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UK reform of disabled students’ allowance will make university a non-viable option
In March, Cambridge University Press published The Dyslexia Debate, co-authored by Julian Elliott, professor of education at Britain’s Durham University. The report proposes that the term dyslexia should be abandoned as it lacks scientific rigour and educational value, writes Hannah Paterson.
This was followed by a written statement just before Easter from David Willets, minister for universities, announcing government plans to “modernise” the Disabled Students Allowance – grants given to disabled students in England to help meet extra study costs incurred because of their disabilities.
From September 2015, it will only pay for support for students with complex disabilities and move the responsibility of supporting students with “mild” disabilities to institutions, without providing any extra funding.  
The loss of funding for specialist information technology equipment and non-medical help, combined with a restrictive redefinition of disability, threaten to make university a non-viable option for many disabled students who already face important financial difficulties.
Research by the National Union of Students, entitled ‘The Pound In Your Pocket’ , revealed an alarmingly high level of financial difficulties suffered by disabled students: 59% of disabled respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they had worried about not having enough money to meet basic living expenses, compared to 47% of non-disabled respondents.
Fifty-five percent have already seriously considered leaving their course compared to 35% of non-disabled respondents; among those, 54% reported it was because of financial problems.
Until now, eligibility for the disabled students’ allowance has been based on plain medical evidence. However, Government plans to ‘modernise’ DSA means that only students defined as disabled under the Equalities Act should be eligible. I just cannot believe that deciding who is and isn’t a ‘disabled student’ could be under the jurisdiction of a court of law.
I have dyslexia, and my allowance paid for a voice recorder, computer and mind-mapping software for my undergraduate degree. I don’t think I could have achieved the grades I did, or even completed the course, if I hadn’t had this support.
The government can’t say that 50% of school leavers should go to university and then make this impossible to achieve. We are already seeing prospective students who are reconsidering their 2015 entry applications because they are worried that the changes will affect them.
Hard-up universities will be unable to support disabled students if they have to pick up the tab for support that the allowance has covered until now. These cuts will undo years of work that has helped open up higher education to disabled students, punishing the universities who excel at equality and diversity.
Despite government claims that cuts to the allowance are being made to a majority of students who own their own computer, a National Union of Students-commissioned survey – ‘Degrees of Discrimination’ – now proves that almost half of disabled students acquire their laptops through funding they receive, compared to only 8% of non-disabled students.
In contrast, 43% of non-disabled respondents acquired their device with their own money compared to 25% of disabled students.
The planned cuts are also underpinned by the claim that the allowance has become too expensive, but the average spend per student has actually gone down in real terms over the last eight years*.
With key organisations adding their support, over 200 students are taking part in a union-organised national day of action on Friday June 6, lobbying their MPs locally, from London to Leeds, Canterbury and Newcastle, against government plans to slash the disabled students’ allowance.
There is no way that we can let this happen without a fight. People need to know that this government is attacking the most vulnerable in society. Students need to realise that their future is under threat, and we all need to stand up and shout together that being a disabled student is hard, and taking away DSA will make it impossible.
Hannah Paterson is Disabled Students Officer with the National Union of Students in the UK. You can follow Hannah on Twitter at @patersonhannah
*Freedom of information request for disabled student allowance expenditure statistics from 2004 – 2013
(Spend per student in 2012-13 (£2,180 – around Euro 2,700) is no higher than it was in 2004-05 even though numbers of students receiving the allowance have increased. This shows that funds distributed have in fact become more efficient.)
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