My Lords, the Department for Education continues to work closely with the Student Loans Company to seek ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the disabled students’ allowance. Current projects include improving the application experience for students and putting in place contracts for the provision of needs assessment and assistive technology, which should secure increased value for money and improve the service to students.
My Lords, considering the problems with the application process, the 150-day wait between application and potential award, and that there is no audit or quality assurance, the scheme is clearly not working in a timely or optimal manner for those it is set up to serve. Does my noble friend agree that it is time for a review and an overhaul of disabled students’ allowance for visually impaired students and all disabled students? Will she agree to meet me and others to fully examine all the issues?
I would of course be delighted to meet my noble friend to explore this, but a number of important improvements have already been introduced into the system. As we go forward, the Department for Education has set clear expectations for the quality standards that all DSA suppliers should meet. We will monitor these standards. We will have access to sound data with which to do this, in collaboration with the Student Loans Company, and will carry out audits at any time. We believe that the new procurement model will indeed improve the service for all DSA students.
My Lords, I declare my interests in this field. Would the Minister care to comment on the fact that if you are identified as dyslexic at 14, you have to be told again once you are 18 that you are still dyslexic—it is a lifetime condition—and pay roughly £600 on both occasions for this privilege? How does this help anybody other than the person doing the assessment?
My Lords, on that very point, will the Minister take back to other departments the immediate expansion of the pilot programme for the passport that allows the assessment to be carried through not just for disabled students’ allowance but to access to work? If this were carried all the way through from school and college this problem would, at least in part, be resolved.
My noble friend will be aware that changes have been made to how the allowance works. There will be a single annual allowance of £25,000, which will replace four separate allowances. Our aim is that it will be simpler and more flexible. When we did the equality impact assessment we found that, over three years, four students out of about 70,000 would be disadvantaged by this but that visually and hearing-impaired students in particular would have much flexibility about how they used the resource available to them.
My Lords, I think the Government reformed DSA only last year, but the official evaluation quoted by the Commons Library found that only 55% of those getting DSA agreed that the support they received met all their needs. The really interesting thing was when they were asked whether the DSA enabled them to participate more fully in their course than they would be able to otherwise, only two-thirds said yes. I think that means that it is better than nothing. Given that we are spending £120 million a year on this, does the Minister think that perhaps a more fundamental review is needed?
I will look again at the research to which the noble Baroness refers, but, putting it another way, each student has a right to up to £25,000 a year. The average DSA—I appreciate it is the average and that there will be extremes at either end—is just below £2,000, so there is clearly no financial limit on students getting the support they need and we are absolutely committed to them receiving it.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, wishes to speak virtually. I think this is a convenient point for me to call her.
My Lords, a student I know with the hidden disabilities of ADHD and dyslexia has had very good support from Brunel University because she had been told about DSA not at her school but at her diagnosis. Could the Minister encourage all schools to be more proactive in explaining the benefits of DSA?
The noble Baroness makes a good point and it is helpful to have a specific example. We work very hard to raise awareness of DSA through multiple channels, but there is still a significant gap between the number of registered disabled students at university and those who access the grant.
Is the Minister satisfied with the take-up of DSA, particularly by students who have hidden disabilities? A report I saw recently—it was a few years ago—indicated that around 60% of students were not able to take it up and that only 13% or so were being informed about it by their university or college. Has there been an improvement on that?
I do not have the most recent data to hand, but if there is more up-to-date data, I will be very happy to share it with the noble Baroness and the rest of the House. Our understanding is that most eligible students who go through the full application process are getting the support they need, but the noble Baroness raises a good point about what happens to students who start the application and perhaps do not complete it or who are unaware of it. We are trying to address both those points.