Universities minister David Willets has announced proposed government cuts to the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA), meaning many disabled students could be prevented from going to university.
The DSA is a grant given to disabled students to meet extra costs of studying incurred because of their disability. From September 2015, the government plans to cut this allowance, only giving support to students with ‘complex’ needs.
The DSA will no longer pay for computers for disabled students, or fund non-specialist help such as note-takers and learning mentors. In addition, the costs of specialist accommodation will only be provided in ‘exceptional’ circumstances.
Some funding cuts were expected, such as cuts to computer equipment, however the other changes came as a shock as these issues had not been raised in discussions between government and those working with disabled students.
Paddy Turner, chair of the National Association of Disability Practitioners (NADP), states:
“The implications are potentially very, very damaging but the greatest difficulty we have at the moment is that the announcement made by Mr Willetts is so unclear.”
The definition of ‘complex’ needs, as well as who exactly will be affected by these cuts, and who will make these decisions, has not been made clear by government.
Turner also states: “This is going to have a disastrous effect on students with specific learning difficulties because it looks very clearly that he [Willetts] is trying to remove them from the DSA.
“It looks like a knee-jerk reaction to recent reports that specific learning difficulties and dyslexia aren’t really disabilities at all.”
Turner suggests that although changes are not due until September 2015, and current disabled students will be protected for 2015-16, staff are already seeing prospective students reconsidering their 2015 entry applications because they are worried that the changes will affect them.
Turner is concerned that hard-up universities will be unable to provide adequate support for disabled students if they have to cover support that the DSA previously provided, and that this would undo years of work that has improved access to higher education for disabled students.
GCSE student Toby Satchell, who hopes to start university in 2016, is one of many who could be drastically affected by these cuts. Toby has dyslexia, arthrogryposis – which affects joints and muscles – and a language disorder. In school he currently has one-to-one support to help with note-taking, writing and computer work. He states: “At university I would be hoping for the same sort of help. Without it, I couldn’t do it.”
The National Union of Students have expressed their concern of the changes, and plan to protest by holding a national lobby of MPs on 6th June.
Hannah Paterson, the union’s disabled students officer, says: “The fear for me is that like a lot of the government cuts already impacting on disabled people it shuts them out of society. It’s going to stop people going to university.”
Hannah has dyslexia, and received a voice recorder, computer and mind-mapping software provided by the DSA for her undergraduate studies. She states: “I don’t think I could have achieved the grades I did or even completed the course if I hadn’t had the support from the DSA.”
Under the existing DSA arrangements, a student can receive up to £5,161 a year for specialist equipment such as laptops and voice recognition software and £20,520 for non-medical helpers such as note-takers and library support, plus up to £1,724 for general costs incurred because of their disability, such as travel expenses.
Universities will now be responsible for meeting many of these costs, and without any extra funding, some universities are likely to be hit harder than others.
The NADP is consulting lawyers about the government’s decision that only students defined as disabled under the Equalities Act will be eligible for DSA. Turner states: “How are you going to decide who is and isn’t disabled under the act because that’s usually only decided in court?” Until now, eligibility for DSA has been based simply on basic medical evidence that students have needs that will affect their studies.
As well as possibly preventing disabled students from attending university, these cuts are also likely to reinforce the notion that universities are only for the middle classes, fuelling the elitist culture surrounding some top universities, as disabled students from poorer backgrounds may be unable to afford their education and specialist care.
GCSE student Toby is still unsure where his university ambitions will lead him, but says the decisions made about the DSA will have an impact on the choices he makes about university, which ultimately are likely to affect the rest of his life. He says “It’s about choosing my life.”
A petition has been created in an attempt to urge government not to go ahead with these cuts to the DSA. If you want to get involved and stop cuts to the DSA, please click here to sign the petition.
For more information on the cuts to the DSA, please see the following link: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/may/20/disabled-students-shut-out-government-cuts-allowance
Originally written by myself on Dancing Giraffe