Page last updated at 10:56 GMT, Friday, 5 February 2010

Disabled students wait for specialist equipment grants

By Katherine Sellgren
BBC News education and family

Student with disability
Grants are given for computers and software

Almost 12,500 students in England are still waiting for grants to pay for specialist equipment, figures from the Student Loans Company show.

The statistics reveal two thirds of students with a disability or special needs are still waiting for money.

The figures were obtained by the Conservatives following a Freedom of Information request.

The SLC, which was criticised for its mismanagement of regular student loans, says it is reviewing its processes.

Tens of thousands of students were forced to start the academic year without their full loan and grant entitlement after problems with the processing of applications.

A 10% increase in applications for university places coincided with changes to the way first-time loan applications were dealt with and technical problems.

Students complained of lost personal documents, jammed telephone lines and delays in approval for their loans.

The latest figures show at the end of January some 16,000 English-based students are still waiting for at least some of their money.

A further 2,000, whose claims have been fully processed, are waiting for their first payment.

These delays have had a knock-on effect for students with disabilities, because - in England - disabled students' allowances (DSAs) are administered by the SLC.

Of the 19,006 eligible DSA applications, only 6,507 have been fully processed and approved by the SLC. This means that, almost four months after term started, only 34% of eligible applications have been processed.

Personal helpers

DSAs are available for all UK students with a disability and are used to buy specialist computer equipment resources such as Braille paper, or to pay for personal helpers to assist on campus.

The allowance is paid in Scotland by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland, in Wales by the Welsh Assembly government through local bodies and in Northern Ireland by the education and library boards.

These figures are truly shocking
David Willetts, Shadow Universities and Skills Secretary

David Gibson is studying for a post-graduate qualification in teaching at the Institute of Education in London and wants to teach geography.

He said he has yet to receive his DSA to cover expenses related to his dyspraxia and dyslexia.

Mr Gibson said the allowance would cover a computer and software to help him with his studies, as well as a mentor to talk to occasionally.

"It is the most stressful time I've had in the past 30 years," he said.

The SLC said the application process for DSAs "took longer than applications for other types of student finance".

"We are still awaiting information from 5,179 assessment centres and more than 4,297 students, and are processing the remainder of applications as quickly as possible," a spokesman said.

"We are currently reviewing the process and procedures for targeted students in consultation with relevant organisations and special interest groups and we will also be improving the training of specialist advisers."

Before students with disabilities are given DSAs, they are assessed.

Chair of the National Network of Assessment Centres Lesley Morrice said it appeared that the SLC was trying to blame the delays on the assessment centres and on the students.

That was unacceptable, she said: "We work to tight deadlines when processing students' assessments. There is no evidence of significant delays at the assessment centres on this sort of scale.

"I have been an assessment centre manager for over 12 years and these delays are unprecedented.

"The SLC implemented changes without proper consultation and without appreciating the impact on students".

'Students deserve better'

Shadow universities and skills secretary David Willetts said: "These figures are truly shocking.

"Almost four months after term started, and two months after the government said the problems were being fixed, thousands of disabled students are still waiting for the funding they need to pay for vital equipment.

"Twice as many disabled students have not been paid their grants as have been paid them.

"Ministers are still passing the buck and still failing to deliver. Students deserve better - much better."

An inquiry into the loans delays led by Professor Sir Deian Hopkin, which reported in December, complained of "conspicuous failures".

Two managers later left the SLC under a restructuring programme.

Read some of your comments:

I've been applying for the DSA for two years - last year I sent off the application and did not receive any response from them - and this year I'm still waiting for the second application. The current system is completely unacceptable, causing more problems for disabled students who need aid with this money. It is hard enough to survive in the normal life, but with pressures of university we need all the help we can.
Aislinn, Norfolk

I applied for my DSA grant back in November last year and everything concerning assessment was completed late November. Despite this, the LEA haven't yet decided whether or not they are able to fund the equipment. They are trying their best to find a cheaper alternative in place of providing the necessary equipment I require with my studies in dentistry. My University has also intervened but still the LEA maintain this dragging of feet approach. It is affecting my day-to-day life as a student. I believe the issue published is also affecting LEAs as they are also trying their best to cut costs at the cost of students like myself who are trying their best to get through very demanding and stressful courses.
Mr K Jain, Bristol

I applied for Disabled Students Allowance, and had to start my course and fail my first three assignments because the specialist equipment hadn't been issued.
Jeremy, London

I have quite a severe disability and I was very pleased when I was told about DSA as it meant university became a lot more accessible. Initially I had wanted to stay at the university halls of residence however after weighing up the situation I decided to commute. And I am so glad with that decision now because I've had no provision of equipment until now. I literally received my equipment on Friday last week. My university was very understanding and they let me have note-takers in every lecture as without them I would have already been so behind, I think I would have had to retake the year.
Shabaz, Nottingham

I manage a large disability service in a university. The administration of DSAs by the SFE (Student Finance England) this year is basically not good enough. I have had to put interim support in place for our disabled students and although I have had to keep this to a minimum, it has taken virtually the whole of my generous budget. I know that I am not alone in this. But many students are still waiting for support or having to make do with less than they really need. SFE say that they are waiting for further information in many cases, but it has been our experience that they have lost or misplaced the information that has been sent to them. We quickly realised that this could be a potential problem, and since spring 2009 we have systematically scanned and saved every document that we have sent to SFE on behalf of our students. This means that we can quickly send them again when SFE say they haven't received them. The thing that is really disappointing is the professionals such as myself, who have been working in this area for a while, predicted that this would happen. The signs were there for all to see. To take DSAs out of over a 100 local authorities (many with a dedicated team of experienced staff) and to expect a handful of inexperienced staff to understand and get to grips with the complexity of this system was always going to be difficult. Add to this the problems with systems and equipment at SFE, and it was impossible. It has caused untold diffculties and stress for students, financial hardship for equipment suppliers, assessment centres and support workers, and a massively increased administrative burden on offices such as mine.
Disability Manager in HE

I applied for my DSA in September, and I've only just got the go ahead to order the equipment I require. As a student with MS, this has been particularly frustrating because I have been at a slight disadvantage when I wasn't well. I hope now that I do have the extra equipment and resources that I require, my studies will be a little easier for me to get through.
Sabeeha, Northampton

My eldest is special needs and we constantly battle with our local authority for funding, as we speak my wife and I with the support of the school he attends are currently in the process of yet another appeal. It saddens me deeply that some of the most vulnerable people in our society are at the back of the queue again. Education is a real boost to self esteem which is a big step on the road to becoming a productive member of society. If you fail these people at the start they will continue to fail throughout life. Get this mess sorted out.
Steve, Cambridge

I found out this academic year and the second year of my degree that I was dyslexic. After informing my university and LEA it took four months for an "assessment of my needs" to take place. I was then informed that it would take a further month for me to receive anything I'm entitled to other than one to one tutoring. Since I found out I was dyslexic I've had to complete three essays in which I haven't received any help or equipment I am entitled to. This is not right or fair.
Craig, Worcester

I have only just received most of my equipment and I am still waiting for the rest to arrive. I applied almost a year ago for my equipment and it has needed me to ring up on an almost weekly base to find where my application is in the system. Overall, it hasn't been an enjoyable experience.
Alice, Canterbury

I'm at university, doing a postgrad course, and have only just recently gotten my DSA all sorted after applying in June last year. Due to this I didn't get support that I had had in my undergrad years during the first semester. If the system hadn't been changed, my local LEA, who used to deal will all the student's loans and DSA, would have had me processed and sorted before I arrived back at uni. As usual though, the government tries to "fix" something and only breaks something that wasn't broken in the first place.
Natasha, Bangor

I am still waiting for some DSA money from last year! I have contacted them to find out what happened. I was told that the claim was approved but they can't seem to find out what happened to the money. This explains it. In my experience, when DSA was dealt with locally, I never had a problem. It was a much more efficient system than the welfare benefits system, which actively discriminates against disabled people with its complexity. This government seems to have an obsession with making simple things complicated to the extreme.
Daniel, Suffolk

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