Disabled students are still being failed

A new report shows disabled students are being failed by the system that is supposed to fund their access. Jim Dickinson finds things getting worse rather than better.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

“I applied for DSA in July, received my payment as classes finished in November. The technological items came the week my exams started in December and the ergonomic items came last Friday – January 28th. All we are asking for is to be at the same starting point as other students. Unacceptable”

That’s a quote from ex-paralympic swimmer Lord Chris Holmes’ new report into the operation of the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA), the support scheme designed to cover study-related costs that students have because of a mental health problem, long term illness or any other disability.

The scheme that is supposed to allow disabled students to actually access higher education.

Another student applied for DSA in March 2021 but didn’t receive a decision until September 2021, after the course had begun. Due to this delay the student was encouraged by the university to defer their start but then incurred course fees because of the late notice decision to defer. They rather politely describe that as an “unnecessary and a very anxious time”.

One visually impaired student requested a large print form but was sent small print on A2 paper. Another visually impaired student received a letter from DSA that was incompatible with their screen reader. Another found the system of providing proof of their disability onerous:

I sent my only ID off, my adoption certificate. As I cannot drive (because of my disability), I have no driving licence and my passport has expired. My ID was initially accepted and returned. The DSA Team then asked me for ID again, but no-one could explain why. Nobody answered calls or emails, slowing the process down.”

The report says that all of the evidence gathered confirmed an average length of time between application and award of at least three months, with the Student Loans Company confirming that the average customer journey time from application to notice of entitlement “generally exceeds one hundred days” – and that’s before they then have to arrange their support – whether that’s support provision or equipment.

To be fair, the SLC says that it has been working on “significant reforms” that will “transform and improve” the DSA service, removing “key pain points” in the customer journey and provide students with a single point of contact and support throughout the process.

But is it any wonder that in 2019/20 the progression rate of pupils progressing from school to higher education, was 47.5 percent for pupils with no identified Special Educational Needs but 20.8 percent for pupils receiving extra or different help in school, and just 8.4 percent for pupils with a statement of SEN or Education, Health and Care plan?

Should we be surprised that there’s a persistent attainment gap, that disabled students are less satisfied with their course and wider learning experience, and are less likely to progress onto highly skilled employment or postgraduate study? And how shocked should we be that just 29 percent of students in England and Wales with a known disability received DSA in 2019/20?

Getting assessed

If a student ever gets as far as knowing about DSA or getting their application approved, they then attend a “study needs assessment” interview – where students are supposed to discuss the type and level of support required. As it stands applicants have to search for, select and contact an external third-party assessor to arrange one of these assessments, and experience is… mixed.

Holmes gathered evidence suggesting a lack of empathy, understanding or specialist knowledge from assessors – partly because no qualifications are required in order to become an assessor and there are no quality assurance arrangements in place. Laughably, DfE relies on assessors self-regulating against a set of guidelines, and complaints.

One student wanted to take a family member with them to ensure “nothing was said out of line” but was refused. Another student asked to bring someone into the meeting with them to help them feel safe, but was told that was not allowed.

Even when the assessment was described as a positive experience, one issue raised repeatedly – described by Holmes as a “fundamental flaw” in the system – was how difficult it was to answer questions about what provision would be required to access the course and campus before courses had been started:

It was very difficult for me to kind of navigate the system when I didn’t know what support I needed. You know, saying to a student? Well, what would you need to get through this course? Well, I’ve never done the course, so I’m not sure what it is.”

Another student described it as needing a “clairvoyant insight into what your course is going to be like, to be able to get it set up in time” also highlighting how problematic it was to have an “absolute disconnect of communication [between DSA and the university] throughout your degree process.”

Amazingly, this is a system that has been getting not better, but worse. For over a decade an independent charity called DSA-QAG (the Disabled Students Allowances Quality Assurance Group) ensured that assessments of disabled students were carried out properly at centres across England and Wales. But in 2019 DfE said it was going to ask the Student Loans Company to run a tendering exercise for the supply of DSAs needs assessments, causing DSA-QAG to close because it was no longer financially viable.

At the time, DSA-QAG said that the government’s lack of plans to replace its service and its other roles was set to produce “confusion for students, delays for assessments and reports” and an “unregulated” sector. Since then there has been a substantial increase in assessors – from 254 in 2019 to 522 now unregulated assessors in January 2022, some of which are reported as having inadequate physical premises such as a lack of accessible hygienic facilities or even being physically inaccessible. And it’s apparently taken almost three years to even get the procurement reforms off the ground, with a “Market Engagement Preview” published by SLC in February 2022.

On course?

Once as students gets as far as enrolling, they’re then supposed to arrange the support they need themselves – something described as a “full time job” by some students:

You spend so much time chasing people. University full time is a full-time job but university plus part time work plus chasing DSA every other day feels impossible. If DSA approves the finances, then you have to get the university timetable and get that timetable to the company that provides the support workers. This year, due to Covid, the university didn’t have a final timetable until after the start of term by which the company said it was too late to get a support worker. The money exists but I can’t use it due to the complexity and difficulty of the administrative process. I may have to defer my course.”

One student had problems with a laptop with assistive technology that had been supplied through DSA in 2017. After repeated breakdowns and repairs it was taken away again on the 30 June 2021 and returned 9 weeks later:

I had no choice but to defer with the course being online and having no alternative device to work from. If I did not defer, I would also have incurred liability fees from my university which I could not afford. Considering that I have the original invoice showing the laptop cost £110 (yet students pay £200), the DSA Team paid a staggering £563 for repairs and an extended warranty. They kept insisting I use the device as they had paid for the policy.”

Suppliers of the tech and equipment used to be assured and regulated by DSA-QAG too. Not any more.

One aspect of DSA is supposed to be support for travel. One student was told she qualified for a taxi allowance but ended up not using the provision she was entitled to because of the complexity of the system:

I was told you will pay what a normal student would pay for that journey, and we will pay for the rest because it’s a taxi. The problem was that I had to tell DSA which journeys I would be making so that they would approve them, but I can have one class in one location and never have to go there again … particularly now with room arrangements being so tricky.”

Ultimately she said she had just given up using it.

Another was studying at a university with more than one campus and the library was not on the main campus. They were told they were not allowed to go to the library campus because that was not approved by their DSA:

So, I put in a request to my needs at Easter.. It got approved the day before my last exam.”

Some students Holmes’ team spoke to said that the process of managing DSA has caused them to drop out:

You make such a long such a big effort, attending meetings and assessments and filling in forms and talking to people. But then finally, the result is that. Unfortunately, you don’t get the support that you need … then because of all the lack of adjustments and also lack of knowledge. I couldn’t continue with the course and the problem is … you are told that you failed. And it’s obvious that you are going to fail because [without the support] how are you going to study?”

Without DSA-QAG around to regulate, DfE relies on complaints. But as ever, students need to know the basis on which they can complain, know where to go to complain and have confidence in the system if they do. And there are ways of DfE not picking up those complaints if a provide3r is keen to avoid accountability:

We were concerned to hear from one student who did complain that they had been offered an ex-gratia payment of £150 provided they close their complaint.”

Again, to be fair to DfE and SLC, a new model is now being introduced where a “regional contact” will arrange a needs assessment, and will contact the student to arrange delivery of technology – responsible for installation, setup and familiarisation of their equipment and software. But how did we get here? And when we got here, why has it taken us so long to even start to go somewhere else?

What next?

Holmes’ report is a good one insofar as it’s about improving the current basic processes and respective responsibilities – there’s 20 recommendations in there including an awareness campaign for schools, a digital “passport” to be carried through from school to higher education and beyond to work, greater flexibility in provision and improved communication and quality assurance processes.

Maybe some of the recommendations will be taken up by DfE or SLC. Maybe the SLC’s procurement reforms process will address many of the issues in the report. Maybe, in time, some things will get better in this process. But something’s bugging me here.

So much of our culture in higher education is rightly focussed on improvement – gathering feedback from students to make things that are OK, better. That’s not always possible overnight or even rapidly – and often the pace of change is inconsistent. But nevertheless there’s a set of processes involving students as partners that are about working together to change things.

But too often, that culture of using students and their feedback to make gentle and polite recommendations is deployed not to things that are OK that could be better, but to situations that are scandalous. The big problem with Holmes’ report is that I’ve read it before, over and over again – and yet the stories and stats are treated like long-term improvement suggestions rather than absolute basic failures and genuine scandals. And every time you’re left thinking that no only has the “anticipatory principle” not been applied here – but that people were specifically warned, and yet still things don’t change.

Holmes here is suggesting that we tinker with the processes – a few more promo emails here, and a better procurement process there. Maybe that will help. I worry a lot that even with the changes proposed, responsibility and accountability will still be fatally still split between universities and external suppliers, and the system’s success will rest on disabled students to manage and chase the support they need.

The point is that actually accessing education shouldn’t be a slowly achieved target – it should be a universal basic. Unless we can get to a situation where we routinely and systematically ask all disabled students whether they could access the education we plunge them into 40 years of debt repayments for – and take much more rapid, radical and structural action to fix things if they can’t – I’ll read a version of this report again in the future too.

6 responses to “Disabled students are still being failed

  1. The DSA as things stand is really not fit for purpose, anyone working in HE student services can tell you that.

    In many ways it would be so much more preferable if the government provided funding directly to institutions – much as the OfS do with access and participation funding – to co-ordinate and purchase their students’ disability-related course costs (equipment, non-medical help etc.). This would address the issue outlined above with students needing to anticipate their needs on a course they haven’t started yet; their institution would have a good idea of what their needs will be. This, of course, would not fit with the governmental desire to give less money to HEI’s, despite wasting huge amounts on costly needs assessments (£600 per assessment typically), overpriced equipment and software and poor quality non-medical help.

  2. “regional contact” will arrange a needs assessment, and will contact the student to arrange delivery of technology – responsible for installation, setup and familiarisation of their equipment and software.

    Partly correct. You fail to mention the regional contact will also be the equipment supplier and the training company.

  3. I completely agree that taking responsibility and funding out of the hands of the Higher Education Providers is a fatal flaw. How can consistency be assured when recommendations come from outside the university, from a varied bunch of assessors? It really is designed to place the student between two separate services, and no amount of new procurement/one stop shop service will alter that. It just dresses up the same old process and gives it a new name.

  4. “Considering that I have the original invoice showing the laptop cost £110 (yet students pay £200)”

    The student contribution is taken from the cost of the laptop, meaning that the laptop was £310.00 initially, the student paying £200.00 and Student Finance Paying £110.00. If you compare the model at the time with high street pricing it is reduced greatly.

  5. “substantial increase in assessors – from 254 in 2019 to 522 now unregulated assessors in January 2022”,
    Don’t you mean assessment centres (not assessors)?

    “it’s apparently taken almost three years to even get the procurement reforms off the ground”
    There was a tender for equipment and training issued in early 2020 but it was abandoned later that year. So that’s two years.

    1. DfE and its predecessors have been working with SLC since April 2014, when Minister David Willetts announced “modernisation” and “rebalancing” of DSA, to reform AT procurement. The current one is approximately their 13th different proposal. Only the 2020 one reached the stage of a nearly completed tender. So that’s 8 years during which they failed even to have a basic contract with suppliers, which would have solved many of the “student journey” problems identified above and in the current procurement, by allowing proactive contact with the student.

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