“Deeply unfair” reforms to the system of higher education support in England will make it harder for disabled students to attend university and more likely to drop out of their courses, say campaigners.
The reforms to the disabled students’ allowance (DSA) system announced by the Conservative universities and science minister David Willetts this week appear to mirror the cuts to disability benefits that have angered disabled activists over the four years since the coalition came to power.
This is because Willetts said he wanted to focus funding – about £125 million was spent on DSAs in 2011-12 – on those with the highest support needs, with many students with lower support needs having to rely instead on their university to provide equipment or make other reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act.
Similar language has been used repeatedly by ministers to justify cuts to disability benefits, with work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith often explaining that his disability living allowance reforms were “focusing support on those who need it most”.
Willetts had already announced that maximum DSA grants for 2015-16 would be frozen at the same cash levels as 2014-15, a real-terms cut.
Critics say the reforms – which only apply to students from England – could make some universities less keen to offer places to disabled students.
The National Union of Students (NUS) said it was “deeply concerned” by the announcement, which it said could see “fewer students receiving the support they need to stay the course”, while it was likely that many students would “fall through the cracks”.
DSAs are non-means-tested grants that assist with the extra costs a disabled student faces during higher education study, for example by funding the purchase of laptops and specialist equipment, or paying support workers and additional travel costs.
Universities will now be expected to put strategies in place that will “reduce the need for support workers” and “encourage greater independence and autonomy” for students.
The government will no longer fund the purchase of “standard specification” computers, or even some higher-cost computers that are needed “simply because of the way in which a course is delivered”, and Willetts said DSA would no longer meet the extra costs of “specialist” accommodation, other than in “exceptional circumstances”.
He also said that DSAs would now only be provided to students who were seen as disabled under the Equality Act 2010 (those with impairments that have a substantial and long-term negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities).
He claimed that his “modernising” reforms would ensure that the “limited public funding available for DSAs” was “targeted in the best way… to achieve value for money, whilst ensuring those most in need get the help they require”.
He said it was the first time DSA had been reviewed in nearly 25 years, and added: “We recognise that students will continue to need support.
“However, we believe that [higher education institutions] are better placed to consider how to respond in many cases, including giving greater consideration to the delivery of their courses and how to provide support.”
The changes will be introduced for students applying for DSA for the first time for academic years beginning on or after 1 September 2015.
A Department for Education (DfE) spokesman said it was not able to say whether spending on DSAs would be cut, as funding would remain “demand-led”.
He also said it was not possible to give an example of the kind of help that would still be funded, as potential support was “very wide-ranging”, and every student has “very individual needs”, while “technology continues to evolve and new support strategies develop”.
He said: “It is therefore not possible to give an exhaustive list of what we will fund, only what we will not fund.”
Hannah Paterson, NUS disabled students’ officer, said: “The prospect of deeply unfair cuts to support for disabled students should concern us all.
“We already know that disabled students are under greater financial strain than others.
“It is arrogant and out of touch to assume that disabled students can access ‘basic’ equipment or that universities will accept the new responsibilities ministers are seeking to place on them.”
Philip Connolly, policy and communications manager for Disability Rights UK, said the announcement was “unwelcome and undesirable” and mirrored the government’s drive to cut welfare spending by restricting eligibility.
He said that tying support to the definition of disability under the Equality Act would particularly impact on students with dyslexia, dyspraxia and other specific learning difficulties, who would be seen as “not disabled enough” for DSA.
And he suggested that the reforms could lead to the government breaching its duty to ensure that disabled students can access higher education “without discrimination and on an equal basis with others”, under article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Deb Viney, a director of the National Association of Disability Practitioners, whose members support disabled students in higher and further education – although speaking in her capacity as a disability practitioner at a London university – said she was “very concerned” about the changes.
She said there were “all sorts of concerns” about whether the reforms would affect the number of students with support needs who win university places, and particularly the number of those with lower support needs who drop out of university courses.
Viney said: “The effect will probably be more on the retention. They will get in OK, but they may struggle more than they did in the past.”
The DfE spokesman said: “We do not believe these proposals will discourage disabled students from going into higher education.
“We recognise that students with disabilities will continue to need support to enter and remain in higher education and believe that in many cases institutions are better able to respond to non-complex requirements by making anticipatory adjustments or adjustments at an individual level.”
10 April 2014