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Minister Harris announces new policies to support autistic students and students with an intellectual disability access third level

- €12 million ring-fenced until 2025

Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris TD has today announced new initiatives to support autistic students and those with an intellectual disability access third level education.


The proposals, which will form part of the proposed new National Access Plan, will allocate ring-fenced funding of €3 million a year to 2025 so Higher Education institutions can implement universal design and inclusive practices on their campuses, and enhance opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities in higher education.


Funding in 2022 will be directed towards universal design and inclusive practices. This includes improving campus accessibility improvements such as supporting autism friendly campuses e.g., wayfinding apps, signage, small-scale capital works such as autism-friendly spaces such as sensory rooms or quiet zones.


The funding this year may also be used for training and professional development for staff, including training resources and recruitment of specialists, to develop and enhance of inclusive teaching, learning and assessment practices. Funding can be used to make services available at times which suit students’ needs.

Technology-based solutions that support inclusive practices in teaching and learning, and training for students to support learning and utilising assistive technology and upgrading students’ digital skills will also be supported.

Later this year, a competitive funding call will issue to colleges seeking proposals for three year pathfinding pilot programmes supporting the creation of on how to assist students with intellectual disabilities. Funding for approved programmes/courses will be rolled out over three years commencing in 2023.


Speaking today, Minister Harris said: "We have never focused on how many students with an intellectual disability or autism have entered or completed third level.


"These new proposals will allow us to assess how we are doing but crucially, we will be introducing new policy changes to ensure we do better.


"Education is the greatest leveller in society. A key ambition for me is to ensure that supports and opportunities are provided for learning to all. This means recognising the needs of vulnerable learners, people who are most marginalised and people with special and additional needs and assisting them in accessing and progressing through third level education."


The proposals will form part of the National Plan for Equity of Access, Participation and Success in Higher Education.


Minister Harris added: "Before we agreed these proposals, we examined what was already happening.


"There are examples of very good practice in the system and encouraging signs of commitment to the extensive process of change required to make such programmes a success.


“However, there are also examples where, despite strong commitment, it was not possible to deliver programmes which were sustainable over time.


"The Government is also seeking expertise to support the Department and HEA to ensure this roll out meets the needs of students.


“This is an important day and I really want to thank everyone for working with us to make this a reality. This has the potential to change the lives of autistic students and students with intellectual disabilities.”


Welcoming the initiatives, Minister of State for Disability Anne Rabbitte said: “These new proposals from Minister Harris and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research Innovation and Science are hugely welcome as we seek to support greater opportunities and enhanced engagement in higher education by students with an intellectual disability. 


“The government is committed to supporting access routes and inclusive education initiatives to learners with intellectual disabilities, and the new National Action Plan will be a key milestone in our journey towards a truly inclusive Further and Higher Education Sector.


“Under Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, we have a duty to ensure we have an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning directed to the development by persons with disabilities of their personality, talents and creativity, as well as their mental and physical abilities, to their fullest potential.


“We have a duty to actively remove the barriers that people face in accessing further and higher education, and to provide effective individualised support measures, in environments that maximise academic and social development. 


“People with disabilities in Ireland have equal rights of access to education, but there is much more work to be done to enable people with disabilities to vindicate their right to education, particularly in Further and Higher Education. The work Minister Harris is doing, as evidenced in today’s launch, represents excellent progress in this regard. The New Action Plan is a key piece of work in Ireland’s overall efforts to achieve the objectives of the Convention.”





Notes to the Editor


The Programme for Access to Higher Education (PATH) Fund supports innovative approaches to delivering the ambitions, goals and objectives of National Access Plans. This new measure will support the creation of greater capacity within higher education for embedding inclusive practices using universal design practices which will help all students, including students with autism and other additional needs. A whole of institution approach to student success for all and the embedding of universal design and inclusive practices will be a key feature in the new plan benefiting all students, while being of particular benefit to Students with disabilities including students with autism and students with an intellectual disability.

Inclusion is one of the core strategic goals for the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (DFHERIS). A key ambition for the Department is to ensure that we provide more opportunities in higher education for all reflecting the diversity of our population. This means recognising the needs of vulnerable learners, people who are most marginalised and people with special and additional needs. This means assisting people in accessing and progressing through further education and training and higher Education.  


This important development will help to build on the existing but limited provision already available in Higher Education Institutions for students with intellectual disabilities.  These measures to be put in place under a new PATH Strand 4:  Universal Design for All and Improving opportunities for Students with Intellectual Disabilities to engage in Higher Education. PATH 4 aims to;

  • Support a more diverse student body in Higher Education that includes students with an intellectual disability;
  • support capacity building and embed universal design approaches for all, particularly students with autism and an intellectual disability in higher education;
  • Develop policies and subsequent implementation plans to promote participation of students with intellectual disabilities in higher education;
  • Advance a holistic student centred partnership approach within the tertiary education sector which will enable students with an intellectual disability reach their potential.


Phase 1 will be a once off fund of €3 million for Universal Design which will be allocated to higher education institutions in 2022 to advance universal design and inclusive practices in higher education. This measure will complement existing student success measures in higher education for all students and learners. While benefiting all students, it will be of particular benefit students with disabilities, including students with autism. It will also enable the development of future capacity in HEIs for creating more opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities. 

Phase 2 will be a competitive funding call for new three year pathfinding pilot programmes/course provision for students with intellectual disabilities with a funding stream of €3 million a year over 3 years, commencing in 2023. The outcomes arising from this investment will inform future policy beyond the pathfinding pilot phase which will take place over a period between 2022 and 2025.