Councils are ‘blocking funding for disabled students’


Local authorities are preventing young disabled people from attending university, by refusing to offer them the care and support they need, MPs and peers have heard.

Members of the all party parliamentary group for young disabled people were hearing evidence on barriers to higher education.

Representatives of charities, local government and the National Union of Students (NUS) were questioned during the evidence session by members of Trailblazers, the campaigning network of young disabled people.

One Trailblazer, nursing graduate Valerie Kiln-Barfoot, told how her local council was preventing her from taking up a place to study for a PhD.

Instead of funding for the personal assistant she needs to accompany her at the University of Surrey, she says she was offered enough support by West Sussex County Council to cover just two 15-minute toilet breaks a day, even though she has been assessed as having “substantial” care needs.

She says she was even told by a council officer that they had never heard from a disabled person who wanted to attend university. She has been trying to secure the funding she needs since last July.

Rupy Kaur, disabled students officer for the NUS, said: “Unfortunately, Valerie’s story is not that uncommon. That was said to me. So many students have said that.”

The NUS has called for the government to introduce portability of support, so young people can take their care packages with them wherever they study.

It also wants the government to introduce a national advocacy service for disabled students who need care and support.

Kaur said: “It doesn’t help when a lot of local authorities, institutions and other organisations bicker among themselves as to who will pay for equipment and care. This passing the buck needs to be nipped in the bud.”

Paul Alexander, chief executive of the Snowdon Awards Scheme, which provides grants to disabled students, said his charity was “very aware” of young people being “passed from pillar to post” as they try to secure funding.

He said he knew of “many, many cases” where councils had refused funding for an extra room for a student’s personal assistant.

Andrea Lewis, policy adviser for Disability Rights UK, said: “There is such inconsistency that is certainly unfair and is preventing people from fulfilling their potential.

“I think it is time for local authorities to really take note that a large number of students with disabilities do expect to go into higher education.”

Kaur said many disabled postgraduate students were unaware that they could claim grants for equipment and non-medical support through disabled students’ allowances (DSA), although there was an “arbitrary cap” on DSA for postgraduate students of about £10,000 a year, compared with a limit of more than £20,000 for undergraduates.

When Kiln-Barfoot asked what the government’s “rationale” was for the cap, Ed Lester, chief executive of the Student Loans Company, said: “There doesn’t appear to be one.”

This week’s session was the latest part of a continuing inquiry by the all-party group – chaired by the disabled Conservative MP Paul Maynard – into the issues that affect young disabled people and prevent them living fully independent lives.

A West Sussex County Council spokesman said afterwards that it was not the case that the council had never supported a young disabled person through university and it was “not aware of any officer making any such statement”.

He said Kiln-Barfoot was disputing the level of her personal budget through an appeal but it was “wrong to say that the county council was only prepared to offer her two 15-minute toilet breaks each day during course time”.

He said: “We are working towards Miss Kiln-Barfoot having a direct payment in order to maximise her choice and control.

“As a county council, we have to look to being as equitable as possible to all customers who have eligible social care needs.

“We are committed as far as possible to supporting Miss Kiln-Barfoot with completing her course.”

1 March 2012