The Government is set to reduce the funding provided to disabled students via Disabled Students' Allowances (DSAs) from September 2016.  The changes will shift responsibility for certain elements of support to higher education providers (HE providers) which is likely to increase costs for providers, particularly in relation to accommodation. 

What are DSAs?

DSAs are grants which are given to students to help them to pay the extra costs they incur to study as a direct result of their disability. Disability in this context includes learning difficulties such as dyslexia. They can help with the cost of having a person to support the student (e.g. a note taker), specialist equipment, travel and other study related costs. They are not means tested and do not have to be repaid.  

Why a change in policy? 

The Government considers that there is an overlap between the specific duty placed on HE providers to make reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities under the Equality Act 2010 and the funding provided to students on an individual basis through DSAs.  

The proposed changes are intended to reflect the fact that HE providers should now (5 years after the Equality Act 2010 came into force) be in a position to meet their obligations to provide reasonable adjustments without as much support from DSAs. The proposals will therefore see a shift in responsibility for certain elements of support from the Government to HE providers. 

What are the proposed changes?

The changes will apply to students applying for DSAs for the first time in respect of an academic year beginning on or after 1 September 2016.  Existing DSAs students and DSAs students for 2015/16 will remain on their existing system of support for 2016/17.

The changes can be summarised as follows:

  • Funding for the additional costs of specialist accommodation

DSA funding is often requested to cover the additional costs of accommodation that arise due to a student’s disability such as for en-suite accommodation. The Government’s view is that the extra costs associated with the provision of appropriate accommodation for disabled students engage HE providers’ Equality Act duty to make reasonable adjustments and that any extra charge related to that accommodation cannot be passed on to the student. It is possible that some costs would be covered by the local authority as part of a student’s personal care package. 

The changes mean that DSAs will only be available to provide funding towards the additional costs of accommodation which is not provided by a HE provider or its agents.  

  • Funding for non-medical help support 

This covers a wide range of functions including taking notes, helping students to access libraries and sign language interpreters.

The Equality Act imposes a duty on HE providers to take reasonable steps to provide auxiliary aids or services where not doing so would put disabled students at a substantial disadvantage compared with students who are not disabled.  

DSA support will therefore be targeted at those students with the need for more specialist support. The Government proposes to no longer fund non-medical helper band 1 and 2 support (other than the role of a sighted guide) which, for example, includes: Practical Support Assistant; Library Support Assistant; Reader; Scribe; Workshop/Laboratory Assistant; Proof Reader; Study Assistant; Examination Support Worker; Manual Note-takers; and Specialist Transcription Services. 

  • Funding for peripheral IT equipment

Students will only receive items which were previously routinely supplied to disabled students as part of a package with a computer (e.g. carry case, digital voice recorder) where a specific disability-related need is fully evidenced and justified.  Students will also only be provided with further equipment linked to the provision of computer equipment such as printers and scanners where alternatives are not possible. 

  • Funding for IT consumables

Students will no longer be recommended funding for a personal allowance for printing costs or other consumables and HE providers will be expected to look at ways of meeting students’ need for printed documents.  

There are no proposed changes in relation to travel allowance, funding for other equipment, assistive software or certain non-medical help support roles. 

Commentary 

The justification for the changes is that the support should be provided by HE providers in accordance with their obligation to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010 as is the case with other businesses. HE providers will therefore need to be familiar with their obligations under the Equality Act 2010 and how these apply in practice. HE providers should budget for increased support costs for the 2016/17 academic year whilst also reviewing the adequacy of existing support arrangements in preparation for September, particularly arrangements regarding accommodation.