Dan Parton cutLast week, a group of charities voiced their concerns at proposed reforms to the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) that the government is trying to push through. Given the levels of criticism the government has had on this, surely it needs to pause and engage in a proper consultation?

The charities, including the National Autistic Society and Ambitious about Autism, voiced their concerns in no uncertain terms, saying that the government’s plans to restrict what the DSA can be used for could mean fewer students receive it – and therefore struggle at university – or deter people from attending altogether. This adds to previous criticism from the National Union of Students, among others.

The DSA allows disabled people to access specialist support and equipment so they can attend university along with their non-disabled peers. It can be used to pay for non-medical help such as mentors and specialist advisers. In 2011/12 DSAs provided more than £125 million of additional support to 53,000 students, according to the government.

Under the proposals, the DSA will continue to pay for higher specification or higher cost computers, where a student needs one solely by virtue of their disability, but not for standard specification computers or the warranties and insurance associated with them. The additional costs of specialist accommodation will also no longer be met by DSAs, other than in exceptional circumstances – this will now be met by universities.

So why is the government taking these steps? I think the reason is clear from universities and science minister David Willetts’ announcement of the proposed reform in April. In a written statement he said: “This [reform] will ensure that the limited public funding available for DSAs is targeted in the best way and to achieve value for money, whilst ensuring those most in need get the help they require.”

This rhetoric will seem terribly familiar to anyone who has been watching the reform of Disability Living Allowance and its conversion to Personal Independence Payment over the past few years. As with that change, it seems that for “achieve value for money” read “cuts”.

As part of the reforms, universities will be expected to provide some of the  additional support/equipment needed, “to rebalance responsibilities”, as Willetts puts it. This, say the charities, will create a postcode lottery because some universities will struggle to find the additional funding to provide the necessary support.

The government’s line also assumes that all students with disabilities have access to ‘basic’ equipment like computers. ‘Assumes’ is the key word there – the reality is different.

This reform seems ill thought-out and at odds with the government’s stated aims of maintaining the personalisation agenda and ensuring that people with disabilities have the same life-chances as their non-disabled peers.

But more disappointing is that the government has not consulted properly with ‘stakeholders’ – those who will be affected and the institutions they will be attending. An impact assessment hasn’t been carried out either, according to Ambitious about Autism’s Joanna Lasota. That reform should be pushed through without these steps smacks of government arrogance and – again – its adherence to its austerity-at-all-costs policy.

For many students with disabilities, the DSA can make the difference between succeeding and struggling at university. Without it, as Mark Lever from the National Autistic Society said, there is a risk of deterring a generation of people from going onto higher education. That would be a tragedy, since it would almost certainly mean that many of those people   would fail to fulfil their potential. 

Surely the time has come for the government to pause, consult, and then take account of what people say before it makes its next move on any reform of the DSA.