If it’s free, you’re the product.
This aphorism, largely directed at giant tech firms offering free access to their platforms, in many ways reflects the experiences disabled students face when going through the process of accessing support. The process itself, favouring as it does competition amongst private suppliers of goods, services and equipment, has for some time been criticised as inefficient and administratively burdensome.
Can it be fixed?
While in recent years the Student Loans Company (SLC) has sought to reform the worst bureaucratic excesses of how the provision of Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) is allocated, these reforms have not been swift enough for the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). Recently the CMA has written to several private suppliers of disability support in response to allegations that some suppliers have colluded over the price fixing, a serious breach under competition law.
That students’ disabilities have always served as a catalyst for competition and commodification within a sector geared towards the privatisation of support is nothing new. Disabled students over the years have seen a shift towards situating their experiences within a free market economy, with fierce competition amongst potential suppliers of diagnoses, assessments and support to acquire the contract to deliver their services. The principle behind such a system is unashamedly capitalist, so much so that the SLC and CMA’s main objection appears to be focussed primarily on transgressing the spirit of fair play and competition. As Michael Grenfell, the CMA’s Executive Director of Enforcement, said:
Healthy competition is the cornerstone of getting the best deal so we are concerned if companies might be doing something to threaten that. It is particularly troubling in this case if the interests of disabled students are affected, and if public funding is hit
At this point it must be stressed that these official warnings have been sent based only on ‘allegations’, with the CMA pointing out that they have made no legal findings into whether competition laws have been broken. The fact they are “keeping the sector under review” may or may not be a good thing. It rather depends on whether the SLC’s reforms of the sector, with a “proposed centralising designed to transform the customer experience, improve the provision of DSA and to make the overall processes more efficient” focuses on value for money (efficiency savings) or they truly are serious about improving the customer experience?
To anyone not involved in the labyrinthine stages required to apply for, arrange and receive support the suggestion that disability is a product to be bartered, sold and in every sense commodified may seem like so much exaggeration. But for those employed in higher education disability support, and for disabled students themselves, the notion that universities are somehow in total control of their support practices is demonstrably untrue.
Since the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and later the Equality Act 2010, the statutory requirement for universities to transform themselves into inclusive and accessible institutions has witnessed an explosion in all sorts of specialist companies jostling for funding to help make this happen. The reality is that disabled students arriving at university expecting to access all the support they need often find themselves at the receiving end of a system that has with some justification been described as heavily bureaucratic and prone to adding to their financial burdens.
Arguably, the main problem lies with how Disabled Students Allowance is spent. Students with the right sort of evidence can apply for DSA, which in practice funds much of their specialist provision. The problem is that universities are not directly involved in either the provision or commissioning of much of that support. This is apparent when students, after successfully applying for DSA, are asked to attend an independent study needs assessment to discuss how to spend their allowance. The assessment of study needs centre is supposedly a private supplier of assessments, funded through DSA, and offering wholly independent recommendations to SLC on who potentially supplies what support and at what cost. In other words, a tendering process.
And it is at this stage that allegations of anti-competitiveness and price fixing have been made. The CMA believe that collusion amongst suppliers and assessors have resulted in the SLC paying over the odds for services and equipment they could have paid considerably less for. That said, whether any proposed centralisation of the needs assessment process will curtail the proliferation of private suppliers and therefore the mountain of red tape students themselves experience is doubtful. By law needs assessors must recommend several potential suppliers for each aspect of support the student needs, depending on their disability. So, it is not uncommon for a student with learning difficulties, comorbid with autism and mental health difficulties to eventually have funded one company to supply specialist study skills, another for specialist mentoring, and a third for mental health support. And that’s not to also mention the companies providing assistive technology and training.
Getting support where it is needed?
The bewildering array of private organisations serving the needs of disabled students is due to how DSA is allocated to the disability as much as it is the student’s needs. For each disability there is a company specialising in its specialist support; so we have several British Sign Language (BSL) organisations competing for DSA contracts; specialist sighted guides, specialist note takers and specialist mobility trainers, as well as specialist dyslexia companies providing study skills support; specialist autism, specialist mental health, specialist technology and specialist training organisations.
Evidently the extent to which universities are able to facilitate support and inclusion for their own disabled students is largely only as good as the advice they provide. In every other respect universities are forced to focus upon internal adjustments to teaching, learning and assessments, while the bulk of the specialist provision will still go on independent of the institution. This delicate balancing act between the limited scope of institutional adjustments and private sector suppliers only works if each party has the capacity to fulfil the requirements of their obligations, which in the case of DSA funded organisations may not always be the case. Paying over the odds is one thing, but with a sector notorious for employing specialist staff on zero hours contracts, with no guarantee of regular work between appointments, any rush to reduce funding is not likely to improve services any time soon.
Unsurprisingly the commodification of disability support has adversely impacted on those students most in need of exactly these professional services. The disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has seen, according to the NUS, over 4,000 UK students unable to access online learning during lockdown, 18 per cent of whom saying they could not access the support necessary to deal with the abrupt change of circumstances. This is, unfortunately, not a situation unique to the current climate as pre-covid reports have already highlighted the problems faced by students, such as a lack of awareness about DSA itself, to the formidably complex application process. A recent DfE report has highlighted that 60 per cent of eligible students have not accessed their DSA, with another report by independent Higher Education Commission Arriving at Thriving stating bluntly that:
disabled students face a number of additional pressures in comparison to non-disabled students, including the heavy administrative burden created by having to apply for, be assessed for, organise and chase up the support they need.
As much as the Higher Education Commission recommends more integrated, pro-active disability inclusion practices, with oversight by the Office for Students, it is still difficult to imagine a more refined, simplified environment without considerable disruption to the way in which private suppliers of DSA funded support are commissioned. It remains to be seen, then, how to reconcile the present market driven model of support with the Higher Education Commission’s call for:
a strategic objective of removing disadvantage and ensuring full access and inclusion for disabled people in learning, employment, and all stages of life, including in higher education.