Major changes to the way disabled students are assessed for their support risk turning the system into a replica of the government’s much-criticised personal independence payment (PIP) assessment regime, student leaders have warned.
The changes will mean the closure in December of DSA-QAG (Disabled Students Allowances Quality Assurance Group), the independent charity that for the last 13 years has ensured that assessments of disabled students are carried out properly at centres across England and Wales.
DSA-QAG said yesterday (Wednesday) that the government’s lack of plans to replace this and its other roles was set to produce “confusion for students, delays for assessments and reports” and an “unregulated” sector.
It is the latest stage of reforms to the disabled students’ allowance (DSA) system, which caused huge controversy when government cuts introduced in 2015-16 meant students had to pay the first £200 of the cost of a computer and assistive technology software awarded through a DSA grant.
Further changes the following year saw responsibility for funding much of the so-called non-medical help (NMH) – such as note-takers or study skills mentors – passed to universities, with DSA continuing to fund more complex support such as British Sign Language interpreters.
DSA payments are non-means-tested grants that help with a disabled student’s extra disability-related costs.
The government admitted last year that the introduction of the £200 charge in the 2015-16 academic year led to a steep fall in the number of students receiving DSA equipment funding.
DSA-QAG also regulates the supply of IT equipment and training by assistive technology service providers, and since 2016 has also regulated the services and supply of qualified support workers by NMH organisations.
DSA-QAG’s duties in monitoring assessment centres will now be passed to the government-owned Student Loans Company (SLC), and the Department for Education (DfE) will be taking them on during an interim period of at least 10 months, starting in January.
But DSA-QAG said the reforms had been so poorly planned that even this timescale was “unrealistic”.
SLC is now tendering organisations to run the assessment centres, under new contracts, and expects these agreements to be in place by the start of the next academic year in 2020.
SLC will also be taking on responsibility for monitoring and registering providers of assistive technology, as well as contracting organisations to provide this equipment, software and training to students with DSAs, a change that was originally due to be made this month.
But DSA-QAG warned yesterday that the tender process for providing these services and equipment had not yet begun, with assistive technology organisations being given no explanation for the “unacceptable” delay.
DSA-QAG said DfE had also been “unable to confirm who, when and if” audits of assistive technology service-providers (ATSPs) would take place during the delays leading up to the new arrangements being introduced.
Karen Docherty, chief executive of DSA-QAG, said this created a risk that some ATSPs could let their services slip, and the quality of their equipment drop, with a negative impact on DSA students as well as “potential delays at an important time of their education”.
DSA-QAG also has concerns that more than 450 organisations that provide NMH will now in effect become “unregulated” when the charity closes, “until DfE decides what to do”.
Many of the key concerns from the National Union of Students (NUS) and DSA-QAG focus on the assessment centres and NMH organisations.
DSA-QAG’s website currently allows disabled students to access key information about each centre, including star ratings and feedback from other disabled students and how long it takes to secure an appointment and an assessment report.
But SLC will apparently only provide information on the three centres nearest the student, and NUS fears students could be allocated to a particular centre, probably the one that is closest to where they are studying, leaving them with no choice.
The NUS has told DNS this week of its grave concerns about the impact of the latest reforms – both in the short and medium-term.
It says they are being introduced by ministers without any formal consultation or any assessment of their likely impact on disabled students.
Capita, one of the outsourcing giants that carries out PIP assessments, owns and runs 37 DSA assessment centres across the UK.
One source in the sector suggested that since Capita had taken over assessment centres from other operators those centres had become “more corporate” and less flexible.
There are fears that the reforms will lead ultimately to the closure of smaller assessment centres and moves towards larger regional centres, perhaps run by larger companies like Capita, which the union says has an appalling reputation among PIP claimants.
NUS says that DfE and SLC have refused to give clear answers about the changes, have turned down the offer of assistance from the current DSA-QAG staff to help with the transition period, and cannot say what resources will be allocated to monitor assessment centres from January.
Piers Wilkinson (pictured), the NUS disabled students’ officer and a member of the DSA-QAG board, and himself a recipient of DSA for the last six years, said the changes had the potential to “dramatically affect disabled students’ lives”.
They said: “The worst-case scenario is that disabled students effectively get the equivalent of PIP assessors carrying out their assessments.
“They may not be able to choose their assessment centre and may not have any control over who is giving them support for the next three or four years or who will be giving them equipment over the next three or four years.
“Call me a cynic, but I am concerned the driver for these reforms is to save money rather than to ensure that the right adjustment support is in place so that I can stay in education.”
There are also concerns about whether SLC has the expertise or the resources to take on the DSA-QAG role.
Since 2015, said Wilkinson, the government reforms have prioritised value for money over choice and control for disabled students, with students “given solutions that suit the universities rather than being the best solution for the student”.
They said: “I have disabled students emailing me daily saying they are terrified about this change because of what happened in 2015.”
Wilkinson said the union feared the government was pushing for more rationalisation and cost-cutting within the DSA assessment system.
They said the current system means assessment centres have to be able to provide their services to all disabled students, regardless of impairment, from expertise on supporting visually-impaired students to having an accessible toilet.
But they warned: “We have seen with Capita and the other large companies that carry out benefit assessments that they fail to even get the basics right.
“Are we going to see that with these changes, too? Will standards be maintained or are they going to be able to get away with more?
“The bare minimum for DfE is to show us disabled students how this isn’t going to be another botched job and another regression in our rights.”
Docherty said she agreed with NUS’s concerns about the lack of information from DfE about how and when assessment centres and NMH organisations will be audited.
She said this meant a likely “drop in service for students with delays occurring for students when booking an assessment, delays in reports being produced by centres and the detrimental impact this will have on students at the start of their academic life in higher education”.
She added: “We close in seven weeks and there is so much uncertainty that the writing is on the wall: confusion for students, delays for assessments and reports, along with a sector that will become unregulated due to what appears to have been a lack of vision in planning and consideration of what the DFE changes will bring.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “It is vital that disabled students have the support they need and we are carrying out reforms to improve the administration of the disabled students’ allowance.
“The department and the Student Loans Company are working closely together on a smooth transition for new arrangements following the closure of the DSA-QAG, which will be confirmed in due course.”
An SLC spokesperson said: “The role of SLC is to administer government policy.
“In this instance, the Student Loans Company will work closely with the DfE to ensure a smooth transition to the new arrangement, once this has been confirmed by government.
“DSA-QAG duties have not been passed to SLC.”
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