Activists have vowed to fight the government’s decision to press ahead with cuts to support for disabled students in higher education of nearly £30 million a year.
Universities and science minister Jo Johnson announced yesterday (Wednesday) that – following a public consultation – cuts to the system of disabled students’ allowance (DSA) will go ahead for new claimants starting courses after 1 September 2016.
Reforms to the DSA system were originally announced last year, but strong opposition to the plans meant the introduction of most of the measures was delayed for a year, from 2015 to 2016.
Campaigners have warned that the cuts – which could reach more than 20 per cent of DSA funding – will make it harder for disabled students to study at university.
Among support that will usually not be funded through DSAs are claims for readers, manual note-takers, laboratory assistants and library support assistants, as well as extra disability-related accommodation costs.
The reforms 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 while in higher education, and which cost the government £145.8 million in 2012-13.
Johnson said in the written statement that universities should do more to “discharge their duties under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate disabled students, as other organisations and businesses do”.
He claimed that “continued provision of DSAs may have removed the urgency of some [higher education] providers to expand provision for all disabled students”.
But his Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) admitted last year, in an equality impact analysis (EIA), that if the reforms went ahead there was a risk that “disabled students may find themselves without the appropriate support from institutions and at the same time find DSAs are no longer available”.
In a new EIA published this week, BIS said: “If institutions do not mitigate the effect of the changes to DSA funding then some [disabled] students may be disproportionately affected by the proposed change.”
Johnson announced limited concessions this week, following the consultation, including an agreement to continue to provide DSA for the extra costs of specialist accommodation – but not if provided by the university itself – for some scanners, printers and digital voice recorders; and to pay for sighted guides.
He also pledged to hold discussions with “stakeholders” to consider whether there should be exceptions to the new rules for DSA awards for non-medical support.
Tara Flood (pictured), director of The Alliance for Inclusive Education, said she was “really disappointed but not surprised” by the announcement.
She said: “This is just part of a wider ideological attack on disabled people accessing education at any level, whether it be school, further education or higher education.”
She said the government’s own EIA showed that universities that accepted disabled students would feel “penalised” by the new policy. This would lead to lower admissions of disabled students, which she said was “disgraceful”.
She said: “The government seems to be hell-bent on attacking disabled people and removing any rights that we might already have.”
ALLFIE now plans to talk to the National of Students (NUS) about possible joint action against the cuts.
Flood said: “We are certainly not going to sit back and wring our hands about it. We need to take a more unified approach with other campaigning organisations that share the same concerns.”
NUS said it was “disappointed” by the government’s response to the consultation, and accused ministers of not listening to disabled students and other stakeholders.
Maddy Kirkman, NUS disabled students’ officer, said: “All disabled students deserve to have the support they need to access higher education.
“NUS is concerned the government’s response to the consultation will impact the consistency of the support available and place a huge financial burden on some institutions.
“NUS and other stakeholders have had our concerns ignored. To make higher education accessible, the government needs to work with students and institutions and take our views into account, not brush them aside.”
The union added: “We also believe the government’s plans for monitoring and evaluating these proposals are very vague.
“Inadequate evaluation will prevent us from assessing the real impact of these reforms on disabled students and their access to higher education.”
The National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) said it was “bitterly disappointed” that the cuts would go ahead.
Susan Daniels, NDCS chief executive, said: “We know that deaf students can achieve just as much as their hearing peers, but the right support must be in place.
“As it stands, we have no way of knowing if universities will pick up the cost of vital support staff.
“Deaf students desperately need support such as note-takers because they cannot lip-read a lecturer or follow a sign language interpreter and take notes at the same time.
“Deaf young people are telling us they feel the government is intent on making it more difficult for them to go to university.”
Mags Lewis, the Green party’s disability spokeswoman, warned that disabled students could “fall into a no man’s land, with the government, DSA and colleges and universities claiming it’s everyone else’s responsibility”.
She said: “Poorer, less advantaged students at cash-strapped universities will be the hardest hit by this decision.
“Sadly some students will drop out and some potential students won’t enrol.”
Disability Rights UK said it was “disappointed” that the changes would go ahead, but welcomed what it said were “potentially important concessions”.
Philip Connolly, DR UK’s policy manager and chair of the DSA anti-cuts campaign group No Cap on Aspiration, said: “It remains to be seen from the detail and implementation what discretion the universities can exercise but the concessions do demonstrate the value of continued lobbying and collective action.”