I am, today (Wednesday 9th March), publishing a report into the Disabled Students’ Allowance.
What is DSA and is it working?
As the name suggests DSA is a scheme to support students with a disability to thrive in higher education. It’s a gem of a policy and when it works well, it achieves and does exactly that.
Unfortunately, according to the latest figures, DSA was only received by 29% of those in higher education declaring a disability. We do not know how many were discouraged from attending in the first place or who entered higher education but did not declare a disability.
For those students that do receive DSA it is clear that the scheme is not working as well as it could. There are problems with delays, an unacceptable administrative burden on the students themselves, inconsistent quality of support, no quality assurance, no audits, and a lack of communication and accountability.
I have spoken to many students who have received DSA and am indebted to everyone who took the time and trouble to engage with this report. I have identified a series of interventions, many relatively small, which, if implemented, would enable DSA to deliver on that essential purpose.
Student centred support must be at the centre of every element of the scheme
First and most importantly, disabled students must be at the centre of every element of the scheme. That is where I started with this review and a heartfelt thank you to all the students who took the time to generously share their experiences. Student centred support must be the touch stone by which DSA is ultimately measured. It is the student experience which will serve as a key determinant of its success.
A greater understanding is needed of the student at the centre, from school, through higher education and into work, every beat point, every barrier, every blocker and how those experiences, the social as well as formal education, can be optimised. Only after a deep understanding of that experience has been gained should all of the operational details and plans be put into place for the effective, efficient, student led, student supporting DSA deployment.
Students who contributed to the report said:
“A nightmare to deal with – the process was lengthy and arduous”
“When I think about contacting my needs assessor, I almost have to convince myself to sort of build up the courage to do so and I think that’s really upsetting because they are supposed to be the people you go to for the support that you need.”
“As I can’t access the support I’m entitled to I’m getting really far behind. I feel like it’s not designed to actually help you.”
“I have witnessed higher education becoming less accessible.”
Recommendations to Government, the Department of Education (DfE), Student Finance England (SFE), the Student Loans Company (SLC) and Higher Education Providers (HEP)
I have written to Ministers with my findings and recommendations. The report makes a total of 20 recommendations to the Government, the DfE, SFE, the SLC and HEPs ranging from:
- an awareness campaign in schools
- a ‘passport’ to be carried through from school to higher education and work
- the use of existing data to direct research and target objectives and improve service delivery
- the removal of all financial costs to the student
- greater flexibility in provision
- improved communication and quality assurance processes
Question in the House of Lords
The report grew out of a short debate in the House of Lords. On 9th December 2021 I questioned the government about their plans to review the operation of DSA to ensure it is working in a timely manner and in the best interests of those it is set up to support. Several colleagues in the Lords, including Lord Blunkett, also spoke about their concerns and the Minister, Baroness Barran, admitted there was a significant gap between the number of registered disabled students and those who access the grant.
DSA has such inherent possibilities, to enable, to empower all our disabled young people. When it works well, it really works. As this report illustrates, with a series of carefully considered changes, DSA could go even further, enabling hundreds of thousands of disabled students to fulfil their potential.”
According to the Equality Impact Assessment for the higher education consultation announced by the DfE in February the proposed changes are “less likely to benefit” graduates who identify as disabled as they are “likely to have earnings below those who do not identify as disabled.” We cannot let a policy come into force that further exacerbates inequality.
We have a brilliant scheme intended to level the playing field and reduce inequalities. Let’s make sure the DSA is working as it should and enabling students with a disability to thrive in higher education and beyond.
The Guardian, Just 29% of students in England with disabilities receiving DSA allowance 10th March 2022
WONKHE, Disabled students are still being failed, 11th March 2022
RNIB Connect, Why is disabled students’ allowance failing to support disabled students, 22nd March 2022
Policy Connect, New report from Lord Holmes into the Disabled Students’ Allowance draws on Policy Connect research
Disabled students’ allowance: Enabling through degrees? | BERA, 8th January 2022