The following article has been put together by a University of Birmingham student who has asked to remain anonymous. In the article, this student has explored how the removal of DSA influences them personally, as well as the impact it will have across the country.

Solidarity with the Save DSA activists.

Hello, I am a fourth-year student, studying for an MSci Mathematics degree here at theUniversity of Birmingham. I, like many other students at Birmingham and across the country, receive Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) funding, to help with potential barriers to education I face as a student with a disability. (Specifically, I have Asperger’s syndrome).

DSAs are grants to help toward meeting the additional studying costs or expenses that students face as a direct result of a disability or specific learning difficulty. They are intended to help disabled students study on an equal basis with other students. Full-time, part-time and postgraduate students all qualify for help. DSA is paid on top of the standard student finance package and is not means-tested.

The Disabled Students Allowance consists of three elements:

1. an Equipment Allowance (for things like laptops, specialist software, Dictaphones and magnifiers)

2. a Non-medical Helpers Allowance (which, among other things, can fund mental health mentors, specialist learning support for people with learning disabilities, note takers or BSL interpreters)

3. a General Allowance (for textbooks in accessible formats, printing, e.t.c.)

In addition to this, in certain circumstances, there is the possibility that additional travel-related expenses can be met.

In December 2015, the Government announced its final proposals on DSA. From the next academic year (2016/17), universities will be expected to provide a significant amount of support for disabled students in place of DSA funding. The main changes involve the provision of non-medical help. Higher education institutions will now have to provide a number of services such as scribes, proof-readers, note-takers and study assistants, as well as other support services for disabled students.

Universities will also be expected to provide ‘standard’ computer peripherals, such as standard keyboards, monitors and mice previously covered by DSA. They will also have to provide the majority of ‘bundle’ equipment associated with computers, such as USB hubs, extension leads, surge protectors and computer stands/risers needed by disabled students. On top of this, the Government has already introduced a £200 contribution fee for disabled students entitled to computers under DSA. This may cause difficulties for some students in particular hardship accessing support.

Although the University of Birmingham is a large and wealthy institution, this is not the same throughout every higher education institution in the country. For example, small, specialist institutions may have to face going bankrupt if they try and match the current level of DSA. The alternative for these institutions is to not let disabled students in – meaning yet another barrier for disabled students to access education.

These changes will especially affect certain groups of students – those who are deaf or dyslexic, those with specific learning difficulties, and those with mental health problems who need non-medical helpers. They will also disproportionately affect students from working-class backgrounds and less wealthy areas, black and ethnic minority (BEM) students and mature students.

To make a long story short, these proposed cuts fly in the face of universities being places where anyone with sufficient academic know-how can come to study for a degree in any subject they choose, not just in Birmingham but across the entire country. Every university I visited for an open day said they took pride in this, including Birmingham. It is also something that I personally believe in passionately. Universities can and should be institutions that serve the public good through higher education; I find it very hard to see how the proposed cuts to DSA will help them achieve that aim.

For all of the reasons outlined above, we at University of Birmingham Save DSA (UoB Save DSA) have started a campaign, calling on our Vice-Chancellor, Sir David Eastwood, along with his colleagues in management, to lobby the government, to persuade them not to go ahead with their proposed cuts. Specifically, we have four aims in our campaign:

1. The management publicly denounces the cutting of the Disabled Students Allowance, and releases a statement on the University of Birmingham homepage to that effect.
2. The management lobbies and pressures the government by all means at their disposal to at least keep the Disabled Students Allowance in its current form.
3. The university sets up a working group with disabled students, the Guild of Students, the Disability and Mental Health Students’ Association (DAMSA), Unison representatives, representatives of the University and College Union (UCU), and relevant staff to propose how provisions for disabled students can be improved and extended.
4. If the government nevertheless goes ahead with the cutting of DSA, the university at least matches the payments for every student who would have been entitled to them under the current guidelines.

As part of our campaign, we have set up an online petition, which can be accessed at the following web link: https://www.change.org/p/david-eastwood-save-dsa.

I decided to get involved with the campaign, since (as previously mentioned) I have Asperger’s syndrome and therefore receive DSA. The things provided by this DSA money include a special pen and notebook that allow me to record lectures, then upload them to a laptop (also funded by my DSA), so I can listen to the recordings at a later date. Through DSA, I also get funding for a note-taker, who gives me their notes at the end of every lecture. I find these things especially useful when it comes to revision season, since it means that I have three different sources of revision material, the third being my own notes. This in turn helps me understand the material that has been covered in lectures, as it helps my brain process everything.

I also get funding for a mentor through DSA, who I meet up with once per week. I am able to ask her about any aspect of life at university that I find difficult to deal with, or when I am unsure what to do about something. For example, in the first few weeks of my first year, she did a lot to help me settle into student life, something I am sure that a lot of you reading this (with or without a disability) can relate to. She has also helped me find private-sector accommodation, as well as helping me through a few awkward social situations, such as when I had a lecturer I did not like.

The other thing I have had funded through DSA is a printer, along with the paper and ink cartridges that go with it. This has allowed me to avoid the stress and financial cost of paying for printer credits and waiting for campus printers whenever I have needed to print something. Instead, I have been able to simply print things off in my own time, in my own accommodation.

To make a long story short, without DSA, I would not have been able to go to university. I would not be studying for an MSci Mathematics degree. I certainly would not be considering PhD study after I graduate. I would not have joined the Ballroom and Latin American Dancing Society (BALADS) or the Computer and Video Games Society (CVGSoc) and I would not have had the chance to be on the committees of the Conservation Volunteers (BUCV) or the Film Society (Filmsoc). Above all else, I would not have met the many good friends I have here, who have made my years at university so far probably the best of my life. I know that this paragraph will be too sentimental for some tastes, but I would like to tell you all how important this campaign is to me; I could probably write an entire book on why I love my life at university and why I want to keep it that way for everyone, disabled or otherwise.

A fellow campaigner of mine, who also receives DSA, has said the following: “Without DSA I would have no note-taker, no scribe, no access to a tutor to allow me to catch up on work I miss when in hospital, no accessible transport, adapted computer and peripherals, and no chance at passing my degree!”

We meet up every Wednesday during term time to discuss our campaign. If you would like to get more involved with us, then please come along and join us! We have a community page on Facebook, with the following link: https://www.facebook.com/UoBSaveDSA/; at the top of this page is a link to the aforementioned petition. For those of you who would like to give more of your time to the campaign, then a link to our own Facebook group can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1049634691749894/. We are a closed group, so you have to be a member in order to see the posts, but if you send one of use a private message, we will be able to add you.

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