DSA outsourcing ‘put targets before disabled applicants’

MPs hear concerns about quality of assessment process under new suppliers Capita and Study Tech

April 23, 2024
A wheelchair users works at a computer
Source: iStock/ia_64

Reforms to the administration of Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) in England and Wales have prioritised hitting targets over the interests of applicants, MPs have heard.

Administration of DSA, which helps people with disabilities, neurodivergence, mental health conditions or long-term health problems cover the costs of study technology or equipment, was recently outsourced to two firms: Capita and Study Tech. Since February they have been responsible for carrying out needs assessments, after years of complaints that the previous process was complex, bureaucratic and fragmented.

But Sarah Todd, chair of the National Association of Disability Practitioners, told the House of Commons Education Committee that the companies were being incentivised to streamline assessments in order to hit time-based key performance indicators (KPIs) and make more money.

“That’s going to shape the market in terms of what products are available and also mean that students aren’t getting support fit for purpose,” she said.

“It’s going to put extra pressure on university support teams and it’s going to end up with those students going back round the system to find support that is appropriate.”

MPs on the committee called the hearing in response to reports that the contracts were awarded to Capita and Study Tech on the basis that both companies would carry out DSA assessments at a fraction of the previous cost.

The hearing was told that increasing numbers of assessments were being conducted over the phone or via video calls, which Lesley Morrice, chair of the National Network of Assessment Centres, deemed “problematic”, particularly because of concerns that this was being done to drive down costs.

“We feel it’s not going to drive a quality process because the new suppliers are going to try and get through as many as they can in a day. So we do feel quality will be affected, both by the time limitations and also, if it’s a telephone or a Zoom assessment, [because] it doesn’t fit all students,” she said.

Tara Chattaway, head of education at the Thomas Pocklington Trust, a charity for blind and partially sighted people focused on education and employment, also voiced her concern about the “process-driven” KPIs.

“Our question has always been about the quality of those assessments. Something might be happening much quicker, which is great, but are people having hour-and-a-half, face-to-face, in-depth assessment processes?” she asked.

The disruption caused by the shift to the new contracts, and the wider loss of knowledge and expertise from the closure of some assessment centres, also concerned Ms Chattaway.

“Our message is that DSA is so important; it’s the difference between someone staying in university and dropping out,” she said.

“The crux for us is this: what are we measuring success on? Are we going back to the student journey and making sure that’s right or are we being driven by KPIs?”

Addressing MPs, Baroness Barran, the minister for student finance, said that the previous system had resulted in a very inconsistent and stressful experience for many students.

She said that the contract for the new system put 60 per cent weighting on quality, with 30 per cent on price and 10 per cent on social value.

Laura Blackman, managing director of education programmes at Capita, said students were “at the heart” of the new system.

“We’re focused on quality, we’re focused on student satisfaction and making sure we’re delivering the outcomes that SLC [the Student Loans Company] has asked us to deliver,” she said.


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles