Student reform confusion ‘risks turning assessment system into PIP replica’ by John Pring, 31st October 2019.
The article raises important concerns surrounding the slow response from Department of Education/Student Finance England regarding the closure of DSA-QAG. There are still unanswered questions, including the current moratorium on registering new suppliers and the effect this may be having on students.
Recent developments to Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA) funding processes have included a tendering process for Assistive Technology supply and training, the removal of colorimetry testing/equipment and the closure of DSA-QAG. In all cases, there has been a lack of transparency, Equality Impact Assessment or detailed process, to a lesser or greater extent.
There has been no significant research into the impact on disabled students of previous significant DSA funding changes i.e. the termination of funding for non-specialist support provision and expectation of a move to more accessible university environments. This is despite a written statement to Parliament by David Willetts, the then Minister for Universities and Science, setting out clear expectations of these responsibilities.
In addition, we are very concerned about a section in the DfE's Student Loans Company Tailored Review which, on page 22/23, suggests that a consultation is going to be held into passing the DSA directly to Higher Education Providers (HEPs). The main issue about transferring funding for disabled students to HEPs is the lack of mandatory ring-fencing of such funds for this provision. If such a move was to go ahead without ring-fencing the real danger is that the funds will be used on aspects other than disability, according to the needs of the HEP rather than disabled students. It might even be that the funds are used on areas which are part of a university’s Equality Act responsibilities, such as infrastructure (accessible toilets, ramps etc.) rather than supporting these students’ study, or might not be used for disabilities at all. Some Disability Services do not necessarily have direct access to funds currently received via, for example, the Disabled Student’s Premium.
Support for all disabled students, including those with SpLDs and Mental Health conditions, is variable with reviews of services leading to more generic support, for example group workshops, online assessments and “wellbeing” initiatives. DSAs provide a degree of homogeneity of support within HE, but this is likely to become much more inconsistent, further affecting disabled students’ progression, retention and attainment.
We feel this could be exacerbated by DSAs no longer being given to the individual students, but sent to a HEP in a lump sum, effectively taking away the empowerment and independence of the student. They will no longer be able to choose their support provider(s) but have to accept what the HEP is providing, regardless of whether this meets their individual needs. This may have a further impact on the students’ progression, their retention and attainment. This is potentially a real threat to their access to support which might increase barriers to learning.
In recent years, there has been much collaborative work undertaken by members of the Disabled Students' Stakeholder Group to improve quality assurance measures for non-medical helper support, such as the introduction and revision of the mandatory qualifications needed to undertake these roles. We are concerned that these measures will be undone, firstly by the closure of DSA-QAG and secondly, any additional DSA changes, undertaken without proper safeguards.
Recent surveys of members of UMHAN PATOSS and ADSHE have revealed an alarming decline in pay rates due to a two-quote system which has led to a ‘race to the bottom’ where students are allocated to the cheapest support provider. This has been further impacted by an increase in competition, real-term decreases in pay from agencies and HEP’s, an increase in variable/casual/zero-hour contracts which run for 27-40 weeks per year. Added to this is the decline in Continuing Professional Development (CPD) which is a mandatory requirement of maintaining professional affiliations and being able to work with DSA students but is not provided by many agencies or HEP’s. In addition, over two-thirds of respondents to the ADSHE survey stated they were not entitled to sick leave and 43% stated their employer does not contribute to a pension.
These concerns are similar to those of Piers Wilkinson (NUS disabled students’ officer) who fears that government reforms seem to have prioritised value for money over choice and control for disabled students. Additionally, they are without consideration of the wider impact on specialists working in the sector who are becoming increasingly frustrated and demoralised from vastly reduced pay rates, pay erosion, poor job security and a career without progression. This is causing many specialists to leave the sector, thus affecting the quality and availability of support to students, some of whom are among the most vulnerable.
ADSHE - [email protected]
PATOSS - [email protected]
UMHAN – [email protected]