Thousands of disabled students are facing lengthy delays in receiving the financial support they need to begin their university courses, the organisation that administers the scheme has admitted.
The Student Loans Company (SLC) – which is administering disabled students’ allowances (DSA) for the first time this year – has apologised and launched an internal review after completing only 2, 500 of 14, 000 DSA applications it had received by late October.
Several thousand of these students were having their needs assessed at independent assessment centres – one of the final stages in the process – but 6,000 other applications were awaiting further information or had not yet started being processed.
SLC has now admitted that, by 12 November, it still had a three-week backlog and was only opening applications for DSA – which helps with the impairment-related costs faced by disabled students – received on 20 October.
There have also been complaints of lost medical evidence, and an “unusually high” number of applications being returned due to “inadequate medical evidence”.
And many disabled students have reported being treated “rudely” by SLC call centre staff, with reports of “intrusive and inappropriate comments”.
Derek Ross, deputy chief executive of SLC, said he “regrets” the difficulties and blamed this year’s change to centralised processing of DSAs, and an under-estimation of how much work would be involved in the new system.
SLC has now doubled the size of its team, he said, and hopes to reduce the backlog to a week’s delay by the end of November.
Ross said he was “very disappointed” with reports of poor treatment by staff.
Meanwhile, the government has ordered an independent review, following similar concerns over SLC’s processing of student loans.
The British Dyslexia Association said the DSA system was in “disarray” with many students having to defer their courses or drop out altogether.
Barbara Waters, chief executive of Skill, the disabled students’ charity, said SLC was “very close” to breaching its public sector duty under the Disability Discrimination Act.
She said DSA was vital for “induction, progression and adapting to university life”.
She said the problems were “outrageous”, particularly as disability organisations spent months working with SLC to “enable them to get this right”.
Skill wants a named case worker for every DSA applicant, and a “culture change” within SLC.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said SLC was processing record numbers of applications but had “fallen short of expectations”.
12 November 2009