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Disabled Students’ Allowance: Assistive Technology

Volume 794: debated on Monday 10 December 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that computers provided under the Disabled Students’ Allowance scheme have sufficient capacity to run assistive technology and modern operating systems effectively.

My Lords, in asking the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I remind the House of my interests with Microlink plc and the British Dyslexia Association.

My Lords, the Government are committed to ensuring that the specification of equipment provided through the disabled students’ allowance is kept under review to ensure that it is fit for purpose and takes account of developments in technology. The DfE and the Student Loans Company are currently undertaking a review of the specification of computers provided through the DSA scheme, taking advice from stakeholders, including assistive technology experts, and we expect to complete this review in early 2019.

I thank the Minister for that reply. However, will he accept that if we have computers which are not powerful enough to handle the important technology or the basic operating systems, and you are paying £200 each time, this is a further incentive for people not to take up this scheme? Since around 30% of people who go through the assessment are not taking advantage of it, we should look at the whole of this problem.

The way it works is that the needs assessor recommends certain assistive software for disabled students. The noble Lord will know that there are two types: text-to-speech software and speech-to-text software. It may well be that as a result of the review we are undertaking, looking at the details, a more powerful computer is needed. We are looking at that and that could include a move towards a solid-state hard drive. But on the point about the £200, the noble Lord will know—and I have said this before in the Chamber—that we think it is fair that disabled students pay the first £200 of the cost of the computer.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government recently announced a very welcome increase in the postgraduate DSA. However, it is still out of kilter with the support available to undergraduate students. Will the Minister elaborate on any plans to align the two grants to give equal access to education for disabled undergraduate students and disabled postgraduate students?

Absolutely. The noble Baroness will know that we have raised the amount—doubled it, in fact—for postgraduate students. But I reassure her that the Government are committed to improving the economic efficiency and effectiveness of disabled students’ allowance. The DSA evaluation research that we commissioned late last year is due to report soon. Some useful information will come out of that, I hope.

My Lords, the Minister says he thinks it is fair that a student should make a £200 contribution but if you are disabled and poor, finding £200 can be very difficult. Will he look at how students who cannot find that £200 could be supported?

This is continually being looked at but I know, as I have said in the Chamber before, that three-quarters of students—including disabled students—own their own laptop and that the average spent is £253. Given that we top up the £200 by whatever is required for the disabled students, we think it is reasonable for them to pay the first £200. Some help can be gained from individual higher education providers.

My Lords, earlier this year the All- Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology published a comprehensive report, Accessible Virtual Learning Environments, aimed at assisting the Government and the further and higher education providers to implement effectively the new digital accessibility regulations, which became law in September. Can the noble Viscount say whether the Government intend to respond to the recommendations in that report, particularly those aimed at the Department for Education, the Office for Students and Ofsted, and if so, when?

I cannot give a date as to when we will respond but we certainly will. On the question of IT, the SLC has recently issued a letter informing the sector that we will be launching a tendering exercise for the supply of IT hardware, so this matter is continually under review.

My Lords, what measures are taken for students whose first language is not English and who have difficulty in understanding what is going on in English? A change in the system will mean them having to change the whole process of translation, which is not very easy when you do not have the resources to buy a computer every five minutes.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right; this boils down to the higher education provider deciding what is suitable for the student. If there are language difficulties then students may be recommended specific types of equipment, which could include digital voice recorders and printers. We leave that up to the higher education providers to sort out.

My Lords, given that young people leaving local authority care have disproportionately higher levels of disability than the general population, and that only 7% of that group make it to university compared to, I think, 50% of the general population, will the Minister look particularly carefully at the needs of care leavers with disabilities and whether they might have additional support, given that they do not have parental support?

Absolutely. We will certainly do that but I should reassure the noble Earl that the Office for Students, with its particular duties that come from the Higher Education and Research Act, has a duty to look at that. It is important to cover that side as well.