Discrimination in college and university education

If your education provider is treating you unfairly because of disability, it may be discrimination.

This could be that your college or university treats you differently and worse than others because of your impairment or condition. Or it might be that you're treated the same but that puts you at a disadvantage because of disability.

Disabled students' rights

The Equality Act 2010 can protect you from discrimination if you are defined as 'disabled' under the Act. This usually means how your condition affects you, not what your condition is.

Showing you're disabled under the Equality Act (Citizens Advice)

The Equality Act covers discrimination from:

  • further education and training providers, like colleges
  • higher education providers, like universities
  • teachers or staff from the college or university

This means your university or college must not discriminate against you in things like:

  • admissions
  • how they provide your education
  • disciplinary procedures and exclusions
  • assessments and exams
  • physical environment and facilities, including lecture halls, accommodation, libraries and IT
  • leisure, recreation, entertainment and sports facilities

Discrimination in education (Citizens Advice)

The Equality Act for disabled students (Disability Rights UK)

Warning Tell your education provider about disability

Your college or university must know about your impairment or condition and be given a chance to make adjustments for you. This may include telling your tutor or teacher too.

You cannot claim discrimination if they are not aware of your needs.

Identify the type of discrimination

It can help to understand what type of discrimination you're experiencing before speaking to your college or university.

Knowing how you're being discriminated against can help you assert your rights to get what you need.

There are 6 types of discrimination:

  • direct discrimination
  • indirect discrimination
  • discrimination arising from disability
  • failing to provide reasonable adjustments
  • harassment
  • victimisation

Examples of these might be:

  • A college refuses to accept a student with a facial disfigurement or a condition that causes tics because they think this will upset others.
  • Lecture theatres and classrooms are not wheelchair accessible.
  • A university has a policy where all students must register for classes on an online system. The system is not accessible to some assistive technology, such as screen readers. This puts the student at a disadvantage because they cannot register for their classes. They may also miss out on classes that fill up quickly.
  • A student publically gets in trouble for missing lessons when they're off because of a fluctuating condition.

Types of discrimination in education (GOV.UK)

Failing to make reasonable adjustments

Where they can, your education provider has a legal duty to try to remove the barriers you face because of disability. This is called making reasonable adjustments. It can be discrimination if your college or university fails to provide adjustments.

Reasonable adjustments at university and college

Find out who supports disabled students

If you think you're experiencing discrimination, find out who supports disabled students.

You could start by going to:

  • student support or learning support services, sometimes called student disability services
  • your course leader or your tutor
  • the Students' Union

Ask who you should speak to about disability. The job title can vary between education providers, such as:

  • disability adviser or officer
  • disability co-ordinator
  • learning support adviser (further education)

Their job is to make sure the college or university is meeting its duties under the Equality Act.

Before going to your disability adviser, you might want to talk to:

Mental health support

Find out if your college or university offers student counselling services.

Student disability services may be able to help. Most universities have some kind of counselling or student peer support services.

You could also talk to your doctor (GP) about getting support if you're struggling with your mental health.

Student mental health (NHS)

How to cope with student life (Mind charity)

Student Minds

Think about what you want to happen

Thinking about what you want to happen can help you decide what you want your adviser to help with.

You may want:

  • reasonable adjustments and course support
  • the discrimination to stop
  • the education provider to review a decision
  • an apology
  • a change in policy

Taking action about discrimination in education (Citizens Advice)

Talk to your disability adviser

Ask for a confidential chat with your disability adviser. Tell them:

  • the difficulties you're having
  • the impact on you
  • what you want help with

Be factual and specific. Tell or show them everything you've done so far to try to manage or resolve the problem.

Ask what support they can provide. If you know what you need, ask for it. Remember that you are not asking for a favour or special treatment. You are telling them about your right to support after facing disability discrimination.

If you do not get the support or adjustments you need

Follow up with an email or letter to your adviser. Include what you discussed and the support or adjustments that you are asking for.

Keep a copy of this written request. You may need it if you decide to make a formal complaint or take legal action.

Make a formal complaint

If your adviser has not resolved the problem, follow the college or university complaints procedure.

You can find this:

  • in your student handbook
  • on the college or university website
  • by asking your disability adviser for the complaints procedure

You must go through the complaints procedure before you can do anything else. In higher education (university), you should get a 'Completion of Procedures' letter to confirm the end of the process and report the outcomes.

You can ask for the complaints procedure to be accessible to you

Ask for any adjustments that you need to access the complaints procedure.

For example, a copy of the procedure in a large print document or having a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter for meetings.

If your complaint is not resolved

You may be able to complain to:

The OIA will check the university has followed procedures and best practice. They may also help you reach an agreement with your university. This is called mediation.

Warning Complain to the OIA within 12 months

You have 12 months from the Completion of Procedures letter to submit your complaint.

The OIA cannot help decide if the situation is unlawful discrimination. You will need legal advice for this.

If you're not able to resolve your problem, you can take legal action to claim discrimination. This can be stressful, take time and cost money. It's important to get legal advice to see if you can claim discrimination.

Finding legal help

If you decide to make a claim, you would take your case to County Court. The court can:

  • decide whether unlawful discrimination, harassment or victimisation has taken place
  • require the education provider to do something, such as admit you onto a course or stop them from repeating any discriminatory act in the future
  • order the education provider to pay you compensation

Taking legal action about discrimination (Citizens Advice)

Warning Claim within 6 months of the discrimination

You usually need to make your claim in County Court within 6 months of the discrimination, such as being refused adjustments for an exam.

If you have had support from the OIA and have not been successful, you will have 9 months from the date you experienced discrimination.

Online advice about discrimination in education

EASS has information on discrimination. For specific information, choose:

  • your protected characteristic (disability)
  • where you were discriminated against (college and university)
  • the type of discrimination, such as direct or indirect discrimination

EASS does not give legal advice.

Resources, including template complaint letters (The Right to Participate)

Disability Rights UK education factsheets and guides

What equality law means for you in further or higher education (PDF, Equality and Human Rights Commission)

Last reviewed by Scope on: 03/01/2020

Was this page helpful?

We're sorry to hear that.

Tell us how we can improve it

More about disability discrimination

Opens in a new windowOpens an external siteOpens an external site in a new window