Cuts to Disabled Student Allowance

Last month a written ministerial statement from David Willetts (not widely reported) outlined changes to the Disabled Student Allowance. A brief reference to this was reported to our Learning Teaching and Assessment Committee. In future I anticipate we will be considering the wide-ranging impact this will have, on recruitment, on student satisfaction and on budgets.

This change potentially has serious impact on the individual educational experience of many students, has a potential legal impact on universities, and at a more local level, a possible impact on university and faculty or school budgets.

From the ministerial statement:

We will look to HEIs to play their role in supporting students with mild difficulties, as part of their duties to provide reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act. These are partly anticipatory duties and we expect HEIs to introduce changes which can further reduce reliance on DSAs and help mainstream support. However, we believe that HEIs are better placed to consider how to respond in many cases, including giving greater consideration to the delivery of their courses and how to provide support. The need for some individual non-medical help (NMH) may be removed through different ways of delivering courses and information. It is for HEIs to consider how they make both anticipatory reasonable adjustments and also reasonable adjustments at an individual level.The key changes are set out below:We will pay for higher specification or higher cost computers where a student needs one solely by virtue of their disability. We will no longer pay for standard specification computers or the warranties and insurance associated with them. We will no longer pay for higher specification and/or higher cost computers simply because of the way in which a course is delivered. We are changing our approach to the funding of a number of computer equipment, software and consumable items through DSAs that have become funded as ‘standard’ to most students.Students with Specific Learning Difficulties will continue to receive support through DSAs where their support needs are considered to be more complex.We will fund the most specialist Non-Medical Help. HEIs are expected to consider how they deliver information to students and whether strategies can be put in place to reduce the need for support workers and encourage greater independence and autonomy for their students.The additional costs of specialist accommodation will no longer be met byDSAs, other than in exceptional circumstances.

In the Guardian, Sarah Lewthwaite writes:

Willetts stresses universities’ role in bridging the gap in DSA support. However, universities will receive no monies to cover the financial gap at a time of economic stringencies and pay freezes.Willetts emphasises the importance of new technologies for anticipatory inclusive teaching and learning within the established frame of “reasonable adjustment” required by the Equality Act (2010). However, technological solutions are limited. University eLearning environments cannot ensure universally accessible educational opportunities without (DSA funded) assistive technologies deployed by students, among a raft of other measures and costs. In the short term, at least, prospects for disabled students experiencing cuts to DSAs are bleak.Concerns do not end here. 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.

So for students with some of the more common learning disabilities – and we have subject areas where this affects large numbers of students – there might be no more support from the DSA, and universities will be expected to make up the gap.

<rant>

It might be argued that some of the technologies currently provided (eg computers) are those that we expect all students to already own when they arrive at university. This unfortunately ignores the fact that some disabled students will be those who are also from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, and so are least likely to be able to buy such equipment.To me these proposals are to provide support for  “those who deserve it”. Not unlike our changing benefits system that is moving from being one of universal benefit when needed, but one that is only for the deserving poor.

<\rant>

There are different responsibilities for universities here too – the use of the Equality Act and how this could be interpreted to make changes to delivery of courses is an interesting proposition. Smita Jamdar of Martineaus has provided an excellent blog piece on this very subject. She identifies:

Clearly, once the changes take effect there will be less support via the DSA and there are obvious risks to participation levels among students with disabilities, but it is also likely that HEIs will be asked to fund a greater amount and diversity of adjustments once this support stops.

She identifies 2 significant aspects of the ministerial statement:

  1. HEIs are expected not to think reactively about how a particular student’s needs can be accommodated in a particular course, but rather proactively about how their entire portfolio of courses might be made accessible to students with a wide range of disabilities thus obviating or substantially reducing the need for further specific support.
  2. From 2015 it is intended to instead adopt the Equality Act definition of “a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day to day activities”.  HEIs may find themselves in debate more often with students as to whether or not their condition meets the definition of a disability, if only to give students support to apply for DSA

Smita identifies that disability discrimination represents the greatest number of student discrimination cases that her law firm deals with, and that “the changes to DSA are likely to increase the pressure from students and campaign groups alike for greater focus on this area from HEIs.”

So in conclusion, we have a change to policy which will save a tiny fraction of the overall benefits bill. For universities though we need to consider the following:

  • how do we proactively change our courses to make anticipatory adjustments?
  • how do we learn to use the Equality Act to determine what support might be needed?
  • how do we minimise the opportunities for legal cases?
  • how do we manage our internal budgets to cover the increased costs that might be coming our way?