HL Deb 01 March 2004 vol 658 cc81-2WA
Lord Morris of Manchester

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress they have made to improve access to higher education for disabled students since the National Audit Office's finding in 2002 that an 18-year-old with a disability or other health problem has a 40 per cent chance of access compared with other students; and what impact they expect their new proposals for higher education funding will have in improving that figure. [HL1415]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

The Government are keen to ensure that students with disabilities receive the best support possible so that they are able to study alongside their fellow students on an equal basis.

HESA figures for 2001–02 suggest the proportion of higher education students with self-declared disabilities has grown from 4.6 per cent in 1996–97 to 6 per cent in 2001–02.

The disabled students' allowances (DSAs) are available to students with disabilities attending or undertaking courses of higher education, who by reason of their disability, incur additional expenditure as a result of their attendance on the course. DSAs are paid in addition to the existing standard support package.

The extension of DSAs to part-time undergraduates and full and part-time postgraduates in 2000–01, including Open University students, has enabled more students with disabilities to enter higher education. An additional 3,235 DSAs were awarded in 2003–04 compared to the previous year. Recently, the department has reviewed the administration of the DSA scheme and engaged with representatives from the sector so that disabled students are able to access the scheme more quickly and efficiently.

We have done much to increase awareness of the financial assistance available to disabled students. The booklet Bridging the Gap: a guide to the Disabled Students' Allowance (DSAs) in Higher Education is specifically for disabled students, with over 180,000 copies available in 2004–05.

The introduction of the new student finance arrangements will assist disabled students in the same way as non-disabled students, in that they will not pay fees up front, and loans will be written off after 25 years.

"Aimhigher" aims to increase participation in higher education from under-represented groups. The planning guidance for the new integrated Aimhigher programme, which starts in August 2004, lists disabled students as an under-represented group for whom local partnerships should seek to widen access.

Extra funding has been granted to universities to improve support and facilities for disabled students. Institutions receive HEFCE funding to recruit and support students with disabilities. A total of £10 million is allocated in this way in 2003–04 within the funding for widening access and improving retention.

Additionally HEFCE is providing £117 million to improve provision for students with special needs, in line with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. and its extension in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. Funding is available between April 2004 and March 2006 to improve the physical and IT infrastructure for students with disabilities. For example these may include signage for visually impaired, flashing fire alarms and hearing loops, wider doors, ramps, lifts and special IT or other equipment.