In 2014 the minister for Universities and Science, David Willets, announced changes to the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) which has been in place since 1974. DSA was an non-repayable government funded grant aimed to cover any additional costs that students may incur due to disability, such as specialist software or accommodation. The changes meant that as of 2016 the onus on providing disability-related financial support to students no longer rests with the government but the individual universities. Whilst in theory the changes should not have had any detrimental effect on DSA beneficiaries, the experiences of UCL’s students suggest otherwise.
Zohar, SU UCL’s Disabled Student’s Officer, joined UCL in 2018. Due to disability they require an en-suit room, and they knew that under the new DSA provisions UCL were legally obliged to cover the rent difference between an en-suit and a regular room in the same halls. However, when they enquired about their options whilst applying for accommodation UCL vehemently protested, stressing that they did not offer such support. Zohar was left having to prove their legally protected rights themself.
Whilst UCL has eventually agreed to reduce the student’s rent, and this academic year has done so for other students, it is unclear whether any qualifying students have received rent reductions in the two years prior to the student’s initial enquiry or if they have since been refunded.
A spokesperson for UCL stated only that “all applications which met the eligibility criteria have been granted,” not specifying whether any such applications were made.
The spokesperson added reassuringly that “UCL currently offers rent adjustments for students with disabilities who have additional requirements, and (in line with Student Finance England requirements) provide evidence that aligns with their request, where there is a difference in cost from the accommodation they have applied for.”
Wilful ignorance and disinformation seems to define UCL’s approach to its new financial responsibility. “Their [UCL’s] attitude is ‘I refuse to educated myself about my responsibility and I refuse to listen when I am informed of it,’ ” Zohar characterised their experience with UCL staff. Whilst some higher education institutions such as University of Manchester and University of Warwick have published comprehensive online guides for their current and prospective students outlining the services and support that they can provide under the new DSA legislation, UCL has barely acknowledged its new duties. Whilst some relevant information can now be found on the Student Support and Wellbeing (SSW) website it is not easy to find and it pertains only to accommodation. UCL’s Disabled Students’ Network (DSN) has long campaigned for an online guide, similar to that of Manchester or Warwick. Whilst UCL promised to add the extra page to their website by last summer they have postponed doing so due to ‘technical difficulties.’ UCL is now in the process of “working to review how best to communicate these adjustments to ensure all applicable students are correctly supported.”
Although an online guide might seem like a minor problem, Zohar stresses that it is fundamentally a question of accessibility. For example, prospective students with disabilities might look at the prices of UCL accommodation which suits their needs and for lack of other information assume that living costs are prohibitively expensive. This may result in these students never applying to UCL or not accepting their offers as they don’t think that they will receive necessary support from the university.
Currently the onus on getting support and suitable adjustments is on individual students themselves rather than the university. Students are largely left to their own devices when it comes to negotiating suitable adjustments and accommodations from the university and the system for doing so is unclear. The structures of SSW which is the UCL body responsible for these issues, are rather obscure according to students who used their services. Several students with disabilities have observed that whilst many of the less senior members of SSW team are invested in supporting students they are often overstretched in their work and often lack the resources and support themselves.
As it stands UCL’s ambiguous approach to its responsibilities towards disabled students seems to be financially motivated. By keeping both staff and students misinformed about their rights and avenues to support, UCL avoids having to ever pay for them, as for example students who don’t directly request rent adjustment and never offered it. In short UCL evades its legal obligations by simply assuring no one ever asks it to fulfil them
Image: © UCL Digital Media, 2019
Disabled Student’s Network’s next meeting will be on Wednesday 13th November 2019 from 17:00-19:00 in Foster Court 217 for those who would like to get involved