Students to lobby MPs over cuts to ‘vital’ allowance


newslatestDisabled students across England are today (Friday) taking part in a nationwide lobby of MPs’ surgeries in protest at “deeply unfair” reforms to the system of higher education support.

The day of action has been organised by the National Union of Students (NUS), which says the reforms to the disabled students’ allowance (DSA) system will make it harder for disabled people to attend university.

They have accused the government – and Conservative universities minister David Willetts – of “gutting a support allowance vital to many students”, a point disabled students will be making to MPs at their weekly constituency surgeries.

DSAs are non-means-tested grants that assist with the extra costs a disabled student faces during higher education study, for example by funding laptops and specialist equipment, or paying support workers and additional travel costs.

But funding – about £125 million was spent on DSAs in 2011-12 – will now be focused on those with the highest support needs.

The government intends to restrict those eligible to receive laptops and computers, while non-medical support like note-taking will no longer be covered under DSA, shifting greater responsibility onto institutions.

And DSA will no longer cover the extra costs of “specialist” accommodation, other than in “exceptional circumstances”.

The day of action comes as the NUS publishes the results of a survey of nearly 1,700 students from 140 UK universities, which shows that DSA is a “crucial” source of funding for disabled students’ laptops and computers.

The survey found that 83 per cent of disabled students used their DSA to obtain the electronic device they used for their college or university work, while 98 per cent of disabled students said DSA was the source of funding for their assistive software.

Hannah Paterson, the union’s disabled students’ officer, said: “I have dyslexia, and the DSA paid for a voice recorder, computer and mind-mapping software for my undergraduate degree.

“I don’t think I could have achieved the grades I did or even completed the course if I hadn’t had this support.

“We are already seeing prospective students who are reconsidering their 2015 entry applications because they are worried that the changes will affect them.”

The NUS has secured the support of the disabled Labour MP David Blunkett, who said the postcode lottery that will result from the DSA reforms was “unacceptable” and was “likely to have perverse consequences” by discouraging higher education providers from welcoming disabled students onto their courses.

He said: “This is a step backwards – 45 years – to when I personally had to organise a voluntary reading circle to complete my undergraduate degree and to rely on friends and family for the support needed.”

He said that disabled students risked becoming “yet another victim of the austerity measures necessitated by the global banking meltdown”.

Research shows that disabled students receiving DSA are much more likely to finish their course and achieve a first or upper second class degree than those who are not.

Paterson said: “The main message is that we do not think the policy has been thought through. It’s another attack on disabled people.

“It’s a purely money-saving exercise without looking at the implications for getting disabled people into work and into education.”

She said it was still unclear how much spending would be cut as a result of the reforms.

About 20 MPs are likely to be lobbied by disabled students and their supporters at their weekly surgeries today, and they will be asked to support a Commons early day motion being put down by Blunkett.

The union has also been organising a series of regional events – in Lincoln, Norwich, Bristol, Manchester and Brighton – at which students will tell members of the public and politicians about the government’s plans.

Although the government insists that it cannot say whether the reforms – which only apply to students from England – will lead to a fall in spending on DSA, the NUS and other campaigners have described them as “cuts”.

Paterson said better-off universities and colleges, which tended to recruit fewer disabled students, may be able to fill the gap in support caused by the cuts, while less well-resourced institutions, with higher proportions of disabled students, will struggle to provide the necessary support.

She pointed to Norwich University of the Arts, where 21 per cent of students claim DSA.

The DSA changes will be introduced for students applying for DSA for the first time for academic years beginning on or after 1 September 2015.

4 June 2014