The closure by Middlesex University of the first ever European MSc course in digital inclusion after just one year of operation sets a “dangerous precedent” for those trying to establish a business case for accessibility, the academic leading the course has told E-Access Bulletin.
The unique two-year part-time course was launched by Middlesex last year. Its curriculum included the social, ethical and business case for accessibility; regulations and standardisation; web accessibility; and inclusive user experience. The course’s overall goal was to improve participation in the digital society by older and disabled people as well as people at social disadvantage such as unemployed people, people on low incomes and those with low literacy.
However after just eight people joined the programme the university has decided that no more will now be taken on and the course will close when the current set of students – who include four public sector workers – have graduated. To make the course financially sustainable a minimum of 20 students a year would have been needed.
Gill Whitney, digital inclusion programme leader at Middlesex, told E-Access Bulletin the lack of demand for the course signalled a serious problem for the development of accessible digital services in the UK and beyond.
“Losing the MSc programme due to low student numbers sets a dangerous precedent – if there is truly no demand, then there is no business case for offering similar specialist programmes elsewhere”, Whitney said.
“Designing and developing more accessible systems depends on having suitable training or education courses in place for those involved in all aspects of the development process”, she said. “The essential element is to convince students of the value of taking such courses, for example better job opportunities for both students and disabled people.
“There is now recognition of e-accessibility at a political level, with the government setting up an e-accessibility forum, but we also need industry, not-for-profits and government bodies to demonstrate there is a market demand and that there will be better jobs for professionals who genuinely understand the complexities of delivering accessible ICT, systems and services.”
Whitney said options other than the MSc course could also play a role in the educational mix, such as better integration of accessibility issues into mainstream technology courses or offering short professional development courses or diplomas that enhance existing skills. But whatever the solutions, action was needed to ensure student demand, she said.
“There is a strong need for this sort of training to make accessibility happen.”
One of the course’s students, Big Lottery Fund head of new media Claudio Concha, said the course had already proven valuable in his work.
“Inclusive design is pretty much taken for granted in architecture and product design, yet online content and digital channels still suffer from a lack of user-centred development and there is a complete lack of consideration for disabled and older people,” Concha said.
“This course has helped me understand the gulf that exists between content producers and organisations on one side and the reality of customers with differing needs on the other. It has allowed me to influence design and development projects with an authority that comes with real experience.”