Seema Malhotra MP: £200 equipment charge disadvantages disabled students in higher education
The Disabled Students’ Allowance should cover the full cost of technologies to help close the outcomes gap between disabled and non-disabled students, writes Seema Malhotra
The increasing number of disabled people reaching university is a major step forward for inclusion and social mobility. More disabled people rightly see university as an option for them and the growing culture of disability inclusion within the UK has encouraged more students to disclose their impairments. Yet when disabled students get to university, they still face a persistent gap in experience and outcomes compared to their non-disabled peers. This gap in experience and outcome is evidenced in student satisfaction surveys, overall grades, course completion rates, and post-graduation destinations.
As co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology, I have seen first-hand the power of technology to level the playing field and give disabled students the tools they need to achieve their ambitions. From software that reads out text for visually impaired students to note-taking software used by those with dyslexia, there are a number of tools which are already a part of many students’ success stories. That is why it is so important to ensure that all disabled students can have access to the software they need, and the powerful hardware required to run it.
The Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) is the primary means by which students access assistive technology at university. Students undergo a needs assessment which recommends a bespoke package of technology and human support, funded by the Allowance. Yet in 2015, policy was changed so that students must pay a £200 contribution towards purchasing the higher-powered laptops needed to run assistive software.
The £200 charge was introduced with the understandable aims of wider student fairness and value for money. It was argued that since most students now use a laptop, a £200 contribution (equivalent to the price of a low-powered laptop) should be deemed a mainstream cost of university study. But the report published last month, by the APPG for Assistive Technology, finds that the policy undermines both of the aims it sought to advance.
Firstly, the charge results in an additional cost for disabled students as opposed to their non-disabled peers. Many students already own a standard laptop at the time when they apply for the DSA but these are often too old or not powerful enough to run the assistive software programs the student requires. Students are only recommended a new, more powerful, DSA laptop when the device they already own is deemed unsuitable by a Needs Assessor. So while non-disabled students can keep using the standard laptop they own – devices which are perfectly fine for typing notes and browsing the web etc. – students with additional needs have to find an extra £200 for the new hardware prescribed via the DSA.
Secondly, the charge has undermined delivery of the Government’s objectives for the DSA of better student outcomes and narrowing the disability gap. The number of students who receive assistive technology via the DSA has fallen by approximately 20% since the policy change. Students are receiving a government-funded needs assessment report that recommends a package of assistive technology but then they don’t order the technology because they cannot afford the up-front £200 cost. Not only are students’ expectations being dashed, but the cost to the taxpayer of the assessment is largely wasted.
The Disabled Students’ Allowance has a proven track record of providing students with assistive technology and improving education outcomes. The Government is right to continue to review and work to improve the DSA to ensure fairness and value for money, but this should include a recognition that some reforms have had a negative effect. The £200 charge should be removed in its current form as an upfront cost as a matter of urgency so that all students are able to achieve their potential.
We must match the aspirations of young disabled people with a higher education system that is truly inclusive throughout their experience, right up to graduation and beyond. If not, we risk blighting lives, wasting public money, and missing out on the invaluable contributions of disabled people to our society.
Seema Malhotra is Labour and Co-operative MP for Feltham and Heston and co-chair of the APPG on Assistive Technology