Government admits DSA cuts 'will have negative impact' on disabled students

The government has admitted that its planned cuts and reforms to disability-related higher education support will have a “negative impact” on disabled students, and increase the chance of them facing discrimination at university.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) announced last month that it was postponing some of the changes to the disabled students’ allowance (DSA) system until 2016-17, although many would still be going ahead from the start of the 2015-16 academic year.

Its 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 during higher education study.

The government hopes that individual universities will step in and provide any support that is needed for disabled students, through their duties to provide reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act.

But in a new equality impact analysis, BIS admits that some disabled students – the changes only apply to those from England – could face discrimination as a result of the cuts.

BIS says that, from 2015-16, universities and higher education colleges will – “in most cases” – have a duty to meet the additional cost of accommodation they provide themselves, although DSA will be available for the extra costs of private accommodation.

But it adds: “We do though accept that there is a risk institutions may take a different view of what those duties might look like, or might simply fail to meet their duties.

“The impact of that risk is that disabled students may find themselves without the appropriate support from institutions and at the same time find DSAs are no longer available.”

The result of this, it says, is that disabled students might “fail to achieve the outcome they are capable of, withdraw from their course or decide not to enrol for study at all”.

Also from 2015-16, disabled students will have to meet the first £200 of the cost of any computer and assistive software they need because of their impairment.

BIS admits that “the nature of the impact on all disabled students of the removal of funding for computers will be negative”, with a “greater onus on institutions to make provision for disabled students in order to comply with their duties to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act”.

It says that this “may increase the potential for discrimination”, although it also argues that “expecting institutions to provide mainstream facilities that are accessible to the whole student body may foster better relations between disabled students and those who are not disabled”.

From 2016-17, there will no longer be DSA funding – in most cases – for “non-medical” support such as note-taking, transcription, or library or workshop support, with universities expected to deliver their courses in a more accessible way, so that only those with the most specialised support needs will be able to claim DSA funding.

This “may impact negatively on students who currently receive this form of support”, BIS admits, and adds: “It is recognised that students from low income households may be less likely to purchase replacement services themselves.”

Simone Aspis, policy and campaigns coordinator for the Alliance for Inclusive Education, said the BIS findings “have affirmed our concerns around the implications for disabled students, that removing DSA will have a negative impact on disabled students”.

She said she believed the changes would lead to a fall in the number of disabled students.

She added: “It will mean the numbers will decrease and disabled students will find themselves adversely affected by what seems to be nothing more than a cut to DSA.

“The quantity and quality of assistance will be adversely affected.

“Disabled students are not going to get the support that had once been provided under DSA and we should be deeply concerned about it.”

Aspis said she feared that the “substantial budget pressures” facing universities would push them into replacing DSA-funded one-to-one support with group support.

And she said universities could end up only providing support for students with particular impairments to take certain courses, for example making maths courses accessible to students with autism, rather than the DSA system, which “allows students to choose whatever course they want to access regardless of what their impairment is”.

Aspis is currently studying for a PhD and has used DSA funding to pay for transcriptions of the many interviews she has carried out.

But she said she would not have “a cat in hell’s chance” of securing that kind of support if it was left to her university.

Maddy Kirkman, disabled students’ officer for the National Union of Students, added: “It’s really concerning that this assessment confirms that that there really will be a negative impact on disabled students from the withdrawal of DSA.

“It appears that some aspects of the cuts could disproportionately affect disabled women in particular, and may even increase the potential for discrimination by institutions in some cases.

NUS was always deeply concerned at the prospect of these cuts, which could have seen fewer students receiving the support they need to stay the course.

“DSA is an incredibly important means of support for so many, and we will of course continue to make this case, and ensure that where there is reform it is to make the system work better for disabled students.”

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