LAWYERS have been given the green light to launch a legal challenge on behalf of disabled students who feel ‘ignored’ due to the Government’s failure to consult on proposed restrictions to grants which could prevent many others from accessing higher education.
Irwin Mitchell’s specialist public lawyers have been granted permission to proceed with a judicial review of proposals from the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to limit the support offered by the Disabled Student Allowance (DSA).
Awarded to over 60,000 students with a range of disabilities from sensory impairment to mental health conditions, the allowance pays for support such as specialist equipment and accommodation which helps them complete their studies.
Published figures show that in 2012/13, nearly £150m was spent on DSA for undergraduate students.
However, under proposals announced in April last year and subject to a consultation which closed in February, the Government plans to reduce DSA for items including specialist equipment and accommodation and instead expect the universities to meet the shortfall.
Now, the High Court has confirmed that Irwin Mitchell, with the support of the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) and Ambitious about Autism, can proceed with its legal action to challenge whether it was unlawful for BIS to only consult with a select group regarding the changes.
Granting permission, Mrs Justice Lang said she was “not impressed” with the argument that there was no duty to consult.
Alex Rook, the specialist public lawyer at Irwin Mitchell who is representing the two disabled students involved in the legal action, said: “Thousands of students are reliant on this support to enjoy a fulfilling and rewarding higher education, but the proposals mean there is a real concern many could be left without the help they need.
“We believe the student community should have been given the chance to have their voices heard on this matter prior to any decision being made and we are delighted to have been given permission to proceed with a judicial review.
“There is much confusion regarding these plans, with even our partner charities not being sure what they will mean for many disabled people going forward. It is vital that these plans are given proper consideration and we are determined to ensure our clients can access the help they require and deserve.”
Irwin Mitchell is bringing the legal challenge on behalf of a student with hearing difficulties who hopes to start university in September – when the changes are set to begin – and a current student with autism who receives DSA.
Both say they have major concerns regarding the consultation process into the proposals and believe the plans could prevent many disabled students from accessing a university education or being able to complete their studies.
One of the clients is Zanna Messenger-Jones, 17, from Ireleth, Cumbria. She is profoundly deaf in her right ear and severely deaf in her left ear, and wears hearing aids and an implant as a result. Zanna is currently applying for Art and Design or Fashion Design courses at several universities, but without DSA it is uncertain whether she will get the support she needs to follow group discussion classes and Q&As between teachers and other students.
She is currently provided some specialist equipment and software by her college and audiology centre, but she cannot take these with her to University as they are not owned by her. She will also need adaptions to halls of residence, such as a flashing fire alarm and adapted doorbell with visual signals which would be paid for through DSA under the current system.
Zanna said: “I’m really worried that if I don’t receive the appropriate support in terms of DSA at the beginning of the academic year it could seriously impact my studies. To not have been asked about the changes is not right and I want to be informed about what is proposed and have my views heard.”
Irwin Mitchell’s second client is 19-year-old Joseph Bell, who has autism and began studying physics, astrophysics and cosmology at Lancaster University last October. His condition means he experiences a high degree of anxiety, particularly in unfamiliar environments or when his daily routines are disrupted.
When he began university, DSA ensured he had an assistant to help him settle into university life, while it continues to fund vital support for him.
Joseph said: “Just because I made it to university, does not mean I’ll cope without support. Without DSA, the trivial things would become impossible for me. This also applies to many future disabled students, who are being ignored by the Government.”
Susan Daniels, chief executive officer at NDCS, said: “This is really positive news for students like Zanna, who heavily rely on the Disabled Students’ Allowance to provide the vital support needed to access their course.
“Having worked very closely with Zanna and many young deaf people hoping to pursue higher education, we are extremely concerned that changes to the DSA will mean that their access to higher education will be severely compromised, and we will see deaf students fall behind their peers, or worse still, drop out of university thereby jeopardising their employment prospects and their future.
“The Government needs to stop this reckless attempt to reform DSA without putting in place proper safeguards to protect deaf student’s support in higher education. As a priority, it must ensure that the impact on deaf students has been fully considered through an open public consultation, before any changes can be implemented.”
Jolanta Lasota, chief executive of Ambitious about Autism, said: “Currently almost 2,500 students with autism access DSA. Students with autism might use DSA to fund support from mentors and study buddies to help them manage their time, finances or to help them cope with some of the social aspects of university.
“DSA is critical for students with autism and many students say that they simply would not manage university without this additional support.”