Willetts' cuts hit disabled students and may 'decimate' assistive technology industry, writes John Lamb
Sweeping changes to the disabled students allowances (DSAs) which cover the purchase of computers, laptops and specialist equipment and software, as well as the provision of support workers and help with travel costs, will damage prospects for disabled students.
The warning comes from the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) and follows the introduction of the changes by minister for universities and science David Willetts MP, This signals a shift in policy that goes beyond saving money, said Mark McCusker, chair of BATA.
From September 2015, standard specification computers or the warranties and insurance associated with them will be excluded. Grants will only cover a more expensive or higher powered machine if a student needs one because of their disability or complex specific learning difficulties.
'Increasingly difficult to study successfully for degrees'
Mark McCusker warned: "We all recognise the need to make savings, but this new approach, shifting the burden of provision from the directly funded DSAs to higher education institutions – and there has been no announcement of extra money for them – means that able students, who happen to be disabled, from September 2015 will be at risk of finding it increasingly difficult to study successfully for degrees, with some not feeling they can even try and others finding they do less well than they should."
Announcing the changes on April 7, David Willetts said: "We will no longer pay for higher specification and/or higher cost computers simply because of the way in which a course is delivered. The current arrangements do not recognise technological advances, increases in use of technology or the introduction of the Equality Act 2010. We will define disability in relation to the definition provided by the Equality Act 2010, for the purposes of receiving DSAs."
BATA notes that provision will continue to be made through DSAs for the most severely disabled students but is concerned about the many tens of thousands who fall outside that category but still need assistance because of disability or impairment.
BATA also welcomes the move to make institutions more responsible for ensuring that learning is made more accessible and agrees that, for some disabled students, this will reduce the need for readers and note-takers and encourage their greater independence.
But, as BATA's 2013 submission to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills made clear, more is offered through DSAs than that. The equipment and software supplied are very much a package of IT and assistive technology that starts with individual expert assessment and includes course-long support, training and advice.
'Kit may be under-utilised and learning adversely affected'
Without that student-specific approach and professional backup, kit may be under-utilised and learning adversely affected whatever the level of disability or impairment. Far from strengthening student choice and individualised learning, these changes will mean some disabled students having to make do with general, standard approaches to their specific needs.
BATA executive director Barbara Phillips commented: "Expecting disabled students to sort it all out for themselves, while adjusting to higher education and being stretched academically – and leaving them reliant on well-intentioned but underfunded IT technicians within higher education, untrained on AT – suggests a fundamental lack of understanding of, and empathy for, people who have earned our support for having achieved so much already and who, when they've completed their courses, want to contribute to society and lead their own lives.
"I would suggest these cuts could mean a drop of about 70 per cent of DSA equipment by numbers and much the same by amount," commented Ian Litterick BATA council member and founder of supplier Iansyst. "If my estimates are correct, the spending on DSA overall will drop from about £136m in England to £40m, while spending on equipment will go from £38m to £3m or less."
BATA fears that such a drastic cut, which will have an immediate impact, will decimate much of the AT industry in the UK – DSAs AT solutions providers, software publishers, assessors, and AT trainers – as well as affecting one-to-one support workers, but it will be disabled students who will bear the brunt.
'I see no commitment to any extra funding to compensate'
"In theory some of what will be needed should be provided by higher education institutions, but I see no commitment to any extra funding to compensate," added BATA chair Mark McCusker. "And I wonder how and where they will find the expertise as well as the money to fill the gaping hole these cuts will make?"
Given the success DSAs have had so far, in Willetts' own words, to "'encourage greater independence and autonomy for students", these changes are particularly hard to understand. BATA would remind Coalition ministers of the 2007 study by the National Audit Office of the retention rate of students which found that disabled students receiving DSAs were "much more likely to continue their course than other students self-declaring a disability and, indeed, than students who are not disabled". How confident can ministers be that that will continue to be the case after September 2015?
BATA stands ready to join with the National Union of Students, those in higher education institutions, disability campaigners and others to work together to reduce the devastating impact these changes will have.
John Lamb is the newsletter editor for the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA)