The Ahead Journal


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

Universal Design for Learning – Licence to Learn (UDLL): a European perspective on UDL

Kjetil Knarlag

UDLL & Universell Project Manager

About the Author

Barbara Waters

Journal Editor, AHEAD

About the Author


The concept of Universal Design (UD) represents an excellent framework to ensure inclusion for students with disabilities in higher education. The Universal Design for Learning-Licence to Learn (UDLL) project’s vision was the inclusion of students with disabilities in higher education through implementing general principles of Universal Design (UD) and practical solutions from the pedagogical concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDLL addresses challenges highlighted by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and also those contained in the “social dimension” of the Bologna process. This project, funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union, aimed to demonstrate how Universal Design for learning (UDL) can be the best solution to develop an inclusive learning environment, and a higher quality of learning to the benefit of all students. The project is unique in its use of the voice of the learner to set the stage prior to consulting the other stakeholders.

The aims and objectives of the project have been delivered through the project partners developing their understanding of the inclusive learning environment through working with stakeholders. These stakeholder groups – the student/ learner, academic staff, higher education policy makers and leaders, and the student support staff – contributed to development of the Best Practice Guidelines. The two outcomes represent a ‘Licence to Learn’ for students and stakeholders to enhance an inclusive learning environment to the benefit of all students. Students, with or without a disability, should have the opportunity to enter and succeed in higher education, based on their skills and efforts. UDLL offers an inclusive approach.

Project involvement from the partnership perspective

In this article we explore the journey of the partners – Universell, Norway, the lead partner; SIHO, Belgium and AHEAD, Ireland – in meeting the stated objective

‘to develop a European pathway for the three participating countries on Universal Design of Learning (UDL) and to promote its potential to create quality education for diverse groups of learners. UDL must be placed strategically and be considered as a quality perspective in higher education.’

Introducing the project partners

NTNU-Universell, Norway – Coordinating partner. Universell is a section in the Division of Student and Academic affairs at the Norwegian Technical University in Trondheim (NTNU). Universell works on behalf of the Ministry of Education as the national coordinator for accessibility and Universal Design in higher education. The head of Universell, Kjetil Knarlag, was the UDLL Project Manager.

AHEAD, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) and Irish national organisation, whose mission is to promote full access to and full participation in higher education for students with disabilities. Support Centre for Inclusive Higher Education (SIHO) / Hogeschool West-Vlaanderen (HOWEST) a higher education institution in Flanders, Belgium. SIHO supports all Flemish higher education institutions in implementing the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.

The project outputs

Best Practice Guidelines

Universell was responsible for producing and publishing the Best Practice Guidelines (BPG) about Universal Design and Universal Design for learning from four perspectives:

  1. The learner/student
  2. Academic staff
  3. Management and leadership
  4. Student support services

To share knowledge, develop thinking and reflect on the impact of Universal Design in particular areas, four focus group meetings were organised, involving three participants from each country in each category, so that there were nine participants in each workshop. The outputs from these focus groups have been incorporated into the good practice guidelines. The responsibility for organising and recruiting the focus groups was spread amongst the project partners.

The aims of the Best Practice Guidelines are:

  • To enable users to embrace Universal Design and Universal Design for Learning as the best concept for a flexible, creative and inclusive learning environment for the benefit of all learners.
  • To give users the theory, perspectives and practical tools to challenge and change every day working methods

The guidelines address all the important stakeholders within a higher education institution, who have a role to play in the understanding and implementation of the concept. The guidelines are now published on the project website, and can be found at

The Student Toolkit

AHEAD had the co-ordinating responsibility for production and publication of a student-oriented output – a digital Selfassessment Toolkit for students developed from AHEAD’s student network and the student focus group. The toolkit provides guidance for disabled students through the potential for universallydesigned solutions to meet challenges they may face, and provides information designed for students to gain more knowledge about their challenges and needs, as well as appropriate tools to study with their impairment.

See the Toolkit here and meet the students.

Watch the film for students about transition to higher education here

The dissemination conference

SIHO was responsible for arranging the final event, a dissemination conference in Ghent at the end of the project in June 2016. With nearly 200 participants from 15 countries, including those who were involved in the four focus groups, this was a great opportunity to showcase the Best Practice Guidelines and the Student Toolkit, and to share experiences more widely. The partnership with Artevelde University in Ghent was very welcome as was the addition of an opportunity to work with the LINK network on the following day, and particularly the organisation Handicap + Studie from the Netherlands.

Partnership working

The project partners were known to each other and had worked together through the European LINK Network, hosted by AHEAD Ireland. The work packages chosen for each partner to deliver were well-suited to their strengths as organisations.

The project was identified as innovative and developmental and this raised issues of cultural differences in the delivery and expectations of higher education in the three countries. These differences emerged at different stages of the project and the project working group decided to meet more often than originally planned to enhance understanding and maintain energy and focus. The partners are very positive that project participation has enriched their own work practices and broadened their knowledge base on UDL and supported policy work. For some it provided greater credibility with national stakeholders and the opportunity to influence thinking in the sector.

Particular issues critical to the development of UDLL which came into focus for the partners are:

  • The challenge of influencing HE through a whole-institution approach
  • Developing understanding and clarification on curriculum design, teaching learning and assessment in a range of higher education settings
  • Supporting the work of student unions/student politicians

National support for partners

Each partner had the backing of a national reference group, whose role was to assist in recruitment of participants for the focus groups, advise on designing the workshop activities and dissemination of the project outcomes and messages through their own institutions and networks. This not only provided much needed backing for introducing change but also to support the centrality of embedding this change into a range of quality assurance mechanisms. Members of the reference groups in each country attended the workshop on policy and management.

In Norway, the reference group will host a national meeting in November 2016, and then host regional meetings to introduce the project outputs and harmonise the approach to implementing UDLL principles. In Ireland, AHEAD’s Board have adopted UDL as a major theme in their latest strategic plan. This will help to create a national impetus regarding changing policy and practice in favour of UDL approaches to curriculum design, learning, teaching and assessment and to upskill staff in how to implement it in a higher education environment. In Belgium the reference group were able to participate in the dissemination conference and plan to carry the messages forward through SIHO’s work and the SIHO board members networks in Flanders.

The impact of working directly with disabled students

The project partners reported that working with the larger student group, including those with and without disabilities was a great benefit and provided a lot of learning that can be built on in their own future work. The student participation strengthened their importance as stakeholders and there will be spin-off collaborations including articles about specific impairments and one student is moving on to a PhD on disability and employment. This involvement raised awareness of disability and diversity among staff and students and the outputs will supply student politicians with information for their work in developing good practice in learning environments. This can lead to more involvement at national level both through the partner organisations and in the students’ home institutions. The project demonstrates the difference between consultation and real involvement.

The nine students with disabilities who were project participants throughout were a major influence on the development of the toolkit. It is important to note that they did not know each other before the first meeting at the Dublin workshop. They are to be commended on their successful contributions. From the students’ point of view, they agreed that they had a better understanding of UDL and were 100% sure that UDL was important to successful participation in their studies and emphasised the importance of the UDL approach which offers something for all students. They found that being able to talk openly in the group had a big impact on them, personally and that they would advise younger students to make use of available resources and share information. In this edition of the Journal, the AHEAD team describe how the Student Toolkit evolved with the inclusion of a wider group of students.

The project partners now plan to use the toolkit and the experience of working with students to influence their work with student unions and individual institutions. Ireland has already started on this. In Norway they will use it as a platform for students who want to learn more about UDL and the role they can play in developing inclusive learning environments. It will be promoted through the national Universell network through email, website, Facebook group and Twitter, as well as on the project website. They will consider what needs to be adjusted to the Norwegian context and culture and will draw on students’ stories of success. SIHO will use it as a stepping stone to consider what information can be provided in the Flemish context. They have identified links with Belgian students at undergraduate level to review this. They will link to the toolkit on the project website for English speakers. Colleagues from the Netherlands and United Kingdom are already making use of the materials.

Impact of the project on the partners

Understanding the potential of UDLL

The three partners found that being involved in the project contributed greatly to their understanding of how UDLL might be a driver for changing policy and provision and the greater inclusion of disabled students in their own countries. They identified supporting their further work plans with different groups within higher education, for example teaching staff, policy makers including senior civil servants. They identified that each partner was at a different point in the implementation of UDLL, that there was a cultural perspective of higher education to consider, and that the project outputs would enable them to demonstrate that this was a Europe-wide movement. They also benefitted from the further reading they needed to do to prepare papers and the additional output of the literature review. Meeting the different stakeholders and sharing their experience and ideas, combined with the discussions and network meetings outside the project provided the information needed to take the work forward using the project outputs.

The project fully recognised the importance of gaining the backing of senior staff in HEIs and national organisations. The presence of a senior staff at the management workshop was a major achievement and raised the profile of the UDLL work and its potential within higher education policy and strategy and quality assurance.

Moving forward

Each partner is developing national plans for using the project outputs in their work and to disseminate the project messages. The dissemination conference was attended by delegates representing the full range of project stakeholders and others from the European LINK network ( on higher education and disability. Participants were inspired to offer more variety and flexibility in their teaching and evaluation/assessment methods.

Emerging issues conference identified to take forward included:

  • The understanding that UDL is a shared responsibility across an HE Institution, to be implemented with co-operation at different levels, for example:

    ‘Universal Design for learning is first and foremost about a mind-set, and all agents can reflect upon UDL and explore and develop it together, from their different positions, roles and tasks in higher education – including the students.’

  • The importance of a clear high level strategy and policies to support it
  • The project output of Best Practice Guidelines were seen as a good tool to convince managers about what UDLL has to offer
  • The importance of engaging students in developing UDLL practice
  • The importance of identifying early adopters, for example

    ‘Find sympathetic academics to act as first stage line of attack’

The project partners report significant impact on their future work programmes, including:

  • using the BPG in developing national conferences, training and coaching opportunities (all partners)
  • working with European partners to develop native language versions (Belgium and The Netherlands)
  • using some of the techniques and extending them to the whole transformational process in an HEI (Belgium)
  • working with disability officers and access staff on implementation through concrete examples in the BPG (Norway, Ireland)
  • raising the awareness of student diversity and UDL and providing the tools for institutions to meet this diversity through UDL (Norway)

Each project partner will contact their national Ministries and student organisations providing the opportunity to discuss the next steps in policy development around Universal Design within higher education. The partners identified the potential for future research and projects on pedagogical practice.

Ilikecake Ltd
This article appeared in the AHEAD Journal. Visit for more information