing Jim shouting “To the wonkhe-mobile!”

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