Annex B: Competence standards

1.  Competence standards can be defined as the ‘academic, medical or other standard[s] applied for the purpose of determining whether or not a person has a particular level of competence or ability’1  in their course, or as ‘a particular level of competence or ability that a student must demonstrate to be accepted on to, progress within and successfully complete a course or programme of study.’2  A competence standard must not itself be unlawfully discriminatory3, therefore it must not be applied only to a disabled student and must be:

i. Genuinely relevant to the course;

ii. Applied equally to all students, whether with or without a disability; and

iii. A proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

2.  The proportionate means component requires that:

i. There is a pressing need that supports the standard’s purpose;

ii. The application of the standard will achieve that aim; and

iii. There is no other way of achieving the aim that is less detrimental to disabled people.

3.  The Equality Challenge Unit states that ‘Higher education institutions (HEIs) have responsibility for developing non-discriminatory competence standards, and designing a study programme to address these competence standards. HEIs also have the responsibility to ensure that assessment methods address the competence standards. Adjustments to ways that competence standards are assessed may be required so that disabled students are not put at a disadvantage in demonstrating their achievement.’4

4.  Competence standards cannot be used to justify ‘direct discrimination’ against a disabled person. For example, a blanket refusal to allow a student to participate in any assessed experimental work merely because they are physically disabled would clearly be direct discrimination. Equally, it is important to ensure that competence standards are not indirectly discriminating against disabled students. The Equality Challenge Unit gives the example of requiring all students to write examinations by hand, which would put a student with arthritis at a disadvantage.

5.  Not all competences or assessment criteria which students might be expected to fulfil on a particular course can necessarily be considered ‘competencestandards’. For example, a language course may require that students spend a year abroad, but this requirement in itself is not a competence standard, and so is subject to the duty to make reasonable adjustments. The competence standards are the knowledge and skills which the students are expected to acquire during the year abroad.5

6.  Examples of competence standards. These will vary considerably between disciplines. Some courses need to comply with external standards set by the relevant Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Body, which will feed into their competence standards. Some examples are included in the guidance from the Equality Challenge Unit on the interaction of competence standards and reasonable adjustments, available at Competence standards include admissions criteria – such as having studied a modern foreign language – where these are valid requirements for the course. Ability to communicate well in the English language might also be a competence standard.

7.  In the sciences, students may be required to undertake laboratory practicals or complete manual clinical tasks in order to achieve the learning outcomes for an award. A time limit may be imposed on the assessment of a fundamental skill where this is genuinely relevant and necessary, e.g. a clinical measurement or task. The Equality Challenge Unit gives the example of a chemistry degree which is primarily theoretical, in which ‘being able to manipulate test tubes or visually identify chemicals might not be a competence standard, and may be reasonably adjusted through provision of a practical assistant. However, in a pharmacy degree, training a student to achieve the practical competencies to become a pharmacist, the same tasks might constitute competence standards.’6  In some examinations, for example those assessing knowledge of and application of quantitative techniques, the format of the assessment may be restricted by the nature of the test. A timed, invigilated assessment may therefore be most appropriate when candidates are being tested on their crystallised knowledge and ability to select and apply relevant techniques and skills. Where candidates are expected to demonstrate competence in a variety of modes of assessment, it would be reasonable to state that, for example, submission of a research project or extended piece of writing formed one of the competence standards for the course.

8.  Assessment methods should assess competence standards, and it needs to be considered whether a proposed reasonable adjustment compromises the competence standard in any way. For example, in an assessment testing students’ knowledge of the spelling and grammar of a foreign language, the Equality Challenge Unit suggests that it is unlikely that a student would be able to use a computer spelling and grammar checked in the relevant language as a reasonable adjustment, as this would compromise the competence standard.7

9.  Identifying competence standards. Each course’s educational aims and the programme outcomes students are expected to achieve should be set out in the relevant course handbook. These provide the framework within which competence standards are applied in order to determine whether students have achieved the requirements for an award. Supervisory bodies should consider which aspects of the programme aims and learning outcomes may justifiably be considered competence standards, i.e. strictly relevant and necessary for course completion. This will involve identifying the particular knowledge, skill or ability which is being tested, and the appropriate standard required in order to obtain the award. A competence standard which does not meet the requirements of being genuinely relevant to the course, applied equally to all students, and a proportionate means of meeting a legitimate aim may be unlawfully discriminatory.

10.  Distinguishing competence standards and methods of assessment. While competence standards are exempt from the obligation to make reasonable adjustments, the method by which students demonstrate their attainment of a learning outcome is not itself a competence standard (although there may be rare occasions where the competence standard and the method of assessment are inextricably linked, e.g. a musical performance). Thus, requiring all candidates to complete a written exam within three hours would lead to indirect discrimination8 and discrimination arising from disability9 against people with fatigue conditions, physical impairments, or learning disabilities unless it could be shown that the three-hour time limit met all the requirements of criteria (1) to (3) in paragraph 2 above. This would be unlikely in most courses given the variety of methods of assessment already accepted within the University, as well as the difficulty of demonstrating that an ability to write within a single particular time limit was an integral and irreplaceable component of the standards applied in order to determine whether the student has the required level of competence or ability. Failure to make adjustments to the mode of assessment for disabled students could therefore give rise to claims of discrimination, including a failure to make reasonable adjustments. By contrast, an ability to demonstrate synoptic knowledge of material studied over the course of one or two years is likely to be regarded as an acceptable competence standard. However, a method of assessing this knowledge which required high levels of stamina in order to complete a number of papers within a limited time scale would not be justifiable.

11.  The identification of a course’s competence standards is key to avoiding unlawful discrimination and enabling the University to meet its anticipatory duty to make reasonable adjustments (See Annex A: Major adjustments to examinations and assessment). Therefore, supervisory bodies must clarify the competence standards of their courses10. The Equality Challenge Unit ‘recommends a collaborative approach to developing and reviewing competence standards. This will require input from those with particular knowledge of disability as well as from academic staff with subject-specific knowledge’, and provides some guidance on this.11 Work is ongoing to provide guidance on including information on competence standards in the template for course handbooks.


1 Guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission for providers of post-compulsory education is available at

2  Guidance published in 2015 from the Equality Challenge Unit on the interaction between competence standards and reasonable adjustments is available at

3  Unlawful discrimination includes direct discrimination, which is never justifiable, and indirect discrimination or discrimination arising from a disability which cannot be justified in accordance with the numbered requirements set out in paragraph 2.


5  Example taken from


7  Example taken from

8  ‘Indirect discrimination’ occurs when a policy, criterion or practice applied equally to all students has the effect of putting disabled students at a substantial disadvantage and is unlawful unless it can be justified as a ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’.

9  ‘Discrimination arising from disability’ occurs where a person is treated less favourably as a result of his or her disability and the treatment cannot be justified.

10  The OIA has recommended that the University review its assessment criteria and processes with the aim of identifying appropriate competence standards for its courses.