In September 2015 swingeing cuts to Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) will be implemented. These cuts, estimated at nearly 70% of the total DSAs budget, will put the studies of disabled students at risk. DSAs currently support 53,000 disabled students, paying for assistive technologies, non-medical assistance and other costs incurred by studying with a disability.
The implications for disabled students are bleak. Research shows that disabled students who claim DSAs perform at the same level as their non-disabled peers. DSAs are a vital mechanism for recruitment of disabled applicants, and support academic achievement at university. Disabled students who do not claim DSAs have higher drop-out ratesand lower educational attainment.
As no additional money has been allocated to students or universities to bridge the gap left by cuts, there will be wider ramifications for the UK higher education sector as a whole.
The most inclusive universities will be hit hardest
Willetts has framed DSA cuts as a “rebalancing” that places greater emphasis on universities to meet their responsibilities to disabled students under the Equality Act (2010). However, this rebalancing will have an uneven impact on universities.
As the National Association of Disability Practitioners has observed, those institutions who have been most accommodating to disabled students, and who have a higher general proportion of disabled students as a result, will incur greater costs than universities that have taken their responsibilities less seriously.
The movement from a funded, student-centred support model to an unfunded, institutionally-based support model raises important questions about whether effective alternative provisions can be made. The most inclusive universities will face the greatest challenges when DSAs are cut.
There will also be marked disparities between disciplines. Certain subject areas have a higher concentration of disabled students; for example, at London universities, disabled students have a particularly low representation in business studies, maths, applied sciences and medicine and allied subjects. On the other hand, disabled students, particularly those with specific learning difficulties (SpLDs) are well represented in creative arts and design courses.
As students with SpLDs such as dyslexia, ADHD and dyspraxia have been singled out to bear the most significant cuts, and as these students constitute the largest population of disabled students in receipt of DSAs, cuts will have an acute impact on disciplines and institutions specialising in creative and performing arts, as well as other subjects where disabled students are well-represented, such as land-based subjects ( eg agriculture) and veterinary science.
Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) shows that theGuildHE group of universities – representing small and specialist institutions – includes many institutions where disabled students receiving DSAs make up a higher than usual proportion of the student body.
Under increasing pressure to rescind the proposals, last week the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) said that students with mild dyslexia may still be able to apply for DSAs, depending on how complex their support needs are. Until the true extent of the cuts are announced, however, it will be difficult for dyslexic students to take comfort in this.
Welsh universities will subsidise disabled students from England
Further disparities will occur across home nations. At present, all student support, including DSAs, is fully devolved to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. David Willetts is only in a position to announce changes to DSAs for English students.
However, over 50% of full-time first-time undergraduate students in Wales come from England (this level falls to around 14% in Scotland, and just under 3% for Northern Ireland). By shifting the responsibility for disabled students’ support to universities, the UK government is effectively exporting the responsibility for disabled students to universities it does not fund, most significantly in Wales.
Although this will affect a relatively small number of cases, the implications for some Welsh universities are potentially significant, as English students currently gravitate towards particular institutions. For example, Cardiff, Aberystwyth and Bangor have a much higher proportion of English students (65% in the case of Cardiff) than other Welsh universities. In these cases, Welsh universities will be required to subsidise their English disabled students, while Welsh students continue to receive the equipment and support that full DSAs supply.
An adverse impact on student satisfaction scores
Research shows that students with SpLDs who do not receive DSAs are less satisfied than their non-disabled peers and disabled students who receive DSAs. This affects National Student Survey satisfaction scores that are part of the metrics used for university ranking activities.
Universities that have disaggregated their satisfaction scores by disability have found that the dissatisfaction of students with SpLDs can bring overall scores down by 1-2%; a point difference that can affect an institution’s place in national rankings.
Some university managers use satisfaction metrics punitively to drive change within departments. The uneven representation of disabled students by institution, discipline and nationality across home nations may lead to departments being punished because, through no fault of their own, they have a high proportion of disabled students whose needs are being neglected at a national level.
In this respect, cuts will dismantle disability equality and threaten the status of our most inclusive disciplines.