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Disabled Students’ Allowance

Volume 758: debated on Wednesday 7 January 2015

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether any reform of Disabled Students’ Allowance will take full account of the case for encouraging independent learning and study for eligible students.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and draw the House’s attention to my declared interests.

The Government support the case for encouraging more independent study. In future, we expect higher education institutions to consider a more inclusive learning environment as part of their provision of support for disabled students, and our reforms support that.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer. However, does she agree that at the moment the sector is very worried about what is coming, as it is seen as a cost-cutting exercise? If there were a clear statement that independent learning were to be at the heart of all the changes, it would to some extent head this off and give clarity of direction to the ongoing discussion.

I understand that any change afoot will engender some sort of worry, but the DSA has not been reformed for several years now. We need to improve value for money within the system and balance the responsibility to disabled students between government and higher education institutions, and to make DSA sustainable, because it is a demand-led provision.

My Lords, given the communication difficulties associated with autism, the withdrawal of study assistance with human support could prove disproportionately detrimental to a student on the autism spectrum. What consideration have the Government given to the impact of their reform on students with autism spectrum disorders, the characteristics of which are not considered in the equality impact assessment?

Dyslexia support is one of the highest funded considerations under the DSA. The noble Baroness referred to non-medical help. There is absolutely no intention to cut that support, but there will be more responsibility on higher education institutions to embrace that assistance because of their duties under the Equality Act 2010.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Snowdon Trust, which provides financial support to disabled students. I wonder whether any reform of DSA could also look at providing equal support for postgraduate students. When disabled students move from undergraduate to postgraduate level, the current maximum support drops by 50%, thus preventing some of our brightest and most talented disabled students from reaching their academic potential.

The noble Baroness makes a valid point. Postgraduate funding is indeed less than undergraduate funding. How the reforms will exactly pan out has been under consultation and the Government will shortly provide guidance to institutions. I hope the noble Baroness has made that point during the consultation process.

My Lords, under the new arrangements, each individual student will have to negotiate the package of measures they get from their university. In contrast to what happens at present—where there is a statutory framework—there will be no overarching arrangements. What happens when things go wrong? Who will have rights in this matter and where will the statutory rights be located?

In terms of recourse if things go wrong, there are two directions in which a student can turn. The first is the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. The second is the exceptional case process, the format of which is under consideration and will be announced shortly.

My Lords, I follow on from the previous question. How will universities be held accountable to make sure that they are providing the appropriate support under the revised arrangements? Will there be a national benchmark to check that a minimum standard is being provided for students with certain conditions?

My Lords, the universities—certainly those on the higher fee band—will have to put in place access agreements, which will be monitored by OFFA. As I say, there will also be the appeals process and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator to ensure that these reforms roll out smoothly.