There are some quietly dramatic changes ongoing in higher education in the UK currently but there is one issue that is particularly close to my heart that, as I scanned newspapers and current affairs magazines over the past few weeks, seems to have received scant media coverage or attention.
On the 7th of April David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, released a ministerial statement on future changes to the Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) that will affect new students from the 15/16 academic year on-wards. The Disabled Student Allowance are non-repayable grants, available to both part-time and full-time undergraduate or postgraduate students, that assist with additional costs that a disabled student incurs in relation to their study in higher education, such as when a disabled individual may need a note taker during lectures, a library helper to find and handle books, or when they require specialist equipment for studying and for producing written work. Those disabled students who are currently enrolled and agreed DSA will not be affected by the new changes, but students who start in 15/16 academic year will be affected.
The aim, Willetts declares in the statement, is to modernise Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) by reviewing the £125 million-a-year support given to thousands of disabled students in the UK. Essentially the Student Loans Company, the not-for-profit company that provides student loans and DSA in the UK, will be limiting the support types and equipment allocation that they currently fund for disabled students who attend higher education. Willetts states that he would expect the higher education institutions (HEI’s) to pick up the slack, and provide and pay for the more general support types needed by individual students with disabilities. Thus the limited public funds available for DSA will support and supply disabled students applying for higher education with a core allocation for certain complex types of support (such as specialised software), whilst hoping that the individual institutions will have the frameworks in place for providing more generalised support types for disabled students in conjunction with support suppliers.
The only mainstream magazine that I have seen mention or discuss the announcement is the ever reliable Private Eye magazine (current edition No. 1364, page 9), and online independent bloggers such as Assist Tech. Private Eye quote the fact that the National Association of Disability Practitioners (the providers of support that invoice the Student Loan Company for support given) have stated that the move as described by Willetts would create an enormous disincentive for universities to recruit disabled students because of the costs involved.
The value of having a centralised loan company that can collect information, review procedures and investigate providers of equipment and support will surely be lost if individual HEI’s have to rely on a binary system of dealing with both the Student Loans Company and the individual practitioners, during the providing of support for disabled individuals in higher education.
Following the ministerial statement by Willetts, Paul Higgs, as a part of the Higher Education Student Funding Policy in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, also released a more in-depth Student Support Information Note in April 2014 (SSIN, fully accessible here). In it the nuts and bolts of the modernisation program is highlighted, and it makes for depressing reading:
- The bulk of the non-specialist non-medical helpers (NMH) support that is currently funded by DSA will no longer be funded by the Student Loan Company. This includes library or laboratory assistants, note takers, personal helpers, mentors or specialist helpers.
- The majority of the equipment that is currently funded by DSA will no longer be funded from 15/16 on-wards, only specialist equipment that is specifically needed by the student will be funded.
- No assistive technology support or related non-medical helper support is expected to be funded either.
- Funding will no longer be provided for consumable items (paper, ink etc).
- No funding will be given for additional costs regarding accommodation changes where the accommodation is funded by the HEI, if this is to be a problem the HEI itself is expected to meet the cost.
There is, of course, core funding that will remain in place and accessible for disabled students from The Student Loans Company itself in complex situations (although complexicity in this instance is not defined further). The HEI should hopefully have core support ring-fenced from its own allocation of funding and have such frameworks in place for the support of disabled students from the 15/16 academic year on-wards. The aim of the statement and intended proposals from Willetts and Higgs is to ensure that the DSA is up to date, consummate with the use of public funds and its spending, and to make sure that HEI’s are abiding by the 2010 Equality Act, which ensures that disabled individuals have an equal playing field, in both academia and in employment compared to the average non-disabled individual. This is an honourable view certainly.
Yet I retain deep reservations about this latest move by the government. Yes it has only just been announced and yes it is not currently in practice, but I worry for disabled students access to higher education and to academia generally. This move will force a greater financial burden onto educational institutions throughout the country. The economic worth of study, and of the place of academia within a national economy generally, is not in dispute, but the availability of access to academia by every sector of society is. The move is also slowly breaking down the great vision that study is worth it for its own sake as limitations are further placed on the value of access to education. Furthermore it is another demoralising move towards eroding the individual freedom of disabled people by dismantling core government support, and fanning it out instead to a variety of organisations and companies.
Dr Sarah Lewthwaite, who is a post doctoral research associate in student experience at King’s College London, argues in a critical and perceptive article for The Guardian‘s Higher Education Network that the latest publicly available records state that the DSA annual spending statistics are actually down compared to previous years (12/13 academic year compared to previous academic years). Further to this, she also questions the areas that are being proposed to be cut by central funding from The Student Loans Company, highlighting that the
“Proposed changes to DSA funding may fundamentally redefine disability in higher education. Students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs), such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADD/ADHD, have been singled out for the largest cuts, and there is a real danger that their needs become invisible.
Willetts has chosen to restrict focus to more “complex” SpLDs and those requiring “most specialist” support. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between a medical diagnosis and the support requirements that students may have. Indeed, it is ironic that the one group singled out for cuts to academic support are those whose disability explicitly affects learning.”
It is worth reading Lewthwaite’s full article as it exposes some of the concerns from the academic sector itself, as well as highlighting issues that will affect disabled students and their access to education.
Patoss, the professional association of teachers of students with special learning difficulties, has also raised its concerned with the changes proposed by Willetts. In a statement, mentioned on their post on the proposals, Paddy Turner has stated that “the size and the scale of these cuts is unprecedented and represents a retrogressive step in equality for disabled people“. Needless to say I will be interested to see the development and implementation of the modernisation of DSA in the upcoming years ahead. I will also keep an eye out for further information as and when it becomes available.
A thank you goes to Chris Morley, who highlighted in the comments section below several invaluable articles that helped improve this post.
Please note that students in Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland may be affected differently due to national changes. It has also become apparent that different universities may have allocated funds for disabled students which could be used for support. However the problem still remains that universities that formally received DSA support from central government may no longer be able to provide for disabled students. Please remember that this is dynamic situation and I’d expect changes to happen, especially as a General Election is due in 2015.
- The ministerial statement by Rt Hon. David Willetts, MP for Universities and Science, can be read here.
- Paul Higgs SSIN statement on the changes in DSA for 15/16 can be found here.
- Read Sarah Lewthwaite’s perceptive article in the Guardian’s Higher Education Network section here.
- Have a read of Assist Tech’s personal view and much more detailed response to Willett’s and Higgs’s statement here. Worth noting is where the ministerial statement found the statistics it uses on the access to a laptop question. It is misleading at best.
- The National Union of Students has blasted the decision by Willets in this article here.
- Read the legislation for the Equality Act 2010 here.
- The University of Sheffield Union is holding a demonstration against the cuts on the 6th of June, as part of an on-going campaign. Find out more information here.