The media love dramatic headlines. "39% of University homepages break the law" sounds a lot better than "Slight concerns over University web sites". Of course life is never as black and white or as melodramatic as that. At least not in the world of web design.
What the report says
Our report surveyed 156 UK university web sites and 255 UK colleges of further/higher education. Out of those 39% of Universities and 54% of colleges failed to meet WAI accessibility guidelines. Whether or not this means they are breaking the law is yet to be seen. There is yet to be a test case in British law to see if inaccessible web sites are breaking the Disability Discrimination Act. However based on a test case against the Olympic committee in Australia (which shares many similiarities with our system of law) the chances are they would be.
Although we do list the sites that pass or fail the accessibility test in the report, this is not with a desire to "name and shame". Ensuring that your web site is accessible can be an overwhelming tasks especially when a large number of users are contributing to your site. It is relatively easy to make a site Single A complient but keeping it that way is another matter.
The accessibility guidelines that all publically funded web sites are meant to comply with can be intimidating to say the least. Without clear guidence of how best to approach these problems each University or college is left to work it out for themselves.
Also retrofitting an existing site that many consist of thousands of pages is not always straightforward and many education institutions simply do not have the resources to do it.
I have worked with many such organisations and know what a tough challenge this can be sometimes. Take for example the University of Portsmouth web site. We designed and delivered complient templates that were to be integrated into a content management system. However their site now fail to reach even the most basic level of accessibility and appear in our report. Is this because they don’t care about accessibility? Not at all, it is simply because accessibility is a challenging area that can often overtake us if we are not careful.