The Ahead Journal


A Review of Inclusive Education
& Employment Practices ISSN 2009-8286

Leading from the Top: Enacting Leadership in Universal Design for Tertiary Education 

Mairead McCann

Path 4 Project Lead, Atlantic Technological University (ATU)


About the Author

Laura Hegarty

Path 4 Project Lead


About the Author

Margaret Finch

Munster Technological University

About the Author

Aileen Kennedy

Assistant Registrar and Head of Student Engagement, Munster Technological University

About the Author


Universal Design (UD) inclusive of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has become an integral tenet of Ireland’s Tertiary Education sector approach to educational policy-making and practices and consequently, its funding strategies. This strategic embracing of UD inclusive of UDL has emerged from extensive adoption of UD practices by academics, student support services and digital support staff at the grass-roots level of educational institutions, expanding from initial interventions to support students with disabilities, to a recognition of the potential benefits that may be gained more widely to address inequities across further and higher education inclusive of Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and socially marginalised target student and staff groups. David R Arendale highlighted the need for senior academic and student affairs leaders to create and lead institution-wide innovation stating that ‘sustained effort will be required to change the institutional climate to embrace this new approach and value system’ (2018). Arendale argued that this change should be underpinned by models of training and mentoring programmes.  In this article, we explore how senior leaders in the tertiary sector can be supported in their critical role in driving and supporting sustainable culture and organisational change to ensure the strategic implementation of UD inclusive of UDL.

Creating a Necessary Standardised Tertiary Education Support for Senior Leaders

The established national approach to embrace UD inclusive of UDL, building from the bottom up, has resulted in the provision of established professional development opportunities for the practitioner/educator level such as the UD Beyond the Classroom Digital Badge developed by AHEAD in collaboration with UCD’s University for All. These professional development opportunities support educational systems staff to understand how they can implement universal design in their practice. The absence of specific continuing professional development (CPD) in Universal Design, Universal Design of Education (UDE) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL)  for higher education and further education senior leaders was identified as a deficit potential at senior leader level to sustainable and strategically support impacts to tertiary education systems.  

How aware are senior leaders of UD frameworks and its implications for strategy, policy and use of funding opportunities? The need to equip senior leaders with an awareness and understanding in UD to enhance and activate their vital role in embedding strategically a systematic cultural approach to universal design across all tertiary educational systems in all functional areas within their institutions was identified. The ‘want’ for opportunities to share learning and actions from across tertiary education systems was vocalised in nationally collaborative forums. Under the provision of Path 4 Funding, ATU and MTU have collaborated with other Higher and Further Education Institutions and other education stakeholders to address these gaps and to create a course that builds leadership capacity across the Tertiary education sector. This collaborative project has produced a bespoke self-paced course addressing the fundamentals of UD and its implications for strategy, policy and practice that builds on the outputs from a national symposium, held as part of the ATU-MTU UDL Conference in May 2023, to disseminate action research findings to enhance the knowledge base of UD in senior leaders of Tertiary Education.  

Course Overview

The bespoke self-paced course takes approximately two hours to complete and consists of four units:

  • Unit 1: Introduction to UD inclusive of UDL
  • Unit 2: Introduction to Strategic Implementation of UD in Tertiary Education
  • Unit 3: Exemplars of Strategic Implementation of UD in Tertiary Education
  • Unit 4: UD and Senior Leaders Tertiary Education Digital Badge and additional resources

Screenshot of landing web page for course Universal Design for Senior Leaders in Tertiary Education

Figure 1. Website homepage of udl for senior leaders course

Completion of the course will provide senior leaders with an opportunity to further develop their understanding of the theory of UD inclusive of UDL and to gain a strategic and informed understanding of national policy and funding contexts. The learning experience is supported with diverse and accessible resources that illustrate how leaders can co-create an inclusive environment beneficial to all who engage across the tertiary education sector. An interaction with the course content will provide leaders with a shared language of UD inclusive of UDL as well as insights into how they can further support their staff and students in deepening an inclusive equitable environment and culture of learning based on human rights as detailed by national policy and strategy. A critical feature of the course is the sharing of best practice exemplars from senior leader peers across the tertiary sector such as ALTITUDE: The National Charter for Universal Design in  Tertiary Education (in development), UCC’s The Inclusive UCC Digital Accessibility Intern Programme.. These are exemplars which will inspire participants to design a strategic plus one action that they can take within their office of function. Participants will have the option to complete reflective activities to attain digital badge certification.

Next Steps

The self-paced course will be formally launched during semester 2 of the academic year 2023-2024. At this year’s AHEAD 2024 Conference the team will be part of the conference’s national conversation on embedding UD in tertiary education. The course development was informed by national consultations and a pilot run of the course. During the first year of the course, we will gather feedback on both the technical and non-technical experiences of participants with a view to enhancing the course where necessary for future iterations. The project group have worked collaboratively and will continue to do so, throughout the first iteration of the course nationally. Participation in the project has served to deepen connections with colleagues who have a shared passion for the strategic implementation of UD inclusive of UDL across the tertiary sector. We are excited to have reached the final stage with the release of the course and we actively encourage all senior leaders to check out the course and to participate in order to play your part in changing institutional climates.

Please contact any of the Project Leads and Partners for further information - see author information above.


Arendale, D. R. (2018). Introduction to Special Issue on Universal Design for Inclusive Pedagogy and a Future Research Agenda. Education Sciences.

UD Beyond the Classroom Digital Badge, AHEAD

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