Exclusion happens when a student is told they can no longer attend college or university:

  • for a fixed period of time, for example 2 weeks
  • permanently – this means they cannot return.

If this happens, you have certain rights.

These rights come from a law called the Equality Act 2010 which makes sure that all people in Great Britain are treated fairly, especially those who are sometimes treated unfairly (often called discrimination). This includes people who may need extra help to get the same chances, such as people who have a disability. 

Although you may not consider yourself disabled, autism is generally considered to be a disability under this law.

The law is quite complex and uses terms which can be unclear and confusing. We have tried to explain these terms but you may also want to refer to The Equality Act, making equality real. Easy Read Document from the Government Equalities Office.

In this guide we try to answer the following questions: 

If you have other questions or want more information please contact one of the organisations in the Further help section.

What does the law say about disability?

The law says a person has a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment which has a long term and substantial adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

‘Mental impairments’ include autism, even though you may not like to be known as disabled. 

You do not necessarily need a diagnosis of autism to be considered disabled under the law.

If you would like to know more about the meaning of disability you can read

What parts of my education are covered by the law?

If you are disabled, the law says your college or university must do things to make sure you are not discriminated against. These are called ‘duties’ and apply to every aspect of your education including:

  • admissions
  • exclusions
  • teaching methods
  • assessments and exams
  • facilities, including lecture halls, libraries and IT
  • leisure, recreation, entertainment and sports facilities
  • physical environment
  • disciplinary procedures.

Discrimination may still take place even if the college or university believes that they are acting in your best interests. For example, if you are excluded from a course trip or event because the college or university believes it may cause you anxiety or stress, this could still be discrimination.

What is discrimination?

The law says that discrimination can happen in different ways. It can be helpful to know about these so you can consider whether you have been discriminated against and to help you discuss it with your college or university. You may be discriminated in more than one way.

If you are excluded from college or university the law says this may be:

  • direct disability discrimination
  • indirect disability discrimination
  • discrimination arising from disability
  • a failure to make reasonable adjustments
  • harassment and victimisation

Direct disability discrimination

Direct disability discrimination is when you are treated less fairly than other students as a result of your condition or disability.  

Example:

If a college or university excludes a student because they are autistic or refuses to allow them to take a course because they are autistic, this would be direct disability discrimination. 

The law says that your college or university can treat you more fairly than other students. 

Example:

If an autistic student experiences difficulties within the lecture hall which other students consider ‘disruptive’ the college does not need to discipline or exclude the student, like they may do for a non-disabled student.

Indirect disability discrimination

Indirect disability discrimination is when you and other disabled students are treated less fairly because of the way your college or university applies a policy or practice. For example, when an exclusions policy is applied in the same way to all students. This is sometimes called a ‘blanket’ or ‘zero-tolerance’ policy. 

Example:

If your college or university has a policy that if a student breaks the rules three times, they will automatically be excluded from their course this could be indirect disability discrimination. This is because they need to consider that an autistic student may break rules without realising it or because they are anxious or stressed if their needs are not being met.

Discrimination arising from disability

Discrimination arising from disability is when you are treated unfairly because of something connected to being autistic. 

Example:

If an autistic student regularly interrupts other people during tutorials and the tutor considers him ‘disruptive’ and asks him to stop attending this could be discrimination arising from disability. This is because the tutor has not considered that the student may have difficulties with social communication because they are autistic. This misunderstanding could also apply to other behaviours, such as stimming, echolalia, intense interests and the need to repeat patterns or activities.

A failure to make reasonable adjustments

Reasonable adjustments are steps or changes that your college or university must make so that you can fully benefit from your education and enjoy the other facilities the college or university offers.

The law says that your college or university must take these steps or changes. If they don’t they may be discriminating against you. 

The steps or changes can be made to any part of your education. These include:

  • The way your college or university operates on a daily basis, including any decisions and actions they take. An example would be an exclusion or discipline policy. The law calls these provisions, criteria and practices.
  • The physical features of your college or university, such as entrances and exits, toilets, lighting, flooring and furniture.
  • Any equipment or support from a member of staff that may help your studies. The law calls these auxiliary aids and services.

Your college or university must not ask you to pay for these. 

The law says that your college or university can make changes to help you with your exams, such as giving you extra time, help with writing or a separate room to take your exam.

They cannot change the exam itself or lower the pass mark as this is how they test a student’s ability. This is called a competence standard. If you would like to know more about the help you can get when preparing for and sitting exams or assessments please read our exam guidance.

When thinking about what steps and changes can be made for you, your college or university should consider:

  • are you falling behind with your education or missing out on education?
  • could this be avoided with help, such as equipment or a member of staff?
  • is it reasonable to take these steps or changes? 

The law doesn’t say what is and isn’t reasonable but when making the decision they must take into account your needs, their resources, health and safety, and costs.  

You can read more about the reasonable adjustments that can be made for disabled students from Disability Rights UK, a charity that helps disabled people with their rights.

Harassment and victimisation

According to the law:

  • harassment is behaviour that can be offensive and could be bullying
  • victimisation is when a person is treated badly because they have made or is believed to have made or helped with a complaint under the Equality Act.

The law says that a college or university cannot treat a student badly if they think the student has made a complaint about discrimination. The student’s parent, or anyone else who the college or university thinks may have helped with the complaint, must also not be treated badly.

Can my college or university defend or justify discrimination?

Your college or university cannot defend or justify direct discrimination. It is always against the law. 

The law says that there may be times when your college or university can defend their actions which might be considered indirect discrimination or discrimination arising from disability. 

For example, they may claim that their decision to exclude you was to protect the health and safety of other students, staff or you, or they may say they have academic and behaviour standards to uphold.  This means that they are claiming that the way they treated you is fair, all things considered. The law calls this “a proportionate means to achieving a legitimate aim”. 

However, you could argue that how you have been treated cannot be defended or justified. For example, rather than excluding you, the college or university could have had a more proportionate or fair response such as:

  • making reasonable adjustments and providing extra support for you
  • helping you to manage and reduce anxiety and stress
  • being understanding and listening to your feelings and concerns
  • encouraging good relationships between you and other students
  • making sure that your learning and wellbeing needs are met.  

What can I do if I have been discriminated against?

The information above is designed to help you consider whether you have been treated unfairly by your college or university. If you think this has happened there is action you can take. 

First of all, you may want to seek support from a friend, family member, student support service or advocacy service. Your college or university can tell you about student services available to you. Our Autism Services Directory may also help you find advocacy or other support services in your area.

It can be helpful to meet with your tutor or disability advisor to discuss your. You may want to share this guide and other information on the law with them which are mentioned in the Useful Reading section below. 

If you are not happy with their response to your concerns, you can make a complaint. There are resources and organisations that may be able to help you with this:

  1. Disability Rights UK is a charity that helps disabled people with their rights. They have a project called Right to Participate that has created a template letter for students who wish to complain to their college or university about discrimination.
  2. The Government Equalities Office has guidance to help students decide if they can complain and how to do it.

Organisations that can offer you advice and support on the law and how to make a complaint or take legal action are listed in the Further help section below. 

Further help

The Disabled Students Helpline provides advice to disabled students who are studying in England.
Telephone: 0330 995 0414
Email: students@disabilityrightsuk.org
Opening hours: 11am to 1pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays

The Equality Advisory and Support Service has a helpline that advises and assists individuals on issues relating to equality and human rights.
Freephone Telephone 0808 800 0082
Online enquiries: https://www.equalityadvisoryservice.com/app/ask 
Opening hours: Monday to Friday 9am to 7pm and Saturday 10am to 2pm

Useful reading

The Equality Act, making equality real. Easy Read Document. Government Equalities Office 

What equality law means for you as a student in Further or Higher education, 2014. Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Equality Act 2010 Technical Guidance on Further and Higher Education, 2014. Equality and Human Rights Commission.

This resource was produced by The National Autistic Society for the Autism Education Trust with funding from the Department for Education.

Last reviewed: 14 March 2019