Education & Family

Disabled students fear loss of essential support

Boy in wheelchair Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Universities will be expected to take primary responsibility for supporting disabled students

Disabled students could miss out on vital support when funding much of the help is transferred to universities next year, say campaigners.

Universities minister Jo Johnson has announced plans for "better targeting" of Disabled Students' Allowances.

From next September, universities will have "primary responsibility" for meeting disabled students' needs.

The National Deaf Children's Society said it was "bitterly disappointed" by the announcement.

"We have no way of knowing if universities will pick up the cost," said its chief executive, Susan Daniels.

'A lifeline'

The announcement, in a written ministerial statement, sets out which support will continue to be provided by the Disabled Students' Allowance (DSAs) and which costs universities must meet.

DSAs help disabled students afford the specialist equipment, support workers and extra travel costs they need.

They are not repayable and not means-tested.

In 2012-13, they provided £146m to 64,500 higher education students, a rise of 44% on the £101m paid out in 2009-10 to 47,400 students.

Zanna's story

Image copyright NCDS
Image caption Zanna, 18, is profoundly deaf and studies at Manchester School of Art

Zanna, 18 and from Cumbria, is a foundation student at Manchester School of Art.

"Being profoundly deaf, I only hear 30% of all conversation with the help of my hearing aid and cochlear implant, otherwise I only hear 2-5% of sounds.

"Deaf students spend a lot of time strenuously trying to lip-read, this is often very frustrating and tiring.

"A lot of extra work has to be done, such as obtaining notes prior to lectures and pre-learning so it is easier to understand what happens in lectures and classes.

"I also have to use subtitles for any videos or films, any unexpected films in lectures with no subtitles are lost to me.

"In my university accommodation I have a special fire alarm which flashes and vibrates under my pillow if an alarm sounds.

"At university, I use a wireless microphone which transmits speech directly to my hearing aid and cochlear implant. I have funded this equipment myself, however one of the receivers for my hearing aid is loaned by the university.

"My course was not eligible for DSA funding which is why the university has struggled to supply me with the full support I need, such as an electronic note-taker.

"I will be applying for DSA for my degree in 2016. I am very concerned that I will not get the support that I need to achieve my full potential and I know that hundreds of other disabled students are also worried.

"The government says it is unlikely to impact existing arrangements with students, but what about if you decided to do further study at a different university?

"I aim to specialise my fashion design degree with a masters in knitwear, I have concerns this further study may not be possible for me due to lack of support.

"Disabled students should be allowed equal opportunities to non-disabled students and to put it bluntly, the cuts to DSA limit our futures.

"Having discussed the cuts to DSA with deaf and other disabled students I have seen a trend in a loss of hope. These students, myself included, feel disregarded by the government and our access to higher education has been unjustly restricted."

In the statement, Mr Johnson said a review of the 25-year-old scheme had long been overdue.

He wants universities to fulfil their legal duties to disabled students under the 2010 Equality Act.

"Higher education providers should discharge their duties under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate disabled students, as other organisations and businesses do."

"More inclusive learning environments" and better use of technology were essential, he said.

'More difficult'

The allowances will still be the primary source of funding for certain types of support, for example for guides for blind or partially sighted students, but much other support must be funded by universities.

Universities will be expected to meet more of the costs of specialist accommodation and of printing and scanning, while computer accessories will be funded "by exception only".

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Disabled Student Allowances are "a lifeline" for some students

Susan Daniels said the allowances were "a lifeline".

"We know deaf students can achieve just as much as their hearing peers, but the right support must be in place.

"Deaf students desperately need support such as note-takers because they cannot lip-read a lecturer or follow a sign language interpreter and take notes at the same time.

"Deaf young people are telling us they feel the government is intent on making it more difficult for them to go to university. We strongly believe the government must think again or guarantee safeguards will be in place to protect deaf students."

The National Union of Students fears small, specialised institutions will struggle to meet the costs.

Disabled students' officer Maddy Kirkman said the changes risked inconsistency in support and complained the government had ignored these concerns.

"To make higher education accessible, the government needs to work with students and institutions and take our views into account, not brush them aside."

'No man's land'

The Green party said the changes amounted to a £70m cut to support for disabled students.

Spokeswoman Mags Lewis suggested the changes would mean cuts to computer support, proof-reading and scribing, with older students with weak computer skills, particularly badly affected.

She warned that disabled students could "fall into a no man's land" with government and universities each claiming it is the other's responsibility.

The document says a new quality assurance framework will be put in place to ensure students get the help they need and best value for money.

"I am determined to ensure disabled students should be able to make use of and develop their talents through higher education and that there should be no cap on their aspirations," wrote Mr Johnson.

A Universities UK spokesman pointed out institutions have a legal duty to support disabled students, "which they will all do like any other organisation.

"The important thing also will be to reassure all students that support for disabled students will continue to be available."

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