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. PAID WORK
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,
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. WELFARE BENEFITS
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
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. DISABLED STUDENTS'
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
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
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
Skill: National Bureau for Students with Disabilities