What is going on with procurement reforms for disabled students?

Just over a year ago now you’ll recall a report that showed disabled students being failed by the system that is supposed to fund their access.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

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?

16 responses to “What is going on with procurement reforms for disabled students?

  1. Even under the old system I struggled with the procurement process. At MSc level I couldn’t afford £200 for a laptop, and was offered no support in paying this, whilst trying to manage with a second hand iPad (I have dyspraxia and need to type lecture notes). When I did my PGCE I had a session with the in-house disability support, but when my funding came through I was told I couldn’t have funded support from them, and instead was only given the choice of going alone to a man’s house, something as a woman I felt uncomfortable doing. So I didn’t access disability support for that year when I really needed it.

  2. I’m glad you’re raising the profile of these changes, I’m really worried about the impact for disabled students in terms of the loss of sector specialism and quality of assessments.

    I work in a university disability service and we really care about our students’ outcomes but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to manage workloads. 1 in 4 of our students now declares a disability (40% mental health) and each adviser has a caseload of 650 students (more than 3 times your suggested recommended number above). We don’t have capacity to paper over the cracks, and many students will fail if the new system doesn’t work. Legacy students are a key concern.

  3. Anyone with inside knowledge knows that what’s going on is an absolute disgrace, showing a total disregard for students with a disability. The old system was terrible, but the new system promises disaster. Where are the MSM on this? And why aren’t universities being much more vocal on behalf of their disabled students? They’re happy enough to go on and on about the tiny minority of students with ‘identity issues’ whilst keeping largely quiet about the very large (and increasing) number of students who need disability support .

  4. The system as is was created by the SLC when local authority education departments ceased to be involved in the early 2000s. The previous system involved HEIs some of whom provided in house assessments which were overseen by the LAs. I spent over 20 years as a DA and needs assessor. The system was by know means perfect, but students had direct contact with their Awards Officer and DAs could Advocate so amendments to support could be evaluated and implememented quite quickly. Important when there were complex needs. The SLC model commercialised the process and distanced it deliberately from the HEIs. Naturally costs rocketed and service to the student has declined woefully.

    Don’t blame assessment centres for the system imposed on them by the SLC. Rather than outsourcing a better route would be to hand the whole thing back to HEIs who are accountable for support under legislation anyway. Properly resourced with nationally recognised and accredited training programmes for university support staff the DSA could actually become an effective and successful methid of supporting throughout their course

  5. I agree with Gillian’s comment, Assessors and Assessments centres are not to blame for the chaos, prior to the government announcement in July 2019 and the subsequent what now seems premature closure of DSA QAG in December 2019, Assessment centres were audited annually and as apart of the audit, Assessors had to evidence relevant CPD and were subject to an interviews by the auditor, if a new centre wanted to open, this had to be pass an audit inspection, ensuring it was fully kitted out with AT kit and resources. However since 2019 there has been a free for all, with centres opening everywhere many of which are just rented office spaces with no kit or resources.

  6. For someone whos been in the DSA for 20+ Years, the Assessment was overfunded by at least £200.00, AT was underfunded with the introduction of a cheapest three quote system. The student £200.00 contribution created a huge problem for a lot of students. They would have an assessment, which was already over paid and fall down actually getting the AT as they couldn’t afford the contribution.

    In regard to the new system, the assessment will be an utter nightmare and will result in students not getting adequate support as this can not be done for the suggested fee level’s to any degree of competence, it will be a tick box exercise for the student and set of equipment in a standard package of some degree.

  7. QAG was of little use. The only source of income for the charity was fees paid by the centres. This was a clear conflict of interest. Many poor centres opened well before QAG was dismantled.

    1. Not strictly true, they received income from fees from AT suppliers as well which were considerably more than centres paid and whilst I agree it wasn’t the most ideal of situations at least there was some control and accountability.

      1. Fair enough Jonathan I take your point. As an assessor at the time I found QAG unresponsive to any complaints as it seems they did not want to do any harm to their revenue stream. The assessor interviews were of little use and I recall a long conversation back in 2014 about Newcastle United with a nice young man from QAG who knew nothing about the DSA process so he was ticking the box ‘met assessor’ and then the discussion had nothing to do with assessming. I think we discussed the situation with the then owner Mike Ashley and whether or not Rafa Benitez was right for Newcastle – I am not making this up. The centre audits were just tick box exercises.

  8. Assessors who have become good/knowledgeable will likely leave as they will get paid more elsewhere. Who wants to work for £25,000 PA in London in a semi specialised role?

    That leaves bad assessors and new assessors – the experience and knowledge will leave the sector as there’s no financial in to stay.

    A ticket guard in London will be earning £10,000 more per annum. I can’t see why anyone would do this work during a cost of living crisis and massive inflation for a salary that equates to 66% of a ticket guards.

    1. Yes and no. First – what alternative employment is available for DSA assessors? They have always moved to the highest paying work and as noted above the assessment was overfunded which accounted for their relatively high earnings over the past few decades. Just how much alternative work is there at a similar level of payment? Some may not be able to find such alternative work. Regarding annual rate of pay, if that is a full time job, then of course £25000 is low. However, it may be that the assessment providers (Contact and the Sight and Sound group) will have assessors on a SE basis and therefore not contractually obliged to work FT and for one company. This flexi-working has been the norm for needs assessors so they may well continue with needs assessments alongside other employment. Furthermore, until recently an assessor could just drop a centre and move to another. One falls out with a centre manager, decides ‘enough is enough’, and in no time is working with other centres. This will no longer be possible so assessors cannot pick and choose and must work with the sole providers if they want to continue with such work in the educational sector.

      One key to all of this will be what happens to the DSA report itself. At present it is a lengthy document that is filled up with autotext (for the recommendations) and a variety of other administrative details like the Equote reference, NMH hourly rates, total cost of support, and so forth. If the report volume reduces then assessors may continue working as the reduced pay may be compensated, to a degree, by the lesser demands on their time.

      1. Hi James,

        It’s not that lengthy when you are experienced and knowledge of templates. Other things like emailing funding bodies, students, agencies, HEI take time.

        If someone is competent enough to be a DSA assessor which requires a reasonable level of skill and they are working to a high standard they will be capable enough of finding higher paid work elsewhere.

        I am actually a DSA assessor. Whilst a lot of the assessments can be routine there are complex ones for example when someone is visually impaired hearing impaired and training to be a teacher for example. There are some disabilities which can make studying certain courses difficult and some combinations of disabilities that need to be factored together which make tick boxing difficult.

        The students with ranging and severe disabilities are going to have a very difficult time ahead. Personally I am planning to leave DSA after working in the sector for over a decade. I suspect the sector will be left with newbies and people passing through.

        It’s very skilled when there’s complex needs and a lot of knowledge is required. People like me, who can do those assessments to a high standard will leave. It’s a shame as all that knowledge won’t be applied to help disabled students anymore.

        Some have refrained already some are leaving and looking for work elsewhere.

        I don’t think it was assessors who were being over paid given the seasonality of the work, no annual leave and pensions etc it was the assessment centres.

        Let’s say an assessor does 5 assessments a week over 48 weeks (adjusted for seasonality and annual leave) that’s 240 assessments a year @ £220.00 that’s £52,000 PA. Then they would need to pay for pensions, insurance etc etc which would probably bring it broadly in line with an experienced teacher or social worker. Years a go when I started 6 assessments was considered normal and that’s what was generally expected for a contracted member of staff

        Saying let them eat cake as there’s nothing else to do when they were only ever really achieving a comparable rate to comparable professionals is harsh.

        1. Very much agree with all points raised Bob! I am a relatively new assessor of 2.5 years but have taken the role seriously (as most do) and was able to maintain a high number of assessments per month when the bookings were there. I am currently looking for new roles but struggling to see much of interest, after finally accepting that the proposed changes are now happening. Have had no clear instructions on what will happen to legacy students or the many who´s reports are mid process. Its frustrating and theres an element of guilt as many have no ideas about upcoming changes which are likely to be poorly communicated and abrupt.

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