Accessibility plan 2023 – 2024
(Approved by the management group on 21 December 2022)
It is important that all kinds of people have opportunities to study and learn and thus develop their skills, regardless of their background. Therefore, the accessibility of studies and learning is something that Vaasa University of Applied Sciences (VAMK) wishes to promote by all possible means. In the context of a higher education institution, accessibility is linked to many different areas, such as digital accessibility, physical accessibility, the provision of support and guidance to students as well as the organisation’s values, attitudes and operating culture – to mention a few. In other words, we are dealing with a major issue.
This VAMK Accessibility Plan is a response to development objective 2 of the plan ‘Towards more accessible higher education and higher education institutions’ (Publications of the Ministry of Education and Culture, 2021:35) by Tapio Kosunen. According to this development objective, higher education institutions must draw up their own accessibility plans by the end of 2022.
Kosunen states the following regarding the accessibility plans of higher education institutions:
“They are used to promote diversity in staff recruitment and strengthen the access of students, particularly students who are underrepresented in higher education and members of minority groups, to higher education and the progress of their studies and employment.”
In this Accessibility Plan, we have made use of the definition of accessibility put forward by Lehto et al. (2019), as applicable:
“In an accessible higher education institution, the institution’s facilities, electronic systems, learning environments, teaching methods and attitudes facilitate the inclusion and nondiscrimination of students with a wide range of personal qualities and different backgrounds. Individual needs may refer to things such as needs linked to the individual’s state of health, age, language or cultural background. Physical accessibility refers only to room solutions and electronic systems, even though previous interpretations also linked it to learning materials and teaching methods, among other things. Psychological accessibility, on the other hand, describes the attitudes prevalent at the higher education institution and things such as experiences of non-discrimination and inclusion, as well as attitudes towards differences. In this report, social accessibility refers to different practices that promote accessibility (including teaching methods and learning materials), official strategies and plans. Of course, this is an artificial categorisation, as the reality is that the different levels of accessibility overlap and interlink with each other.”
The background, creation process and content of this Accessibility Plan were processed extensively at a kick-off event for the staff in autumn 2022 once 22 of the 38 development objectives mentioned in Kosunen’s plan had been selected for a closer review. The present situation was analysed with regard to these objectives by interviewing the persons who are responsible for the areas in question at VAMK; they were teaching or other staff. Additionally, representatives of the student union VAMOK were involved in the process and interviewed separately. Based on the interview results, it was determined which areas were already in a good state and which ones were in need of development. The most important development measures are compiled in the summary table found at the end of this plan.
This is where the most important phase starts. The plan is realised in daily life and our everyday actions. We are all responsible for this together.
2. Principles of accessibility and non-discrimination efforts at VAMK
There is a clear desire to implement accessibility as broadly as possible. One area in which we know that there is still room for development is the way in which these matters can be considered more strongly at the strategic level and, through this, become a built-in, crosscutting theme in all operations of our higher education institution. One concrete measure is to incorporate accessibility into the Quality Handbook.
At Vaasa University of Applied Sciences, the quality manager is responsible for coordinating the development needs and measures mentioned in the Accessibility Plan and comprehensive development and monitoring of accessibility. A new separate working group will be appointed to support the quality manager in this work. Monitoring at the strategic level will be arranged so that the management group receives an overview of the situation from the quality manager twice a year: the same operating model is already followed with regard to the Sustainable Development and Responsibility Programme. A coordinator has already been appointed for the accessibility of the website.
At the same time, we also believe, for example, that a diverse work community is one of the manifestations of accessibility, and we encourage this in the human resource policy approved by the higher education institution’s Board.
The student union VAMOK has designated harassment contact persons who work actively and can be contacted by students regarding even the most minor of issues. The student union actively provides information about its operations. By doing so, the student union also seeks to increase knowledge of equality and non-discrimination and guide students in acting in a non-discriminatory manner, among other things. Non-discrimination and accessibility are included in the documents that guide VAMOK’s operations. In accordance with a decision by VAMOk’s representative body, principles for a safe space were prepared in autumn 2022. These principles also include guidelines and policies related to non-discrimination and accessibility.
Guidelines have yet to be prepared on the accessible implementation of operations and events, but such guidelines may be prepared in the future. For the time being, any issues and challenges related to accessibility have been resolved on a case-by-case basis. In the same vein, the implementation of accessibility in the student union’s operations is not yet being evaluated regularly, but questions related to this may be added to surveys of students’ studies and wellbeing. VAMOK is, however, studying students’ knowledge of the harassment contact persons and experiences of harassment through wellbeing surveys and equality and nondiscrimination surveys for students. The student union VAMOK tries to use two languages, namely Finnish and English, in all of its operations and communications.
3. Accessibility in selected areas of VAMK’s operations
VAMK has recognised a need to strengthen the resources for implementing individual study and career guidance as well as employment support for students. This need has been met by recruiting two new people whose duties include the things mentioned above and who work closely with each other. However, there are no guidelines for implementing accessibility in practical training in Finland and abroad, which is why supervisors overseeing practical training or immediate supervisors cannot be familiarised with these guidelines. For this reason, we can conclude that there is still a need for development in these areas at VAMK.
As for the integration of international skilled people into the higher education institution and working life in the Vaasa region, VAMK has invested strongly in this in cooperation with local businesses and other operators. These efforts are carried out in the form of Talent Coastline activities. Their objective is to promote the region’s attractiveness and employee retention capability so that international skilled people see the region as attractive and so that the expertise of international skilled people already living in Finland can be channelled to the Vaasa region to support the growth and internationalisation of local businesses. VAMK is an active operator in the Talent Coastline network.
At VAMK, the students’ individual needs are taken into account in personal study plans (PSP), and students receive support in their studies. Personal study plans are individualised, taking each student’s personal challenges into account: it can be said that this is everyday work that is a normal part of the work responsibilities of guidance staff. In principle, the aim is to resolve any challenges and needs that the students may have in the best possible way suitable for the situation.
In general, it can be said that the group mentor and their role are very significant with regard to the provision of support and guidance for students. Operating models already exist for providing support and guidance in different stages of the students’ studies. They are recorded in a document called Ryhmänohjaajan käsikirja (Group Mentor’s Handbook, in Finnish only). This is to ensure the uniform quality of the provision of support and guidance throughout the higher education institution’s operations.
Group mentors, who are typically lecturers, hold development discussions with their students at least once a year. The goal of these discussions is to motivate and encourage students with their studies, support them in challenging situations related to their studies and discuss their career plans with them, for example. Another essential part of these discussions is to monitor the progress of the students’ studies, intervene in any problem situations and try to resolve the problems. As part of these discussions, the students also evaluate how well they are doing in their studies: which areas they have succeeded in and where they still have room for improvement.
The studies are monitored more frequently at the start of the studies than at any other point in time, and the content of the discussions varies slightly based on the stage of the student’s studies. If needed, the group mentor also contacts students on a case-by-case basis, and the students’ challenges are tackled by a multi-professional team within the higher education institution.
It is acknowledged that students with an immigrant background need support. VAMK offers preparatory education for immigrations in the fields of technology and social and health care services. This preparatory education is intended for immigrants who are planning to apply to study at the higher education institution as degree students in the future. In this case, they have full access to the higher education institution’s guidance services, such as career and recruitment guidance, as well as support for finding a placement for practical training. VAMK also invests in new student orientation and integration. VAMK carries out these efforts in cooperation with the City of Vaasa and the University of Vaasa, among other parties.
In this context, it is also pertinent to mention a study module called ‘Takaisin kotiin -paluu hoitotyöhön’ (Back Home – Return to Care Work), which is intended for people who have completed a post-secondary qualification or bachelor’s or master’s degree in the field of health care and who completely lack work experience or only have a little experience. This study module is an example of training options also open to immigrants.
The equal participation of disabled students in higher education is promoted where possible. VAMK has recently strengthened its support services by adding career guidance and hiring a welfare officer. However, the broadness of the concept of disability challenges the higher education institution’s operations, particularly because the resulting needs for guidance and support are individual. The principle is that VAMK always provides information and support when students need them but requires students to be self-guided, i.e. to have the ability and skills needed to seek and find information. This requirement for self-guidance is emphasised when the teaching groups are large and the amount of online teaching increases.
Both staff and students can participate in facility planning through various working groups and other influencing channels. In autumn 2021, an extensive accessibility survey was conducted on VAMK’s facilities by an external expert company. The results of the accessibility survey showed that the accessibility of the facilities is at a good level for the most part. Some development needs were identified, and their improvement has been scheduled and already started in some respects.
With regard to the development of facilities, the operations of the higher education institution are flexible in the sense that the property manager also doubles as the security manager. However, further development needs were still identified with regard to taking accessibility into account not only at the operational level but also at the strategic level.
VAMK’s communications promote equality and non-discrimination. We are an approachable place to study and work that welcomes everyone just as they are. VAMK also tries to strongly feature this in its communications, where it invests in diversity in the visual communications, for example. Accessibility was paid particular attention during the revision of the website; the website is currently achieving an AA level. Similarly, accessibility was one of the important elements in the revision of the intranet.
The key content for student and staff activities is available in Finnish and English. The communications guidelines are currently being updated so that they describe the goals and practices of the higher education institution’s communications with regard to accessibility. Staff training will be provided on the implementation of accessible communications, focusing on the production of accessible content and accessibility in general.
VAMK has carried out numerous measures to promote the wellbeing of the staff and students and, through it, their ability to work and study. VAMK has invested in the wellbeing of the students by assigning new personnel to support them, such as a welfare officer, a career and recruitment expert, and a Talent Coach who works with international students. A Wellbeing Programme (in Finnish only) has also been prepared and implemented for the students. The students also participate in the wellbeing working group and study environment inspections, through which the development of these matters is monitored.
With regard to the staff, the key roles are played by the occupational health steering group, workplace surveys conducted by occupational health services, and various internal audits, including the assessment of different risks and hazards.
The implementation of wellbeing and interaction is evaluated through several different surveys with regard to both staff and students. For students, these include the open feedback channel Feedy, the annually conducted Tutka survey, the AVOP feedback survey for graduating students, and course-specific feedback surveys, for example. For staff, VAMK conducts surveys such as the annual Työyhteisövire (staff wellbeing) survey and the equality and nondiscrimination survey, which is carried out occasionally, most recently in 2019. VAMK is considering whether to conduct the latter as a separate survey or combine it with other surveys in the future. All in all, we believe that our operations are at an excellent level with regard tothe promotion of wellbeing and open interaction.
From the perspective of accessibility being realised in practice, it is important for the personnel to:
- be familiar with the most important areas of accessibility with regard to their work;
- be able to take them into account and implement them in everyday life; and
- develop them further.
Further development needs can still be identified at VAMK in relation to the systematic development of the staff’s accessibility skills and familiarising new employees with the accessibility policies. Training is being planned for the staff; the implementation method is still undecided. As for the descriptions of employees’ duties, they do not yet cover the implementation of accessibility. The work will start with a survey of what accessibility means in each employee’s work and by ensuring that the employees have the related skills. The next step is to determine the resources. In the long term, accessibility will be taken into account as part of the induction of new employees and the induction guide.