Some Christmas misery for disabled students

I’m trying to cheer up for the festive season, I really am - but there’s a story buried underneath the Downing Street shenanigans this week that is just punch-in-the-face miserable.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

You may recall that back in June we noted that a psychology student at Bath Spa had been granted permission to challenge regulations that prevent him and thousands of other disabled students from claiming universal credit while they are full-time students.

For most students in full-time education, there’s little access to the DWP benefits system – the assumption is that the maintenance loan, parental support and part-time work will cover things. But there have always been exceptions – for student parents, those who lived away from their own parents because of difficult circumstances or who were previously in local authority care, refugees and disabled students.

When universal credit was discussed and approved by parliament, it was agreed that disabled students who could show they had limited capability for work – and already received attendance allowance (AA), disability living allowance (DLA) or a personal independence payment (PIP) – should be exempt from the rule that it cannot be claimed by full-time students.

That makes sense. Disabled students are much less likely than others to be less able to supplement their income through paid work alongside their studies.

DWP ministers have been hamfistedly attempting to close what they regard as a loophole for a while – and now it looks like they’re about to have their way and chuck thousands of disabled students out of education in the process.

Here’s the situation. Under the current rules, to start a claim for UC while in education, a disabled person must already have something called “Limited Capability for Work (LCW)” status. But to get that status, a disabled person must have a something called a “work capability assessment (WCA)”, and the main way to access an assessment is by starting a claim for Universal Credit.

The problem is that Therese Coffey saw to it that they need LCW status to start a claim for UC, but they need to start a claim for UC to get LCW status.

For the time being, for some disabled students there’s been a natty workaround. Disabled students still in basic education over the age of 19 have been able to get a WCA assessment (and therefore LCW status) while studying by applying for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) – even though most of them can’t get ESA because they’ve not made sufficient NI contributions. Nevertheless, because claiming ESA involves an assessment, it can establish a student’s LCW so that they can go on to claim UC.

But DWP’s new oncoming rules will close off the workaround.

A Government spokesperson said: “Our student support system includes the student loan and the Disabled Students Allowance, as well as discretionary bursaries, grants and hardship funds. Universal Credit isn’t intended to duplicate this.”

You get the distinct sense that DWP and DfE both think this is eachother’s problem to fix, but while they point the blame at each other, it’s disabled students that will be choosing to drop out onto benefits rather than enrol into HE without them. They can’t get on if they can’t get in, after all.

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