Now DfE proposes to change a huge part of Disabled Students Allowance

The government is proposing to rethink a central funding allowance that allows disabled students to access specialist nonmedical support. Jim Dickinson explains the justification

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

What fresh hell is this?

It takes a while to get there, but buried in a new Department for Education call for evidence on support for disabled students in higher education is a startling proposal.

There is, it says, a “fundamental question” as to whether an individual student should have a funding entitlement (ie a state responsibility) for specialist nonmedical help – or whether it should be the responsibility of a higher education provider (ie other students’ tuition fees) to provide that support to students, “assisted by funding from DfE.”

DfE is outline proposing to transfer responsibility for a huge chunk of the Disabled Students’ Allowance in England, to provide “more scope” to “remove barriers” to disabled students’ participation and attainment.

Doing so would create a path to finishing a job that was half done back in 2015 – when large chunks of what used to be funded via DSA were shifted onto institutional budgets, only for both core and disabled student-specific funding to be slashed per-student ever since.

50 years of support

DSAs were first introduced way back in 1974, with four separate allowances introduced in 1990. By 2012, DSAs were providing over £125 million of additional support for over 53,000 full-time undergraduate higher education students – on stuff like laptops and specialist equipment, provision of support workers, and assistance with additional travel costs.

By 2014, in the slipstream of a system where most of the money was supposed to come from tuition fees, then universities minister David Willetts decided that change was overdue – and so under the cover of technological advances and the “anticipatory duty” embodied in the the Equality Act 2010, DfE “rebalanced” responsibilities between government funding and institutional support.

We will pay for higher specification or higher cost computers where a student needs one solely by virtue of their disability. We will no longer pay for standard specification computers or the warranties and insurance associated with them. We will no longer pay for higher specification and/or higher cost computers simply because of the way in which a course is delivered. We are changing our approach to the funding of a number of computer equipment, software and consumable items through DSAs that have become funded as ‘standard’ to most students.

In addition, providers were told to make changes such that students with specific learning difficulties would continue to receive support through DSAs where their support needs were considered “more complex” (although pretty much all students with SpLDs can still get the full SpLD package via DSA), and universities were expected to consider how they delivered information to students, and whether strategies could be put in place to reduce the need for support workers and encourage greater independence and autonomy for students. (Some of the issues at the SLC/procurement end were the subject of changes that were implemented nine years later in February… this year).

As it stands, DSA is administered by the Student Loans Company (SLC), which determines students’ eligibility and approves the support that can be funded through DSA. DSA can still fund specialist equipment, travel, and non-medical help – including stuff like British Sign Language (BSL) interpreting, specialist mentoring, and specialist study skills support.

This year the maximum DSA allowance for students who meet the criteria is £26,291, and there is also an uncapped allowance for travel costs. In total in the 2021-22 academic year, £58.5m was spent on NMH support for undergraduate DSA recipients.

Inclusivity by design

Readers are warmed up for the conclusion in multiple ways. First, we’re reminded that under the Equality Act 2010, providers are supposed to accommodate disabled students through inclusive learning practices and individual adjustments, supplemented by DSAs for more specialised non-medical helper (NMH) support like BSL interpreting.

The process is notoriously complicated, and renowned for placing a lot of responsibility onto disabled students themselves. DSA-funded NMH support involves the student applying to the Student Loans Company (SLC), attending a needs assessment, and then following SLC’s confirmation, organising the support with approved suppliers – who invoice SLC directly. DfE mandates qualification requirements for NMH roles to ensure support workers are appropriately qualified, and compliance is audited by DfE.

The problems are numerous. There’s a clear lack of integration between DSA-funded support and the support from providers – DfE says (with no evidence) that “often”, students receive support from both sources without the provider being aware of the DSA support, leading to challenges in delivering cohesive services – although it’s less vivid on the gaps that can exist as well as the overlaps.

This disconnection, says the consultation, hinders the adoption of the social model of disability – aimed at removing barriers rather than focusing on individual impairments – and can lead to administrative inefficiencies, such as the unnecessary duplication of services like BSL interpreting in the same setting.

Then there’s what DfE calls “admin problems”. A 2019 research report commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) found that 34 per cent of students eligible for DSA did not utilise all their offered support, 13 per cent of which faced difficulties in organising access to support, and 11 per cent of which were unsure how to access identified support.

Additionally, suppliers only become aware they are selected after student contact, potentially delaying support setup. If unable to initiate support within 14 days, suppliers have to refer the student back to the SLC for reassignment, which can disrupt students’ study access if they are already engaged in their academic programs.

There are also often shortages in the supply of non-medical helper support workers, particularly in specialist roles like BSL interpreters and mobility trainers, leading to delays in support for students requiring these services. And DfE faces challenges in ensuring value for money within the current system, which features around 500 registered NMH suppliers, including individual providers and larger agencies. The selection of suppliers is based on quotes provided to the Student Loans Company (SLC) by needs assessors, raising concerns over potential inefficiencies and the risk of not achieving the best use of public funds.

There are other problems not in the call. DfE’s mandatory qualifications for some support workers are widely believed to be nonsensical – and make it nigh on impossible to fill some roles, especially specialist mentors. This has been a huge factor in some universities choosing to step outside the system being consulted on and providing/funding their own support – because it means they can recruit support workers on their own terms.

It would be cynical to suggest that this is by design – it serves the government well to have more universities fund their own support outside of DSA. But it’s a strategy that only works for big, wealthy universities – and lands smaller ones in lots of trouble.

All of those problems are real – and in that context, a system that simplifies access to the support that students need, reduces individual responsibility and tackles the pain points makes sense.

And the good news is that since the transfer of responsibility for less specialist non-medical help from DSA to providers, they’ve been doing good things – “expanding wellbeing services”, offering “in-house resources and psychological support”, and introducing “early warning systems for mental health difficulties” – albeit with a huge cost to staff wellbeing and morale, as disability teams are pressured to to do more and more for more and more students with less and less resource.

Of course DSA can’t be used to fund disability-related expenditure that the student would incur even if they were not attending a course, and can’t fund the management or treatment of a mental health condition – it’s there to support academic access.

But given these developments, DfE figures that it is relevant to consider the “interaction” between the two types of support (a proposition that, you’ll note, assumes there actually *is* any kind of healthcare on offer) now that mental health support inside providers has become so much more widely available.

The fundamentals

This leads us to what DfE calls the “fundamental principle” – that given DSA is designed to provide individual grants to students for support, it “aligns with the medical model of disability”, focusing on addressing an individual’s impairment.

But, says DfE, there’s a growing preference for the social model of disability, which emphasises removing barriers for disabled people rather than “fixing” individuals. This shift, it argues, suggests a “potential reevaluation” of whether the responsibility for providing more specialised non-medical helper (NMH) support should remain with the individual student through DSA, or shift towards providers – with support from DfE:

There is, therefore, a fundamental question as to whether an individual student should have a funding entitlement for more specialist NMH support or whether it should be the responsibility of a HEP to provide NMH support to students, assisted by funding from DfE.

It’s absolutely true to say that there’s a major difference between a model that is focussed on fixing people rather than fixing the barriers to their access. It’s also true that in an ideal world, much more of the adjustment work that is carried out now would be unnecessary because campuses, teaching, learning and others’ attitudes to disabled students would bake in access by design.

But it’s quite another to conflate all of that with a proposal that then shifts all the admin left for specialist support onto the beleaguered budgets of university disability departments. In many ways, DSA has to focus on individuals – because universities just can’t manage to deliver the social model – and neither does wider society. Withdrawing funding for individual support isn’t going to magically make society and universities more inclusive. It just means students will get less support.

The one vague bone in the text is that promise of “assisted by funding” from DfE – but let’s look at that in context. As I noted on the site last week, the government’s official funding top-up for supporting disabled students has been watered down in recent years – shamelessly rebadged as a hardship fund every time an MP raises students going hungry.

But it’s also been declining in value. The cut in actual terms (and the even bigger one in real terms) for disabled students has been 29 per cent per student since 2018, or 43 per cent per student in real terms.

Unless the trend lines on disabled students have changed, that’ll be even less as a result of last week’s announcement. And history should tell us that once you move away from a separately definable entitlement/allowance towards something more amorphous in a wider budget, it can be prone to being cut in real terms – even if DfE was to offer an initial sweetener into institutional budgets – and causes students to have to fight for it, and miserable staff to have to ration it.

It’s also spectacularly inconsistent. The principle may be “fundamental”, but there’s no consultation out on scrapping the equivalent scheme (Access to Work) for employment – if there was, there’d be an outcry in the run up to the election. But like during the pandemic, when support for disabled people never extended to disabled students, this is what happens when basic financial support for one small group of citizens is housed in a little corner of DfE. The state gets away with punching down with impunity.

The Office for Outcomes

Officially, it’s a call for evidence on the nonmedical help part of DSA specifically – so doesn’t, in theory, cover the other streams like equipment, software, travel and consumables. But once that “fundamental principle” is established, it’s hard to believe that we’d be left with a form of DSA that only funded those things. And it’s the NMH support that, for most students, has the biggest positive impact.

But there’s another problem with the proposal – and not one, before I get into this, that is the fault of overworked and under-resourced disability departments. There are pretty much no regulatory pressures on universities to take their responsibilities under the Equality Act seriously.

Last June, when OfS yanked the funding for the Disabled Students Commission, it said that it would establish a new Disability in Higher Education Advisory Panel to provide expert advice on enhancing disabled students’ experiences in higher education:

The OfS plans to launch the panel in autumn 2023.

By January of this year, it said recruitment for the panel ran from 30 November 2023 to 2 January 2024, with the first meeting scheduled to take place in Spring 2024. No rush.

More importantly, as we have noted before, in England OfS has a duty to promote equality of opportunity in connection with access to and participation in higher education. Since its inception OfS has executed these equality objectives principally by assessing differentials in outcomes rather than opportunities – and shows no sign of changing its approach. For disabled students, that is a major problem.

On the measures that OfS has, disabled students do assess their experience and achieve outcomes at lower rates than their non-disabled counterparts. But in many cases, disabled students’ battles to access their education are overcome, albeit with significant opportunity costs – and the deep failures that underpin those battles often don’t show up sufficiently in outcomes measures.

The point is that reasonable adjustments and the anticipatory duty are a legal minimum that disabled students should universally experience – not a vague contributor to an outcome that’s the subject of a target that a provider may or may not focus on in its access and participation plan.

Yet the lack of understanding of their rights, rotten and slow systems of complaint, appeal and adjudication, endless tussles between “standards” and adjustments in assessment, and a complete lack of interest in compliance from their regulator all conspire – to create a situation where the one national advocacy body left for disabled students tells us that just 45 per cent of students who declare a disability report that their university approved all the adjustments they could.

All while 54 per cent were offered something harmful or inadequate, 33 per cent were told the adjustment would not be fair to other students, 25 per cent were told they did not really need the adjustment, 22 per cent were told they should interrupt their studies instead of asking for adjustments, and 20 per cent were told they did not have the right evidence for the adjustment.

If anyone seriously thinks that reprofiling the funding for a huge part of DSA in the middle of a wider sector funding crisis while the numbers of disabled students continue to grow will make things better, I have a (probably inaccessible) bridge to sell them.

Here we go again on their own

The bleak upshots are easy to see. More disability staff will burnout and leave. There will be even wider disparity between universities who can afford to resource this properly, and those who can’t. Universities will subtly try to discourage some students to apply for fear of being penalised by the heavy cost – like BSL users at £50k a pop per year.

There will be no possibility of planning, because universities won’t know which students they’re going to get, with which disabilities, year to year. They’ll just have to have massive, open-ended budgets for the very types of support that no amount of “being inclusive” will fix.

This an England only proposal – although another issue is that DSA is about where you’re from, and university funding is about where you go. There will be Barnett consequential impacts if DfE cuts the budget, and universities outside of England that take on English students will suddenly have massive costs to cover, along with even more complexity for students in the name of simplification.

What’s most dispiriting about the consultation is that there are real issues of strategy to be addressed when it comes to support for disabled students – worse satisfaction, worse belonging, woeful NHS services, little to no access to diagnosis, and reasonable adjustments that are neither delivered consistently nor addressed strategically. There’s barely on a word on all that here.

Meanwhile, there are real problems with the way that DSA works too – for big, rich universities, being able to sort out one to one support for students without the misery of DSA processes and timelines, ridiculous mandatory qualifications, onerous timesheeting protocols and so on will be a relief in some ways. Empowering university disability teams to integrate some of the support in a way that reduces the burden on students themselves makes some sense.

But let’s not miss the wood for the trees here. Doing so without substantial, ringfenced and long term increases in budgets is not a service improvement – not even close – and will harm those it patronisingly purports to help. It’s likely just yet another barely dressed up cut.

This article was amended after publication to clarify that the Department for Education consultation has not explicitly proposed a funding cut to DSA.

7 responses to “Now DfE proposes to change a huge part of Disabled Students Allowance

  1. horrendous thinking. plus using the social model approach against us is simply gaslighting.

  2. This one particular oversimplified claim annoyed me back in 2019 in the evaluation report and it annoys me again today, from the actual consultation docs: “34% of students who were eligible for DSA did not use ALL the support offered to them.” (my emphasis)

    What do they mean “ALL?” They got a computer but no training? Or they had some one-to-one support but didn’t use a taxi allowance? A student used up 29 hours of one to one support but they were recommend 30, so they didn’t use ALL of it… Or any combination of the above. Alternatively is this just a figure from students own recollections, self-reporting on a survey? Needs Assessors will generally overestimate things for most students to give a reasonable degree of flexibility. Funding bodies clearly DON’T pay out for support that is NOT being accessed, so makes the discussion around cost even more aggravating.

    1. Indeed. I’m one of those students who doesn’t use ALL the support offered. Some of the support they offered isn’t useful to me, so why waste the government’s money? That’s not a reason to stop offering support, it means they should do a better job of offering the correct support.
      They should allow us to ‘shop around’ for good support rather than having to use the company they chose, as long as it doesn’t cost more. What good is it to send me a headset with poor sound quality, offer software that isn’t useful to me, etc.

  3. My student uses 2×1 hrs 1:1 tutor and 2×1 hour 1:1 mentor every week. Meeting one or other daily. It’s invaluable but these people charge £57ph which is extortionate for the level of input provided. Student also have 200 hours PA note taker- as technology can’t record seminars and workshops effectively and student cannot write/ hold pen and student has visual impairment. For first 5 weeks uni provided a level 2 note taker whose work was ideal and worked well but this was a trial. DSA funding is for level 3 qualified note taker who has to be provided by external contractor who charges far more provides no different service/ outcome and attends less reliably and doesn’t know how the uni works we pleaded for the original l2 but we’re nit allowed. With tec suppprt mentors note takers Mybstudent is getting high 21 and first class marks and has very high attendance. Without this support they cpukd not attend at all. Taxis provide transport as public transport is not accessible to the student. Uni varsity absolutely would not fund this level of support and has only allowed it because it is DSA prescribed and parent has taken legal advice to ensure it is all enacted and in place. Loss of DSA will undoubtedly lead to discrimination, disparity and reduced numbers and prospects of disabled students. I entirely object to this proposal. Tories out!

    1. I agree with many of your points: but just for clarity I doubt the people involved are actually receiving all of that £57 per hour, once agencies and overheads are being taken account of (not to mention their own travel, admin time). Potentially having to book and pay for an appointment space if the HEI doesn’t provide this. Maybe that much if they are freelance but that comes with its own substantial risks and costs. These people have specialist experience and have to meet the “nonsensical” qualifications framework of DSA (the articles words, not mine).

      Its like saying part time lecturers is overpaid at £50-70ph – if you only work a handful of days during term time on an insecure contract and are only paid for time ‘in the lecture theatre’ it ends up being more like £15-20ph if you’re lucky.

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