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Disabled Students Allowance across the UK: a low-income issue

May 2, 2014

As far as I can tell, there’s not yet been an announcement on the Disabled Students Allowance consultation in Scotland (see here: the consultation paper was issued last June).

Meantime, the Student Loans Company has just provided a breakdown of DSA spending by income category in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (as an unexpected level of detail in response to a broader FoI request).  The data tables are here DSA in England, Wales and NI by income 2012-13.

These figures show that there is not any strong relationship between the average value of awards and household income.  In Wales, awards tend to be higher at lower incomes – but it’s not a very strong effect.  The bottom graph here shows the pattern DSA graphs.

However, total spending on DSA does show a clear relationship with household income.  Spending from the DSA budget is weighted especially towards those assessed  as having nil income (eg mature students, those leaving care), as the top graph above shows, reflecting a greater likelihood that these students  in particular will make claims.  They receive a significantly larger share (between +70% and +90%) of DSA spending than their presence in  the student population alone would predict, in every one of the three countries.  Those at incomes up to around £20,000 also receive a higher share than those further up the income scale, though the effect is clearest below £10,000 and less strong after that.

Although Scotland is unique in publishing information on broad spending categories by income, it does not publish it at this level of detail,  so a comparable analysis of the Scottish figures can’t be included here (though such data could no doubt be easily obtained for Scottish DSA).  It would be very surprising however if the same general pattern did not hold, given how consistent it is in all three other jurisdictions and how closely aligned student systems in the UK were before devolution – DSA is part of that legacy. The Scottish DSA guidance SAAS DSA guidance 2014-15  quotes some similar figures to those in the press articles linked below, for example, though more expert readers may be able to spot important differences.

Last month, David Willetts announced plans to restrict more tightly what would be provided through DSA in England, principally on the grounds that much of what had been provided historically through DSA could now be expected as part of what institutions should themselves routinely provide. That prompted a very critical reaction from NUS, see hereThis very interesting piece  by Sarah Lewthwaite at King’s College London challenges the argument that technological changes and changes in institutional practice mean DSA is becoming less necessary.

The Scottish review has a different aim, suggesting only that the budget should be parcelled out from national government to those making assessments locally, who would then be responsible for its management day-to-day.  My earlier post considered the questions that raised. 

 We believe that HEIs are better placed to consider how to respond in many cases, including giving greater consideration to the delivery of their courses and how to provide support.

… is a quote from David Willetts’ statement last month, but would not have looked out of place in the Scottish consultation paper. While the Scottish Government is not suggesting that DSA spending will be cut, or the rules changed, between 2010-11 and 2012-13 spending on DSA in Scotland had already fallen substantially in real terms, particularly once the transfer in of cash from the defunct travel grant scheme is excluded from comparisons. Similar  explanations to the ones challenged in the Lewthwaite article have been used in Scotland to explain falling spend.

On these updated figures from the SLC,   on the headline figures the average value of award in Scotland stands at 76% of figure for Wales and 85% of that in England last year.  Once the new travel grant money is removed, the figures are 70% and 78% – though that comparison may be harsh, as it is clear from the Willetts statement that DSA in the south is used for some travel costs as well.  Combine that with a much lower proportion of students being in receipt (3.1% as against 5.9% in Wales and 5.4% in England – these figures remain much the same as in the data originally analysed) and the picture is of much lower overall spend on DSA in Scotland than in these other two countries.  Relative to the total size of their student populations, England spends around 90% more than Scotland and Wales 125% more. Only Northern Ireland is very slightly lower than us.

As my previous post observed,  Scotland is  the only part of the UK to have seen a steady fall in spending over the past three years (again, excluding the travel grant effect) and a drop in claimants between 2009-10 and 2012-13. Even if the plans to restrict DSA in England were to reduce spending on it very substantially, that would just bring the cash dedicated to disabled students there more closely into line with what’s already quietly come about in Scotland, and Northern Ireland too.  Perhaps because England is addressing this through an overt policy change,  the move down south is – unsurprisingly – proving more visible and contested.  But the net result for students may be much the same.

In Scotland, this information from the SLC is a prompt that any changes to DSA are most likely to affect most those students with the least access to family funding, simply because they use the scheme much more.  Practitioners doubtless know this already, but these figures provide the hard evidence. Given that in Scotland these students are already likely to be borrowing far more for their living cost support than their better-off peers and have seen real-terms reductions in their maintenance grant from 2013-14, this  is a reminder that the DSA review remains one to watch, in the context of the wider debate about how well the Scottish system treats those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

 Technical notes

The population data for England, Wales and Northern Ireland have been taken from figures provided in the same SLC FoI response, for maintenance loans.  In all 3 countries, this set of figures captures the largest group of students.  It is  around 90% complete (ie a little over 10% of students don’t take out a maintenance loan).  Non-borrowers are likely to come more from higher incomes, so using this data will tend to under-estimate the number, and therefore the proportion, of such students in the system – and over-estimate the proportion of lower-income ones.  However, for the purpose of these comparisons it is a good enough data set.  If anything, the assumption used here will tend to under-estimate the weighting of DSA towards low incomes – but the calculations could only be marginally affected by access to 100% accurate data, to which this author does not currently have access. 

The SAAS data shows that in 2012-13,  £7.487m was spent on DSA in Scotland, with 4,045 students in receipt.  A separate PQ answer identified that £0.574m  of spending in 2012-13 was on travel awards, transferred into DSA when the main travel grant scheme was abolished in Scotland in 2011-12.








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