Skip to main content

Higher Education: Disabled Students

Volume 768: debated on Monday 18 January 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps will be taken to ensure that from the start of the 2016–17 academic year all providers of higher education have fulfilled their obligation to provide non-medical provision for disabled students which was previously covered by the Disabled Students’ Allowance.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I draw attention to my declared interests.

My Lords, it is not the Government’s intention that institutions are to be responsible for all non-medical provision, and the disabled students’ allowance will continue to supplement institutional provision where students require a more specialist type of support. Officials are meeting with sector partners including the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the Office for Fair Access and the Equality Challenge Unit to discuss how best to monitor equality and inclusivity. This will include considering the provision of reasonable adjustments by HE providers.

I thank the Minister for that reply. However, is it not clear that HE providers are taking on a new responsibility which they have not had hitherto? Also, is it not true that BIS in its own equality analysis has pointed out that there is no structure to make sure that the duties which are to be imposed will be carried out? As these are new duties which, if HE providers get it wrong will mean that students fail, why have not the Government got something ready in time?

The noble Lord will be aware that higher education institutions already have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled students under the Equality Act 2010. We are working hard with organisations to make sure that not only do they share best practice but also, importantly, to enable us to identify a baseline which disabled students can expect as a minimum level of provision in the duties that will be moved over to higher education institutions from this September.

My Lords, a Which? report produced last October found that higher education institutions are falling short in providing information on course design, choice and assessment, as required by law. This suggests that the expectations of BIS about its ability to transfer its responsibilities for disabled students to higher education institutions are not realistic, and that students will be severely disadvantaged and left to implement the Equality Act provisions on an individual basis. In order to hold higher education institutions effectively to account for their performance, would it not make sense for them to be required to report annually on their support for disabled students, and for those reports to be monitored and in turn reported on by the Office for Fair Access in its annual report?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. As I have said, BIS officials are working hard with universities and organisations to make sure that disabled students receive the level of support they need. We are certainly going to be encouraging providers to publish data on their provision for disabled students. We have seen an increase in the number of disabled students accessing higher education, a trend that we are very proud of and want to see continue. We are determined to work with higher education institutions to make sure that disabled students continue to get the level of support they need.

I do not know what the Government have got against students. They take away their maintenance grant and now they are going to cut some £65 million which has been providing non-medical help for disabled students. What assurances can the Minister give that the smaller institutions, or indeed those like the Open University which have done the most to attract and service disabled students, will be able to continue providing help without that funding? Further, what assurances can she give that students of whichever organisation they go to will get the help they need at a consistent level?

As I have already mentioned, our higher education institutions have a responsibility under the Equality Act 2010, and we are working closely with them to ensure that disabled students continue to get the high-quality support they need. We have seen the institutional income of universities go up from £23 billion to nearly £24.5 billion, and it is forecast to go to £31 billion by 2017-18. We believe that it is right that the responsibility for supporting disabled students, whom both we and universities want to encourage to attend, is spread between universities and the Government.

Following on from the question of the noble Baroness, can I press the Minister on support for disabled part-time students? There are real concerns that these cuts will have a disproportionate effect on them. What safeguards are the Government putting in place to ensure that these students are not disadvantaged from going on to further study?

Disabled students’ allowances are not disappearing; they are simply being refocused on more specialist help, with universities taking on some of the responsibility for some help. For the first time, we are instituting an exceptional cases process so that if a student is in dispute with the university about the reasonable adjustments they believe should be implemented, they are not disadvantaged. That is a new process to make sure that no student suffers.

My Lords, has the Minister’s department been in touch with the Department for Work and Pensions and talked to her honourable friend Justin Tomlinson, the Minister responsible for disabled people about this matter? It seems to me that government is not always joined up when talking about disabled people. As the noble Baroness will know, the Minister is in charge of the Disability Confident campaign to get more disabled people into work. This is a very important part of making sure that disabled students are not disadvantaged.

We are doing a lot of across-government work in this area. In response to the consultation, we received a number of extremely useful suggestions on how our education providers might be able to ensure that they make reasonable adjustments and implement this well. Again, we are talking to university and sector partners to make sure that all these good ideas and best practice are spread.

With the leave of the House, can the Minister give me a better idea of what exactly the universities will have to do in a formulated way to fill the gap to cover the individual funding package for students? That is the transition we are talking about.

As I have said, students will continue to have their needs assessed. The disabled students’ allowances will remain. Universities will be responsible for delivering some of that support. We are working with university partners to ensure that they are ready to deliver this and can do so to a high quality. We are looking to them to identify and baseline what disabled students can expect as a minimum level of provision and we are introducing a new exceptional cases process to ensure that where there is a dispute, students are not left without the support they need.