Austerity & Brexit: The Impact on Disabled Students

28th July 2016 by Catia Neves

Following on from our post which examined the impact that leaving the EU may have on Disabled people, we are now spotlighting the issues specifically faced by Disabled students and graduates. Continued Conservative austerity, Brexit, cabinet reshuffles and department merges- what does all this mean for our Disabled students?

Brexit and Loss of Funding

The decision to leave the EU will place considerable strain on universities, who are already facing cuts imposed by Government, and will be set to lose out from various EU funding streams. Universities receive large amounts of funding from the EU, to top-up their general budgets and in the form of research grants. Since 2009, the UK has received 15.5% of funds available via the EU funding programme for Higher Education. We paid in 11% to the overall budget, so this clearly represents a profitable gain. Similarly we were awarded 25% of available funds (surplus of €1.1bn) through EU academic mobility and foreign exchange programmes.

It is yet to be seen how this will affect university services- whether alternative funding would be sought to plug the gaps, or if it will mean reduction to internal budgets. This would likely have a knock on effect to services and support available to disabled students. As Megan Dunn (President of the NUS) wrote in her letter to the Prime Minister,

“Students will be concerned that any removal of this funding could have implications for the support they receive, and this concern will of course be greatest for the most vulnerable students.”

Adam Hyland, D&A’s Campaigns Director, has voiced a concern that the reduction of funding might lead to a drive in recruiting higher fee paying international students with the aim of creating more revenue for universities. This could impact on the number of places available to UK domicile students. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) in 2013/14 there were 236,580 first year non-UK domiciled students studying at UK HE providers (out of 2,299,355 students registered in total), with nearly a quarter of these students coming from China. The average tuition fees for international students (2015–16) are as follows, as opposed to the average £9,000 that home students pay:

  • Humanities and Social Sciences: £10,000–£17,000
  • Sciences and Engineering: £10,000–£20,800
  • Clinical subjects: £20,000–£30,000

Hypothetically there is a larger incentive for universities to enrol higher numbers of international students, which could detrimentally affect the access of Disabled students who will be paying less than their international peers and also represent surplus ‘expenditure’ to the university. There is a current push for universities to take a bigger responsibility in ensuring their institutions are inclusive, accessible and offer the correct reasonable adjustments to Disabled students, who will now be relying more on them as opposed to funding via the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). This of course involves financial investment to create and maintain a learning environment that fulfils the criteria of the Equality Act. This raises the question- is it in a university’s interest to take on students that ‘cost’ them more money, when they have the option to secure higher fees elsewhere? Whilst we value the amazing diversity international students bring to UK higher education, could this nudge the admissions process to view all students as consumers which simply represent £££?

Brexit and Erasmus

The future of the Erasmus exchange programme, which allows European students to study for a year abroad, can not guarantee the inclusion of British students beyond 2017. The UK director of Erasmus, Ruth Sinclair-Jones said, “we face a sad moment of uncertainty, after 30 years of this enrichment of so many lives”.

Disabled students, despite fairly low participation rates (at just 6,000 of 500,000 (1.2%) in 2014), have still benefited from the exchange programme. The ExchangeAbility project of the Erasmus Student Network that promotes mobility for students with disabilities, has supported Disabled students to study abroad, and is progressively working to increase participation. If British students were to become excluded, this would obviously hinder the opportunity to study abroad, and Disabled students would lose out on access to a programme that actively widens participation and inclusion on a ‘global’ scale.

The potential reduction of students coming to study in the UK from the EU, could also have a dire financial impact on universities, which as noted above could have a trickle down affect on services available to disabled students.

There are 120,000 students from EU countries at UK universities, of which around 27,100 are through Erasmus with their fees paid by the EU. In 2015 around €113 million in Erasmus+ funding was awarded to the UK, which makes up a large source of revenue for our UK universities.

Brexit and The Economic Fall Out

Almost a month on from the announcement of the Brexit referendum, we were hoping to see the predictions of economic carnage disproved. However recent data shows that, sadly, the experts may have known what they were talking about after all… Chris Williamson, chief economist at IHS Markit, said the ‘record slump’ had been “most commonly attributed in one way or another to ‘Brexit’… This is exactly what most economists were saying would happen.”

With evidence indicating another recession, the impact will certainly be most felt by the hardest hit in our society, which is often Disabled people. Social mobility is stymied in times of economic downturn- with less financial support, access to vital services, and employment opportunities- this would have a knock on effect to Disabled students choosing to enrol in high education and of course graduates searching for work.

This having been said, it is thought that Philip Hammond (the new chancellor) may ‘reset’ the Government’s economic policy, and George Osborne’s threat of £30bn worth of cuts, might disappear along with his legacy. Hammond suggested that he intends to “borrow and invest wisely” which could signify a willingness to spend more on infrastructure and public services, despite creating an increased deficit. This is comforting, to an extent, and might mean that the ‘slash and burn’ approach to public services is not as imminent as we’d originally feared. However he did vote to force through the cut to ESA disability benefit in March…

The NHS and Strained Services

Many Disabled students rely on having access to healthcare provided through the NHS, to enable them to participate in higher education. It is yet to be seen how the negotiations will play out in terms of free movement between Europe and the UK, however there are concerns that a shortage in staff may lead to gaps in vital services. Reenita Das projected that “by 2020, UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is expected to face a shortage of around 16,000 primary care physicians. By 2022, nurse shortages are expected to be in the vicinity of 100,000.”

Moreover, many services are already strained, for example access to psychological therapies. Counselling on the NHS, has exorbitantly high waiting times which has left many without the support they desperately need, when they need it. A study by the ‘We Need to Talk Coalition’ (a collective of mental health charities, professional organisations, Royal Colleges and service providers) indicates that one in five of those surveyed had been waiting over a year to receive treatment and one in 10 of those surveyed waited over two years to receive treatment. If services are already at breaking point and failing those that require them, the prospect of cuts does not bode well for maintaining existing services, let alone improving them.

On another note, the introduction of the DSA Quality Assurance Group (QAG) Quality Assurance Framework (QAF) guidelines, despite intent and purpose to regulate the student support industry (which up until now has seen little to no scrutiny), also has flaws that may affect availability of university support workers. One such example is a potential shortage of mental health mentors, who, if not already members of professional practising bodies will be unable to continue supporting students. In line with Government requirements (which do not necessarily reflect university or mental health practitioners stance over value of experience and other now unrecognised qualifications), a sector specific accreditation scheme is being devised to allow formally ‘unqualified’ practitioners continue working with students. There are still concerns that the scheme is not appropriate and if not undertaken quickly enough there may be a dearth of mentors that meet the requirements able to work with students in the new academic year.

Whilst we support the monitoring of the student support sector, with the underlying hope that students receive the highest quality support possible, the Government harbours a pervasive bureaucratic laissez faire attitude that hinders this. For example, the QAF guidelines in respect to mentors, was rushed and ill thought out, with lack of insight into how it will ultimately affect the end-user. It is only with widespread outcry, that a solution is being forged by a coalition of universities and mental health organisations.

The DSA Cuts and Policy Changes

Looking back, since David Willetts’ ministerial statement on April 2014 announcing ‘measures to modernise the Disabled Students’ Allowances’, there have been a number of changes to the DSA in an attempt to ‘streamline’ it. Since September 2015 students have been required to make a £200 contribution towards their laptops to run essential assistive technology, which William Bain, a labour MP, criticised as the ‘laptop tax’, hurting the ‘disadvantaged’ as opposed to protecting them. It has the potential to financially prohibit students gaining fair access to support they need. It is widely acknowledged that Disabled people are comparatively economically disadvantaged, thus making Nick Boles’ (Conservative MP) statement that it was necessary in order to reduce the budget deficit, ‘an austerity measure designed to balance the books’, seem all the more brutal. Other such cuts include the cease of funding for additional accommodation costs, or contributions towards internet, books and printing costs.

The cuts to the DSA that involve the transferal of responsibility of band 1 & 2 (eg. Scribes, Note Takers, Library Support Assistants etc.) support provision to universities, were postponed until academic year 16/17. Due to come into effect, we’ve yet to see how this will impact Disabled students in practice. However there has been concern over potential disparities in the quality of support from university to university, depending on their wealth. This then narrows down Disabled students’ choices when applying for university, as decisions become more focused around available support and accessibility, as opposed to arguably more important factors such as the course, location of the university, size etc. Equally, for students already enrolled at a university, there are fears that the transition of responsibility may leave students without the support they need if the hand-over isn’t executed smoothly.

This array of cuts and changes are damaging in a variety of ways, but the ramifications to inclusion and accessibility are particularly worrying. The stripping back of support puts a larger strain on Disabled students, not just practically, but also financially and emotionally.

Higher Education Bill, Fees and Debt

Under Theresa May’s newly shuffled cabinet, responsibility for higher and further education, as well as apprenticeships, has been transferred to the department for education (DfE) from the department of Business, Innovations and Skills (BIS). Justine Greening is now heading up the agency and was responsible for taking the Higher Education Bill through its second reading in parliament last week. The Bill outlined in the white paper would introduce a new higher education system consisting of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF); the Office for Students (OfS); and the ability to set up new institutions with degree awarding powers.

Many aspects of the Bill are problematic, but in particular, the prospect of rising fees. The TEF framework which is supposedly a measure of quality, allows universities to up their fees dependant on evidenced ‘teaching excellence’. It is considered to be a Trojan horse to increase tuition fees according to Gordon Marsden MP (Shadow Higher Education Minster). Meaning the new system is governed by market-led ideologies, ergo privatisation.

The rating given to the university which allows them to alter their fees, will be decided by metrics that are almost solely qualitative and seemingly unfit for purpose- judged on student satisfaction, monitoring the drop-out rate and collecting data on future employment. Those institutions that are ‘under-performing’ according to this set of criteria, will be starved of funding, which will strain services and the support available. Students from poorer backgrounds (inclusive of Disabled students) generally have lower access to financial and emotional resources, thus will be placed at an unfair disadvantage under this system which will create a self-perpetuating cycle:

  • A higher level of need to access university support
  • Lack of university funding will drive down levels of support
  • Therefore boosting drop out rates
  • Which will in turn determine the level of funding the university will receive

NCAFC said:

“This Bill will usher in a fully marketised HE system, one where teaching will be measured on meaningless market metrics that will be used to raise fees even further, where students will be seen as nothing more than consumers, where universities will be forced to battle one another in a chaotic education market, and where the Government will drive public universities to go bust, then help for-profit companies take their place.”

Following the parliamentary debate, some universities have already announced higher tuition fees for 2017. Durham, Kent and Royal Holloway are among the universities now advertising fees of £9,250. This makes our university system the most expensive in the world, higher even than Ivy league American universities.

Many students, education experts, the NUS etc. are lobbying against the Bill, as it has the potential to reduce social mobility, whereby the increasing costs are shouldered by the individual, who struggle under the weight of mounting debts. With the current fees, the average student faces enormous debts of around £44,000, whilst poorer graduates accrue closer to £50,000 worth of debt, according to a study carried out by the Sutton Trust (an organisation that campaigns for greater social mobility). Considering Disabled students fall into the higher bracket of debt and are statistically (30.1%- which representing over 2 million people) less likely to find employment than non-disabled people, this debt represents an intimidating sum of money. This, coupled with the abolition of maintenance grants and NHS student bursaries, to be replaced with repayable loans, boosts the debt for the most disadvantaged students. Student loan repayments are linked to earnings, so is recouped incrementally dependant on the individuals’ salary. Nonetheless, the large outstanding debts that Disabled students are likely to accrue are potentially off-putting and have the ability to quash aspirations and reduce participation in higher education.

The toll of student debt according to Noam Chomsky: damaging the chances for individuals to mobilise change and ‘think big’.

Looking Forward

The changing political landscape over the past year has undoubtedly created obstacles in terms of achieving a more inclusive higher education system. There is still a lot to be done in terms of increasing participation and social mobility. There have been destructive cuts and policy shifts that adversely affect Disabled students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, yet widening participation is actually on the Governments’ agenda, as outlined in guidance released in February this year. One of our former Prime Minister’s ambitions was to double the proportion of university entrants from disadvantaged backgrounds by the end of this Parliament from 2009 levels’. As Cameron is no longer in office, we’ll have to wait and see if this remains a priority (I use the word ‘priority’ in the loosest sense of the word, as the cuts say otherwise) for May’s cabinet.

May’s inaugural speech seemed promising in terms of a new era of politics that looks after everyone and not just the elite and the corporates. Although she did frame her aspirations by lauding Cameron’s impressive ‘social justice’ work, and it was in that spirit she hoped to continue. I for one am sceptical over Cameron’s track record of battling injustices and his ‘One Nation’ legacy that aimed to unify us and protect those worst off in our society, left a lot to be desired. If May is using Cameron’s ‘achievements’ as her bench mark, we might still be in for a bit of a rough ride.

To end on a positive note- the reshuffle did see Michael Gove being sacked, so it’s not all doom and gloom 😉

What now?

The Higher Education Bill: A committee consisting of 20 MPs will convene in early September to go through the Bill line by line. This will also be the first stage at which MPs can propose amendments to the Bill. The NUS will be supporting students and their respective students’ unions to lobby against the Bill in the meantime. They are encouraging students to engage with the MPs that are appointed to the committee. More information here about how to get involved.

Shaping student services: We encourage you to get in touch with your Disability Support Service and Student Union representative (Disabled Student Officer) at university, to have your voice heard and help shape the services available. Feed back your experiences and get involved in creating a supportive environment that works for you and those around you.

Financial Support: If you are struggling with the financial requirements of Higher Education, eg. the £200 laptop contribution, it might be worth contacting Turn2Us, Student Cash Point or The Student Health Association.


Author: Raphaele von Koettlitz, D&A Campaigns Team


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