The disabled students’ allowance (DSA) is a grant designed to remove barriers and improve participation in higher education of students with disabilities. The objectives of the policy are admirable although, sadly, it is not currently delivering as it should.
In a report into the DSA based on a survey of students’ experiences, some stakeholder input and an analysis of the latest data, I found that in 2019/2020 only 29 per cent of students with a disability had claimed the allowance (Holmes, 2022). Problems with the scheme ranged from a lack of awareness about its existence, delays at all stages of the application and grant process, an unreasonable administrative burden, and a lack of flexibility with the provision.
An allowance that should be enabling students is instead creating an additional burden. My report made 20 recommendations to the government on how to improve the system of DSA and ensure that this scheme can deliver and actually provide what the government promises: ‘support to cover the study-related costs you have because of a mental health problem, long term illness or any other disability’.
‘An allowance that should be enabling students is instead creating an additional burden.’
First and most importantly, disabled students must be at the centre of every element of the scheme. Student-centred support must be the touchstone by which the DSA is ultimately measured. It is the student experience which will serve as a key determinant of its success. This was my intention in conducting my research, and I am grateful to all the students who shared their time; I hope my recommendations do them justice.
There is a significant lack of knowledge of the scheme among potential recipients. Much more must be done to reach people by raising awareness of DSA with professionals in primary and secondary education, including careers services and local authority special educational needs (SEN) departments.
Proportionately, fewer young people with disabilities move on to higher education. In 2019/20 the progression rate, measuring the number of pupils progressing from school to higher education, was 47.5 per cent for pupils with no identified special educational needs (Holmes, 2022, p. 2). However, progression rates for pupils with SEN ranged from 20.8 per cent for pupils receiving extra or different help in school (SEN Support) to just 8.4 per cent for pupils with a statement of SEN or an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) (Holmes, 2022, p. 2).
There is also little connectivity in the support available to disabled students as they progress from school into higher education and work. A digitally enabled passport could simplify the current system and transform the opportunities and outcomes for thousands of disabled students. Credentials could be securely stored, without the need for multiple submissions of the same information; creating a greater connection between disabled citizen and state for the benefit of all.
‘A digitally enabled passport could simplify the current system and transform the opportunities and outcomes for thousands of disabled students.’
For the students with a disability that do progress to higher education and apply for DSA, there are numerous difficulties and significant delays around the application and assessment process. There is a pressing need to understand the quality and accessibility of assessment centres across the country. In the past 18 months, there has been a proliferation of centres, from 254 to 522, (Holmes, 2022, p. 17) and it is difficult to conclude how this can be in the best interests of students or the taxpayer.
If application and assessment hurdles are surmounted and students receive a notice of entitlement for DSA, they then face what many have described as the ‘full-time job’ of coordinating their support by bringing together needs assessors, suppliers, support workers and universities. This administrative burden can act as a barrier to study rather than the support intended by the scheme.
Provision is rarely in place for the start of a course and the quality is inconsistent as is the approach and support received from higher education providers (HEPs). I have made several recommendations that would help ensure students receive support in a timely, efficient and effective manner. There must be a greater focus on quality assurance, and HEPs must demonstrate greater support for their disabled students’ application both for and of the DSA.
There is great potential to drive improvements through the procurement process for elements of DSA; while reforms to this process are under way, we are not yet clear on whether they will deliver the much-needed improvements. The Student Loans Company (SLC), which is responsible for the procurement, has claimed the new supplier framework will ‘improve the customer experience … improve the transparency and controls and assure value for money for both the taxpayer and our customers’ (SLC, 2022, p. 3). We still need to see how this will be implemented and measured, but an improved customer (or student) journey is absolutely essential.
DSA has such inherent possibilities to enable all of our disabled young people. When it works well, it really works. As my report illustrates, DSA could – with a series of carefully considered changes – go even further, empowering hundreds of thousands of disabled students to fulfil their potential.
Holmes, C. (2022). Report into the disabled students’ allowance (DSA). House of Lords. https://lordchrisholmes.com/report-disabled-students-allowance-dsa/
Student Loans Company [SLC]. (2022). Disabled students’ allowance reforms: Market engagement preview. https://www.practitioners.slc.co.uk/media/1925/en_slc_dsa-reforms-prospectus_february-2022.pdf