Tensions in HE disability policy – #1 student choice in DSA provision

Most policies present difficulties for implementation which result in tensions or dilemmas. HE disability policy is no different and this post highlights one such difficulty. The first tension is that there is some kind of student choice built into the system of DSA funding. When I first started in HE nearly 20 years ago there was ‘real’ student choice at least in the university I was working in. Disabled students could choose to organise their own support in a similar way to that which direct payments allowed. This was mainly because we didn’t have the resources nor the infrastructure to take on that responsibility in the disability office. However, it was often repeated to me (mainly by my manager) that the money belonged to the student and therefore they were responsible for using the money as they saw fit (how things have changed). It was a non-means tested grant after all and at the time universal wholesale maintenance grants were still in the memory of most people working in HE.

The reality of course was that this rarely occurred. There was one highly organised student that I was aware of that was hiring and firing her own support workers but I believe she was also doing this for her daily living support arrangements before she had arrived at university. Also, there was very little support in place anywhere so there was no market from which to choose providers.

As I understand it the monies are still supposed to belong to the student. This is part of the reason for continued government rhetoric around student choice in the DSA system.  It was meant to be a system which gave students control over the services which they required.

But what’s the reality? There is no real choice in the provision of DSA. The way that the DSA will be spent is pretty much tied up by the assessment of needs (AoN) report. Whilst there is a quotation system built into the AoN process to ensure value for money, the student is not given a choice of who will supply any elements. The suppliers who are put in the AoN reports are decided upon by the assessment centres and more recently for NMH by the DSA-QAG database. The student is then told by SFE which supplier has been chosen i.e. the cheapest. In theory the student is allowed to swap suppliers but why would they do this? The process of applying for DSA is so complicated that by this stage most students are beyond the point of caring. And if it was really their money they would shop around; but at no stage does a student see the money nor are they given the real role of being a consumer.

Recently, when students have exercised their choice by switching suppliers to in-house provision or university-preferred suppliers, missives have been disseminated by SFE suppressing the practice. As if there is some kind of underhand activity going on. Various bureaucratic barriers have been put in place to stop this happening which makes a mockery of the notion of student choice. The idea being that the market should be left to create its own fairness through the invisible hand – but of course the market is missing an essential element – a ‘real’ customer. So it’s a false market. In one sense the market is working by creating ‘value’ because prices seem to be falling but not because of laissez-faire policies: rather through a much more deterministic two quote system.

Importantly, we shouldn’t forget that students make their choice when they apply for HE study through UCAS. They choose a university based on several criteria including the disability support available. When a student gets books from the library they are not expecting to pay for those services separately. Nor do they get to take their monies and buy their IT services from different places. So why should they be expected to shop around for their disability support? Especially when transition for disabled students is more complicated than for other students and any additional bureaucracy leads to additional barriers to access.