Disabled Students’ Allowance. — Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 7:49 pm on 2nd November 2015.

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Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 7:49 pm, 2nd November 2015

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to make any changes to the disabled students’ allowance.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank all those who have put their names down to speak in this debate. I particularly thank the noble Baronesses on the Front Bench directly in front of me. They have had to put up with one or two changes of plan.

I declare my interests. Normally, it is just a case of referring to them, but on this occasion I think that I should go through them a little more fully. I start by saying that I am dyslexic. For nearly two decades I have been a user of assisted technology in my day-to-day life. I am a vice-president of the British Dyslexia Association and I am also the chairman of a company called Microlink, which deals with assisted technology and has a long involvement in a student loans company. It is a decreasing part of that company, which is a very good thing because we are now losing money on it.

My Question as originally put down asks whether the Government have plans to make changes to the disabled students’ allowance. It is now quite clear that they do. They are well developed plans and the consultation has gone out, which I have seen some of the documents for. The big question that comes up in this is the role of the universities where the students are studying—the HEIs, universities or call them what you like. What happens and what their role is in this new situation are vital, because if we look at the existing model we see that the institutions do not have to do that much. The disabled students’ allowance allows you a plan of support which is individual to you and which you take to the university. The university then integrates you into the system and does not have to do that much.

The Equality Act potentially draws this into question. However, we do not know exactly what the Equality Act would mean in terms of legal responsibility to the individual student because the best and most important thing about the current scheme is that it is an individually based package. Perhaps I may digress from the mainstream for the moment: as a dyslexic, there is something that I would have raised a long time ago if I had known this process was going on, just to show that the existing system is not perfect. It is the fact that dyslexics had to be assessed again, at the cost of several hundred pounds per individual, if they were dyslexic—not if they had another condition—because, apparently, the fact that they had been assessed for a lifelong condition at some point in the past was not good enough and they had to go again. It was most keenly argued for by people who seemed to be carrying out the tests—but let us leave that one where it falls. It could and should have been looked at in the past. It grew organically; it grew as you could meet needs going through the system.

However, you now have an individual structure. Will the university provide that individual package to meet the needs of the person? This is very important, because when you look through, you see a lot of talk about generic technology and providing it free of charge with no licence involved. As a user of this type of technology, software and back-up—I think that I am the only person in the Chamber who does, although I stand to be corrected—let me tell you one thing about it: if it is not reliable, it is not worth having. There is a lot of very cheap and shoddy stuff out there.

If you do not have somebody you can go to to support you with it, it is not worth having. If you do not know when you switch on that device that you have got a system that allows you to interact with it, it is not worth having. What sort of support structure will be going in there?

Also—and I keep coming back to the individuals—are you sure you are going to get the right package for that particular student? If you take as an example one disability group, dyslexics—it is the biggest, but it is just one—you find that no two dyslexics are exactly the same. You have every variation, from the way their minds work and intellectual capacity to the type of course they are on. A history student’s support work will not be the same as that for somebody who is doing chemistry: they will need a different interaction; they will need to be trained to use it properly to get that interaction. This will mean an individualised training package and variations around it.

We then have the extra complication of what you have done before. How good is the computer that you are using? How much training have you had in it? How are you taking it on and being supported through there? Unless these factors are brought together, you are not going to get the best out of it. Worse still, we all know from personal experience that if you have something that you cannot use properly, you do not use it. Any money that is provided and any support that is not effective and accessible will basically be ignored. We might then have a situation where the university is in breach of the law. The government help, whenever it comes in, does not work; university help does not work. What are the downsides of that? If the technology is needed, I suggest that there is a very good chance that that individual will drop out of the course or at least underachieve. If they drop out, the university could find itself losing two or three years of fees and having a hole in their structure and funding. The person who drops out might not know what to do with the rest of their life. We also know that disabled people need to be better qualified to get jobs at all. So we have a nice little downward spiral setting in there. That is if you have not focused in on getting the best out of the system.

As we go around looking at this, we have to try to get some idea of exactly how the Government’s thinking is going through: what is going to happen next? If you are not going to require universities to have an individualised package—funding that supports that individual to get the best out of it—are you going to do something else? If you are, what? Do we continue with the same scheme, better audited and slightly better organised? Or are we going to go back to the universities? If we are, we have got to say, “You’ve got to deliver something that is user-friendly”. If it is not user-friendly enough to make sure that people will use it, do not bother.

Universities are very odd beasts; they run themselves. Are we going to make sure that there is a universal standard throughout the sector so that no student is restricted in their choice by what that university does? X University could become where you go if you are dyslexic; if you are deaf, you go somewhere else; if you are blind, you go somewhere else. How do we work these in together? How do we make sure that you take your package and you go to the course? The package will help you get through the course. But you need to be trained and you need to have the right technological support—you could say that training probably comes first: you have something that gives you the access point.

Are universities going to have to change their behaviour and impose on their staff changes in behaviour? Access to lectures is one of the big points. I gave up on lectures, so I really cannot comment too far on that; there again, in history, if you read the right textbook or, better still, get somebody else to read it on to a tape recorder—he said, claiming his own experience—it is a better way forward. Access to lectures is seen as being a very important part of many university courses. How are we going to make sure that academics interact with technology in storing information? It is just another way in which these pulls and pushes take place.

I could go on for a considerable time about this, going into more and more detail, and I am aware, as I just said, that dyslexia is not the only show in town, although it is the biggest group. How are we going to make sure that the new scheme works for the individual student? How can we guarantee standards so that they can access and get through?

Let us take a quick glance sideways now. We have just done a great deal of work on the Children and Families Act, making sure that further education and education generally support you until the age of 25. We did not touch universities, and were told that we were not going to touch them, because we had the disabled students’ allowance. We also have Access to Work, which runs another series of standards where you take on things that make you work independently—an important part of this scheme. Is that tying in as well? Unless we bring all these things together, we will ultimately fail and let down these people and waste money. I suggest that that is something we do not want.

Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour 7:59 pm, 2nd November 2015

My Lords, debates in this House are always at their best when we hear the voices of experience, and we have just heard that from the noble Lord, Lord Addington.

I am going to make only one political point and it is this. Some of us are very concerned that this change was scheduled to happen last year—these things happened in sequence—but there was a big National Union of Students demonstration at a time when student-dominated seats were expected to be very important in the general election and the change was postponed to next year.

I hope that the fact that there is not an imminent general election now will not affect in any way the Government’s verdict on the consultation.

I do not think it can be denied that if the disabled students’ allowance goes, there will be a disincentive to universities and higher education institutions to take disabled students. I should declare an interest as chair of the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. We are particularly affected because, although about 11% of students at all HEIs have a reported disability, 21% of our students are affected by a disability and 16% claim DSA. Most of them suffer, like the noble Lord, Lord Addington, from dyslexia.

People might think, “Oh well, that’s all right. It’s only musicians. It’s only arty- farty types. It’s not going to affect the country if they can’t have an education, or the talent pool is limited”. At Trinity Laban, 99% of our graduates are in work or further education six months after graduating. That is in the top three in the country, ahead of Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics and all the Russell group of universities. These are people who make a huge contribution to our national wealth as well as our national culture.

Let me move from that general picture to the specific. I think of Lewis Raines, an outstanding young man who is president of the student union. He is the most capable member of my governing board. He contributes enormously. How he gets through all the papers for the board, I am not quite sure, but he does. He had an early diagnosis of a severe learning disability—namely, dyslexia. This is how he describes his experience:

“I was first granted DSA whilst studying a BA (Hons) in Musical theatre at the Blackpool and the Fylde college. I had previously whilst at Rossall school been given a reader and scribe for my exams and now with DSA support I was given the opportunity to pursue my goal of getting a degree and becoming an opera singer. The fantastic equipment I was given let me record my lectures, I could speak vocally into my computer to write my essays and was given additional one to one assistance with a tutor for two hours every week to work on my English language. I graduated with 2.1. This gave me first of all the confidence to believe I could study at a top conservatoire of music. When I came to London to study at Trinity Laban I still could not read music or for that matter read another language. However I was just so grateful for DSA, the work and support they gave me helped me get a 2.1 because I had additional hours of coaching. I can’t sight read music but I am so glad to have been able to have one to one coaching from my teachers Alison Wells and Helen Yorke funded by DSA.

Without the DSA I don’t think I would have a degree today and I don’t think I would have ever been here as the president of Trinity Laban. The work and support I was given I will forever be grateful for”.

I am sorry that Lewis cannot be here because, if noble Lords met him, they would realise what a loss it would have been if he had not had the education that has set him on course. He will be a huge contributor perhaps in music, perhaps more widely to our society. His is just one of many cases. One of our students has just won a major jazz award thanks to DSA. David Toole was a leading dancer at the Paralympics thanks to DSA. We have the Candoco Dance Company of disabled people, and they are able to work only thanks to DSA. I think I am seeing the personal benefits that these students derive from the current DSA system, and I am extremely concerned that we should be moving away from it.

Trinity Laban already spends £100,000 of our own money in helping disabled students, in line with our legal responsibilities. That is quite a large sum for an institution with a turnover of only £23 million. If the Government go through with some of the changes that are being canvassed, we reckon that that figure could roughly double—we would lose anything from £50,000 to £150,000. That would be extremely significant to a small arts institution such as ours. We do not have hidden pots. There is not a purse stuffed up the principal’s sleeve. We have a very limited income, and it would be extremely difficult to cope with a loss of DSA. The obvious way of coping would be to find ways of cutting down on our numbers of disabled students.

I am afraid that the Government have rather a habit of arguing like this: “We must cut the deficit. But we will be unpopular if we do the things that cut the deficit so someone else must cut the deficit”. We see this with local authorities every day of the week. The cuts in government spending are much less than the cuts the Government are forcing on local authorities, and I am nervous that this is another such case.

I am sure that the DSA scheme can be improved. I am not against reviewing it. I am worried by some of the wording used for that review. When I hear “rebalance”, I know precisely what the Government mean—less cost for the Government, more cost for institutions. I could go through their consultation paper finding case after case of that sort of language.

At the end of the day we are left with this dilemma—what are we to do? Do we help people like Lewis or balance our budget? It is not possible to find a magic wand that enables us to do both. I give credit to the Government; they backed off once. I hope that they will back off again. I am delighted that the consultation documents says in paragraph 11:

“If any changes result from this consultation”.

It does not say that changes “will” result from the consultation. I do not think that the Government would find it good business in any sense to mount an attack on disabled people, who do not come into any of the categories of people getting welfare benefits whom the Government do not so easily support. I hope that the essentials of the existing DSA system, tweaked and tuned as it might be, remain in place after this review and that people like Lewis will therefore go on being able to receive an education that equips them to contribute to our society.

Photo of Baroness Thomas of Winchester Baroness Thomas of Winchester Liberal Democrat 8:08 pm, 2nd November 2015

My Lords, I both congratulate and sympathise with my noble friend Lord Addington, who secured the debate at short notice. His experience in this field is invaluable. My starting point is the report that has just been published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission Is Britain Fairer?. Under “Education”, it says:

“Disabled people are less likely than non-disabled people to have a degree qualification (16.7% compared to 31.4%). This was also the case in 2008. However, compared to 2008, the percentage having a degree level qualification had increased more for the non-disabled group (+7.6%) compared to the disabled group (+4.9%). This has resulted in the gap between the two groups being larger in 2013 compared to 2008”.

Is this really the time for changes to the DSA which are likely to make that gap larger than ever? Disabled people and the country need many more disabled people to obtain degrees to enable them to get good and fulfilling jobs. If the Government’s stated aim is to halve the number of disabled people who are unemployed, are they really going about it in the right way?

One of the problems about preparing for this debate is knowing exactly what is going on with the DSA. The consultation closed on 4 September this year and

I would like a firm assurance from the Minister that this was a genuine and not empty exercise to close off the possibility of judicial review.

The Minister for Universities, Science and Cities, Mr Greg Clark MP, made an announcement on 12 September last year that the changes to the DSA would be delayed until 2016-17. He said that the Government were going to explore certain issues and work with institutions and stakeholders on other issues, but it would help everyone if we knew at what stage these negotiations were. Can the Minister say whether her department is in contact, for example, with the Equality and Human Rights Commission for guidance in this area, or with the Office for Disability Issues in the DWP, or with the Government Equalities Office?

It does not surprise me that the Government want universities not just to rely on the DSA to make certain non-medical reasonable adjustments for disabled students, such as the cost of a helper, that perhaps they should make themselves. In fact—here, I am afraid I shall divert slightly from the DSA—I have some sympathy with the Government over reasonable adjustments. These have been required since the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 and should be in place by now as a matter of course. All lecture halls, student unions, libraries, ICT suites and halls of residence surely should be accessible by now, with safe ramps, dropped kerbs, lifts, good lighting and clear signage being provided as a matter of course. However, we all know that this is far from the case. This is why the words “reasonable adjustments” are characterised as anticipatory. In other words, it should not be left to disabled students to request them; they should be provided in anticipation of their necessity for disabled students.

However, I acknowledge that the word “reasonable” is not always easy to interpret in all cases, particularly for those with hidden disabilities, and has to be considered in each case. Some want the word defined more clearly but others recognise that flexibility is more important. What is clear is that universities—or perhaps I should say HEIs—vary widely in the facilities they offer disabled students.

We are lucky to have an invaluable report compiled two years ago by the Trailblazers, a group of more than 600 young disabled campaigners from across the UK who report on all kinds of issues affecting their lives, from access to higher education to housing issues and leisure opportunities. Their report, University Challenge 2013, highlights existing problems that could be exacerbated by the proposed changes to the DSA, including the varying levels of support offered by different universities; the reliance on the allowance to enable a levelling effect of support for those living in poverty; and the disparity between undergraduate and postgraduate allowances. The Trailblazers are part of Muscular Dystrophy UK and make the point that neuromuscular conditions are progressive and that the support students need is likely to vary from year to year.

The situation is not all bad. The survey they carried out two years ago showed that 90% of university disability advisers were found to be helpful, and 90% said that universities made adjustment to improve access to lectures. However, three-quarters found that organising care from the local authority was not straightforward, and 30% felt limited in where they could study because of concerns about their care packages. Time precludes mention of more of their findings but I hope the Minister’s department has this report, which I am sure they would find useful.

One of the most important of the proposed changes concerns the provision of computers, as we have already heard. I gather that for this academic year the DSA can be used to help with the additional cost of a computer and assistive software if needed solely because of the student’s impairment, although the student will have to find the first £200. Printers and consumables—whatever they are—will not automatically be provided by the allowance. Those students without their own computers will be expected to use the computers provided by the universities, but only just over half the universities surveyed have full access to study rooms, including libraries and computer labs, thus putting disabled students at a clear disadvantage. It puts disabled students from poor backgrounds at a double disadvantage. It is also at odds with the Prime Minister’s goal for increasing not only students from BME backgrounds progressing to higher education by 20% by 2020, but also for doubling the proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education by the end of this Parliament. What about setting a goal for disabled student numbers to increase?

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees 8:16 pm, 2nd November 2015

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Addington for introducing this debate and giving us an opportunity to discuss the disabled students’ allowance. I feel sure that, given longer notice, many more of your Lordships would have been drawn into discussion of such an important issue.

My noble friend is a long-standing champion of disability rights. He has pursued measures that have improved the rights and opportunities of those who have to overcome disability before they can prove their talents and achieve their ambitions. His focus on dyslexia is ever more relevant; that unseen disability afflicts more people than was recognised in days gone by, and it is always heartening to hear of the achievements of people who have had to struggle from a young age to access learning, with barriers not faced by their non-dyslexic peers. My noble friend is a tenacious champion on their behalf.

My noble friend Lady Thomas also speaks compellingly on behalf of those with disabilities. As we know, the disabled students’ allowance is a non-means-tested, non-repayable grant, provided through Student Finance England to help eligible higher education students pay the extra costs incurred as a direct result of a disability, long-term health condition, mental health condition or specific learning difficulty, such as dyslexia or dyspraxia. It is a wide-ranging allowance, which is one of its great benefits, and it takes into account the very wide variety of disabilities that students may have. It has been invaluable in encouraging students to succeed, because those covered by it may be every bit as intelligent and ambitious as others, but may be able to achieve their potential only with the help of additional personal, technical or financial support. The DSA is the means to that end. My noble friend Lord Addington made a powerful case about the imperative for equipment to be of good quality.

For this debate, we have received many helpful and informative briefings from the Library and from many individuals and organisations who have direct experience with disabled students and who know the disruption that changes may bring. Widespread concerns have been expressed at the transfer of certain responsibilities to institutions. The National Union of Students—which the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has already referred to as a powerful lobbying group—has set out its essential criteria for support for disabled students, which should be,

“high quality, timely, individualised, consistent ... and with appropriate and speedy mechanisms for appeal and redress”.

Could the Minister say how the Government propose to monitor the support against these criteria, given the numbers of higher education institutions which each will be interpreting the needs of students in their own way? Some will face the challenges of having insufficient financial resources or expertise to deal with changes to the system.

There are further complications with collegiate universities, where we have seen individual cases in which problems have arisen. Individual colleges will be dealing with small numbers of applicants and there may be significant variations in funding depending on the relative wealth of the college. What advice and support will come from the Government to ensure fairness in any new provision?

We have raised before in your Lordships’ House our concerns over support for part-time higher education. This provision plays a key part in enabling people to access high-level skills and increase their personal fulfilment, as well as their contribution to the economy.

We hear from the Open University—which supports around 20,000 students with at least one disability—of its concern that reductions in funding for disabled students will have a considerable effect on the opportunities for part-time students. In addition, there is a deterrent factor if there is uncertainty about the support that might be available to them. The Open University has done a magnificent job over years in providing opportunities for all sorts of people who may have missed out the first time round or may have found more difficulty in accessing mainstream education in different ways.

The discussion of changes may already be acting as a deterrent to those who have enough challenges to overcome without also being unable to plan ahead for future studies. Disability Rights UK has already identified that more disabled people are questioning the wisdom of going to university.

As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, set out so clearly and movingly, many arts-based institutions have higher proportions of students eligible for DSA, whose disability in one way can result in increased talent in another, such as art or music. They could well be disproportionately affected. We also know that the creative industries are a source of immense pride to this country, as well as being of great benefit to our culture and to the economy. What reassurances can the Minister give to such institutions that they will not find difficulty in enabling their students to succeed?

We have evidence that it is in all our interests to enable disabled students to continue their studies and gain qualifications to equip them all the better for competitive life. It was striking to read the research carried out by the Equality Challenge Unit, which showed that the prospects for disabled graduates are significantly better than those for non-graduates. The figures for 2012 showed that 71% of disabled graduates gained employment, compared with only 42% of disabled non-graduates, and that is with all the benefits of skill-based qualifications and so on that might have been available to them. Surely it is in all our interests to ensure that provision is available for those with talent and commitment who need some specialist help to get them over the hurdles.

It was reassuring to hear that maximum grants for full-time, part-time and postgraduate students with disabilities will be maintained at 2015-16 levels into 2016-17, but students and institutions need to plan ahead, so reassurance for another year is only a temporary solution. Can the Minister reassure the House that no full-scale changes will be made until an impact assessment has been undertaken? As has already been indicated, it will be a false economy if reforms to these allowances turn out not to be the improvements the Government are hoping for, but result in an increase in disabled students unable to study or to work. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 8:24 pm, 2nd November 2015

I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for securing this debate, which gives us the chance to hear from the Government whether they really are committed not just to maintaining but to increasing the chances for disabled people to go to university, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas. It is perhaps more important for disabled people to go to university, as throughout life this will help their development and the contribution they can make to their own and others’ lives. Indeed, they seem to be better able to make the most of the opportunity, even though most of course get DSA at well below the maximum levels, the average being just over £2,000.

Disabled students who get DSA are more likely to graduate, and with a first or 2.1, than disabled students without the grant. Perhaps more surprising is that students with DSA are slightly more likely to graduate, and with a good degree, than non-disabled students, so it is a high return on a small investment. However, the proposed changes to DSA have worrying implications, partly because of the variation between institutions in attracting disabled students. While almost 7% of full-time undergraduates get DSA, this varies from 2% to 30% across different universities. In 60 universities, the percentage exceeds the average, with more than 10% of students being disabled in 24 of them. The higher numbers tend to be in modern universities with the best record of widening access.

As has been mentioned, part-time participation is particularly vital. Just last week, the Higher Education Policy Institute showed the role that part-time education plays in boosting productivity, contributing to economic growth and driving social mobility. As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, has said, it is the Open University which supports more disabled students than any other, showing the importance of its part-time and open access to this group of students. But these very numbers, and the OU’s dedication to widening access, mean that any reduction in DSA or indeed in student opportunity allocation which is based on it, will have drastic implications for disabled people seeking to improve their employability and life experience through study and qualification.

That brings us to the problem of moving responsibility for DSA from HEFCE to the individual university without transferring the funds. The only way forward will be for universities to have to rob Peter, in this case non-disabled fee-paying students, to pay Paul, disabled students. It also means, self-evidently, that those universities which have done the most to attract and cater for disabled students will be penalised the most, with significant burdens on those with the highest proportion of disabled students, often the smaller ones or conservatoires, as described so movingly by my noble friend Lord Lipsey. More than that, given that the separate institutional funding for disabled students through HEFCE’s student opportunity fund depends on the number of DSA claimants at the institution, a change in DSA numbers would affect that overall level of support or else its distribution. Could I therefore ask the Minister whether she expects funding through the student opportunity fund to a university to decrease should the number of DSA recipients decline? Furthermore, since BIS is an unprotected department with regard to government funding, how important does she consider this element of BIS expenditure to be?

The particular government approach, that of basing future payments on Equality Act definitions, is also problematic, with much turning on the definition of what “reasonable adjustments” for the individual are to be made, possibly leading to disputes between students and their colleges. There may be uncertainty at the point of applying or in the early days of study, and possibly the need for court definitions, and importantly, variation between institutions as some may be more generous in interpretation than others. Under the proposed new arrangements each individual student will have to negotiate the package of measures they get from their particular university. In contrast to what happens at present where there is a statutory framework there will be no overarching agreements, so where will the statutory rights be located and what rights will the individual student have?

There is a risk that the DSA changes could leave universities without sufficient investment to support disabled students throughout the whole of their course, particularly in exactly those places which have done most to open up opportunities for disabled people. There is a very real risk of uncertainty, particularly for those eligible to apply from January, by which time they really need to know exactly what help will be available to them for the next three years. Can the

Minister therefore tell the House whether the Government have assessed the cumulative impact of changes in funding to understand the effect on students and on each institution? What estimate have they made of the financial impact on institutions of passing some of the DSA responsibility to them? And, most importantly, what thought has been given to the potential consequences of moving from central to institutional funding for disabled students in creating what I called a perverse incentive and what my noble friend Lord Lipsey said was a disincentive on universities, possibly discouraging them from making a real effort to increase disabled people’s participation?

As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, not all dyslexics are the same. He is living proof of that. As a tribute to him and the work he has done I think the Government should not only take forward their support but also increase the ability of disabled students to play a full part in their own lives by getting to university.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 8:31 pm, 2nd November 2015

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for securing this debate and for his knowledgeable and passionate speech and I thank all noble Lords for their valuable contributions. I will attempt to answer the various questions raised. This debate has shown that across the House we all share a vision of a higher education sector which is truly inclusive and gives disabled students the opportunity to achieve their academic potential. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that we want to see the Lewises of the future continuing to get the support they need and continuing to be able to take advantage of what higher education has to offer. Disabled students’ allowances continue to play a key role in that but equally so do our higher education institutions and it is important that disabled students receive an appropriate level of support wherever and whatever they choose to study.

Students should arrive at university in the knowledge that as much as possible has been done to enable them to study effectively and that the institution they are attending has done all it reasonably can to ensure this. Of course, there will be occasions where an institution cannot do everything and DSAs will remain available to help students where this applies. In response to the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, about individuality, DSAs will continue to provide individual support to overcoming barriers that inclusive learning and reasonable adjustments, which I will come to in a minute, do not address. I remind noble Lords that the DSA system has always been designed to fund only the additional costs a student is obliged to incur in relation to their studies by virtue of their disability. There has always been an expectation, as the noble Baroness said, that universities should make reasonable adjustments so that a student will not have to seek support through the DSA system for support that is or should be being provided by the university.

A number of welcome changes have been made over the past few decades that have opened up higher education to disabled students and we have heard them mentioned today. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Equality Act 2010 introduced clear duties for institutions around reasonable adjustments, so higher education institutions have had such obligations for a considerable amount of time. Many institutions have responded positively to these duties; however, it is important that all are ambitious in striving for an inclusive learning environment and aspire to the very best practice to improve the services and support they provide to disabled students outside the DSA system. The Government currently spend over £145 million through DSAs to help individual students overcome barriers to their education. We believe that innovative approaches by institutions can reduce these barriers further over time.

Noble Lords will also be aware that disabled students’ allowances are administered in a way that has not fundamentally changed since the 1990s, yet, of course, there have been significant technological changes since then which have transformed opportunities for all students, including disabled students, enabling them to access information and technology in a way not previously envisaged. For instance, many items that were considered specialist support, such as laptops, are now mainstream items, with access readily available in universities. Expenditure on DSAs has increased year on year, with an increase of around 44% over three years to 2012-13. We therefore feel that reform is necessary to modernise the system and ensure value for taxpayers’ money in this new landscape.

As we have heard, we have recently consulted the sector on how to balance the responsibilities between DSAs and institutions, and how this can be achieved. However, I make very clear that the Government are not proposing to abolish DSAs. Rather, we have consulted institutions about how they might play a more active role in supporting their students. It is intended that DSAs will remain available to complement the support provided by institutions and that students will continue to receive the support they need.

Standards and guidance have been mentioned. We certainly propose to encourage sector organisations such as Universities UK and GuildHE to work with other sector stakeholders to identify, promote and disseminate best practice in inclusivity, so that we can ensure universities can learn from each other and that students do not suffer.

The Government propose that certain types of human support, for example note-takers and library assistants, become the responsibility of institutions. We believe that institutions can do a great deal more to make information and the learning environment more accessible to students and that it should no longer be necessary to provide individual one-to-one support in all cases. But where individual support is necessary, institutions should consider how best to meet that need and should explore innovative approaches to providing that support.

We also expect that institutions will no longer pass on the additional costs of specialist accommodation to their students in the expectation that DSAs will cover that cost. We are considering the continued need for DSA to fund individual items of equipment, for example printers, as we have heard, and have consulted on how other support might meet that need—for example, alternative format materials. While the provision of assistive technology was not subject to consultation, it was an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, so I will respond briefly to it. Officials already work closely with sector representatives through the Disabled Students Stakeholder Group IT subgroup to ensure that products available through DSAs are fit for purpose. We will continue to work with these and others as new options for procurement of assistive technology are explored. The Government welcome, and want to continue, working with both the assistive technology sector and mainstream technology manufacturers to ensure that the products they produce meet the needs of disabled students. I reassure noble Lords that we do not propose changes to more specialist forms of support—for example, the provision of British sign language interpreters.

The consultation has now closed. I again reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, that we are indeed taking it seriously. We have received just over 200 responses from a wide range of stakeholders, including students, members of the public, higher education institutions, disability charities and DSA assessors and providers. This wide range of responses has provided a great deal of information for consideration, which is currently being analysed by the department, as is the additional evidence received which will inform the ongoing equality analysis. I confirm that the department is indeed talking to the Office for Disability Issues. We are already in discussion about the consultation. I am certainly happy to commit that the other organisations the noble Baroness mentioned will obviously also be involved.

Officials are looking at introducing a benchmark for inclusivity and providing better information to students about their institution’s provision for disabled students. It would be wrong of me to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation, which has yet to be considered in full by Ministers. However, I can tell noble Lords that the Government expect to publish a response to the consultation before the end of the year, with the implementation of any changes taking place from 2016.

The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, asked a couple of questions. Again, I do not wish to prejudice the outcome of the consultation, but officials will be looking at how to evaluate and monitor how institutions are responding to the potential changes, and a full equality assessment will be undertaken before the changes are introduced.

As regards some of the more specific questions on funding referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, if it is all right with her I will write to her with a bit more detail. I am afraid that I do not have all the figures to hand, and rather than giving her a small answer I will attempt to give a fuller answer in a letter.

In conclusion, the Government remain committed to supporting disabled students to access higher education. Students are right to expect support from their higher education institution and DSAs have been available to complement that support for nearly 25 years. That is not changing. What is changing is the balance between the two sources of support. The changes that we are proposing reflect our desire to modernise DSAs, to ensure value for money and to reflect our expectation that institutions will fulfil their duties under the Equality Act. Our changes will see a DSA system that is sustainable, fit for purpose and targeted at those with the greatest need, and, most importantly, that ensures that disabled students can continue higher education at whatever institution they wish.

Sitting suspended.