Ensuring equity in tertiary education | Paul A. Bartolo

Students with disability, like most other students, aspire to experience success in their studies as well as in their engagement with the social university ecology leading to personal, social, and career development

Prof. Paul A. Bartolo, Department of Psychology

“Higher education should be made equally accessible on the basis of capacity, but what this means needs to be re-evaluated due to the unequal distribution of educational opportunities from early years as well as embedded direct and indirect discrimination in education and lack of cultural capital faced by the disadvantaged, marginalized and vulnerable.” (1).

I will here refer to the rights of students with ‘physical, sensory or mental impairments; medical conditions; or specific learning difficulties’. (2). Sometimes university staff may suggest that the application for access arrangements (AAs), such as extra time, should not be allowed because these lead to a reduction in university standards of assessment and achievement. Some consider such arrangements as an attempt to make up for weaker abilities (3). However, the research evidence shows otherwise: many students who need such AAs to compensate for disabling conditions do not even ask for them because of the fear of the stigma that the disclosure of their disability entails (4).

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The fear of stigma is very evident in a phenomenon recently recognised in persons with autism, namely camouflaging. This is the attempt to hide behaviours associated with autism when they are in social situations, such as struggling to make eye contact. For instance, one study found that engagement in camouflaging was exhausting and associated with a decrease in wellbeing but was used to combat stigma, and avoid being undervalued, discriminated against, or harassed.5

In view of this situation, it is reassuring to observe that the number of students at our university who are disclosing their disability, and thus succeeding through the appropriate use of AAs, has been increasing over the past decade, reaching a total of over 320 students in the current year. We are aware that there are still some students who fear being stigmatised and choose to suffer their disadvantage rather than disclose their disability.

Our university has been developing services for students with disability over the past three decades. What originally started as a service for students with dyslexia, is now applied to a wider understanding of disability that includes all forms of impairment, medical and mental health conditions. These services are regulated by the ACCESS Disability Support Committee (ADSC) led by the Pro-Rector for Student Services, Prof. Carmen Sammut, and by the operational arm of the committee, the ACCESS Disability Support Unit (ADSU) led by Prof. Anne-Marie Callus (https://www.um.edu.mt/services/administrativesupport/access/). Services to university students are coordinated by Ms Marchita Mangiafico, a social worker, and also include support through Occupational Therapy by Ms Ramona Vella Vidal. ADSU also offers another service, coordinated by Dr Edward Mazzacano D’Amato, for the processing of all applications for AAs in SEC and MATSEC examinations that enable students with disability to show their capacity to pursue higher education. All these services are enhanced through several multidisciplinary working groups. It is also important to mention that ADSU services are additional and complementary to those services aimed at enhancing students’ personal wellbeing such as the Counselling Services.

In order to improve these services, the ADSU is currently running a 3-year research project on Access to Tertiary Education for Persons with Disability (ACTED). This project started in February 2022 and is funded by the Ministry for Inclusion, Voluntary Organisations, and Consumer Rights. The project is intended to improve access, equitable opportunities, and support for persons with disability to pursue post-secondary and higher education. This will be achieved by first understanding better students’ aspirations and needs through their own voices. It involves both quantitative and qualitative research methods, comprising surveys and individual interviews with students with disability in secondary schools, post-secondary colleges, and the university.

A systematic review of the literature has already been undertaken and will be published in the near future. A total of 135 relevant articles were thematically analysed. The studies show that students with disability, like most other students, aspire to experience success in their studies as well as in their engagement with the social university ecology leading to personal, social, and career development. They called for both an inclusive physical, social, and teaching system as well as appropriate accommodations. This review served as a basis for the development of the questionnaires and interview schedules that are being implemented with students from secondary, Junior College and sixth forms, and the university. This study will explore in more detail the needs, aspirations, and requirements of those who have applied for AAs in order to participate successfully in tertiary education. This will surely lead to recommendations and action for more effective support for equitable access to tertiary education.


1. UNESCO. (2022). Right to higher education. Unpacking the international normative framework in light of current trends and challenges. 

2. Access Disability Support Unit. (2018). The University of Malta Access Arrangements. Malta: University of Malta

3. Weis, R., Erickson, P., & Till, C.H. (2017). When average is not good enough: Students with learning disabilities at selective, private colleges. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 50(6), 684-700

4. Lindsay, S., Cagliostro, E., & Carafa, G. (2018). A systematic review of barriers and facilitators of disability disclosure and accommodations for youth in post-secondary education. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 65(5), 526-556

5. Perry, E., Mandy, W., Hull, L., & Cage, E. (2022). Understanding camouflaging as a response to autism-related stigma: A social identity theory approach. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 52(2), 800-810