Two disabled students are taking legal action against the government in a bid to overturn proposals to restrict funding for support and equipment that helps them attend university.
They say that they and other disabled students have not been consulted over the plans to reform disabled students’ allowance (DSA) by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).
BIS admitted last October that its planned cuts and reforms to disability-related higher education support would have a “negative impact” on disabled students, and increase the chance of them facing discrimination at university.
Now law firm Irwin Mitchell is seeking permission for a judicial review of the proposals, with the legal action supported by charities the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) and Ambitious About Autism.
Irwin Mitchell says the government should carry out a full and accessible public consultation into the plans, because so far it has only consulted with a “select group”.
There has been no consultation document published – instead, BIS has just asked for comments on its draft guidance, a process that ends on 20 February – and no attempt to consult with disabled students themselves.
But Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, has told the law firm that he has “no such duty to consult individuals” in these circumstances.
Both of the students taking the legal action believe the reforms could prevent other disabled people from completing their studies, or even starting a degree.
Zanna Messenger-Jones (pictured), 17, from Cumbria, who is deaf, is applying to study art and design or fashion design at several universities.
But without DSA it is uncertain whether she will receive the support she needs to follow group discussions and conversations between teachers and other students.
She said: “Without proper support I would struggle to complete my course and I can’t believe that as someone applying to start university this year I’ve not been asked about the changes at all or properly informed of what is happening or changing.”
The second student is 19-year-old Joseph Bell, who has autism, and began studying physics, astrophysics and cosmology at Lancaster University in October.
DSA funded an assistant to support him when he arrived at university and continues to provide him with vital assistance.
Although he is unlikely to be directly affected by the reforms, he has strong views on the DSA system and believes he should have been consulted about the changes.
Susan Daniels, NDCS’s chief executive, said: “Having worked very closely with Zanna and many young deaf people hoping to pursue higher education, we are extremely concerned that changes to the DSA will mean that their access to higher education will be severely compromised, and we will see deaf students fall behind their peers, or worse still, drop out of university, thereby jeopardizing their employment prospects and their future.”
A BIS spokesman said: “BIS is seeking comments on the draft 2015-16 DSA guidance.
“The secretary of state will take into account the views of stakeholders and the equality analysis that is being conducted, before any final decision is taken.
“We would not comment further on legal proceedings.”
Although BIS has postponed some of the DSA changes until 2016-17, many will still be introduced from the start of the next academic year in September.
The reforms – which only apply to students from England – will push greater responsibility onto universities, and away from DSA, a non-means-tested grant that assists with the extra costs a disabled student faces during higher education study.
The government hopes that individual universities will step in and provide any support that is needed, through their duties to provide reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act.
5 February 2015