What is the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA)?

Entering higher education is not easy, harder still during Covid, harder by multiple factors if you happen to be a disabled student.

The Disabled Students’ Allowance was set up to enable, to empower disabled students to fulfil their potential alongside their non disabled colleagues.  The scheme could cover costs related to such items as specialist software which might convert text to speech or speech to text, hardware such as braille keyboards or a support worker. In short, human and technological support for disabled students to succeed.

Excellent idea poorly executed

An excellent idea although, unfortunately, there are troubles a plenty for the scheme.  Problems with:

  • the accessibility of the application process,
  • a 150 day wait from application to potential award,
  • not enough or no say say at all in terms of the equipment and support,
  • no audit,
  • no quality assurance.

Need I go on?

This week in the House of Lords I suggested to the government that the DSA scheme is not working. It is not working in a timely nor an optimum manner for those it was set up to serve. In effect, a scheme set up to help people reach their full potential, at such a vital time in their life, is actually, shockingly, further disabling that individual.

Full text of the debate in Parliament

My opening question to the Government was:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review the operation of the Disabled Students’ Allowance scheme to ensure it is working in a timely manner and in the best interests of those it is set up to support.

Lord Holmes of Richmond, House of Lords, 9th December 2021

The Minister’s response:

My Lords, the Department for Education continues to work closely with the Student Loans Company to seek ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the disabled students’ allowance. Current projects include improving the application experience for students and putting in place contracts for the provision of needs assessment and assistive technology, which should secure increased value for money and improve the service to students.

Baroness Barran, House of Lords, 9th December 2021

I had an opportunity to respond to the Minister before colleagues were invited to contribute to the debate

My Lords, considering the problems with the application process, the 150-day wait between application and potential award, and that there is no audit or quality assurance, the scheme is clearly not working in a timely or optimal manner for those it is set up to serve. Does my noble friend agree that it is time for a review and an overhaul of disabled students’ allowance for visually impaired students and all disabled students? Will she agree to meet me and others to fully examine all the issues?

Lord Holmes of Richmond, House of Lords, 9th December 2021

The Minister’s response:

I would of course be delighted to meet my noble friend to explore this, but a number of important improvements have already been introduced into the system. As we go forward, the Department for Education has set clear expectations for the quality standards that all DSA suppliers should meet. We will monitor these standards. We will have access to sound data with which to do this, in collaboration with the Student Loans Company, and will carry out audits at any time. We believe that the new procurement model will indeed improve the service for all DSA students.

Baroness Barran, House of Lords, 9th December 2021

The remainder of the short debate was open to my colleagues in the Lords to question the Minister and I was grateful to hear from Lord Addington, President of the British Dyslexic Association:

My Lords, I declare my interests in this field. Would the Minister care to comment on the fact that if you are identified as dyslexic at 14, you have to be told again once you are 18 that you are still dyslexic—it is a lifetime condition—and pay roughly £600 on both occasions for this privilege? How does this help anybody other than the person doing the assessment?

Lord Addington, House of Lords, 9th December 2021

The Minister’s response:

I am slightly confused by the noble Lord’s question. My understanding is that his point was valid up until 2019, but we changed the criteria then so that any pre-existing dyslexia assessment from any age would be valid in higher education.

Lord Addington, House of Lords, 9th December 2021

Next up was Lord Blunkett with an excellent point about the value of greater continuity in the support for disabled people people through education and into work:

My Lords, on that very point, will the Minister take back to other departments the immediate expansion of the pilot programme for the passport that allows the assessment to be carried through not just for disabled students’ allowance but to access to work? If this were carried all the way through from school and college this problem would, at least in part, be resolved.

Lord Blunkett, House of Lords, 9th December 2021

It was positive that the Minister seemed open to the suggestion saying:

I would be delighted to share that with colleagues in other departments.

Baroness Barran, The House of Lords, 9th December 2021

Lord Young followed up with a question about funding:

I welcome the improvements to which my noble friend has just referred but can she say something about the totality of resources available to disabled students so that all those who are entitled to this equipment have access to it?

Lord Young, The House of Lords, 9th December 2021

The Minister’s response:

My noble friend will be aware that changes have been made to how the allowance works. There will be a single annual allowance of £25,000, which will replace four separate allowances. Our aim is that it will be simpler and more flexible. When we did the equality impact assessment we found that, over three years, four students out of about 70,000 would be disadvantaged by this but that visually and hearing-impaired students in particular would have much flexibility about how they used the resource available to them.

Baroness Barran, House of Lords, 9th December 2021

Baroness Sherlock referred to feedback from people in receipt of DSA:

My Lords, I think the Government reformed DSA only last year, but the official evaluation quoted by the Commons Library found that only 55% of those getting DSA agreed that the support they received met all their needs. The really interesting thing was when they were asked whether the DSA enabled them to participate more fully in their course than they would be able to otherwise, only two-thirds said yes. I think that means that it is better than nothing. Given that we are spending £120 million a year on this, does the Minister think that perhaps a more fundamental review is needed?

Baroness Sherlock, House of Lords, 9th December 2021

The Minister’s response:

I will look again at the research to which the noble Baroness refers, but, putting it another way, each student has a right to up to £25,000 a year. The average DSA—I appreciate it is the average and that there will be extremes at either end—is just below £2,000, so there is clearly no financial limit on students getting the support they need and we are absolutely committed to them receiving it.

Baroness Barran

Baroness Thomas then raised the issue of whether there was enough information about the scheme in schools:

My Lords, a student I know with the hidden disabilities of ADHD and dyslexia has had very good support from Brunel University because she had been told about DSA not at her school but at her diagnosis. Could the Minister encourage all schools to be more proactive in explaining the benefits of DSA?

Baroness Thomas of Winchester, House of Lords, 9th December 2021

The Minister admitted that there is a significant gap between the number of registered disabled students and those who access the grant.

The noble Baroness makes a good point and it is helpful to have a specific example. We work very hard to raise awareness of DSA through multiple channels, but there is still a significant gap between the number of registered disabled students at university and those who access the grant.

Baroness Barran, House of Lords, December 9th 2021

The final question was asked by Baroness Hussein-Ece:

Is the Minister satisfied with the take-up of DSA, particularly by students who have hidden disabilities? A report I saw recently—it was a few years ago—indicated that around 60% of students were not able to take it up and that only 13% or so were being informed about it by their university or college. Has there been an improvement on that?

Baroness Hussein-Ece, House of Lords, 9th December 2021

Unfortunately the Minister did not have the most recent data:

I do not have the most recent data to hand, but if there is more up-to-date data, I will be very happy to share it with the noble Baroness and the rest of the House. Our understanding is that most eligible students who go through the full application process are getting the support they need, but the noble Baroness raises a good point about what happens to students who start the application and perhaps do not complete it or who are unaware of it. We are trying to address both those points.

Baroness Barran, House of Lords, 9th December 2021

Urgent need for review

The debate raised several important issues. Overwhelmingly, it is clear that the DSA scheme isn’t working.  It needs review, reform, it needs a radical overhaul and it needs this now.

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