Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from Skill: National Bureau for Students with Disabilities (HE 133)


  1.1  Skill is an independent voluntary organisation which aims to develop opportunities in post-16 education, training and work for people with disabilities throughout the UK.

  1.2  Skill is pleased to be able to provide evidence to the Sub-committee regarding factors which affect retention of disabled students. This response focuses solely on issues particular to disabled students. It is based on issues raised by disabled students and professionals making enquiries to the Skill Information Service, and through Skill's networks and membership.


  2.1  Many disabled students are unable to work because of their impairment, or because the current employment environment excludes them. They thus have no recourse to paid work to finance their courses. Some will fulfil the criteria for welfare benefits to supplement their student loans, although there remain problems with eligibility (see section 3, below). Others who are not eligible for welfare benefits will still be unable to work, perhaps because of prejudiced attitudes amongst employers. The student loan may not be sufficient for these students to live on, and they may therefore drop out.

  2.2  Other disabled students take paid work, which has a disproportionate effect on their academic work and day-to-day living. Study strategies used by some disabled students can take more time than the strategies employed by most non-disabled students, as can undertaking basic tasks like washing or eating, for example:

    —  A blind student may take additional time to convert standard text into electronic format or Braille.

    —  A physically disabled student may take additional time to write essays using an adapted keyboard.

    —  A dyslexic student may take additional time to read and write text.

    —  A deaf student may need time to organise British Sign Language interpreters, and to communicate with hearing people through interpreters.

    —  A student with ME may work more slowly due to fatigue.

  These students may not have time to live, study and work and as a result may drop out.

  2.3  Skill recommends that access funds be made available to disabled students who have difficulty obtaining paid work, or whose methods of academic study preclude the option of taking paid work.


  3.1  Once you commence a full-time course the benefits legislation considers you a student until you finish your course or permanently abandon it. This prevents people who are taking time out from their courses from accessing welfare benefits, unless they fall into a "vulnerable group". In particular, people who become sick or disabled during their courses and have to take time out are often left without any income for the first 28 weeks until they become eligible for Income Support. They are forced to choose between permanently abandoning their courses or receiving no income. Inevitably, some students have no choice but to drop out.

  3.2  Students in this position may be eligible for continued payments of student loan, but this depends on the discretion of their awarding authority. This discretion has rarely been used. Moreover, the rationale for requiring people to repay their student loan is that they are benefiting from higher education. It is therefore indefensible to expect sick or disabled people, who are unable to work or study, to continue to accrue debt in order to survive.

  3.3  One solution would be for the benefits legislation to reflect an individual's actual situation, so that when they are not students they are not deemed to be students. Another solution would be to reduce the qualifying period for eligibility for Income Support as a disabled student from 28 weeks of incapacity for work to 60 days. 60 days is the period for which the student loan is normally extended during absence due to short-term illness.

  3.4  Skill recommends that welfare benefits be made available to people who are unable to work and who are taking time out because they are unable to study due to sickness or acquired disability.


  4.1  Disabled Students' Allowances (DSAs) are invaluable in allowing disabled students to study, because they fund additional support in the form of human assistance, specialist equipment and travel expenses. However, despite recent welcome extensions of DSAs to new groups of students, many disabled students remain ineligible. The additional costs they face can lead them to drop out. DSAs are not available to many nursing and midwifery students, to postgraduates in Scotland, to students studying a part-time course at less than 50 per cent of the full-time equivalent, or to any international students.

  4.2 Skill recommends that DSAs be extended to all disabled students in higher education who are obliged to incur extra costs because of their disability.

  4.3  Disabled students rely on Disabled Students' Allowance support in order to function effectively. It seems that many students, however, do not have the required support in place in time for the start of their courses, and in some cases delays extend into term two and beyond. Because of such delays, students who are struggling without full access to their courses are in danger of dropping out.

  4.4  Skill recommends that DSA procedures be reviewed and that the infrastructure needed to assess needs and administer DSAs be strengthened to reduce these delays.

  4.5  The strength of Disabled Students' Allowances is that they aim, by meeting individual needs, to give disabled students the same opportunities as non-disabled students to obtain the full benefit from their courses. However, some awarding authorities seek to provide students with just enough support to perform at adequate levels. Consequently, some students may have to put in extra time and effort to compensate for the lack of the equipment or personal assistance which they need. The increased workload may be more than they can cope with, or they may be frustrated if they are prevented from achieving their true potential, and as a result they may leave their courses.

  4.6  Skill recommends that Disabled Students' Allowances continue to be made available according to assessed need, so that disabled students can work as quickly and effectively as possible, rather than merely having minimal access to the course.


  5.1  Teaching techniques, such as providing notes in advance of lectures, including in electronic format, make learning easier for all students, including disabled students. These are not widespread in higher education. Some disabled students require adjustments in the teaching they receive, and these are not always made. Skill welcomes the introduction of rights via the SEN and Disability Bill. However, this must be accompanied by improvements in practice. Improvements will take staff time, increased knowledge and awareness, and in some cases additional funding. A change in culture is also required, so that disabled people are seen as having a right to access higher education, and their needs are not seen as marginal, special or burdensome. Students who have to overcome disabling barriers to learning, or who have to press continually for what they need, are in danger of leaving their courses.

  5.2  Skill recommends that higher education staff be given the time and resources to improve the overall accessibility of their teaching, and to respond to individual needs as they arise.


  6.1  Work experience plays an increasing role in higher education, as recommended in the report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, chaired by Sir Ron Dearing, and endorsed by the government. Placements are an essential requirement in some courses of higher education. Difficulties with work placements threaten retention of some disabled students. For example, Skill has been contacted about a physically disabled teacher training student who is unable to obtain a placement at an accessible school, and who may not be able to continue her course. Skill has also advised a deaf student, training in a profession allied to medicine, who was not allowed to work at the local NHS trusts. The problem is compounded by the fact that employers who take students on unpaid placements may not be covered by the Disability Discrimination Act (1995), and even if covered may find that adjustments are considered "unreasonable" for short term placements.

  6.2  Skill recommends that guidance be given on the respective responsibilities of higher education institutions and employers for ensuring disabled students can access placements.


  7.1  It is impossible to determine whether disabled people are at greater risk of dropping out than non-disabled people, because this information is not collected. However, all of the factors detailed above may influence their retention. If disabled students are more likely on average than non-disabled students to drop out, then the current retention performance indicators will only act as a disincentive for HE institutions to recruit disabled students.

  7.2  Skill recommends that the number of disabled students dropping out be recorded within the retention performance indicator so that comparison can be made with retention of non-disabled students, at institutional and national levels, and between course area.

  7.3  Skill recommends that the higher education funding councils develop a specific performance indicator covering disability.

Skill: National Bureau for Students with Disabilities

January 2001

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