Tuesday 16-02-2016 - 10:24
The fight to ensure disabled students are properly supported continues, and the Government’s dismissal of our concerns – and those of other disabled people’s organisations and higher education sector bodies – is deeply frustrating. But it is important to recognise that our campaigning has made a difference.
When David Willetts made his statement on the ‘modernisation’ of the DSA in England back in April 2014 he did not anticipate the backlash he would receive. He thought that he’d be able to sweep it under the carpet – because nobody cares about us. The DSA campaign has been amazing, with activists and SUs up and down the country holding stunts, demonstrating outside Government offices, lobbying their MPs and creating a sense of outrage on campus, on social media and in the press.
The Government wanted to avoid proper scrutiny: but the campaign work of activists, students’ unions and campaigning organisations including NUS forced them into an embarrassing debate in Parliament, where MPs from various parties, including the Conservatives, attacked the proposals. The subject has been raised in Parliament numerous times since, and just recently in January a short debate in the House of Lords continued to keep up the pressure.
Even so, the Government wanted to rush through these changes – but our collective work and the pressure of legal action we supported meant most changes were postponed for a year, and ultimately subject to a full consultation with disabled students and their representatives. This was a consultation the Government wished to avoid entirely and it forced them to think through their proposals in much greater depth.
The Government wanted to wash its hands of responsibility for much of the non-medical help on which students rely. Whilst NUS was not opposed to any reform, as the DSA was never prefect, simply announcing universities and colleges would pick up the responsibility was not good enough. We formed five principles with which to assess each policy decision: the new system had to ensure support was high quality, timely, individualised, consistent between campuses and faculties, and with adequate means of appeal and redress, and SUs backed up that campaign work.
As a consequence, a new quality assurance scheme for non-medical help is being developed, a process to ensure support is provided during any dispute between an institution and Student Finance England has been created, and the Government has committed to continued individual assessment, but with certain opt-outs for those who need different process, such as those with mental health conditions.
The Government wanted to scrap support for IT equipment almost entirely: our pressure forced them to backtrack, and so IT equipment is provided, albeit disabled students must now pay the first £200.
And the Government wanted to make these changes without really understanding how campuses could be made more inclusive – and campaigners raising concerns led to two HEFCE research projects on mental health and specific learning difficulties which has helped develop that understanding, though there still remains much to learn.
Finally, when the Welsh Government consulted on whether it should make the same changes as England, the responses from students, SUs and NUS Wales meant they have decided to keep their system the same.
So while I recognise as much as anyone the deep distress caused the Government’s decision in December, there is much to look back on and be proud of as that chapter of the campaign closes.
But what next? Well, it’s time for us to organise locally to try and mitigate the cuts as best as possible. You can ready our briefing on the best ways to here.