A cost-saving exercise at a high expense

13th December 2018 by Catia Neves

Modernising. Sustainable supply model. Deliver value. Tax Payer. Development. These are some of the words used by the government to describe an imminent change to support for disabled students in higher education. This thinly veiled austerity measure presented as a harmless streamlining exercise has the potential to create mass unemployment and jeopardise the futures of a whole generation of disabled students.

Disabled students can apply for funding, called the ‘Disabled Students Allowance’, which pays for any necessary support they might need during their time at university. Many disabled students are recipients of assistive technology and are entitled to undertake training in order to learn how to use it effectively in the context of their studies and disability. The technology and the training are often provided by different organisations. The new plan is to tie the two services together so they are provided under one roof by the same organisation.

We don’t see this happen elsewhere, for example, we aren’t expected to buy a car and have our driving lessons with the same dealership. It wouldn’t make sense, as a driving instructor’s skills are very different to those of a car salesman. So let’s use this analogy to understand why this move has potentially disastrous ramifications.

Disabled students will be dependant on large corporations that are able to provide both services at unbeatably low costs, monopolising the market. This change would mean less competition in the sector, which in turn would minimise the choice and control disabled students have over the quality of their support. The current nuanced approach to disability support guided by specialist knowledge, lived experience, empathy and understanding is at risk of being replaced by a disempowering IT-centric training style dictated by ‘cheapest quote wins’.

It is proven that a peer-to-peer model of support based on study skills strategies greatly improves student satisfaction and take-up rates of support, an approach championed by Diversity and Ability. The former Disabled Students National Officer of the NUS, Adam Hyland, was compelled to join Atif Choudhury, a prolific social justice campaigner, to start Diversity and Ability, an award-winning disabled-led organisation. They both believed a peer-to-peer model of support based on study skills strategies would dramatically improve the quality and take-up of support, and they were right. A regression of this kind has the potential to affect service quality for the over 80,000 disabled students currently studying, and all those who follow.

Meanwhile, smaller organisations will lose out to large multinationals who have the capacity to drive costs down, and training organisations will be barred from the sector if they do not supply equipment. This will result in the closure of many innovative SMEs within a matter of months, meaning thousands of highly skilled support workers losing their jobs. This directly contradicts the government ‘commitment’ to support the growth of SMEs and reduce the disability employment gap. D&A provides employment to about 90 individuals, about 85% of whom identify as disabled/ neurodiverse. Under this new procurement system, D&A would no longer be able to operate as a non-equipment supplying organisation, resulting in the loss of livelihoods of the very people the government is trying to get and keep in work.

This move also directly undermines the Social Values Act which calls for all public sector commissioning to factor in (“have regard to”) economic, social and environmental well-being in connection with public services contracts. ‘When used to full effect, service design with social value in mind can deliver a more holistic and innovative solution. In practice, social value can be a cost-saving tool too, as you can deliver additional benefits through the way that a service is run.’ — quoted from the government’s own introductory guide for commissioners and policymakers.

This change is being rushed through without proper consultation of service users or the sector. There is a willful ignorance of the work done on the ground by training specialists and the enabling impact this has for marginalised disabled students. Like many cuts that have gone before, this will undoubtedly harm disabled students. This will not help ‘close the disability employment gap’, ‘protect the most vulnerable in our society’ or ‘level the playing field’ as the government has pledged to do.

We urge you to contact your local MP to raise this issue and ask them to lobby the Department of Education. Go to https://www.writetothem.com/ to contact your local MP.

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