DSA reforms must meet students’ needs

Krupali Parshotam hopes that proposed reforms to DSA can address long-standing issues for students with disabilities

Krupali Parshotam is policy coordinator at the Thomas Pocklington Trust

Reforms to the procurement of Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) announced by the Student Loans Company (SLC), are desperately needed for the next generation to reach its full potential.

I have experienced the frustrations of securing DSA first hand.Now I work for an organisation that supports blind and partially sighted students and we see the heavy burden the current system places on them.

Battling a flawed system while they should be focusing on their studies places disabled students at a further disadvantage right from the start. It causes additional stress leading to poor attendance rates, deferred courses and increased dropouts.

The reforms are absolutely welcome but we must ensure the new procurement framework includes some fundamental elements to guarantee it meets the needs of students. These include:

  • Providing a robust assessment process, delivered by an assessor with disability specific expertise.
  • Assessments must be conducted with the student’s needs and requirements in mind, such as location and communication preferences.
  • Students must be able to choose the assistive technology and software that they need.
  • And, most importantly, students must be kept informed of key dates and progress of their DSA journey.

DSA, administered by SLC, is a lifeline for disabled students. The grant allows them to fully participate with their education. It can provide technology in the form of hardware or software, non-medical help such as specialist note-takers, assistive technology trainers or academic mentors, and travel support. In essence, it allows students to be on an equal playing field as their peers.

The Our right to study report we launched in 2019 in partnership with Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and the Vision Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research (VICTAR) flagged multiple issues with the existing system for blind and partially sighted students.

The research found that assessors did not have the necessary understanding of the needs of blind and partially sighted students, which meant that the right support or technology for students were not always recommended. Students started their course while still waiting for equipment or NMH. And, in some cases, received no support at all!

In desperate need of equipment, some students spent significant amounts of money to purchase equipment that should have been covered by DSA.

But, despite this, the resounding message from students is that DSA is vital to enable them to engage in university education.

Priorities for change

Currently the onus is on the student to organise and arrange all their support.There are multiple contact points to organise assessments technology, training and NMH, leaving students confused on where to go. And when things are delayed or go wrong, the student then has to deal with each supplier individually, as there is no central contact point for them to go to. This all equates to a fragmented and disjointed service.

In the Arriving at Thriving report in 2020, the Policy Connect Higher Education Commission highlighted many barriers disabled students face on higher educational courses. They found disabled students experienced additional pressures such as completing lengthy and complex application forms, attending needs assessments, and organising and chasing suppliers for assistive technology and support.

These findings have also been echoed by a recent report on DSA published by Lord Holmes. One student told his review:

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 time 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.

The reforms for England and Wales will change the way in which needs assessments, assistive technology, and training are procured.

Currently SLC holds no contracts with providers and cannot therefore follow a student’s journey through the DSA process. From September, the changes will see up to four separate providers across England and Wales for needs assessments, assistive technology and training. There will also be a central contact point for students.

Students will still apply to the SLC to determine their eligibility for DSA, but they will only have one point of contact to organise the rest of their support for these services. They will also still need to play a role in organising their non medical help and travel support as these are not covered within the reform’s proposal.

The much-needed changes to the DSA process promise to improve the journey and make it less stressful for students to navigate.It is good to see SLC’s emphasis on quality and accountability. It should mean a one-stop shop system with the responsibility on suppliers to arrange assessments and deliver assistive technology – on time! For the student it will mean a single point of contact.

These reforms have been long awaited by thousands of disabled students, specialist professionals and supporting organisations. SLC recognises that DSA is vital to enabling opportunity and widening participation in higher education.

University builds confidence in young adults to become self-reliant, socially and financially independent and contribute to the wider community. Isn’t that what we should be inspiring the next generation to do? To develop and strive to build an inclusive and diverse society.

The reforms will mean disabled students will no longer be left to effectively sink or swim. But we need to ensure the framework meets the needs of students and that quality and accountability of services is built into this.

Click here to find out more about Thomas Pocklington Trust and its student support service.

2 responses to “DSA reforms must meet students’ needs

  1. Be careful what you wish for.

    The benefits of convenience associated with a single point of contact significantly lose their lustre if that single point of contact is insufficiently qualified, experienced, knowledgeable, or motivated to effectively meet your needs.

    Make no mistake, these proposed changes are not motivated by any desire on the part of the government to improve student experience; that is the cover story to mask the true intention, which is to attempt by brute force to substantially slash costs. Some of this will be achieved by greater structural efficiency, but some will be achieved by the successful bidders winning the tender on a model that enforces pay cuts upon people working in the sector. When that comes to DSA Needs Assessors and Assistive Technology Trainers, that will lead to a skills drain. There are already companies operating in the sector who appear to believe that a Needs Assessor is sufficiently capable after 4 weeks of intensive training and with the motivation of a starting salary of £25-30k per year, which is under the current ONS national average salary of £31,772. Knowledgeable and experienced Needs Assessors with transferrable skills – i.e. the best of those currently working in the sector – are not likely to continue working in the profession if that type of pay cut is imposed upon them. That will initially lead to a skill drain, with backlogs in delivering Needs Assessments to students, and eventually to low quality Needs Assessments delivered by poorly trained people working under the yoke of large workload volumes and inflexible KPI targets enforced by the corporate behemoth that employs them. In other words, a recipe for the sort of misery experienced by many people who have to endure PIP assessments or ‘fitness to work’ assessments.

    Again – be careful what you wish for.

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