Higher Education Commission calls for an overhaul of DSA

21 October 2020

A report on the challenges and barriers experienced by disabled students called Arriving at Thriving: Learning from Disabled Students to Ensure Access for All by the Higher Education Commission has called for a radical overhaul of the present Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA) grant scheme.

The Government, according to the report, should create a cross-departmental system to support disabled people from the classroom to the workplace, linking Education, Health and Care Plans at school with the DSA in higher education and Access to Work for those in employment.

The new system, one of 12 recommendations in the report, should be focused on outcomes for disabled people; to harness the opportunity for modernisation; and to reduce the length and complexity of the process, and the administrative burden on disabled people.

While the system is being developed, or in the event it is not introduced at all, the current DSA should be reformed says the commission. This includes:

  • ·         Creating a five-year strategic plan for the DSA
  • ·         Undertaking an operational review of the DSA application process
  • ·         Devising a system for allocating support that prioritises quality and student choice, as well as value for money

DSA, the report says, is currently a key barrier to disabled students, particularly because of the administrative burden and difficulty of the process. Problems reported to researchers include:

  •  Students abandoning their applications because of the requirement to provide medical evidence
  • ·Delays in receiving equipment or supply of inappropriate equipment due to incomplete Needs Assessment Reports
  • ·Students being unaware that it is up to them to contact suppliers
  • ·Late delivery of equipment and support which prevents students from studying effectively
  • ·The financial burden of the £200 laptop charge
  •  A reduction in the quality of support because of the two-quote system, which has driven down prices and led to support staff   leaving the profession
  •  Problems with data collection leading planners to focus on those claiming DSA rather than the larger number of disabled students.

The Commission wants to see an end to the two-quote system, a move to an online application process and a GDPR consent box to facilitate data sharing. It also argues for a maintenance grant to help with the financial burden of studying with a disability.

Surprisingly, research by the Commission revealed that 40% of disabled students had not heard of the DSA before they started their course. Nonetheless surveys of students by the Commission and the Department for Education show that they value the support DSA provides.

A 2018 survey by DfE reported that 68% of DSA recipients polled agreed that the support they received enabled them to participate more fully in their course and 55% of those in receipt of DSA agreed that the DSA support they receive meets all of their needs, although 28% disagreed.

“The government and the sector must not settle for a system which doesn’t function as well as it could, or which creates further challenges and barriers for some disabled students,” the Commission concludes.

Despite examples of good practice Higher Education Providers (HEPs) also come in for criticism. Many HEPs are struggling to cope with rising numbers of disabled students, especially of those declaring specific learning difficulties and mental health issues.

“We heard about students, due to a lack of accessibility, regularly being physically unable to get to or sit in lecture theatres or other academic spaces; unable to access learning materials; not receiving lecture capture where it has been promised; and not receiving other reasonable adjustments set out in their support plans, including adjustments to assessments,” says the Commission.

It recommends that HEPs:

  • Appoint a senior person to lead on improving the experiences of disabled students
  • Undertake a review of disabled students’ access to teaching and learning
  • Improve the training of academic staff
  • Reduce the administrative burden on their disabled students.

The Higher Education Commission is made up of leaders from the education sector, the business community and the major political parties. It is chaired by Professor the Lord Norton of Louth, a Conservative peer and academic. Co-Chairs are Lord Philip Norton of Louth, Lord David Blunkett of Brightside and Professor Kathryn Mitchell, Vice Chancellor of the University of Derby.