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Cuts to the Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs), which were announced back in April by the former universities and science minister David Willets and were due to be put into place this coming academic year, have recently been postponed until September 2016. The cuts to DSAs, which are non-repayable grants offered to disabled students to support their studies, were originally proposed by Willets to “ensure that the limited public funding available for DSAs is targeted in the best way and to achieve value for money, whilst ensuring those most in need get the help they require.”
Each year, students can currently receive up to £5,161 for specialist equipment which can include laptops, digital recorders, screen reading and voice recognition software. They can also receive up to £20,520 for non-medical helpers, for example note-takers, scribes and typists and library support. A further £1,724 is also accessible for general costs, for example travel expenses.
According to a government statement written by David Willets back April this year the key changes being made to the DSA are: the government will pay for higher specification or higher cost computers where a student needs one solely by virtue of their disability, however, they will no longer pay for standard specification computers or the warranties and insurance associated with them. They will also no longer pay for higher specification and/or higher cost computers simply because of the way in which a course is delivered. Willets also proposed changing the 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. Under the proposal, students with Specific Learning Difficulties will continue to receive support through DSAs where their support needs are considered to be more complex. The government will also fund the most specialist Non-Medical Help.
According to the statement, Higher Education Institutes are expected to consider how they deliver information to students and whether strategies can be put in place to reduce the need for support workers and encourage greater independence and autonomy for their students. The additional costs of specialist accommodation will no longer be met by DSAs, other than in exceptional circumstances.
The statement also said the government are clarifying a number of policy changes. They will define disability in relation to the definition provided by the Equality Act 2010, for the purposes of receiving DSAs and will also introduce a requirement for registration for those providers offering DSA study needs assessments and DSA assistive technology service providers.
The announcement of these cuts has been controversial and has been strongly opposed by the NUS and universities across the country, including Lancaster. Cross Campus Officer (Students with disabilities) David Whitlock said “the cuts will affect all disabled students, but most importantly will make future funding practically unavailable to students with dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADD/ADHD. These are the highest demographics of disabled students at universities, who are now bound to feel that the education system is against them.”
Whitlock also said that on top of the stresses of university life, the cuts to the fund “may well lead to higher dropout rates and lower NSS scores from the dissatisfaction encountered.” The latter, he said, is something the university should take note of “as it directly effects league table results.”
In terms of what LUSU are doing to oppose the cuts, VP (Welfare and Community) Mia Scott said “It is our hope that LUSU can lobby government nationally and locally”. However, she added that Lancaster’s local MP Eric Ollerenshaw has made clear that he is in full support of the proposals. Scott also said she hopes to “ensure that this discriminatory policy never makes it to parliament. Failing that, it’s a case of joining up efforts with the University and ensuring that they are capable and willing to fill any potential funding gaps out of their own resources.”
The announcement that the cuts to the DSA have been postponed was made on 12th September by current universities and science minister Greg Clark who said: “Accordingly we have agreed to give higher education institutions until the beginning of the 2016-17 academic year to develop appropriate mechanisms to fully deliver their statutory duty to provide reasonable adjustments, in particular non-medical help, and to improve the processes by which disabled students can appeal against a higher education institution’s decision that an adjustment would not be reasonable.”