Monday, 29 June 2015

BIS issue Conflict of Interest guide for Disabled Students Allowance

BIS have issued their guidance on the management of conflict of interest for those people, business and organizations paid through the DSA scheme. This takes the form of an SSIN information notice on the Student Finance Practitioners website and has been issued directly to assessment centres and equipment suppliers.

For a number of years, the DSAQAG Framework documents used to audit assessment centres and equipment suppliers included a conflict of interest statement. This year, for the first time, conflict of interest appeared as a heading in the DSA Guidance chapter, a document that sets out the rules for the administration of DSA. However, at the time of issue, the conflict of interest section promised details to follow. Now we have them. Point 27 shows that even if there is no conflict of interest, anyone can think that there might be; presumably there will an increase in the area of audit activity on this point.

Declaration and management of conflicts of interest should be seen in the context of a National Audit Office enquiry onthis subject. The NAO focused on one company but this appears to have been a test case. Also relevant is the long-running attempt to require two quotations for the supply of non medical helper services to DSA students (the attempted introduction several years ago was curtailed by the introduction of a system for exemption from the two quotations). Universities have been called upon toend exclusive supply arrangements.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Crumbling cuts schedule announced by BIS

More of the cuts to Disabled Students Allowance scheduled to hit those entering university this September (2015) have been postponed until next year (academic year 16/17). The specific areas mentioned are additional disability-related accommodation, peripherals (which is likely to mean printers, scanners and ergonomic items related to computers), and consumables (which in DSA terms would mean printing and photocopying costs).

This follows on from the stalling announcement made in September by Greg Clark, which halted the threatened massive reduction in funds available for a wide range of non-medical helper support (such as practical assistants and note-takers).

This time round we have again an announcement written in terms of the universities getting a reprieve, the delay is to “help give institutions the time to review the services they offer to disabled students and make appropriate improvements to meet their needs”. This suggests that the universities, not students nor DSA itself are the intended victims of “rebalancing” and therefore universities would have felt some sort of unacceptable impact as a result of reductions in the number of goods and services available via the DSA. Those of us work with actual students are more used to thinking in student-centred terms so this emphasis on the protection of the welfare of institutions is somewhat strange.  

Bearing in mind a judicial review has been granted to two disabled students, the phrase “the Government would prefer to move forward in a consensual manner (as far as is reasonably possible) rather than through litigation” leaps off the page.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Greg Clark (BIS Minister) says he would not want to do anything to put off a disabled student applying for university

Greg Clark appeared hesitant and non-committal about where things go next with the planned cuts to Disabled Students Allowance in last night’s HE Hustings event organized by HEPI, Universities UK, OU and the Times HigherEd.

In response to a question about access to education for disabled students in the context of DSA cuts and the forthcoming judicial review. Mr Clark noted that he had stalled the proposed DSA plans when he came to office. He suggested that things had perhaps needed some more consideration.

For those of us working with disabled students on a daily basis, Mr Clark’s wistful desire for more thinking time was expressed on the day that we had been told final Guidance for DSA administration would be released. No Guidance seen. DSA applicants for academic year 15/16 still cannot have an assessment of need because the administrative guidance has not been released. Instead, we had a long awaited new computer specification document that includes items supposedly on the ‘cuts list’ under DSA modernisation (laptop stands, USB hubs).

Liam Byrne for the Labour Party called for more emphasis on students rights, a suggestion that perhaps reflects the current draft DSA Guidance students that places disabled students without adequate support in conflict with universities without clear or credible means for swift and fair dispute resolution.

Julian Huppert, Lib Dem instrumental in securing a Westminster Hall debate on DSA just before David Willetts left office, continues to support a more rational and steady approach to DSA change.

What now? The judicial review has been granted because the consultation has been challenged as inadequate. The Minister responsible for stalling on the initial modernisation has implied more consultation may be indicated and expressed a sense of what seems almost like a duty of care towards disabled people applying for university. An announcement from BIS soon, surely?

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Student Loans Company DSA cut enforcement process : initial details

Student Loans Company have released the answers to frequently asked questions about the forthcoming cuts to Disabled Students Allowances. It is in fact the government department BIS who are behind the plans to cut printers, scanners, course software, book allowance - but the Student Loans Company are the organisation who will be enforcing the cuts and they now show outward signs of constructing a process that will make at least some of the modernisation measures workable. The SLC will be in charge of deducting £200 from the cost of the computer identified as part of the DSA needs assessment and of telling the student they cannot have the full cost of a computer through the DSA. That will put the SLC in the position of cut enforcers. There will be no appeal on the £200 because it has already been embedded into an amendment of the student finance regulations. SLC will always tell students they cannot have the full cost of a computer from the DSA. Under the current system, a student who wishes to purchase a computer from a non-DSA QAG supplier has to get an agreement from SLC on the amount that they are willing to reimburse. The amount seems to be based on either the lowest of the three computer prices in the DSA needs assessment report, or on a figure considered reasonable by SLC which is not related to an individual needs assessment. It will be interesting to see how SLC handle this in the future because there could be large numbers of students making a routine enquiry about open market reimbursement.

Friday, 13 February 2015

University practice changing ahead of DSA cuts

University of Salford have released detailsabout how and why they are changing their approach to accessible course delivery. ALL students will now have access to PowerPoint slides before lectures, fair warning of timetable changes and preparation time for class discussion. No more Individual Support Plans.

Every university is being challenged in the name of DSA modernisation which aims to rebalance the responsibilities and the costs of inclusive and accessible higher education.

In the frequently asked questions, the University states that DSA is being removed for students with specific learning difficulties; that is not the case (at least not if we assume the information in the public domain is correct). The Equality Analysis states that those with mild dyslexia are deemed to be outside the scope of DSA funded support, those with moderate to severe levels of specific learning difficulty will be able to claim DSA. Furthermore, in a clause added in December 14 the “impact of the learning environment” has been added as a factor in “complexity’ thus providing an argument for ‘mild’ dyslexia being ‘moderate to severe’ in a complex learning environment. 

Thursday, 5 February 2015

BIS update Equality Analysis on Disabled Students Allowance

BIS updated the Equality Analysis on thechanges to Disabled Students’ Allowance on 16th December 14. 
Some of the statistics have been updated since the October version (section 19).  

The most significant addition to the content is at section 70:

“Consultation with stakeholders on this proposal has highlighted that the complexity of a student’s Specific Learning Difficulty is related primarily to the impact of the learning environment, rather than the severity of the impairment. Whilst it is the case that inclusive learning environments and anticipatory reasonable adjustments will remove the reliance on DSAs for some students with a Specific Learning Difficulty, this is unlikely to relate to the severity of their learning difficulty. Therefore, for the purposes of these reforms, students with Specific Learning Difficulties are assumed to be part of the wider disabled student body that will be affected by the Non-Medical help proposal and will not be treated as a distinct group. “

This new point appears somewhat at odds with the one above it, which states that students with ‘mild SpLD’ will be assumed to be a distinct group:

“We propose that DSAs funding remains available to students presenting with moderate to severe levels of Specific Learning Difficulties, as evidence by the range of tests, and that institutions make sufficient anticipatory and individual reasonable adjustments to meet the needs of their students presenting with a mild Specific Learning Difficulty.”

This does not change the intention of the original ‘DSA modernisation’ proposal that “Students with Specific Learning Difficulties will continue to receive support through DSAs where their support needs are considered to be more complex.” The Equality Analysis of October 14 clarified that ‘more complex’ means moderate to severe. The December 14 addition does not remove the university’s responsibility for meeting the needs of students with mild SpLD.

The ‘non-medical help proposal’ referred to in section 70 comes into force in academic year 16/17 and is that “institutions to provide any individual lower level support needed by disabled students” , effectively cutting  ten types of support from DSA funding (section 64 and 65). What the Equality Analysis confirms is that all disabled students will be affected by this cut – a student with severe dyslexia will not be able to have a note-taker funded through DSA, and neither will a student with a severe visual, hearing, physical or mental health impairment.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

DSA delay for students caused by delay in finalisation of administration guidance

Students face delays in the processing of Disabled Students Allowance applications for this funding round (for courses starting September 2015).

Changes to the type of equipment and support services available through the Disabled Students Allowance were announced in April 2014. Between October and December Statutory Instrument passed through Parliament, confirming that all students will have to meet a £200 shortfall on computers needed to run specialist software. As promised, a version of the document that sets out how changes are to be reflected in needs assessments and administered by the main funding body (Student Loans Company) was made available for comment. However, it was not widely circulated, it was not clear whether open comments or 'usual channel' stakeholder group comments were being asked for, and was difficult or impossible for disabled peoples' group to locate the document or to understand what was being asked for. Shortly after the news of a legal challenge on DSA cuts centred on lack of appropriate consultation, we have the news that the comments period for for the draft administrative guidance has been extended to 20th Feb. The DSA application forms, however, have already been released. This means that DSA needs assessment reports and the agreement to recommendations will be delayed while we wait for the release of the finalised version of the rules.