Exeposé News Issue 625, front page (3 June 2014) and Exeposé News Online (5 June 2014) – Collaboration with News co-editor Emily Leahy
-Proposed changes spark NUS campaign
-Local MP Ben Bradshaw backs Guild response
-Day of action planned for 6 June
The student body, Sabbatical Officers and Head of Student Support Services at the University have backed an NUS campaign condemning planned cuts to Disabled Student Allowance funding (DSA).
In April, Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts announced that DSA funding available to Higher Education students across England would be subject to review and modernisation.
Involving restrictions to non-medical support such as note-taking and access to computers and laptops, the move has been heavily criticised by the National Union of Students (NUS).
Exeposé spoke to Liz Murphy, Head of Student Support Services at the University, who expressed concern over the proposals.
“We’re disappointed, but not entirely surprised,” Murphy commented, noting that after almost 25 years of DSA funding not being reviewed, the University had anticipated changes would be made.
“DSA has made a real difference to students’ ability to reach their potential, so these cuts may impact upon students’ experience and performance,” she said, describing the cuts as a “challenge for the future.”
Explaining “the expectation is that Higher Education Institutions will make up some of the difference,” Murphy highlighted difficulties faced in planning ahead, due to the unspecified nature of the proposals.
“We’re waiting for more detail so we can build a clearer picture of what it might be possible for us to do to respond,” she said, adding: “it would be helpful now if we had some clarity.”
She did however voice concern about proposed DSA restrictions for students not seen to have “complex” disabilities.
“We’re worried that the cuts are targeting complexity and mainstreaming everything else,” she said, asking: “where is the difference between a standard and a complex disability?”
Chris Rootkin VP Welfare and Community commented: “The Students’ Guild strongly opposes cuts to the Disabled Students Allowance that were proposed in April. The DSA is a vital resource for a large number of students who would be unable to attend university without this support. Cutting funding puts these students at an unfair disadvantage, with a likely end result being that many of these students will be unable to enter higher education.”
Explaining how the University would respond, Murphy told Exeposé that mainstream teaching would be adapted to account for this shifting of the burden, saying: “we already have systems in place, such as Echo360. We would want to extend that good practice anyway, regardless of the changes. We will now just have to think about the timescale.”
She added: “all of our services are based on the premise that we’re trying to help students manage their own difficulties and develop their own tools and strategies.”
A University spokesperson said: “we know that many disabled students have benefited from the funding provided through the Disabled Students’ Allowance… At the present time details of proposed changes need to be clarified, but we are concerned that reductions to the DSA may impact on progress and attainment for disabled students. We are disappointed that the proposed changes were not subject to consultation or an equality impact assessment.”
NUS are encouraging a national campaign against the cuts. Exeposé spoke to Hannah Paterson, NUS Disabled Students Officer and co-ordinator of the campaign, who said “we knew for around 18 months that the government would drastically cut DSA… as soon as the cuts were announced it was all systems go.”
She added that NUS “didn’t realise it would be this bad” and that beyond dyslexic students receiving free laptops and specialist software; students with sight impairments; those who are unable to write and specialized accommodation provisions will be affected.
A national day of action has been scheduled for Friday 6 June, which Paterson outlined as a “big push” for students to act against the government’s decision.
She encouraged students to change their profile pictures to support the cause, to tweet using the hashtag #degreesofdescrimination and to lobby MPs through email and Twitter, emphasising: “students can get involved at any point.”
At Exeter, Alex Louch, VP Academic Affairs and Chris Rootkin are organising a student campaign group, who will campaign in the Forum on 6 June, conducting a photo petition where students can demonstrate support and raise awareness.
The Guild, working in collaboration with Bristol University, are also collecting student testimonials, charting how DSA has helped people in the past.
One anonymous student said: “DSA has given me vital equipment and access to essential software, meaning that I can study in a fair and equal way to my peers. Without this essential funding, I don’t think I would still be here studying.”
The campaign aims to reverse the drastic nature of the cuts. Paterson hopes the government “will put people above profit” and pleads for them to “make concessions on where they cut.”
Ben Bradshaw, Exeter MP, told Exeposé he was “extremely concerned” about the cuts. He declared his backing of the campaign in a tweet to Alex Louch, writing: “fully support your campaign outrageous move by the Govt to fill hole in student loan book.”
Liz Murphy also expressed support, noting: “I hope the messages you’re aiming to get out there are heard.”
Students who feel passionately about cuts to DSA funding are encouraged to join the Exeter DSA campaign group on Facebook, like the group’s page, and participate in Friday’s events. Those interested in the campaign can also email Guildacademic@exeter.ac.uk and Guildwelfare@exeter.ac.uk to get involved.