Delegates approved an emergency motion opposing cuts to disabled students’ allowance (DSA), which were announced at the beginning of last month and apply only to students from England.
The motion said that all disabled students would be affected by the cuts, including the largest single group of disabled students, those with specific learning difficulties.
DSAs are non-means-tested grants that assist with the extra costs a disabled student faces in higher education, for example by funding specialist equipment, or paying support workers or additional travel costs.
But Roddy Slorach, a University and College Union delegate, who works as a disability adviser to university students, said the Conservative universities and science minister David Willetts “lied” when he claimed that his changes would modernise DSA and provide support where it was needed the most.
Slorach said the changes would mean instead that many students with specific learning difficulties would no longer be entitled to DSA, because of the government’s “big shifting of the goalposts”.
He said: “This is the government saying that disabled people cost too much and are too expensive.”
Slorach said the changes would transfer more of the responsibility to cash-strapped universities, at a time when the government had also decided to close the Access to Learning Fund, which provides support for students studying in England who face financial hardship.
When disabled students demand that their universities make reasonable adjustments for them – in the absence of DSA – the richer institutions will be able to afford that support, but some of the poorer universities will try to avoid paying, said Slorach.
Richer disabled students will be able to pay for their own support, while poorer students will not be able to afford to go to university.
He added: “More disabled people are no longer going to be able to afford higher education.
“It’s about going back to the days when education was a privilege.”
The conference also passed a motion attacking the impact of the government’s new Children and Families Act on disabled children and young people.
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) said the government’s reforms threatened the capacity of schools and colleges to maintain and extend inclusive provision.
Mandy Hudson, an NUT delegate, said the act’s new provisions on special educational needs were “simply a cover for cost-cutting”.
She added: “It will lead to many of our children not having access to a qualified teacher at any time during their working day at school. That worries me considerably.”
She added: “We know as disabled people that a good education is a key to success.
“We support inclusive education and we need to highlight the fact that with the spread of academies and free schools and the spread of privatisation, more and more pupils will be excluded.”
29 May 2014