Exeter graduates raise concerns about accessibility of 2022 ceremonies
A comment made by an Exeter alumnus via social media has sparked debate regarding the inclusivity and accessibility of this year’s graduation ceremonies.
The past Exeter student voiced their dismay at the University’s inability to accommodate their access needs at their graduation ceremony. Though students can report specific accessibility needs during attendance registration, the student in question reported that the University had dismissed their requests as being ‘not viable’ due to ‘time constraints and cost’.
An anonymous source informed Exeposé that the University asked those with specific accessibility needs who needed to go on the stage, which was physically inaccessible due to its steps, could either to ‘walk across the floor in front of the stage or access the stage from the back using the service lift’. This consequently spurred debate about what these initial approaches to accessibility meant for the inclusivity of graduation ceremonies, leading individuals to feel singled out by their needs.
On 13th May, Izzy Harrison, VP Opportunities for the Exeter Students’ Guild, spoke out on the matter and ensured that these concerns were actively being investigated. She stated,
We are aware of the current conversation around disabled students’ access to graduation ceremonies and share the concerns that have been raised. Currently, the front of the stage in the Great Hall is not physically accessible to wheelchair users and people with mobility aids.
— Izzy – VP Opportunities (@ExeVPOpps) May 13, 2022
Harrison also highlighted that the Guild officers met with the University ‘to raise these concerns and made recommendations that [they] are strongly encouraging them to take on board’. A follow-up meeting was then scheduled with senior University staff the following week. Exeposé reached out to the Guild for a further comment on this, but no response has been received as of yet.
On 15th June, the University published a tweet in which they announced new approaches to accessibility arrangements. After a request for a comment on the matter, the University issued the following statement,
It is very important to us that graduation ceremonies are a time of great celebration for all. We listened carefully to concerns about accessibility in the Great Hall and are grateful for all the constructive feedback we have received. We have had the Great Hall assessed by a member of the National Register of Access Consultants and have consulted our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion team, the Students’ Guild, the Disabled and Chronically Ill Network, our Health & Safety team and others involved with providing our Graduation experience.
A University of Exeter spokesperson revealed that the Great Hall has been modified to accommodate those with specific access requirements in a more comfortable and inclusive manner,
As a result, we have built a new stage at a lower height with accessible ramps. This will allow wheelchair users to sit with their peers before coming to the stage to receive their certificate. We have also redesigned the seating plan and reviewed signage to ensure accessible routes are clearly marked in the Great Hall and surrounding areas. There will be Accessibility Champions at every ceremony and graduands who have let us know about accessibility requirements have been contacted personally to see if they need any further arrangements to be made. We will continue to meet with students and the Students’ Guild over the course of the next academic year to see whether further adjustments can be made for future ceremonies.
Given the vast number of deferred ceremonies in this post-Covid climate, the University has opted to spread celebrations over the course of one month, spanning from 20th June until 15th July. There will be three or four ceremonies per day, with some starting as early as 9am on most days. Some students have claimed that these early ceremonies are ‘completely inadequate’, causing complications for those who do not live close to the Exeter area. Complications are particularly prevalent for those who live internationally and will need to factor in travel arrangements prior to and following the graduation ceremony.
Comments have also been made about the availability of additional tickets to ceremonies, or lack thereof. Due to numbers, only two complementary tickets are available per graduate. Additional tickets could be purchased after the graduation registration period had closed, for a fee of £15 per ticket. Tickets for many ceremonies sold out in a matter of minutes, leading to widespread disappointment for graduates – some of whom have been waiting two years to share this special day with their friends and family.
When questioned about these issues, the University commented,
The University ensures that students are given as much notice as possible for ceremony times and dates, with registration opening for graduation in February. The University also advised and advertised the availability of additional tickets for purchase through a wide range of channels, including direct emails, ahead of time. Demand for additional tickets for ceremonies has been high this year, and as a result the University has also provided options for additional guests, including live-streaming ceremonies to the Alumni Auditorium for those attending on campus as well as online.
Additional expenses have also proved to cause complications for graduates and their guests. Prices for hotel rooms have skyrocketed, with some increasing by up to 400% from the base-level rate during the graduation period. Given the increased number of visitors in the city at this time, availability for accommodation is scarce. Students have reported that these constraints have made it difficult for themselves and their families to make plans for the day of their ceremony, forcing some to cut the day short to facilitate travel arrangements.
The costs of robe hire have also faced backlash within the graduate community, who have stated that these expenses make graduation much less affordable for students with lower income. Robes can be hired for one day from £39.60, five-day hire is from £70 and full purchase ranges from £132-£174. This year, the University offered to cover the robe hire costs for all deferred graduates, as compensation for the time they have had to wait. Class of 2022 students, however, were left to pay for these themselves. Considering this, an Exeposé survey suggested that students believe that complementary robe hire should be considered on a more widespread scale in future years to make graduation more ‘affordable’ and therefore more financially accessible to the student population.
It is hoped that the University will take on feedback from this year’s graduation ceremonies in order to improve accessibility, as well as overall student satisfaction, in later years.