Common Framework for Supporting Disabled Students

The Common Framework Statement has been developed in light of wide consultation and builds on current good practice. The Statement sets out the guiding principles that underpin the procedures for supporting disabled students. View the statement from the link below  


The collegiate University shall apply the following principles in respect of its disabled students:

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  1. That the collegiate University will seek to demonstrate exemplary inclusive practice in relation to disabled students.
  2. That the collegiate University will comply with all applicable legislation and follow the guidance outlined in University policies and relevant external publications, noting the requirement to make reasonable adjustments insofar as they do not compromise the integrity of academic competence standards.


Procedures relating to disabled students should be informed by our guiding principles and the following high-level objectives:

  1. That the collegiate University will adopt an anticipatory approach, in line with requirements of the Equality Act, and think ahead about the range of adjustments that might reasonably be made for potential students without needing reference to individual student cases.
  2. That the collegiate University will use and further develop efficient communication systems to share information about disabled students in order to provide coordinated support. This will be carried out in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998 and will also recognise the requirement to respect confidentiality and the need for sensitivity during the legitimate sharing of student personal data.
  3. That the Disability Advisory Service will play a central role in assessing student need and making recommendations for reasonable adjustments to remove disability-related barriers including working in collaboration with, and providing advice and guidance for, students, colleges, departments and other relevant sections of the collegiate University.
  4. Each college (this includes permanent private halls) and department (this includes faculties) should designate a senior member of staff to take a lead role in disability-related matters, known as the disability lead. This person should have strategic oversight of provision for disabled students within their college or department and will report to the relevant responsible body. This would normally be Governing Body in colleges and Departmental Committee or the Faculty Board in divisions. The disability lead will hold sufficient seniority to ensure that provisions for disabled students are made and should normally be a full member of the responsible body. Each college and department may also appoint one or more members of staff to coordinate and oversee implementation of provision for disabled students, known as the disability coordinator. This person, or their delegate, must also be in a position to ensure that adjustments necessary to meet the day-to-day needs of disabled students are put in place.
  5. That a collaborative approach will be adopted by staff supporting disabled students to facilitate the smooth and coherent implementation of reasonable adjustments. Within this collaborative context, the lead responsibility for maintaining oversight throughout a student’s studies will be taken by colleges in the case of undergraduates, and by departments in the case of graduates, in close consultation with the Disability Advisory Service.
  6. That the names, contact details and functions of those acting as disability leads and co-ordinators in colleges and departments will be made easily available to disabled students.
  7. That the collegiate University will ensure ample opportunities are available for students to disclose disabilities and engage in collaborative and timely assessment of their support needs, and will encourage and support them to develop autonomy, independence and self-agency in managing their disability.
  8. That colleagues working directly with disabled students will have access to training and support in order to carry out their roles effectively.

The following key terms are used: disability; reasonable adjustments; competence standards; inclusive practice; accessibility and anticipatory duty.

These terms are underpinned by the Equality Act (2010). The Act requires universities not to discriminate against disabled students. This includes a duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that disabled students are not put at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with students who are not disabled.


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A disability is defined as a condition which has a long-term (has lasted for 12 months or is likely to do so), substantial (not minor or trivial) and adverse impact on an individual’s capacity to undertake normal day-to-day activities. Disability covers a wide variety of conditions, encompassing long-term illness (often from the point of diagnosis) as well as physical or psychological problems, eg:

  • Vision or hearing impairments
  • Physical impairments such as paraplegia, cerebral palsy, repetitive strain injury (RSI) and arthritis
  • Mental health difficulties such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders
  • Specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder. These conditions do not need to be shown to have a substantial adverse effect on normal day-to-day activities as it is accepted that they will in all cases significantly affect students in higher education
  • Long-term health conditions such as HIV, diabetes, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease/Crohn’s disease, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME, multiple sclerosis and cancer. A person with such a condition continues to be regarded as disabled despite fluctuations in the severity of their condition or, in the case of cancer, after recovery.

Case law has indicated that undertaking examinations is considered to be a day-to-day rather than specialised activity.

Reasonable adjustments are central to the concept of disability equality. Where a disabled student suffers, or would suffer, a substantial disadvantage, the University is under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to overcome that disadvantage. The intention is that the adjustments should level the playing field for the disabled student. It is important that adjustments meet the needs of the individual disabled student rather than providing a generic response to a class or type of disability. Once implemented, adjustments do not provide automatic precedents for other students, but may be taken into account when considering what would be appropriate in a different case. The duty is anticipatory which means that the University should not wait until it is asked to consider what adjustments might be made, but should be ready where feasible with solutions to overcome disadvantages. The failure to make reasonable adjustments cannot be legally justified and if an adjustment is deemed to be reasonable then it must be made.

All parts of the University share the duty to take positive steps to ensure that disabled students can fully participate in education and enjoy the benefits, facilities and services that are provided for students. The Equality Act requires that, so far as is reasonably practicable, disabled students’ access to education is approximately the same as that enjoyed by the rest of the student body.

There is no obligation to make adjustments to competence standards. Competence standards are the ‘academic, medical or other standards applied for the purpose of determining whether or not a person has a particular level of competence or ability’ in their course. A competence standard must not itself be unlawfully discriminatory, therefore it must not be applied only to a disabled student and must be:

  • Genuinely relevant to the course
  • Applied equally to all students, whether with or without a disability; and
  • A proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim

The proportionate means requires that:

  • There is a pressing need that supports the standard’s purpose
  • The application of the standard will achieve that aim; and
  • There is no other way of achieving the aim that is less detrimental to disabled people

Not all competences or assessment criteria which students might be expected to fulfil on a particular course can necessarily be considered competence standards. Competence standards cannot be used to justify direct discrimination against a disabled person. For example, a blanket refusal to allow a student to participate in any assessed experimental work merely because they are physically disabled would clearly be direct discrimination.

Competence standards include:

  • Admissions criteria – such as having studied a modern foreign language – where these are valid requirements for the course;
  • In the sciences, students may be required to undertake laboratory practicals or complete manual clinical tasks in order to achieve the learning outcomes for an award;
  • A time limit may be imposed on the assessment of a fundamental skill where this is genuinely relevant and necessary, eg a clinical measurement or task. In some examinations, for example those assessing knowledge of and application of quantitative techniques, the format of the assessment may be restricted by the nature of the test. A timed, invigilated assessment may therefore be most appropriate when candidates are being tested on their crystallised knowledge and ability to select and apply relevant techniques and skills;
  • Where candidates are expected to demonstrate competence in a variety of modes of assessment, it would be reasonable to state that, for example, submission of a research project or extended piece of writing formed one of the competence standards for the course.

An example of reasonable adjustments to the assessment of a competence standard are adjustments to the conditions under which timed examinations are taken, including:

  • the provision of extra time and/or rest breaks;
  • taking examinations in college or in a separate room;
  • the use of word processing and other assistive technology;
  • ergonomic furniture;
  • permission to take food, drink or medication into the examination room;
  • an adapted laboratory environment, permitted the use of assistive technology, or allowed extra time to complete non-time critical elements of the task.

When a candidate’s disability-related needs cannot be met by such adjustments, it is necessary to consider more significant adjustments that may require dispensation from the regulations. Infrequently, these might include a course supervisory body devising an alternative assessment format which will test the same competence standards as the original assessment, eg a take-home paper. If an alternative assessment is not possible or practicable, adjustments to the timing and duration of a timed written examination can be made to take account of a candidate’s disability, eg splitting the examination over more than one session or allowing the candidate significantly longer to complete it. Students undertaking laboratory work or extended research projects may be given extra time and additional access to resources (eg over the vacation) to complete their work to the required level.

An inclusive approach to education values individual differences, and recognises the benefits that diverse students and staff bring to the University of Oxford. Inclusive education aims to improve the educational experience of all students, and so enables achievement at equal rates. An inclusive approach goes beyond supporting specific groups through a discrete set of policies and interventions. Instead, teaching, learning and assessment take into account students’ varied learning needs from the outset.

The term accessibility in this context describes whether all people are able to use, participate in or benefit from a particular resource, service or environment regardless of any disabilities. This would include, for example, buildings and premises, products and services and sources of information such as websites and printed material. The collegiate University aims to ensure that its services, buildings and information are made as accessible as reasonably possible. Direct access is preferable but if this is not reasonably possible indirect access should be facilitated through the use of auxiliary aids or services or alternative formats compatible with assistive technology.

The duty to make reasonable adjustments is anticipatory in the sense that it does not apply only to individual disabled students, but to disabled people and disabled students generally. It requires the consideration of, and action in relation to, barriers that may impede disabled people before any particular individual requires access to that benefit, facility or service. This means that no part of the University should wait until it is asked to consider what adjustments should be made, but should be ready where feasible with solutions to overcome disadvantages. This is a more strategic approach in the long-term because it will reduce the need to make individual adjustments which can be required at short notice or at significant cost. For instance, if a college which has steps up to its entrance admits a student with mobility difficulties, it will need to provide a step-free alternative route. Where this does not already exist, the college may need to invest additional human and financial resources into the issue – seeking planning permission, carrying out work at short notice – in order to ensure there is a step-free entrance in time for the new academic year. The additional resource implications of this work might have been avoided if the college had anticipated that disabled people might require a step-free entrance and incorporated the adjustment into a broader programme of work to improve accessibility.

More information in carrying out anticipatory adjustments can be found in the Equality Challenge Unit’s Guidance on managing reasonable adjustments in higher education, and Chapter 7 of the Equality Act 2010 Technical Guidance on Further and Higher Education.


The web-based handbook will act as a resource for guidance on facilitating access for disabled students, including inclusive and anticipatory provision.

The handbook will layout the requirements and processes for assessing and implementing individual reasonable adjustments; the roles and responsibilities of different constituent parts of the collegiate University as they relate to disabled students; the training and support available to those involved in supporting disabled students; and the approach taken to monitoring and evaluating provision. The handbook will promote and share good practice among those supporting disabled students in different parts of the collegiate University.


In line with the overarching objective to monitor and evaluate disability-related provision regularly, all responsible bodies of the collegiate University are asked to incorporate a process for such monitoring into existing evaluation procedures.

  1. They will use the current quality assurance cycles within Conference of Colleges and divisions to ensure complementary processes of monitoring, review, identification of difficulties, and enhancement are followed in relation to the Common Framework.
  2. This review process will seek to provide full information with regard to current provision and present a set of targets, with an appropriate time-frame, to address any areas where work is needed to support realisation of the guiding principles.
  3. The information gathered through this review process will be used to share good practice across the collegiate University and to meet legislative requirements and the expectations of relevant external bodies. 

The Common Framework was agreed in Trinity Term 2014

and adopted by colleges, departments, faculties and others within the University involved in provision for disabled students at the start of the 2014/15 academic year.


Policies and regulations relating to the University’s provision for disabled students and the range of adjustments that can be made to support these students.


University policies and guidance

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In 2006 Education Committee developed a Framework for Supporting Students with Disabilities that set out guidance for colleges and departments on best practice for the admission of, and support for, disabled students throughout their course. The key feature of the framework is to have a single senior point of contact who will take responsibility for planning the overall support required by the student and, subsequently, for ensuring that what has been agreed is provided. Although this document is still valid, concerns were raised that it was not being implemented uniformly or effectively across the University. Consequently, the new Common Framework seeks to build upon and supplement this earlier policy.

The University’s Equality Policy expresses the University’s commitment to fostering an inclusive culture which promotes equality, values diversity and maintains a working, learning and social environment in which the rights and dignity of its students and staff are respected. Responsibility for upholding these principles is extended to all members of the University community. The University embraces diversity and seeks to achieve equity in experience, progression and achievement through the implementation of transparent policies, practices and procedures and provision of effective support. In particular, the University commits to encouraging applications from the widest pool of candidates, especially where representation is disproportionately low. Decisions on the admission of students will be based solely on the individual merits of each candidate and the application of selection criteria appropriate to the course of study. In all its activities, the University will take steps to meet the needs of individuals with protected characteristics, including disability, where these are different from others.

The University Strategic Plan 2013-2018 sets out the aspirations and priorities of the collegiate University over this five year period, including the aim to lead the world in research and education, along with actions that the University intends to take in order to achieve these objectives. Several parts of the Strategic Plan include commitments intended to improving the experience of disabled students, from applicants to those who are already on-course:

  • With regard to applications, the University’s vision is that no potential student should be deterred from applying to Oxford by financial or other barriers, including disability. The Strategic Plan contains a commitment to ensure that our undergraduate and graduate admissions processes identify students with outstanding academic potential and the ability to benefit from an Oxford course whatever their background
  • For students, the University is committed to ensure that the best Oxford experience is the typical experience for all undergraduate and postgraduate students and that Oxford fully equips graduates for the best of the diverse range of opportunities for study and employment available to them
  • In the area of teaching and assessment, this means that the University should provide an equal opportunity for all students to achieve and demonstrate their full academic potential

Under the University’s current procedures, reasonable adjustments which require significant changes to University examinations are approved by or on behalf of Education Committee. The committee has delegated authority from Council to approve the necessary dispensations from the regulations required to put such changes into effect. Annex A of the Policy and Guidance sets out the procedure for requesting significant adjustments to course and assessment requirements which require approval on behalf of Education Committee. In this area institutions are not required to make adjustments which would compromise the academic competence standards of the courses in question. This annexe describes the types of adjustments involved and the normal procedures to be followed in considering applications for such adjustments.

Annex A includes information on:

  • Examples of competence standards
  • Identifying competence standards
  • Distinguishing competence standards and methods of assessment
  • Examples of reasonable adjustments to the assessment of a competence standard
  • Guidance on marking and classification where reasonable adjustments have been made

Full guidance on the process for requesting adjustments to course or assessment requirements is given in the Annex, but can be briefly summarised as:

  • The application is routed through the student’s college and therefore the expectation is that it will have been discussed and considered with relevant college tutors before submission. The college will normally also have been in contact with the Disability Advisory Service
  • An application must be supported by appropriate and detailed medical or other specialist evidence to confirm the nature of the disability and its likely impact on a student’s capacity to undertake all or parts of a course
  • For most cases, a view of the application will also be sought from the Disability Advisory Service which has substantial experience of providing appropriate support for students with disabilities and identifying appropriate adjustments
  • The application will be sent to the relevant supervisory body for the course concerned and that body will be asked to provide a comment on the adjustments proposed. The relevant board of examiners are also consulted, particularly about any changes in the mode of assessment which they will be asked to oversee
  • A decision is then taken on behalf of Education Committee and passed back to the supervisory body/examiners, to the Disability Advisory Service and to the college (which communicates the decision to the student)

An appeal process exists in the event that a student is not happy with the decision that is reached. This is also set out in the Annex.

Access Agreement with OFFA

Oxford continues to exceed its HEFCE benchmark in relation to students with disabilities, with 5.9% of full-time undergraduate students being in receipt of Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) in 2012/13. As part of the University’s 2015/16 agreement with the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), which sets out the measures it intends to put in place to promote fair access, the following measures to support and encourage disabled applicants are highlighted:

  • A common system of flagging applications has been adopted by all courses to enable tutors to identify candidates who have experienced educational or socioeconomic disadvantage, who are disabled or who have been in care;
  • Pre-application and preinterview contact is available with the Disability Advisory Service for relevant candidates and the Disability Advisory Service advises on reasonable adjustments to the admissions process. This ensures that applications from these groups are given especially careful consideration at the short-listing stage;
  • The University proactively encourages applications from students with disabilities. Upon acceptance at Oxford, all offer-holders who have not disclosed a disability in their UCAS application are encouraged to do so and to make contact with the Disability Advisory Service to discuss their needs so that the appropriate support can be provided prior to their commencement of study;
  • The University has increased its investment in the Disability Advisory Service to facilitate the creation of new roles, including a dedicated disability adviser for students with SpLD; in-house diagnostic and needs assessment; an enhanced mentoring service; and greater links with the University Counselling Service. This resulted in higher rates of disability disclosure during 2012/13, and increased opportunities to encourage students to obtain support from the Disability Advisory Service.

QAA Quality Code

The UK Quality Code for Higher Education  sets out for each chapter of the Code the Expectation that all providers of UK Higher Education are required to meet and which will be used by the QAA as the basis for Higher Education Reviews (formerly Institutional Reviews). The University will be reviewed in 2015 and will need to demonstrate that it is meeting the Expectations of the Quality Code and taking account of the relevant Indicators of good practice. Several Expectations and Indicators are relevant to provision for disabled students:

  • Recruitment, selection and admission policies and procedures adhere to the principles of fair admission. They are transparent, reliable, valid, inclusive and underpinned by appropriate organisational structures and processes. They support higher education providers in the selection of students who are able to complete their programme [Expectation for Chapter B2]
  • Higher education providers [...] articulate and systematically review and enhance the provision of learning opportunities and teaching practices, so that every student is enabled to develop as an independent learner, study their chosen subject(s) in depth and enhance their capacity for analytical, critical and creative thinking [Expectation for Chapter B3].Learning and teaching activities and associated resources provide every student with an equal and effective opportunity to achieve the intended learning outcomes [Indicator 2 for Chapter B3]
  • Higher education providers maintain physical, virtual and social learning environments that are safe, accessible and reliable for every student, promoting dignity, courtesy and respect in their use [Indicator 6 for Chapter B3]
  • Higher education providers produce information for their intended audiences about the learning opportunities they offer that is fit for purpose, accessible and trustworthy [Expectation for Part C]. Higher education providers make available to prospective students information to help them select their programme with an understanding of the academic environment in which they will be studying and the support that will be made available to them [Indicator 3 of Part C]

Equality Act (2010)

The Equality Act was introduced in 2010 to consolidate and replace a range of anti-discrimination laws, including the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA,1995), which made it unlawful to discriminate against people due to disability in relation to employment, the provision of goods and services, transport and education. It makes it unlawful for any part of a higher education institution (HEI) to discriminate against a person throughout the student lifecycle, including in the admissions decision and terms, the provision of education, in access to benefits, facilities and services and in the conferral of qualifications. The Equality Act provides additional protections to disabled students by making it unlawful to treat a student unfavourably for reasons that arise in consequence of that student’s disability, where the treatment is not a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. In order to prevent discrimination due to disability, the Act allows disabled students to be treated more favourably and includes a provision for making reasonable adjustments in order to bring a disabled student’s experience in line with the norm. The application of the Equality Act to HEIs is set out in the Technical Guidance, which explains in detail the Act’s requirements in relation to the provision of education and access to benefits, facilities or services.

Data Protection Act (2018)

The Data Protection Act (DPA) applies to any data about an identifiable living person, protecting their right to privacy with respect to their personal data. Particular protections are applied with respect to ‘sensitive personal data’, which includes information relating to an individual’s physical or mental health or condition. Sensitive personal data cannot be disclosed apart from in specific circumstances, such as if the individual gives their explicit consent or because it is necessary for medical purposes. Subject to some exceptions, the DPA also gives individuals the right to ask that their data is not processed, if doing so is likely to cause damage or distress. More information is listed out in University Policy on Data Protection


Contact us:

Disability Advisory Service
3 Worcester Street
Oxford, OX1 2BX
01865 280459