Inclusion is one of the core strategic goals for my Department. My ambition is to ensure that we provide supports and opportunities for learning to all. This means recognising the needs of persons on low income and those with special and additional needs.
A range of supports and measures are in place for students attending higher education including for learners with disabilities; some of these supports are targeted while others are available to the general student population.
It is important to state the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015-2021 (NAP), which expired in 2021, set targets to increase participation in higher education by people with disabilities. Specific targets have been set to increase participation in higher education by students with physical or sensory disabilities. The original (8%) and revised target (12%) under the National Access Plan of new entrants to higher education with disabilities has now been exceeded, with 12.2% of new entrants to higher education in 2019/20 declaring a disability.
However, we acknowledge more needs to be done. I am happy to give an update on the new National Access Plan - the new plan will succeed the third National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education. Work on finalising the next Plan is almost complete. My Department and the HEA has led a public consultation process and has engaged with a wide range of stakeholders in the preparation of this Plan.
The New Plan seeks to target underrepresented students, vulnerable students or students who have experienced disadvantage and therefore face challenges in accessing higher education and experiencing belonging in higher education. Students with disabilities will continue to be a priority group in the new plan. I also intend to include a particular focus on students with an intellectual disability, and I look forward in the coming weeks to bringing my plans in this area to Cabinet.
A Memo for Government on the new NAP will be brought to cabinet shortly and it is my intention to publish the new Plan in the coming months. I am looking forward to publishing this new and exciting Plan this year. We hope to have a more student centred plan that drives our strategic goal of inclusion which is a cornerstone of my Department priorities. My Department will continue to keep existing provision and initiatives under review. We want to develop a better understanding of what works best within the different models, and to look at how we can assist people to access and progress through higher and further education and training.
I will be bringing proposals to Government shortly regarding my intention to establish a new funding programme in 2022 to provide greater supports and opportunities to autistic students and students with an intellectual disability in higher education.