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Disabled Students’ Allowance

Volume 787: debated on Thursday 14 December 2017

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the transfer of responsibilities relating to Disabled Students’ Allowances for some students to higher education providers, whether they intend to publish a best practice guide for those institutions; if so, when; and if not, why not.

My Lords, the transfer of responsibilities is designed to encourage higher education providers to fulfil their duties under the Equality Act. Much guidance already exists on the specific duties of higher education providers under that Act on inclusivity and good practice. The experience of disabled students in higher education is of equal importance to that of non-disabled students, and we will continue to review the need for best practice guidance as necessary.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Has the situation improved from what it was when we debated the Higher Education and Research Act? The Inclusive Teaching and Learning in Higher Education as a Route to Excellence paper had no guidance in it. When I asked where it was, I was told by an official to trust the courts to sort it out. In a subsequent meeting, I was told by the Disabled Students Sector Leadership group, under Professor Layer, the author of its report, “Don’t worry; almost half the institutions have a policy in place”. How can a student navigate that system? If something goes wrong, what can they do to avoid having to take the full weight of a legal challenge on their shoulders?

I know that the noble Lord has been pretty exercised about this since the debate on the Bill, but there are a number of good pieces of guidance available, including from the Disabled Students Sector Leadership Group and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. The QAA has also issued guidance for inclusivity across teaching, learning and assessment, and HEFCE has undertaken its own review, with a 76% response. Of course, there is more to do, but higher education providers have got the message and they are looking at what more they need to do to provide the right facilities for disabled students.

My Lords, there is evidence that schoolchildren with disability and autism are excluded by many of their peers throughout their school lives and teachers are often not equipped to be able to help and resolve problems. What are the Government doing to ensure that that experience does not continue when those young people enter higher education?

As mentioned before, specific duties are laid out under the Equality Act 2010. I think that the noble Lord was referring to schools, but let us talk about schools and higher education institutions. There are clear remits for them to adhere to for ensuring that all students are looked after properly.

My Lords, one of the challenges to students with disabilities such as dyslexia, low vision and blindness is the accessibility of academic textbooks and journals. With the advent of digital technology, this problem is now solvable. Indeed, in the United States, universities now require publishers to provide textbooks that meet accessibility standards. The problem with the transfer of responsibility for student support is that UK universities do not know what is possible or how to make it available. Would the Minister be willing to convene a round table involving the university authorities, publishers and representatives of disabled people with knowledge of good practice in this area to put in place a system that would provide a final solution to the problem of making academic material accessible?

The best answer that I can give to the noble Lord is that I shall pass his question and request on to Jo Johnson in the other place, and I am sure that he will look at them very carefully. But one important part of our policy is to ensure that institutions can decide for themselves how best to look after the needs of dyslexic students. As the House will know, such institutions vary greatly in size and on the range and type of course that they offer. There is great variation in how the courses are delivered, and disabled students themselves vary greatly in the type and level of support that they need. So we think that the autonomy that this House debated so fully should be left to that extent.

My Lords, it makes little sense if someone who has been clinically diagnosed with dyslexia through school then has to be reassessed at university for dyslexia. Therefore, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Agnew, who wrote to me to say that this would be reviewed. Can my noble friend the Minister tell us the terms of the review and when it will be completed?

Yes, indeed, I am aware of the note that my noble friend Lord Agnew sent. The review will start to take evidence from those invited early in the new year, and we hope that it will report within a few months. I have a little more detail, in that it will consider the evidential requirements for students applying for disabled students’ allowances with specific learning difficulties, and particularly for those with dyslexia.

My Lords, with the greatest respect to the Minister, he is relying on the autonomy of the universities and various bits of guidance. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, by July barely half of universities actually had a policy in place, so the experience of disabled students will be very variable where they have special requirements. Because the universities are producing such a patchy performance, we need reassurance that there will be some kind of regulatory intervention if they do not get their act together.

We do not think it is right to go for regulatory action or for legislation. This is not just because there is so much guidance, although there is, but there is also the HEFCE review, which had a 76% response rate. Nearly all respondents have recently carried out a review of support or have plans to do so in the near future. Some providers have made significant progress, particularly in lecture capture and accessibility audits, but the research also highlights the need for sustained investment in infrastructure by these institutions to support disabled students and for a continued and accelerated effort by providers to make the necessary changes. So there is more work to be done.