More than 200 students and key organisations took part in a national day of action, lobbying their MPs to get the Government to re-think their plans for Disabled Students Allowance, which they claim will greatly reduce the number of disabled graduates.
Universities and science minister David Willets has said he wants to focus funding – about £125 million was spent on DSAs in 2011-12 – on those with the highest support needs, with many students with lower support needs having to rely instead on their university to provide equipment or make other reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act.
Under the changes, the Government will no longer fund the purchase of standard computers. They will also refuse to pay the extra costs of specialist accommodation, other than in exceptional circumstances.
But the National Union of Students say the changes are unfair and discriminatory.
NUS Disabled Students’ officer Hannah Paterson said: “The Government can’t say that 50 per cent 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 DSA has covered until now. These cuts will undo years of work that has helped open up higher education to disabled students.”
The former Home Office Minister David Blunkett MP said: “This is a step backwards – 45 years to when I personally had to organise a voluntary reading circle to complete my undergraduate degree and to rely on friends and family for the support needed.
“It would be entirely wrong for students with disability to become yet another victim of the austerity measures necessitated by the global banking meltdown and not by any logical policy process.”
“Equal access to a range of necessary facilities, and support to allow independent access to and successful completion of higher education courses by anyone with special educational needs, is a fundamental right.”
Paddy Turner, chair of the National Association of Disability Practitioners (NADP), said: “Over the years we have seen repeated evidence that DSAs have been a hugely successful investment in keeping disabled students in study, ensuring they succeed equally with non-disabled students and improving their employability.
“This saves the country money in welfare payments and makes the country money from taxes.
“As usual, short-sighted policy making to save money in the short term will cost everyone in the long term and hit disabled people hardest of all.”
Philip Connolly, Policy and Communications Manager of Disability Rights UK, said: “Disability Student Allowance enables many disabled students to graduate, get jobs, pay taxes and become contributors to the UK economy. There is no rationale for any measures that would act to ration the chances of this happening.
“We hope as many students as possible support their union’s efforts to safeguard the allowance.”
Under the existing DSA arrangements, a student can receive up to £5,161 a year for specialist equipment such as laptops and voice recognition software and £20,520 for non-medical helpers such as note-takers and library support, plus up to £1,724 for general costs incurred because of their disability, such as travel expenses.
The responsibility for meeting many of these costs will now pass to universities, without any extra funding, with some institutions likely to be hit much more than others.
The changes will affect all full-time, full-time distance learning, part-time and postgraduate students in England applying for DSA for the first time from 1 September 2015.