What does the Equality Act say?

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What does the Equality Act say?

You must not discriminate against a student:

  • in the way you provide education for the student
  • in the way you give the student access to a benefit, facility or service
  • by not providing education for the student
  • by not affording the student access to any benefit, facility or service
  • by excluding the student
  • by subjecting them to any other detriment 

What does this mean?

Your legal obligations to all your students cover all your services, facilities and benefits, both educational and non-educational, from teaching and learning to the physical environment, and any leisure and accommodation facilities. This is not an exhaustive list however and the education, benefits, services or facilities that you provide may differ from those at another institution or over time.

In addition you must not discriminate against a student by excluding them. Any behaviour or exclusion procedures, practices or decisions which discriminate may be unlawful.  

Discriminating against students by subjecting them to any other detriment is also unlawful. ‘Detriment’ is not defined in the Act but signifies a disadvantage of some kind and can be interpreted broadly. 

Your students do not need to be studying full time to be protected under the Act. All types of course are covered including undergraduate, postgraduate, part-time, distance learning, short, research, e-learning, informal and optional study skills courses.

Some key areas of activity for further and higher education institutions are covered below.  

What is not covered?

Content of the curriculum

These obligations do not apply to anything done in connection with the content of the curriculum. This means that you are not restricted in the range of issues, ideas and materials you use in your syllabus and will have the academic freedom to expose students to a range of thoughts and ideas, however controversial. Even if the content of the curriculum causes offence to students with certain protected characteristics, this will not make it unlawful unless it is delivered in a way which results in harassment or subjects students to discrimination or other detriment.

For example:

A college course includes a module on Mein Kampf. A Jewish student finds this offensive and complains that having this on the syllabus is discrimination. This would not be unlawful discrimination or harassment.

Student unions

Although these are often thought of as educational provision, they are in fact service providers under the Act and their legal obligations towards students are covered by the services provisions of the Act accordingly (see Services Guidance).

However, you will need to ensure that you do not act in a discriminatory way in respect of your student body in your dealings with your student union and it is good practice to work closely with the union in ensuring that students enjoy a discrimination-free environment.

For example:

A university’s Equalities Officer gives a seminar to union officers on the university’s provisions for supporting students with the range of protected characteristics as a way of increasing students’ awareness about the provisions in place and to encourage a close working relationship with the union. This is good practice.

Studying at another institution or abroad

If your students study at another institution or overseas for a period of time, you must ensure that you do not discriminate in any of the arrangements you make and that you liaise with the other institution in relation to the particular needs of your students to avoid discriminating against them. If you are made aware that discrimination has occurred, you will need to liaise with the institution to try and resolve the issue and may need to arrange study at an alternative institution.

If the institution is in England, Scotland or Wales, they will have the same duties under the Act towards these students as you. Northern Ireland FE and HE institutions are covered by separate equality legislation. If the institution is overseas, your students may well also be covered by domestic or regional equality legislation covering that particular country. In some circumstances the other institution may be considered to be acting as your agent therefore making you liable for their actions. This is covered in more detail in Key concepts.

For example:

A university only arranges study abroad in countries where women and LGBT groups have very restricted lives. This would be sex and sexual orientation discrimination and it is not a defence to argue that it has no control over the discriminatory practises in the overseas institutions. The university should find equivalent placements in alternative countries for these students. 

If students from other institutions visit your institution you will have obligations under the Equality Act not to discriminate against, harass or victimise them. 

Work placements

Work placement providers based in England have duties as employers under the Act towards a student (see Employment Guidance). You must ensure that you do not discriminate in any of the arrangements that you make with work placement providers and that where relevant they are made aware of the needs of their placement students with protected characteristics. If you are told that discrimination has occurred, you will need to negotiate with the work placement provider to try and resolve the issue and may need to find an alternative placement.

You must also ensure that a work placement provider is aware of the need to make reasonable adjustments for those disabled students who require them.

For example:

A student with a visual impairment who requires all written material to be in large font is studying on a degree course with a work placement element. The university fails to advise the work placement provider of the student’s reasonable adjustments needs and as a result the work placement provider fails to make the necessary reasonable adjustments.

Last updated: 19 Feb 2019

Further information

If you think you might have been treated unfairly and want further advice, you can contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service.

Phone: 0808 800 0082

You can email using the contact form on the EASS website.

Also available through the website are BSL interpretation, web chat services and a contact us form.


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