Examining the reforms to Disabled Students’ Allowance

Changes to how Disabled Students’ Allowance works are intended to make the system work better for disabled students. Lucy Merritt analyses what’s changing and where the sticking points could be

Lucy Merritt is Education Policy Manager at Thomas Pocklington Trust

Following a drawn-out procurement and transition process, the Student Loans Company implemented the new Disabled Students’ Allowance process on 26 February 2024.

These changes affect students applying for Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) in England and Wales and aim to make the process better for all. You can be forgiven for missing the news on this one as it’s happened very quietly. If the reforms work, things should continue to be quiet… here’s hoping!

At Thomas Pocklington Trust we have long been working with the Student Loans Company (SLC) to represent the experiences of DSA for blind and partially sighted students and this relationship continues. The DSA process has been riddled with inefficiencies for some time, with variability in the quality of needs assessments, delays in getting assistive technology in place, and a lack of accountability from suppliers. The onus has been on students to find a way to navigate a complex DSA process involving many parties, with lots of duplication. We are therefore supportive of the Department for Education’s and SLC’s plans to make the DSA process simpler.

A partially sighted student recently shared their thoughts on their DSA experience with us:

When I heard about DSA I thought this is amazing. You can get the support you need, but, I found myself having to pluck the courage to just even want to ask for it. Because then I had to keep justifying myself. Why do you want an iPad? OK, now you’ve justified yourself. Now you have to wait three months for approval. Now maybe it’s approved, or maybe it’s completely rejected, and then you have to go through the whole painstaking process again.

We hope the changes will create a smoother and more efficient DSA journey for students.

A new process

The reforms see the delivery of DSA move to two new suppliers, Contact Associates (Capita) and StudyTech. While DSA policy remains unchanged there is a very different process behind the scenes with a different “customer” journey. Students apply for DSA in the normal way but once their application is approved, they will be passed to one of the new DSA suppliers who will be responsible for their needs assessment, delivery of assistive technology and for ongoing support and training. It is important to note that non-medical help isn’t included in these reforms.

How does that sound? Good – but not without concerns? SLC does seem to have a genuinely robust process of quality assuring the new process with data and key performance indicators as long as both my arms to monitor the effectiveness of the new suppliers. If things start to go wrong, SLC should know pretty quickly. The proof therefore is in how seriously any slippage will be taken by SLC and by the suppliers. We will watch this space and hope.

Students whose needs assessments had been carried out before 26 February 2024 will continue to be supported by their existing assessment centre. This sounds like a reasonable proposition – except that we know that many assessment centres have already left the market because from now they will get no new DSA business (unless of course they have been employed to do so by Contact Associates or StudyTech).

Where this happens, SLC has committed to filling this gap. We will be keeping an eye on the implications of this for students and encourage any blind and partially sighted students affected by this to contact the Thomas Pocklington Trust student support service. After all, this transition arrangement will continue for students for the next three to four years.

Other issues persist

The issues with DSA are not all addressed by the reforms. The application process continues to be clunky. Non-medical help is a long-standing significant issue, with a hugely burdensome process for students to follow to secure support. When we look at specialist VI support, students can be lucky to find somebody to deliver the support they are entitled to. Awareness of DSA continues to be too low, and we too often hear about the consequences of students finding out that DSA exists after their course has commenced. We’ll continue to use our voice at Thomas Pocklington Trust to ask for change for a better process.

Despite its inefficiencies it is vital that students continue to apply for Disabled Students’ Allowance. DSA is vital to enable access to education for disabled students. For blind and partially sighted students, the support it offers can quite literally unlock access to learning and we hear this time and time again from the students we support. Our student support service is here to help blind and partially sighted students to navigate the DSA process. The insights shared with us by the students we support add to our expertise in the DSA process and help us work for change. We are committed to advocating for these experiences and collaborating with SLC to see DSA improved for all.

Thomas Pocklington Trust is a leading advocate of equality for blind and partially sighted people. We are a charitable organisation primarily staffed by people who are blind or partially sighted and we have a dedicated membership of over 200 volunteers who have lived experience of sight loss. Our mission is to support blind and partially sighted people to bring about equity and inclusion in every aspect of society.

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