Dreaming Spires Await – but with no Disabled Students’ Allowance

I've been writing, nay, banging on, for some time about the way Higher Education students have been left out of the SEN reforms and the new Education Health and Care plan.

The new special educational needs system is supposed to go up to 25 but the idea, I gather, is that only the most severe and complex young people who are still in FE or perhaps on an apprenticeship, will be covered after the age of 18. I say "I gather' because I haven't seen it written down anywhere.

That is to say that if you're bright enough to go to university - even if you have dyslexia or Asperger Syndrome, both of which can be very personally disabling - you'll have to rely on the Disabled Students' Allowance to see you through. For me, the money wasn't the issue, it was the statutory protection an EHCP would afford, to ensure that they did get the support they needed. But we lost that one, so the DSA would have to do.

dreaming spires
Original Image: Tim Hallam, Creative Commons

When I raised this topic with a number of people "in the know" I was told by one source that Michael Gove would not hear of HE students having an EHCP while alternatively, from a VERY senior source who really should know (unless he was perchance being mischevious) that it was Vince Cable at the Department of Business Innovation and Skills who put the Kibosh on it. Vince Cable? Eh? I thought, somewhat puzzled.

The exclusion fails to take into consideration all those bright young people who have ended up dropping out, with worsening mental health problems - or on unthinkable occasions even worse- because they no longer have the support of parents close by or a statement of SEN and the university help wasn't what they had hoped.

So. The Disabled Students Allowance. What's that then? A nice lady in HE explained to me that DSA has four pots of money - specialist equipment such as computers, recorders, scanner, software etc. Second, a non-medical helpers allowance which is human support - notetakers, library support, guides, proofreader, specialist study skills (and I'm assuming, social support) and a general allowance for costs reimbursement. The fourth aspect is a travel allowance for mobility issues.

So the other day, the news breaks from BIS (er, that's Vince Cable's manor) that the DSA is being severely cut back.

A written Ministerial Statement (David Willets, MP) said,

"DSAs have been available since 1974, with the 4 separate allowances being introduced in 1990. The current arrangements do not recognise technological advances, increases in use of technology or the introduction of the Equality Act 2010....

...The proposals outlined below look to rebalance responsibilities between government funding and institutional support. We will look to HEIs to play their role in supporting students with mild difficulties, as part of their duties to provide reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act. ...We recognise that students will continue to need support. However, we believe that HEIs are better placed to consider how to respond in many cases, including giving greater consideration to the delivery of their courses and how to provide support. The need for some individual non-medical help (NMH) may be removed through different ways of delivering courses and information. It is for HEIs to consider how they make both anticipatory reasonable adjustments and also reasonable adjustments at an individual level.

We would welcome your involvement in these events and will be in touch with you about them in due course. Should you need to raise an issue before the events take place, please do so via the dedicated mailbox at disabledstudentsallowances@bis.gsi.gov.uk I hope that this information is helpful.

The entire statement with some more specifics can be read here and further information about the changes announced is available via Student Support Information Note (SSIN) 01/15 which is available here.

So the gist is, if universities want students to reeive the same level of support as they do now, they'll have to pay for it themselves. Because of course universities charge fees now, so why should the government fund anything?

That's a fair point, actually, but what if universities decide that a) they don't want to shell out and b) they'd rather not offer places to students who were going to cost them more money in support? Only the student - the disabled student - suffers.

My HE contact explained, "Under the new arrangements, the human support listed which falls under bands one and two (save for mobility and software training) will be paid for by the institution so will depend on institutional funding, in-house or external service provider."

A student with a SpLD potentially may not be eligible at all for DSA, depending on how 'complex' is defined, which then means they then have to fall on whatever support their institution will provide. This is a fundamental change.

So, I had a think and tapped my fingers for a bit. Then I emailed BIS asking for clarification, noting that disabled students in HE have been excluded from the new reforms too.

I duly and quite promptly, received a reply...

"Thank you for your e-mail, which has been passed to me. We will be issuing comprehensive guidance in due course which will address many of the questions being asked of us. However, I thought it might be helpful if I clarified the position with regard to DSAs directly, and especially the dyslexia questions you raise. [My note - I didn't mention Dyslexia - who did?]

You will know that DSAs are provided to help overcome the barriers that a disabled student may face because of their disability when accessing higher education, and to place the disabled student on an equal footing to other non-disabled students. We recognise that students with disabilities may need support to enter and remain in HE and they will continue to receive support which will enable them to do so.

However, we are looking to rebalance responsibilities between Government funding (via DSAs) and institutional support (as part of their duties to provide reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act). We believe that in many cases institutions are better able to respond to non complex requirements by making anticipatory reasonable adjustments or adjustments at an individual level.

Whilst HEIs will be expected to play a role in supporting students with mild difficulties, students with complex requirements will continue to be supported via DSA. We will be working with institution and HE representative bodies to ensure that students understand the type of support they can expect to receive and who will provide it.

Our proposals will ensure that DSAs will be focused at those students with the greatest need.

I hope this information is helpful. I am afraid that I will not be able to enter into a dialogue with you but, as mentioned, we will be providing guidance in due course and will notify you when that is available.


In my head, gears slowly started turning, which was quite alarming. So Vince Cable (apparently) didn't want HE students to have the EHCP and now the very same department is cutting back the DSA. Are these two events related? Don't ask me, I'm just someone's mum, what do I know? Paul doesn't even want to "enter into a dialogue" with me, I'm so unimportant.

Of course, if Uni students had been included in the EHCP, then their help would be statutory and BIS would not have been able to cut back help provided in the DSA.

I am no politician. Some days, it's even hard to get out of bed because I am wracked with pain and my head buzzes from the effects of yet another dose of Tramadol. So I could be completely wrong. I'll leave that for you to decide and of course, we must also wait for further clarification.

But I wonder, did BIS just shaft some of our country's finest young minds who are at the same time some of our most emotionally vulnerable young people?

My friend in HE said it means, in her opinion, "That the quality of the support that will be available will be completely dependent on the priorities and resources that will be given within an institution [i.e the uni you choose] to disabled students, so parents and applicants will need to check carefully what support institutions are giving.  Obviously there has always been an element of that, but DSA at least provided a safety net as the assessment of needs for the student was exactly that - rather than an assessment of what support the individual institution was prepared to give.

"I think until matters are clarified further, it is difficult to give firm information that parents can run with at this stage but this will be need to be a lot clearer by early next year as that is when applications for Sept 2015 will be starting."

So the upshot is that a student with special needs, who is no longer covered by either the DSA or an EHCP, and their family, will have to find a Higher Education place that not only meets the aspirational and educational needs, but also is prepared to support their special educational and social needs from its own resources.

Does it never end? You'd think this particular cohort would be celebrated and supported for negotiating the primary and secondary educational jungle and still be in a fit state to attempt Higher Ed.

She hulk

I feel somewhat close to tears at this development, because I fear for my sons when, as is likely, they venture to higher education with possibly little or no support. It also means that wherever my younger son goes at 18, I may well have to follow.

Someone mentioned the Incredible Hulk to me the other day and I was reminded of his alter ego's saying.. Don't make me angry, you wouldn't like me when I'm angry.

Too late.

Tania Tirraoro


  1. Angela

    The DSA also benefits students who did not have an Educational Statement of Need due to late diagnosis in the school system, it also recognises other barriers that a student may have such as mental health issues. The ECH Plans will direct towards applying for DSA as part of the 0-25 plans.
    My daughter was a late diagnosis of Aspergers and does not have a statement but is applying for DSA for support at Uni.

  2. Joolz

    Will students be able to apply for support from social services eg for social / leisure activities? I accept that it’s hard for those with less severe needs to meet eligibility criteria but surely councils have duties under autism act / social care legislation. Although whether it would be the home or uni council I guess would be up for argument.

    1. Jayne Woodward

      This support wouldn’t come through DSA so the proposed changes won’t in themselves impact on this support. (DSA is for support with academic studies only.) Usually a student’s home social services are responsible for social and personal care support but many Universities have autism social groups and initiatives such as one to one support through mentoring and befriending. It is certainly worth asking the disability support services what support they may have, especially around orientation for the first few weeks when campuses are especially busy and it can take time to establish where everything is and to get used to the routine.

  3. I am appalled. My middle son did not have a statement, because although he was clearly dyslexic he could just about cope as his overall intelligence enabled him to work out words from context. He still had a miserable time through most of his school life. When he went to university (fortunately our local one with him living at home), we saw the faculty first and made them very aware of his needs. It still took them 2 terms to sort out his DSA with the result that he had to retake the first year as he had not managed well without support. But at least some support was there which was more than he got at his maintained school. In his second year, one tutor handed out different articles to each student, told them to read them out loud then and there and discuss the points. Ed was devastated and felt foolish. Despite having English A level he could only read in his own room in absolute silence. Fortunately as he was living at home, we were able to help him sort this out with his tutor who was devastated when she realised what she had put him through. She just hadn’t thought about it.

    Over the years as a specialist lawyer dealing with SEN, I have dealt with students who considered they had been discriminated on grounds of disability. These cases are fraught, emotionally draining and almost invariably destructive of any further viable relationship between the student and the university. On the whole, we are unhappy about taking on such cases as they are more about compensation for past wrongs than putting things right for the future – that is not a satisfying result as we want to see our clients go on to make the best of their opportunities, not console themselves with money for the failures.

    The idea that the main weapon will be reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act is appalling. How long with it be before universities close down access to the majority of disabled students, using the academic merits argument, rather than face the additional costs which would otherwise be involved.. We need to start planning a campaign!

  4. This isn’t exactly what the response ought to be, but I have found the Open University excellent. If it isn’t possible to attend a ‘normal’ university, they are a really good alternative (and cheaper). I’m a mature student studying International Development and Data Analysis. Another good thing (from my point of view) is that you can study for a degree over 6+ years instead of three, so it’s easier to take things at your own pace, should you need to (which I do, because I too have ill health). Whether or not this would work with specific disabilities, of course I don’t know, everyone is different, but the O.U. are very keen to make adjustments and arrangements to help students.

  5. Sue Edwards

    So upset about this. I have watched my daughter break down so many barriers to even make it to uni and now the rug is being pulled from under her. She has already had to make a transfer from her first university to our local university due to lack of adequate support for the extra needs caused by her disability. At this rate I will end up having to go along with her to be her note taker and that is NOT what uni is supposed to be about. These are very dark times for disability.

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