It found things getting worse rather than better.
Broadly, if a student finds out about Disabled Students Allowances they have to find a third party assessor and attend a “study needs assessment” interview – where they discuss the type and level of support they might require, despite the student and the assessor often not really knowing what kind of support they might require.
By all accounts, it’s a system that’s been woeful for years – a report from Lord Chris Holmes last year found a lack of empathy, understanding or specialist knowledge from assessors, no quality assurance arrangements in place, assessors self-regulating against a set of guidelines, and no proper way of encouraging or tracking complaints.
But at least there was the (delayed) prospect of some reforms – being led by the Student Loans Company – to procurement.
It struck me the other day that things seemed to have gone quiet on that front – and given the minutes here all seemed to be old, I first reached out to the Student Loans Company, who told me that they were making “strong progress” but couldn’t really say more about the final framework pending the conclusion of what is a commercially sensitive tender process.
That “strong progress” line struck me as odd given that I’d understood that we ought to know more by now. And now I’ve been digging about a bit, I have to say the omens aren’t great.
The more expansive official line – explained in a briefing from the National Association of Disability Practitioners – is that the procurement process was launched in May 2022, and as of January 2023, two preferred bidders have been identified to deliver a unified contact centre, assessments, Assistive Technology (AT) training, and wider service provision.
My understanding is that those two companies are Sight and Sound (a smallish company that has previously focussed on hardware and software for the blind and visually impaired) and, ominously given the wider critique that often surrounds the firm, outsourcing giant Capita – potentially under the brand they use now, Contact Associates.
You get a sense of how that tender process has gone when you hear that the fee for a needs assessment may well have dropped from around £600 to around £200, or even as low as £150.
Now clearly on one level you would want governments to be efficient, and if a huge number of cottage industry assessors are charging through the nose in a way that also makes it hard to drive standards, a move to a couple of big players may enable both a better service and a lower price per assessment.
But doing assessments on the cheap could mean cutting corners – and may also therefore mean that the level of qualification and experience that assessors have will also drop.
You can certainly argue that this feels like highly specialised work, and you’d want an assessor who fully understands disability via the social model, has direct experience of relevant software and equipment, and who can ask probing questions sensitively and read between the lines – because disabled students don’t always know what they need.
Capita has recently been recruiting for assessors. They will earn £25,000 a year in London.
The rumour is that the Welsh government is none too happy at the selection and that that may be a source of some of the delays in announcing the framework. There’s also a suggestion that there may be one or more unsuccessful bidders lobbying for the process to be stopped or paused.
Set aside shenanigans over the awarding of the contract(s), and there are wider questions about timeline and implementation. Legacy providers are throwing in the towel already, and there’s been no word on “legacy students” – those who currently have DSA who would normally go back to their original assessor to make changes to their requirements, which happens a lot. Who will they go to when their old assessment centre has closed, as many already have?
There’s rumour that in the new framework, some students will be able to “self-assess” or select their support and equipment from a pre-set package. Most experts I’ve spoken to say that’s a terrible idea. Students may not know what they need, especially if they haven’t studied at university before – and the danger is that many miss out on vital support and adjustments, or will need a lot of help from university disability advisors to understand what they need.
Add it all up, and it feels like a possibility that more work will end up on the desks of disability teams in universities. That’s a problem – they are overstretched as it is (with a typical advisor carrying way more than the recommended 200 student caseload), their numbers aren’t rising as the volume and complexity of student cases does, and there’s zero capacity to pick up the pieces from a new system even if it just wobbles for a while.
Some richer universities will be OK – they’ll provide in-house support and may only rely on DSA for specialist equipment. But smaller providers won’t have that kind of choice.
As well as the assessment itself, there’s the support for students that will end up being procured. There are plenty of “in house” support workers in universities, and the fear is that they may well find themselves without any work as the two big assessment hubs pick from (or even provide) their own list, with quality fears as a result. And so with all the uncertainty, they’re jumping ship too.
There’s also been no word on a replacement for DSA-QAG – the charity that used to quality assurance this process – and so these changes are taking place in an environment where there are no checks, and no accountability. By all accounts it’s not straightforward for students to complain to SFE about their experiences, and those that do usually give up halfway through the process. So the activity is essentially unregulated.
Add it all up and there’s understandable fear – that students could get low quality assessments (if they even get an assessment) from someone who doesn’t understand their disability (or disability at all), a poor quality of support and equipment recommendations, and with no ability to review or tweak these recommendations.
Communication to allay these fears would help, and ideally the framework and plans and arrangements for QA and transition would be public by now. But there has been next to no communication – students are applying for DSA as we speak, but we don’t officially know who the two new providers are, universities have no way to advise students on changes or update them on what might be different, legacy assessment providers are shutting up shop with no future business to depend on, and we have no idea when a proper announcement might come.
Ministers should get a grip on the situation sharpish – and universities may need to prepare to cop both the workload and blame if the system falls over in the coming months. As usual, if that happens, it’s students that will suffer. Where’s that in the national EORR?