Disabled Students Allowance — [Mr Jim Hood in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 2nd July 2014.

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Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East 2:30 pm, 2nd July 2014

Before I call Dr Julian Huppert, I inform hon. Members that I already have 12 speakers on my list, plus the two Front Benchers, and I will be calling the Front Benchers at 20 minutes to 4. After Dr Huppert has made his speech, I will then work out a time limit and advise hon. Members of it. I hope that interventions, if they are taken, will be brief, and I may have to remind Members of that if they try to make speeches in their interventions.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I will do my best to abbreviate my speech in deference to the large number of Members who have shown up. It is good to see everybody who has come here. We are united by a belief that everybody, regardless of who they are, should be able to aspire to go to university. Regardless of disability, whether it is physical or mental, visible or invisible, there should not be a barrier as a result of it. There have been improvements on widening participation. At the university of Cambridge, where I used to be and which I now have the pleasure to represent, in 2007, only 4% of students were disabled. That has gone up to 10% now, and it is a trend that we see across the country. Universities have worked very hard to try to get disabled applicants to apply, to support them and to get rid of barriers. As a former director of studies and supervisor, I have seen some of that work and engaged in some of it to try to support students.

We have to ensure that the progress continues, because there are challenges. In general, life costs more for people who are disabled, and the same applies to student life. The disabled students allowance is a lifeline for many students with disabilities. That is why I sought the debate and why I am pleased to have secured it, after having seen the Minister’s proposals and heard the concerns that many people have expressed to me.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he share my alarm that that National Union of Students has said that as many as 55% of students with disabilities have seriously considered giving up their courses, many of them precisely because of financial concerns?

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

I do indeed share that concern—I will now take that point out of my speech—and the key point is that that number is significantly higher than it is for non-disabled students. I have been working with the National Union of Students, Anglia Ruskin university students’ union and Cambridge university students’ union on that. I want to draw Members’ attention to early-day motion 48, which was tabled by Mr Blunkett. It is a pleasure to work with him on that—I am one of the co-sponsors—and we have now reached 99 signatures to that motion. I hope we can get over 100 today, because it shows that the issue matters to Members across parties.

In 2012-13, the payments helped 54,000 students up and down the country, doing so at a slightly lower cost than was necessary in 2011-12.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He talks about “the country”, but has he considered the implications of the policy for students studying in Wales and in Scotland, where there is great concern about the Government’s proposals? Although the review is England-only, it has dire implications for Wales and Scotland.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have mostly been focusing on the effects in England, and mostly on the effects in my constituency, but he is right that there are concerns about what might happen in Wales and Scotland. Of course, students study across the borders.

The support helps students with all sorts of equipment, such as computer software, but also with non-medical helpers, note-takers and all sorts of travel costs. It helps people to reach their potential, and it works. Figures from the Equality Challenge Unit report the year before last showed that disabled students who get the support are more likely to achieve a first or upper second-class degree than students who do not get that sort of help.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Chair, Transport Committee

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that although an equality analysis of the proposals has not yet been carried out, the Minister, in a letter I have just received, states that it is the detail of the implementation of the proposals that is yet to be decided?

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

The hon. Lady raises an absolutely reasonable concern, and I will, again, take that point out of my speech.

We should be able to help people, and there are so many advantages to university; as well as the human benefits, the economic benefits are clear. It boosts the national economy, and it boosts personal earnings by something in the order of £100,000 over a lifetime.

As the Minister said in a speech to the Higher Education Funding Council for England last year:

“Going to university increases the chances that you will vote and appears to make you more tolerant. It improves your life expectancy. You are less likely to be depressed, less likely to be obese and more likely to be healthy. These are benefits for individuals and for society.”

He went on to say that

“I said it would be a tragedy if anybody were put off from applying for university” because of costs. That is what this modernisation could do; it could act against those excellent words from the Minister.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

I will make some more progress.

Although the Minister will, I am sure, make it clear that the changes are not due to come in for another 18 months, and that current students will be protected for 2015-16, they are already having an effect. Paddy Turner, from the National Association of Disability Practitioners, said that his staff are already seeing prospective students who are rethinking 2015 entry applications because they are concerned about the changes. Open days are already under way. Many students are visiting universities to find out what will happen, and universities simply do not know what to say. The changes could mean that people are put off, or that they struggle when they get to university.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

I would like to make some more progress, if I may.

I have spoken to many people about the issue. I pay tribute to the three unions—from Cambridge university, the National Union of Students, and particularly the union from Anglia Ruskin—that organised a fantastic event with a large number of people who have been supported by DSA. They spoke very movingly about the experiences that they have had. I was intending to say a bit more about individual cases, but in the interests of time I will not. However, I was struck by how many of the cases involved mental health issues rather than just the physical health issues that people so often think about. There were people with dyslexia who had not had the support that they needed. It was only quite late on that they discovered the help that was available. They would never have been supported otherwise; they would have never have been able to do what they wanted to do.

At Anglia Ruskin university, 1,800 students are eligible for DSA, so there are 1,800 stories of people being helped. There are similar numbers at the university of Cambridge. It has made a huge difference, but that is at risk, because universities are being expected to provide the support themselves. Where will they get the extra money? There is to be no additional funding—indeed, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough has had that confirmed through a written question.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

How far does the hon. Gentleman think that the reasons for this decision go back to the Government’s mismanagement of the student loan book and student finance as a whole?

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

That is a somewhat broader question. There have been issues with the student loan book dating back some 15 years, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will know. Rather than arguing about that broader debate—he will know that I am staunchly against the fee system that his Government set up, which is being expanded—we should fix the problem in question. I am always happy to discuss those issues with him, as he well knows.

We have heard concerns from the National Autistic Society about what support will be available for people who are on the autistic spectrum. How will they be able to hold universities to account?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

I commend my hon. Friend for securing the debate. In the course of proceedings on the Children and Families Act 2014, there was much discussion about whether the duty in it should extend to higher education. We were assured that in light of the particular grants that are available, we need not worry. Does he agree that it may be necessary to reconsider extending the duty to higher education, to cover students between 19 and 25 years of age?

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

I agree completely. My hon. Friend makes an essential point. He is a dedicated campaigner on autism issues—and I will now remove page 12 of my speech.

What sort of support will there be? I have some sympathy for the Minister’s comments about the provision of basic computers. The world has changed since I was an undergraduate. Most people have a computer now, but a lot of the software that is needed simply will not run on a basic computer. What happens if people need software that is not compatible with the perfectly reasonable computer that they have? What about technical support—how would that work? What about support for scanners if optical character recognition is needed? What about training? There are many, many questions.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

I will take an intervention from Jack Dromey, then I will continue.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He is absolutely right about the importance of access for disabled people. Does he agree with the comments of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign that young women such as Keisha Walker in my constituency—she is from a modest background, and no one in her family had ever gone to university before—simply could not have gone to university, stayed at university and become a success, as she is determined to do, without the help of DSA?

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

I agree completely. The Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s trailblazers case studies have been incredibly powerful. I hope that the Minister has had a chance to look at them. I will not go through them in any detail, in the interests of time, but there are many of them.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

I will take these two interventions and then try to finish my speech. I will take the hon. Lady’s intervention first.

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Minister (Education)

The hon. Gentleman has been very generous with his time. I agree entirely with his point about computer facilities. I met my constituent Suzannah last week. She suffers from autism and described to me exactly what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but she also said that the desire for students to use banks of computers is not appropriate for those with autism and other problems, who find public areas too distracting and too difficult to work in.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We need to tailor the support to the individual. What is suitable for people on the autistic spectrum can vary substantially, which is why they need assessment and the help that is right for them. For some people, a bank of computers will be perfectly fine; for others, it will not be.

Photo of Duncan Hames Duncan Hames Liberal Democrat, Chippenham

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing this important debate. My constituent, a member of the British Assistive Technology Association, points out that whoever is providing the support, whether it is the Government or higher education institutions, it is vital that students have the support that they need to use the technology—hardware and software—as effectively as possible, to get the maximum benefit from it.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As it happens, my mother is registered blind and relies on assistive software. It takes a huge amount of support for her to be able to use it, and I often have to provide that support. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the point about the need for that.

I will make further progress, because I understand that many hon. Members want to speak. The NUS has highlighted a number of specific concerns about how the system will work, and I would be interested in the Minister’s specific response. There is a risk that the reforms could deter institutions from actively recruiting disabled students, because if the institutions are responsible for paying the extra costs, there will be an incentive not to take people who will be a bit more expensive. Although universities have a duty to provide reasonable adjustments for their students, there is no clear definition of what “reasonable adjustments” mean and no funding available to provide them.

The NUS makes another point, which is about the routes of redress for disabled students when there is a problem. There is only a finite amount of time available to fix that. Who would provide advocacy—would it be the disability support office? It could cause huge internal tensions if one part of the university is having to fight another.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Minister of State (Universities and Science)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is rattling through a lot of important points very quickly.

It is important to recognise that universities are of course under an equality duty. The House has voted under successive Governments to introduce that duty, and at no point has there been the suggestion that extra funding has to be given to a public or private body to enable it to discharge its equality duty. Fortunately, the resources available to universities for teaching are increasing from £7.9 billion at the beginning of this Parliament to £9.9 billion at the end of this Parliament. That is a result of the changes that the hon. Gentleman “steadfastly opposed”, to use his words. They are among the few major national institutions that are seeing increases in cash, and they have a clear equality duty. Along with the retention of DSA, does he not accept that we should expect them to discharge that duty?

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

The Minister makes a valid point about the total cash being spent on teaching. As he knows, my problem is with the method of payment rather than the existence of the extra money for teaching. We should be keeping DSA—he is right about that, and we will talk further—and universities should apply the equality duty, but there will still be pressures on them and there will still be changes. I look forward to his detailed answers to the concerns.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on the Minister’s point?

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

No. I would like to make more progress.

Universities themselves are not content with what the Minister has been saying. I spoke to the head of the disability resource centre at the university of Cambridge, John Harding, who highlighted the fact that the real concern for higher education institutions, including Cambridge and all the Russell Group institutions, is the significant lack of clarity in the announcement and the complete lack of prior consultation. The Minister would have been better able to make his case had there been formal consultation and discussions. How will “complex” be defined? What is “the most specialist support”? There are many concerns about how this will work for people.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

I will give way if there is time towards the end, but I know that many hon. Members want to speak.

Mental health problems are more common among students than the general population, and we must take action on that. Some 3,500 people applied for support last year citing mental health issues. It can help people to develop realistic study patterns and with organising their time and setting goals—things that are easy for some, but much harder for others. Students can require support from specialist autism mentors. It is unclear what band those would fall into and whether people would still be able to get support.

There are many concerns about how the new system will work. We know that people are likely to drop out if the cuts occur while they are at university. Randstad, an organisation that works with many institutions, surveyed students and found that more than one third would not have attended university without DSA and that about the same number would be more likely to drop out without it.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

I will try to finish.

We have many problems, and the Open university is concerned. It has about 20,000 disabled students. Where will it get the funding to support them? The university of Cambridge has short, intense terms, which changes the nature of the help that is needed. DSA is tailored at the moment. I am sure that some universities will provide good support, but I fear that others will not.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

I will always allow the Minister to intervene.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Minister of State (Universities and Science)

There is no picking or choosing. Universities have an equality duty. They have more funding for teaching, and they also have more funding in relation to access agreements—more than £700 million. Under the hon. Gentleman’s approach, that funding might not exist. Does he accept that, in my letter to the Office for Fair Access on how universities discharge their access obligations, I specifically identified disabled students as one group to whom they had to reach out in access agreements, for which extra funding is available?

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

I do not have the Minister’s letter to hand, but I do not doubt the facts of what he says. However, there is a concern among higher education institutions, among students and among Members of this House—about 100 of them—that the system will not work and will result in a less even playing field and less of the support that people need. I therefore urge the Minister to rethink it some parts of it.

I have asked many questions—I realise that I have rushed through a number of them—that the Minister will have heard before in letters from me and from other right hon. and hon. Members and seen in comments from the National Union of Students and all sorts of other organisations. I hope that he will consider them and rethink the cuts, the way they are being made and the pace of them. I hope that he will then return with alternative proposals that achieve what we surely all want to see, which is that support is available and we do not leave people out as we are trying to develop them through the university system.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

Order. As I said earlier, there are 12 hon. Members on the list of speakers, and I would like to get through everyone, so I will begin with a four-minute limit on speeches. I may have to cut that down if there are too many interventions.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Labour, Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough 2:46 pm, 2nd July 2014

I congratulate Dr Huppert on obtaining the debate and on rushing through his speech, which I will also have to do. The sadness about this move is that it is clearly driven by the desire of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to cut £117 million from its budget. That is a tragedy for those who will be affected and a failure of Ministers, who I like, to have fought the battle with the Treasury on this matter.

Let us be clear: the pre-consultation was non-existent. The review was not undertaken with or on behalf of those affected, those who support those affected or those who will have to pay out. It was not, in my view, honest, because the Government, during the passage of the Children and Families Act 2014, which has been referred to already, gave reassurances that there was no need to extend the Act’s requirements precisely because of DSA. Baroness Northover wrote to the Royal National Institute for Blind People and said that disabled students in the higher education sector are already successfully supported by institutions and directly by the Government through DSA. DSA is not means-tested, is awarded in addition to the standard package of support and does not have to be repaid. We should not seek to duplicate or replace the system. Either the Government meant it or they did not.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

My right hon. Friend will be interested to know that it is not only in the context of the Children and Families Act that the Government said one thing before and are saying another now. In relation to the independent living fund, Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions are citing DSA as an alternative source of support.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Labour, Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough

And if we want another contradiction in relation to Government policy, I have to say to the Minister, who has always been extremely helpful and respectful to me, that it is not acceptable to use the argument that the universities have a lot of money and therefore can afford to replace DSA under the Equality Act 2010. If that were the case, the Department for Work and Pensions—God forbid it should hear this and do it—would remove the access to work requirements, on the grounds that quite a lot of individuals who receive the support could go to a potential or actual employer and say, “You have a lot of money swilling about with your shareholders. Why don’t you use some of that to fulfil the equalities requirements on you?” That would include public services. Please, please do not get the idea that universities have got money so it can be diverted from somewhere else and benevolently given to support students who have a right not to some sort of benevolent charity, but to be supported properly.

Photo of Stephen Lloyd Stephen Lloyd Liberal Democrat, Eastbourne

For profoundly deaf students, DSA pays for note-takers. Without a note-taker, how on earth would a profoundly deaf student be able to take notes during their lectures when they are at university?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Labour, Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough

Absolutely, and that would entail employing someone, not simply diverting a bit of resource. My support systems, back in ’69 to ’72, were funded by the local authority; at the time, the local authority had a duty to support students under the grant system. Even though the local authority was helpful, however, I had to organise reading circles of volunteer students to assist me. That was a mutual arrangement and it was obviously socially responsible, but it should not have been necessary. Under the proposals, we will find ourselves going back to a bygone era where people have to plead for help rather than receiving it directly.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Labour, Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough

I just want to make this point, because I think others want to speak. I emphasise what the hon. Member for Cambridge has already said. When it comes to taking a student in, the access provisions of universities and other higher education intuitions will always contain a subliminal question: can this student manage? That question was asked of me all those years ago. If the answer is, “Yes, if I have the support systems necessary: the equipment, the extra readers and other provision that other people will not need”; if the university thinks, “Is it worth it?”; and if the department thinks, “What imposition will this cause? Will resources be diverted from somewhere else? Will this responsibility be devolved to this department?”, there is a chance that that student will not be offered a place. If that were to be the case, I say to the Minister: be it on your conscience. Go back to the Treasury and say that the money in its existing budget should be retained. The rights and opportunities of individual students should be retained, and the Government should be ashamed of themselves if that does not happen.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard Conservative, Blackpool North and Cleveleys 2:52 pm, 2nd July 2014

For the avoidance of any doubt, I will not take any interventions to ensure that as many people speak as possible. I am pleased to speak in the debate, because I am one of the few MPs who benefited from DSA, as a student in 1994. I had some problems and I had to use a computer for part of my course. I thought I would get a laptop, but when I went to my assessment, I was given a half-screen word processor. I say that not to underpin the point that we do not need laptops any more, but to agree with the Minister that we should not gold-plate the provision. The fund is limited, and we cannot write a blank cheque for it.

I accept that, after 25 years, we have to look again at disability living allowance in particular, and I accept that public bodies have to adhere to their duties under the Equality Act 2010. However, I have concerns about the detail of the proposals. The Minister is thoughtful, good and decent, and I urge him to listen carefully to what we have to say before he places his regulations before the House.

I will try not to repeat myself too much. The report from the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s trailblazers team, a key member of my all-party group on young disabled people, has been mentioned. That report stresses that DSA was the area of the university experience that worked best. What concerns me most is the language of written communications from the Minister. It may seem obvious, for example, to translate the language of disability from the 2010 Act into DSA, but there are real concerns that that leaves, for example, dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia outside the remit of DSA. Will the Minister guarantee that no disability that was previously covered by DSA will be left out under the new regime?

I am also worried about the laxity of some of the language, which has caused real concern among those with the most complex disabilities. If, for example, someone requires a non-medical helper to stay with them overnight, the language is not clear enough to give that person confidence that they will be covered under DSA. That is causing a lot of anxiety.

More widely—Stephen Lloyd has mentioned note-takers—I am greatly worried by the idea that a course can be delivered in such a way as to allow the student to benefit from it without having to participate in the same way as the other students. I want students to be able to attend lectures, participate fully and enjoy full integration in student life. If one goal of DSA is to enable them to complete the course at the lowest possible cost, it will reduce the university experience almost to the level of a correspondence course. I am sure that that is not the Minister’s intention whatever, but that is where the language appears to be leading us.

I also stress my concerns about augmentative and assistive communications software. I urge the Minister to consult with the Communication Matters forum, which is the specialist in that regard. It is a fallacy to think that much of that technology can be used even on the most complex laptops, let alone on iPads. As technology, particularly AAC technology, advances ever faster, the computing technology required advances equally.

Finally, in the 30 seconds that remain, I draw the Minister’s attention to the document “Fulfilling Potential: making it happen”, published by the Department for Work and Pensions. Great strides have been made in increasing disabled students’ participation in higher education, but one key indicator measured in “Fulfilling Potential” is the number of students who abandon their course after one year. If that number goes up as a result of the changes, that will be a serious concern and we will need to look again at what we are doing. I urge the Minister to have regard to “Fulfilling Potential”. I will write to him with everything else that I wanted to say.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East 2:56 pm, 2nd July 2014

It is a pleasure to follow Paul Maynard. His powerful arguments and testimony, like those of my right hon. Friend Mr Blunkett, underline the argument made by the hon. Gentleman who represents the other place, Dr Huppert. I agreed with everything he said in his opening speech.

I was particularly keen to take part in the debate because in our area we are lucky to have not only two great universities but ACE centre south—ACE stands for aids to communication and education—which has achieved great things working with students with severe communication disabilities and giving them a voice. Twenty years ago, many of them would have been locked in a world without communication and unable to go to school, let alone university. Now, however, some of the young people whom the centre has helped have got PhDs. Quite rightly, there was cross-party support to save the ACE centre when it had financial difficulties in 2012. We need a big cross-party effort to stave off the cuts to DSA. It is heartening to see so many Members present and to hear the arguments from both sides of the Chamber.

The cuts risk rolling back what has been achieved and blocking access to education for many disabled students from poorer backgrounds, in particular, including those who have dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Labour, Bolton South East

Bolton university in my constituency is not rich and has 900 students who receive DSA. Imagine the impact of the proposals on those students and the university, which has not got the resources to look after them if they do not have enough money.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As has been said, there is a real danger that the proposals will provide universities and other institutions with a perverse disincentive, with the best will in the world, to accommodate all the students that they would like, especially those who have the most severe disabilities. Like other hon. Members, I have been contacted by many students, academic support staff and lecturers who are appalled, as I am, by the proposed cuts. I recently had the pleasure of speaking to the disability officers of the two university student unions in my constituency. They brought powerful testimony of how students at both Oxford’s universities have benefited from DSA and are well on their way to building fulfilling careers. Their determination to help ensure that young people with disabilities have the same opportunities in future is inspiring. One of them told me:

“I pretty much failed the first year of my law degree due to my disability and not being fit to study. I couldn’t afford to buy any of the accessibility items I needed. DSA gave me a lifeline. With the specialist equipment including a specialist mouse bar, laptop, dictaphone, extra-large screen, specialist software, printing and book allowance and various other provisions, I was able to retake everything the following year and actually cope with the work load. Without DSA I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

Even under the current system, it is not easy to get support. One student in my constituency is having to get an unnecessary diagnosis of dyslexia because his diagnosis undertaken the previous year in the sixth form was not accepted by the DSA authorities. Since there is no clinical need for a new diagnosis, he is having to apply to the university hardship fund to pay for it privately.

For all its difficulties, DSA provides an essential lifeline for people with disabilities who without it would have to give up on their education and ambitions, or would not have been able to apply in the first place. Cutting it will make many disabled students’ lives much more difficult, but, worst of all, it will result in a country where people with disabilities begin to think that they cannot even aspire to higher education and must limit their ambitions. It will do incalculable damage to equality. I urge that the proposed cuts be abandoned.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 3:00 pm, 2nd July 2014

I congratulate Dr Huppert on securing such an important debate. Since so many others wish to speak, I shall make only four points. I endorse the comments made by colleagues from all parties.

First, I want to repeat the point about how vague the specifications are for access to support. That is true for computers but also for accommodation. Will the Minister comment on the guidance in the Student Loans Company handbook in relation to the non-medical help manual? Are there any plans to revise the guidance on what makes someone eligible for the help outlined in bands 3 and 4?

Secondly, students need access to good quality advice, and not just in relation to the disabled students allowance. When this debate was announced and I posted on Twitter to say that it would be taking place, I was contacted by someone who told me that they had been told that they could not access DSA unless they were on employment and support allowance or in receipt of personal independence payments. That is clearly incorrect, but it suggests that someone in the university advice service is misinformed about eligibility and the welfare benefits system. What support is going to be given to university advice and welfare services to ensure that they are properly equipped to support students who might have an entitlement?

Thirdly, what will happen to students who begin a course in 2014 when the new provisions come into effect in 2015-16? Will they be able to maintain any support that they have been receiving ahead of the changes right through to the completion of their studies after 2015-16?

Finally, what assessment has the Minister made of the effect that the changes may have not only on disabled students’ access to university but on their choice of university? We already know that access is a key criterion for disabled students when they select a university, and these changes could further constrain choice by further restricting the courses that disabled students can consider if universities that offer their desired courses are not supportive with access and in facilitating their studies. Has the Minister paid any attention to the question of choice and the need to maximise access to not just any university but the university and course that would be right for the student? That should be disabled students’ driving criterion, not whether or not they get disabled student support.

J

The consitituent who was apparently told that DSA was linked to Empoyment Support Allowance was probably referencing DLA not DSA - people do sometimes confuse these two allowances.

Submitted by Jo Fullerton Read 1 more annotation

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Labour, Rotherham 3:03 pm, 2nd July 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I thank Dr Huppert for securing such an important and timely debate.

I begin by addressing the reality of what it means to be a disabled student. Despite living in what we assume is an open and inclusive society, disabled young people often face problems that do not make the headlines, and they start from a young age. We already know, for instance, that 27% of young disabled people aged 16 to 19 are not in any form of education, employment or training. By contrast, the same is true of only 9% of their non-disabled peers.

A Disability Rights Commission study found that 45% of disabled people said they had experienced problems at school as a consequence of their impairment. Further to that, 26% of disabled people have reported negative experiences in mainstream education, in part because of poor facilities and the negative attitudes of other people. In turn, it is hardly surprising that disabled adults are only half as likely to have formal qualifications as their non-disabled counterparts. All these issues arise prior to university. To redress these compound barriers, it becomes even more important that we make it as easy as possible for disabled students to make the transition to higher education.

Last year, the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign found that 40% of university inter-campus transport was inaccessible to disabled students. In addition, 30% of university social and leisure facilities were not accessible to disabled students. I find it surprising and saddening to hear that the Government plan to introduce changes to funding for disabled students that cut out all but the most severely disabled people. It strikes me as unfair for a number of reasons. There cannot be a sliding scale of equality: you are either equal, or you are not. Everyone should be treated equally and allowed access to the support and modifications that will enable them to flourish.

Cutting funding to disabled students with what the Government deem to be lesser support needs will mean that although some students are given support to access university on a level playing field, others will be denied access to equality of education.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Chair, Transport Committee

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Government have stated that they want to replace existing Government support to disabled students with support from local authorities? This is at a time when local authorities are under the hammer, particularly those in poorer areas such as Liverpool.

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Labour, Rotherham

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It seems that local authorities and the voluntary and charitable sector are meant to fill all the gaps created by this Government.

It is unfair and unreasonable to think that any person should be barred from furthering their education because of a disability. The Rotherham Disability Network has told me the same thing. Its chair said that the major impact of the funding cuts on disabled students in Rotherham is that the potential hardship caused by paying for modifications will mean that many families will have to decide whether they can afford to send their son or daughter to university at all. Many such students are from disadvantaged backgrounds, with the odds stacked against them in economic and disability terms. Unfortunately, the funding cuts will be make or break when it comes to deciding whether to go to university. Surely that is not fair.

Around 40,000 disabled people graduate each year, but levels of disabled students dropping out of university are high. I worry that that figure will become higher under these changes, resulting in a drop in the number of disabled graduates. Disabled students have enough barriers to face in getting to university in the first place; we should not be cutting the vital support they need to access university learning and services while they are there. That exemplifies why the amount of money given to students should be needs-based, rather than based on arbitrary caps associated with the Government.

Ultimately, there must be genuine equality between disabled and non-disabled students, and if funding to disabled students creates a high bill, it is a price we must pay for equality. More than that, it is a price we must pay for the economic viability of the country. I would much prefer a short-term financial intervention to enable disabled students to fulfil their potential and get a good job to their being stuck in a world of part-time, low-pay work for the rest of their life.

The Government must find some other way to fund this critical support. They certainly should not be penalising disabled students, so I urge them to reverse their decision.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Labour, Middlesbrough 3:07 pm, 2nd July 2014

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood, and I thank Dr Huppert for securing the debate.

I start by saying to the Minister that it is reprehensible that we are here talking about a backwards step for disabled people’s access to education. I thought we were supposed to be in the business of making life better for people, not worse. It simply cannot be right for the Minister to abdicate his responsibility to universities and say, “You get on with it. It is your duty to provide access to education and observe the principles of the Equality Act.” Surely to goodness that responsibility rests with Government as well.

The National Union of Students has reported that 59% of disabled respondents to their “Pound in Your Pocket” survey are worried about not having enough money to meet the basic living expenses of university, while 55% are considering leaving their course. Putting another barrier in their way is certainly not going to help. Such financial challenges only add to the multitude of barriers already faced by disabled students. They are more likely to drop out than their non-disabled counterparts and less likely to be able to access postgraduate degrees. Disabled students also face reduced choice when deciding which university to attend. Many students take the opportunity to travel away from home, but for disabled students that might not be an option. Students with special care needs may require support from parents or assistants, and their choices are dictated by accessibility.

Receiving the disabled students allowance massively improves disabled students’ experience and success while in higher education. Research has shown that students receiving DSA are more likely to achieve the very highest degree classifications than those who do not. The decision to remove DSA funding for standard specification computers, software and associated instruments compromises disabled students’ ability to get ahead and make the very best of their time in university.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

Does my hon. Friend agree that the fundamental difference between us and the Minister is that he does not understand that the direct payment was the emancipation of disabled people, allowing them to see going to university as a right?

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Labour, Middlesbrough

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. That principle has been enshrined, and we should treasure it.

It is not good enough to suggest that everyone owns a laptop or that computers are now ubiquitous among students. They are not cheap, and it simply cannot be assumed that everyone from an area like mine has one. For those from a well-heeled background, where these things are easily provided, that is fair enough, but it is not the case for families from other backgrounds.

The changes to DSA also fail to recognise the needs of the up to 98% of disabled students who require specific software to help them with their studies. The Government have suggested that cheaper tablet and notebook devices might be suitable for disabled students, but such machines are simply not equipped with the power or memory to support specialised software alongside standard office and internet programs, as Paul Maynard so eloquently explained.

My second major concern is about moving responsibility for providing non-medical support from the Government to individual institutions. The reforms assume that disability is evenly distributed, but that is not the case. There are smaller institutions where disabled students make up a higher percentage of the total number. How will those institutions cope with the changes? Some higher education institutions might be deterred from actively recruiting disabled students, simply because of the cost if they attend. Indeed, Teesside university in my constituency has warned that it might cost up to half a million pounds to replace any funding elements that are withdrawn.

Universities currently have a duty to provide reasonable adjustments for their students, but they are largely undefined and open to interpretation. I am greatly concerned that if institutions are unable adequately to provide for disabled students, there will be limited means to raise the issue. Confusion and uncertainty will undoubtedly affect the level of applications from disabled people and the subsequent willingness of disabled people to seek the support they need to progress and attain qualifications.

Many disabled students in Middlesbrough would suffer as a result of the changes, and I recently met the NUS welfare officer at Teesside, who provided some key examples. A student in computing and digital forensics suffering from—I hope I pronounce this correctly—visual stress/Irlen syndrome required ClaroRead software and modified glasses to enable her to read without undue hindrance, but she would not have been able to purchase those essential tools without DSA. We can all cite many such examples, and they will be repeated all over the country, but I will bring my comments to a close. These individuals are not seeking to cheat the system or to get something for nothing; they simply want their right to succeed in education. The punitive changes to DSA will undoubtedly limit the ability of disabled students to fulfil their ambitions and their potential. It is simply incomprehensible that legislators in a wealthy, modern country are looking to withdraw support from those who require it simply to get an education.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:12 pm, 2nd July 2014

I congratulate Dr Huppert on securing this important debate, and it is good to see it so well supported. When the Universities Minister announced the Government’s proposed changes to DSA on 7 April, they came as a real shock to universities and students alike, and gave rise to a great many questions.

All of us here know the difference DSA can make to disabled students and to their ability to benefit from the opportunities offered by higher education. In that regard, a couple of students in my constituency have written to me. One says that they have just completed their BA in sociology, for which they have been awarded a first-class degree, and that they are going on to do a master’s degree next year. They add that

“quite honestly I could not have achieved this without support from disabled students allowance.”

Having a hearing and visual impairment, they feel that there are real challenges in studying for a degree and that DSA has been absolutely essential. In this student’s case, DSA provided funding for note-taking support in lectures; library browsing support; reader support, whereby a support worker could read aloud sections of written text; practical support with finding buildings on campus; assistance with paying for books, paper and printer ink; and assistive technology, including a laptop, a printer and magnification capacity. It is clear that all those things are necessary for someone to achieve such great results.

I had a further letter from a mathematics undergraduate at the university of Nottingham. They say they received a DSA-funded mentor, who not only helped them to undertake their work, but supported them with social situations—obviously, part of university is the opportunity to operate in a new environment. They say:

“Without my mentor my experience at university would have been very different and I fear I would have been overwhelmed with academic issues.”

They say they would not have had the opportunity to experience university in the same way as a non-disabled student might.

The Equality Challenge Unit showed us that disabled students who receive DSA do better than those who do not, and we should look at extending it, rather than reducing it. When the Minister made his statement to the House, he talked about modernising the system, the equality impact assessment and limiting the public funding available and making sure it was targeted at those most in need. That raises a number of questions, which he really must answer. How is the review being carried out and who will be properly consulted? When will the equality impact assessment be published and to what extent will its conclusions require changes to his proposals?

There is real concern about the funding for disabled student support and about potentially targeting it on those in most need. What happens to those who have minor or moderate needs, but for whom DSA is nevertheless important? As one of my hon. Friends said, there is also the impact on institutions, especially smaller ones and those with a disproportionate number of disabled students.

I am particularly concerned to raise one other issue. The university of Nottingham has told me that Student Finance England has jumped the gun, is assuming that DSA will be cut and has started implementing reforms—before we have even had a proper debate in the House. Will the Minister confirm that any changes will be properly consulted on and debated before they are implemented? Will he ensure that Student Finance England is made aware of the fact that its actions are unacceptable and have caused unnecessary panic and distress, as the university of Nottingham told me?

DSA is vital, and any revisions must be undertaken only with care and after proper consideration and debate. The Minister must listen and respond.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:16 pm, 2nd July 2014

I congratulate Dr Huppert on securing the debate. It is clear from the comments made how strong feeling is on the issue—not only in the House, but outside.

I would like to quote my constituent, June Jacobs, who recently wrote to me:

“The allowance made a big difference to me and it saddens me to think that the next generation of students would not have access to funds that could make the difference between succeeding in their studies or not.”

With the word “succeeding”, she puts her finger on the issue before us. Succeeding is about aspiration and about enrolling on the course of our choice, remaining on it and achieving—it is about all that, and DSA has a track record of helping people to succeed.

From my experience as a principal of a sixth-form college, I know that the message DSA gave young people was about building aspiration and belief. It allowed them to believe in themselves and to believe that they would go forward. It also showed leadership by the Government on this crucial issue. That leadership helps to break down barriers and create access. As a result, DSA was, and is, transformative in people’s lives.

By going down the proposed route extremely hastily, the Government risk giving the wrong message. Indeed, as my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood said, that message is already out there and causing damage, which will create more damage tomorrow. The proposals will constrain people’s aspirations and choices, which is really negative.

The Minister is a good Minister, and I hope he is listening, reflecting on the debate and trying to find ways, as my right hon. Friend Mr Blunkett said, to take the battle back to the Treasury. We will be with him in that battle, because he needs to win it. As things are, the pain will far outweigh the gain, and that, in political terms, is the test.

We risk making a very bad decision very hastily. This process is happening too quickly for us to have proper consultation and to involve all those who need to be involved if we are to get this right and ensure that, if we go down a different route, the implementation of any proposals will protect the future.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central 3:19 am, 2nd July 2014

I join the congratulations to Dr Huppert on initiating the debate, which is important to me. I am delighted to represent more students than any other Member of the House—36,000 of them. Both Sheffield’s universities are in my constituency and I have met students from both to talk about their concerns, and mine, about the DSA proposals.

In a letter to Members of 3 June, to brief us in anticipation of the NUS lobby on the Friday of that week, the Minister described the changes as “measures to modernise” DSA. I would have thought better of him than that, because it is the sort of Orwellian doublespeak that makes people cynical about politics. This is not about modernisation, as he knows. It is about balancing the Department’s books on the back of disabled students, just as the Treasury sought to do with other vulnerable groups, with the attack on the student opportunity allocation earlier this year. He fought his corner then, and I hope he will do so in the present case.

In the letter, the Minister identified what he described as unsustainable growth in spending on DSA, with an increase over this Parliament of £37 million. That is a tiny proportion of his budget and just 6% of the £620 million growth in grants and loans to students in private colleges, partly as policy design and partly as a failure by his Department to maintain adequate controls over that budget line. The wrong people are paying for the consequences of those mistakes. The priorities are wrong, and those with disabilities are being punished for the black hole in the Minister’s budget.

Disabled students’ No. 1 priority in choosing a university is the access and support that they will have; that is more important to them than the choice of courses. They are more likely to drop out than non-disabled students. We can all throw statistics around, but I want to share a story about a university of Sheffield student union officer, Kat Chapman. She is dyslexic and recently finished her degree, with a high 2:1. She is delighted to be embarking on a master’s degree at Cambridge. She is the model for the sort of person we want to progress in universities: a woman and a scientist. She clearly said to me that her delight at going to Cambridge

“is overshadowed by the fear of not receiving the same help that I have done through my undergraduate degree.”

The Minister has said that universities should meet the cost of supporting students such as Kat, but will making disabled students more expensive for universities improve access to higher education? Of course not. Universities will fulfil their equality obligations, which the Minister talked about earlier, but that will happen at a cost if there is no funding. The universities that are the most inclusive will face the greatest costs.

The Minister said in a communication of 25 June that

“it is not the case that students with ‘mild’ dyslexia”— such as Kat—

“will no longer receive DSA funding.”

An assessment of Kat’s needs would determine who pays. I ask him for clarity: which needs will the Government help to meet, and which will it be left to universities to meet? Will he think again about this foolish short-term policy and take the case to the Treasury?

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields 3:23 pm, 2nd July 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I thank Dr Huppert for obtaining the debate.

Many people already know that I have mild dyslexia and dyspraxia. I know that without the support that came from my university I would never have qualified as a social worker, and that is why the proposals concern me. From 2016, a person in my position may be denied the opportunities that allowed me to succeed academically.

According to the Minister, the Government propose to ensure that the limited public funding available for DSA is targeted in the best way, to achieve value for money, while ensuring that those who are most in need get the help they require. However, I am not convinced and the Government have not provided enough evidence to show that support for those with moderate needs will be maintained. There is still a threat that they will be locked out of higher education. That is a further blow to disabled students who are already suffering as a result of the Government’s trebling of tuition fees. A report by the National Union of Students found that 55% of disabled students have considered leaving their courses, compared with 35% of non-disabled students. I cannot imagine how the changes will encourage students to remain on their courses, or future students to enter higher education.

Universities have a duty not to discriminate against students with disabilities under the Equality Act 2010, passed by the previous Labour Government. It is of course right to expect higher education institutions to carry out those duties as my university did. However, the Government have been unable to explain how institutions are supposed to meet the duty under the reformed scheme. Their share of responsibility will greatly increase, but we do not know where they will find the resources to carry out that responsibility. We do not even know the effect that the proposals will have on the total DSA spend. It is worrying that the Government have rushed ahead without either conducting a full analysis of the impact or holding a public consultation, to ask institutions whether they will be able to cope with plugging the gaps left by DSA.

Even more worryingly, by giving institutions more responsibility for delivering specialist support, the Government will create a situation in which the most inclusive universities will be hit hardest. That could, as the National Association of Disability Practitioners pointed out, have perverse consequences: those universities might not be able to afford to be so inclusive, or they might be forced to make cuts in other areas.

Disabled people already face disadvantages in higher education. They are less likely to enrol and to study full time, and more likely to drop out before finishing their course. If that is the situation now, we can expect it to get worse once the Government’s DSA cuts take effect. Disabled people thinking about entering higher education today will have no idea what support to expect, or what the effect on their finances will be.

I feel lucky to have been supported with my dyslexia and dyspraxia. My condition is relatively mild, but the help that I received made a difference and helped to get me where I am today. I am concerned that people with mild conditions will be written off under the Government’s proposals and will never get the opportunities that I have been lucky enough to have.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights) 3:26 pm, 2nd July 2014

I congratulate Dr Huppert on obtaining the debate.

I want first to say clearly that I am concerned about the cuts and the dramatic effect that they will have on the people who need the DSA the most. Nic Dakin talked about belief, hope, opportunity and ambition, and all those things will be hurt by the slashing of the grants.

Early-day motion 48 notes the NUS research finding that

“55 per cent of disabled students have already seriously considered leaving their course compared to 35 per cent of non-disabled respondents”,

with 54 per cent citing financial difficulties. Clearly, there is an issue. The reason I, a Northern Ireland Member, am speaking in the debate, is that the change will affect students from Northern Ireland who go across to universities on the mainland. Mr Williams talked about Wales and Scotland, and there will be an effect for people from Northern Ireland as well. The change will affect us all.

I know from some of my constituents that the DSA helps with buying special equipment required for studying, non-medical helpers such as note-takers or readers, extra travel costs that disabled students may have and others costs for things such as tapes and Braille paper. Non-medical help such as that provided by note-takers is critical to disabled students. Some require their help throughout the semester; others need their assistance whenever they must go into hospital, which for some is a fact of life. Surely, the House recognises the importance of such helpers, particularly those who help when a student is in hospital.

I am sure that hon. Members have already looked through the background notes for the debate, which clearly explain who needs help: they include people with autism, people with sight or hearing issues and people with learning difficulties, of whom there are almost 22,000, as well as about 3,400 people with mental health issues, nearly 3,600 people with multiple disabilities and 540 people with wheelchair mobility. Clearly, complex health and physical needs must be addressed. People’s concern about the proposal is therefore understandable.

According to the Equality Challenge Unit, 71% of disabled graduates gained employment in 2012, compared with 42% of disabled non-graduates. Already a high number of disabled students consider leaving university because of high costs, and surely the figures are testament to the importance of providing disabled students with DSA, which enables them to pursue some of the ambition that we in this Chamber want to encourage.

If the change to DSA is pursued, there will be direct implications for people whom I and other hon. Members represent. We have heard about the cutting of DSA for dyslexic students, and the Minister has referred to those with complex needs or exceptional circumstances receiving DSA. I should like to know, for the life of me, exactly what that means, because I do not see that coming down to the people whose grants will be taken away from them.

The one issue that has perhaps not been hinted at is the bill for DSA. In 2011-12, the bill was £124 million for 53,000 undergraduates. The latest figures from the Student Loans Company, however, show that spending on DSA had reduced by almost £5 million in 2012-13, despite the number of claimants rising by almost 2,000. More seems to be being delivered with less money, so will the Minister say how his figures work out, given the reduction of almost £5 million and the almost 2,000 extra students? Why are we considering further cuts given some of the cuts that are happening already? In 2013, of the whole United Kingdom, Northern Ireland was hit hardest by the benefit cuts, with £750 million taken out of the economy. The case for the DSA proposal is not proven and is not acceptable. I strongly object to what is taking place.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield 3:30 pm, 2nd July 2014

Mr Hood, it is very kind of you to call me to speak briefly, even though I failed to tell you that I wanted to speak. I am conscious of that.

As the MP for Huddersfield, I represent Huddersfield university, which was the university of the year this year. The university has an amazing student body—including Coco Toma, the communications officer, and others—that constantly talks to me about how the proposals will affect disabled students. The empowerment and emancipation of students provided by this direct gift from the Government is wonderful. People know about DSA; they anticipate it; and it changes lives. I have talked to disabled students who say that, if they had the new system that the Minister will introduce, they would not have thought about going to university.

I know that the Minister will be embarrassed, but he and I get on very well. I think that he will change his mind. If he does not, this will be a big political issue at the general election. I hope that an incoming Labour Government will make it clear that we will change the proposal, because it is wrong.

I have great respect for Dr Huppert, but disabled students are particularly double-whammied because the tremendous increase in student debt hits them more than anyone else. Disabled students have not forgotten the pledge or that the Liberal Democrats led us up the garden path. We all thought that they would never be in a coalition.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

No. The hon. Gentleman did not give way to me, so I will not give way to him. The fact of the matter is that some people in Cambridge tell me that, whatever he does, they will not forget the pledge. He might work hard for the disabled students allowance, but they will not forget the breaking of that pledge.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

No, I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman will get his come-uppance at the next election, and so will any Government who introduce this dreadful scheme.

Photo of Jason McCartney Jason McCartney Conservative, Colne Valley 3:33 pm, 2nd July 2014

Thank you for squeezing me in, Mr Hood. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and it is a pleasure to follow my near neighbour, Mr Sheerman. Like him, I have engaged closely with the students union of my local university, the award-winning Huddersfield university. I thank Josh, the president of the Huddersfield students union, and Daniel, the democracy and campaigns officer, for coming down to brief me. I voted against the rise in tuition fees in December 2010 because I was concerned that students from low-income backgrounds would be put off applying to university. I did not go to university.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

Like my hon. Friend, I voted against the rise in tuition fees. I am the first Member of Parliament for Cambridge to vote against a fee rise. When there was a Labour MP, she voted for a fee rise having promised to oppose it.

Photo of Jason McCartney Jason McCartney Conservative, Colne Valley

That is worth putting on the record.

I am concerned about the proposed changes—they are just proposed at this stage—because Josh and Daniel explained to me the implications, the worries about the cost of modifying laptops, and the importance of scribes and note takers. They talked about their first hand experience of students they study with who have dyspraxia and dyslexia. That is why I am here representing them today. They have questions about the complexity of different learning difficulties and how they would be categorised. There is also the cost of modifications to accommodation. Huddersfield university is investing hundreds of thousands of pounds in new accommodation, and there would be concerns about that, too. They told me that more than 700 students at Huddersfield university currently receive DSA, so it is close to people’s hearts in my part of the world.

I look forward to hearing from the Front Benchers, particularly the Minister, whether we will look again at the proposed changes. I encourage the Minister to engage with local students unions, to involve them in the process and to work hard so that every student, no matter what their economic background or disability, has a fantastic opportunity to engage in our world-class universities, particularly my wonderful, award-winning Huddersfield university.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 3:35 pm, 2nd July 2014

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I add my congratulations to Dr Huppert on securing this debate.

I have a simple argument to put to the Minister: the proposals are flawed, they need to be dropped and they need to be dropped now. I agree with my hon. Friend Mr Sheerman that the Minister is a good Minister and a good man. He has been put in a difficult position, and I hope that in today’s excellent debate he sees a consensus that stretches across the House. We are here with him to help him win the argument and to put the proposals where they need to be, which is in the bin.

We have heard powerful arguments this afternoon about the success of DSA, how the proposed changes are slipshod and why it was wrong to develop these proposals not in the open but in secret. We have heard powerful arguments about why DSA is so successful. We do not give disabled students enough help to change their lives by going to university, and we have to hold on to that basic fact in this debate. I congratulate the National Union of Students on its work to expose how important DSA is to thousands of students. Some 60% of disabled students are terribly worried about the cost of living, which is a much higher proportion than for most students. More than half of disabled students have thought about dropping out of their course, which is a much higher proportion than for most students. That is why DSA is so important to students across the country.

Today’s debate has been particularly powerful. My hon. Friend Mrs Lewell-Buck told her own story, but we have also heard stories from my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and from my right hon. Friend Mr Smith about people they represent who have serious worries. The National Union of Students has collected similar stories, such as the story of Lucia, who said that university “wasn’t easy.” She knows that

“without the validation and…support from DSA I wouldn’t have kept going… I certainly wouldn’t have been able to get my first class honours degree, and I would have been lucky to finish.”

There are stories such as Suzanna’s. She said:

“I get DSA for dyslexia. I expect I am one of those David Willetts would class as having ‘mild difficulties’. My study…advisor is a godsend.”

She now wants to finish neuroscience and cure Parkinson’s disease. She said:

“Without DSA I would probably still be a waitress. A bad waitress at that.”

There are stories like Charlotte’s. She said that when she was making her university choices the availability of DSA was key to her getting into university and changing her life. In the background briefing for this debate we have heard argument after argument for protecting, preserving and enhancing DSA.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering makes the interesting point that if we care about the supply line of science, technology, engineering and maths skills in our economy, we should care about the future of DSA:

“One of the most worrying developments for STEM is the removal of…‘higher specification and/or higher cost computers…because of the way in which a course is delivered’”.

CASE continues:

“DSA funding will… only be provided for ‘the most specialist non-medical help (NMH) support.’ The definition of… ‘specialist’ is not clear.”

Many hon. Members have made that point today. The proposal would damage the chances of people on STEM courses in particular, which is why the changes are such bad news. In this House we are always happy to hear the case for reform. When pressed by hon. Members at oral questions the other day, the Minister said that no student would be worse off. That is a very big promise. Let us be honest: most of us here would like to believe him, but when my right hon. Friend Mr Blunkett tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister on 26 June about the extent to which DSA would be supported in future, answer came there none. The question was dodged, and that is why so many of us in this House have such serious concerns.

The Minister will no doubt want to remind us that the bill for DSA has gone up. That is true, but in the past year for which figures are available it has gone down by £5 million, while the number of disabled students who are supported has gone up, so each of them is actually getting much less. That is why we are so worried about a kind of carte blanche shunt of responsibilities to universities.

We have heard very clearly today the warnings from experienced people in this House about what happens when responsibility is shunted over. Paul Maynard put the case powerfully. There is too much ambiguity in an Act as high level as the Equality Act, important though that is. We should be honest about what is going on. This is a cost shunt to universities—let us call it what it is—but it is a cost shunt without any safeguards to go with it, and that is why so many of us are worried. I think the Minister will acknowledge that that is one heck of a gamble with the futures of disabled students in our country. It is certainly not a gamble that we want to see.

My hon. Friend Kate Green made an important point when she underlined how the risk of a postcode lottery in the way disabled students are supported will mean that people’s choices will be damaged. They will not be able to pursue the choices that they want. As my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield pointed out, it will be the most inclusive universities that are most damaged by the proposal. The worst-case scenario, we are told, is grim indeed.

I was concerned, as I know the Minister was, when I read the briefing from people who are expert in supporting disabled students, which stated that the worst-case scenario could see 60% to 70% of DSA eliminated. That is an enormous bill. The Minister accepts there is a problem with supporting disabled students at university, which is why he is not proposing the abolition of DSA. The fact that DSA is to continue is an acceptance of the principle that extra central Government support is needed.

We are not being told what the real objectives of the reform will look like. By how much does the Minister seek to cut the bill? How big will the cost shunt be? They are not the sort of questions we should be debating here this afternoon. We should have been debating them long ago—in January, February or March—before the ministerial statement appeared. Opposition Members are worried, as I am sure the hon. Member for Cambridge is too, that organisations such as the National Deaf Children’s Society felt they were not given a real chance to put their points of view in meetings that were simply cut short. That is not a standard of consultation that we are prepared to see, because the issue is simply too important.

If there is a need for modernisation, let us hear it. The Minister is a good man and a good Minister. He should be up front with us about how much he is seeking to save. He should be debating with us what extra safeguards need to be put in place to protect the rights and opportunities for disabled students in the years to come. The need is urgent. Lord Addington has told the other place that guidance for April is being drawn up. All of us wanted to be part of any changes that needed to be introduced. That is what we got when the DWP proposed to change the DLA and introduce the personal independence payment. It is the approach that we saw when the DWP wanted to introduce universal credit. Those were big and important changes, and Opposition Front Benchers were invited to the Department to discuss them. We may have disagreed with the conclusions, but at least we had the chance to flag up a few warnings, make a few suggestions and ensure that the debate was had in public, not in secret.

I think the Minister is a good man who will want to think again about the proposals. The debate should not have been today; it should have been in the early part of the year before the proposals were drawn up. If modernisation is needed, let us hear the arguments. If there are savings to be had, let us hear the targets, but we will not stand by while disabled students are given a bunch of proposals and told to like it or lump it. Disabled students demand and deserve much better than that.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Minister of State (Universities and Science) 3:45 pm, 2nd July 2014

It is a pleasure to respond to this important debate, and I congratulate Dr Huppert on securing it.

I want to make it absolutely clear that we are not abolishing DSA. Some Members who intervened have assumed it would disappear. It is a substantial item of spending now running at about £125 million, but we envisage that there will continue to be significant DSA in future. Several Members, particularly Paul Blomfield, did not like my statement that we were modernising it, but let me explain briefly what modernisation means and why we are engaging with it.

The system of DSA has not changed significantly since it was introduced in 1974. Since then, there have been widespread technological changes, some of which have improved disabled people’s ability to access education through advances in IT, but some things that were previously available by special arrangement are now widespread. For example, many people have laptops or other forms of access to IT. So there have been advances in technology, which have spread across the country.

Let me tackle head-on another significant change that has happened: the spread of equality duties under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Equality Act 2010. Mr Blunkett was emphatic on that point. I have enormous respect for him and his work, but it is reasonable for us to say what is the right balance of responsibility between institutions’ legal obligations under the Acts and individual payments to students via the DSA. There may well be types of provision that are better and more efficiently delivered on an institutional basis via the universities’ obligation than via individual student support.

Perhaps as a lay person I can give a simple practical example. If a university has a library where people with disabilities find it hard to access material, it is a legitimate question to ask whether the DSA should provide for their costs to access the library or whether the library should be organised in such a way that every time someone comes in—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

Onresuming

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East 4:02 pm, 2nd July 2014

Before I call the Minister, I remind right hon. and hon. Members that 15 minutes extra—the time taken for the Division—will be added to this debate. The debate that was supposed to start at 4 pm will start 15 minutes later.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Minister of State (Universities and Science)

I am not sure that this extra time will be as good as that in the Belgium versus United States match, but I will do my best. I welcome hon. Members who have come for the next debate and apologise to them.

I was starting to wind up the debate, explaining why it is legitimate to carry out the review and why the term “modernisation” is legitimate. One argument in that regard was about technical change. I was also saying that there is a genuine issue about obligations under the Equality Act, whereby universities have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for students who are disabled. We have to get the balance right between the institutional obligation on the university and personal financial support for the individual student. I was giving an example of how a library should function, saying that the obligation could be discharged by a library properly training its staff to help people with a range of disabilities. That may be a more effective way of delivering support for disabled people than individual disabled students turning up at the library with a personal assistant to help them. It is legitimate to try to get the individual versus institution balance reviewed in the light of the equalities duties.

The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough did not like the fact that I referred to the funding available for universities, but several hon. Members, beginning with my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge but not only him, specifically asked, “How will universities pay, given that you are expecting them to discharge these institutional obligations?” There are two genuine points to be made in response, although more could be made.

First, with regard to the equalities duties that the House has introduced under successive Governments, by and large we do not say, “We therefore need an extra stream of funding for the NHS”, any more than we say that there should be extra public support for Marks & Spencer. Hon. Members should remember that, legally, universities are independent institutions outside the public sector. The general view across the House, when we have imposed equality duties, has been that that is just part of the proper functioning of an institution.

Secondly, it is fortunate that our universities are in a healthy financial position. I will not stray from the point, as happened in the argument a few minutes ago between Mr Sheerman and my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge, but the sums going to universities for teaching—the combination of the grant income and the fee income that they receive—is rising substantially as a result of the controversial changes that we introduced, going from £7.9 billion total income in 2011-12 to £9.9 billion in 2015-16.

To be frank with hon. Members who voted against the £9,000 fee—I suspect that the majority of those in this Chamber did so—it is inconceivable that universities would have enjoyed a £2 billion increase in teaching income in the life of this Parliament under any other model of financing universities, especially one that depended on public expenditure through grant. There is a genuine increase in their financial resource. Several hon. Members expressed concern that our proposal comes at a bad time, when universities have not got any money, but in fact they have had an increase in their cash resource.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way with characteristic generosity. Can he help hon. Members? He has made an eloquent argument for the need to rebalance responsibilities between central Government and independent universities, saying that we need to do so because it is a long time since we have considered the matter. By how much is he seeking to reduce the DSA budget over the next financial year and the one after? He must know, because he has a list of specific measures.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Minister of State (Universities and Science)

I was going to get to that point in a moment. We are still consulting—it is a genuine consultation—so I cannot give the House a specific figure, because that will depend on a host of things, including exactly how the proposals are implemented and wider effects. However, it is a budget that has grown rapidly. Incidentally, the right hon. Gentleman said that that growth had stopped. There is always a difference between the provisional figures and the final outcome figures. My personal expectation is that the final outcome figures for the latest year should be higher than those for the previous year. It is not fair to compare final outcome figures with provisional figures. We will see. The budget has increased from about £88 million when we came to office to about £125 million now, so it is legitimate to look at it. However, we do not have a specific allocated figure.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Minister of State (Universities and Science)

I will give way briefly to the hon. Member for Huddersfield, but I have a lot of specific points to make, so after doing so I shall make progress.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

The Minister knows what I am going to say. He is looking through rose-tinted glasses at the future of finance in higher education, but it is not all as rosy as that. A vice-chancellor recently said to me, “The real worry that I have is that the whole HE system is based on a mountain of student debt.” That is our worry. It is not as rosy a picture as the Minister has painted.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Minister of State (Universities and Science)

That is a separate issue. The graduate repayment system is a fair, sustainable and viable way of financing our universities, and it would be a mistake to try to reverse that.

I turn to some of the specific issues that have been raised. Let me say clearly to right hon. and hon. Members that we will fund non-medical help that would not be a reasonable adjustment for higher education institutions to make. We will define the obligations of the institutions, and on top of that there will be support for non-medical help, which in certain situations will include support for students with specific learning difficulties, as well as other groups. Hon. Members mentioned IT, and we will make a contribution to the costs of higher-cost and higher-specification computers in certain circumstances if they are required purely because of the student’s disability. We will pay the extra costs that arise from those computers being required by students with a disability, rather than have a general payment for laptops when they are now widespread across society. We will also cover additional costs of specialist accommodation in exceptional circumstances.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

Have the Minister and the Government looked into the implications more widely, beyond higher education, of the Government making such a definition of what is a reasonable adjustment by universities? Is there not a real risk that others will cite that definition and say that anything that goes beyond it is not a reasonable adjustment for them, thereby denying disabled people in other areas too?

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Minister of State (Universities and Science)

That will be the last intervention that I take, because time is tight.

We are consulting, and we will produce guidance that will help make the crucial distinction between what institutions can legitimately be expected to do and where individual funding is required.

We are talking about education, and I want to come back to that, because several Members raised the topic. It is a distinct responsibility. We are consulting, and we will continue to meet a whole range of groups representing disabled people. We have already discussed the policy changes with, for example, the National Union of Students, Universities UK and the Office for Fair Access, and there will be many further such meetings in the future.

Institutions will be expected to have reasonable adjustments in place by September 2015. We believe that the time scales provide sufficient time for us to work with institutions and stakeholders to ensure that changes are introduced effectively, but I understand that some institutions are concerned that they will be disproportionately affected due to their high numbers of disabled students. Several Members have made that point, which will be considered before guidance is issued to the sector in the autumn. The guidance will help institutions understand better the role that DSA will play, enabling them to consider the support they will need to provide. We will also provide regular updates for the HE sector over the coming months.

Student information and guidance, which will include information on DSA changes as well as on the wider student support package, will be available in September in the normal way. Once we conclude our consultation meetings, we will be in a position to issue draft guidance in early autumn on what DSA will cover. That guidance will benefit higher education institutions and assessment centres in particular. Stakeholders will have the chance to review it and ensure that it is sufficiently clear and understandable before it goes live. I undertake to lay the relevant regulations at that time, which will allow Members to see the regulations and the draft guidance in parallel. Before adopting either, the Government will continue to have due regard to the impact of the changes on the aims set out in the Equality Act 2010. We will publish our analysis on that at the same time.

A point was raised about existing students and DSA students beginning university in 2014-15. They will remain on the current arrangements in 2015-16. I have already announced that the maximum available DSA amounts will not be changing. We are not adopting a blunt approach to the provision of non-medical help. We realise that non-medical help will be the responsibility of higher education institutions, but we recognise that in certain areas, perhaps as a result of the impact or severity of a disability, DSA has an additional role to play once reasonable adjustment has been made. In the case of complex needs, we will assess the severity of the impact on the education of the student. It will not be a simple physical assessment of their disability; it will be an assessment of how the disability challenges they face affect their ability to benefit from higher education. That is the assessment that has to be made. We will focus on the educational impact and the severity of their educational needs. I would also like to—[Interruption.]

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

Order. When the Chairman can hear conversations at the back of the room, someone is out of order. I urge Members to pay attention to the Minister’s contribution.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Minister of State (Universities and Science)

Thank you, Mr Hood. I was trying to go almost too fast, because there is so much material to cover. I was trying to clarify the issue of specific learning difficulties and dyslexia, which has arisen in the debate. My announcement used the term “complex needs”, and I wish to make it clear that DSA will support those for whom the impact on their higher education needs is most severe. That is the approach we propose to take.

We are in consultation on technology with groups such as the British Assistive Technology Association. I assure Members that the Government are committed to supporting disabled students in accessing higher education. Students are right to expect support from their higher education institution, and DSA has been available to complement that support for nearly 25 years. That is not changing. What is changing is the balance between the two types of support, and that balance should be struck in the light of the Equality Act 2010. I conclude by assuring Members that over the summer, the Government and officials will continue to develop thinking, engage on policy issues and consolidate our work. We will, of course, continue to consult and keep the House informed as our proposals develop.