Mr Willetts, the universities and science minister, says today in a written ministerial statement that he wants to “modernise” the Disabled Students’ Allowance.
The NUS said dyslexic students needing support for computer equipment to aid their studies would lose out, and warned the costs of specialist accommodation for disabled students may not be met by DSA.
The changes “look to rebalance responsibilities between government funding and institutional support,” Mr Willetts says in his statement.
Times Higher Education reported last week that the level of support offered to some disabled students varies widely between different universities.
DSA can pay for assistance including specialist equipment such as computer software; non-medical helpers, like a note-taker or reader; or extra travel costs.
The maximum funding per student is £5,161 for specialist equipment (for the whole of a course), £20,520 for the non-medical helper allowance (per year) and £1,724 for a general allowance (per year).
Total government funding for DSA, the level of which varies from year to year depending on claims, came to £125 million in 2011-12, covering over 53,000 full-time undergraduates.
The government said that in 2008-09, funding came to £91.7 million, covering 40,600 students.
Mr Willetts identifies a number of key changes in his announcement.
The government will only pay “for higher specification or higher cost computers where a student needs one solely by virtue of their disability,” he says. The government is “changing our approach to the funding of a number of computer equipment, software and consumable items through DSAs that have become funded as ‘standard’ to most students,” he adds.
Students with specific learning difficulties will continue to receive support through DSAs where their support needs “are considered to be more complex,” Mr Willetts says.
The government will only fund “the most specialist Non-Medical Help”, he adds.
“The additional costs of specialist accommodation will no longer be met by DSAs, other than in exceptional circumstances,” he says.
And the government will “define disability in relation to the definition provided by the Equality Act 2010, for the purposes of receiving DSAs”.
The changes, which would apply from September 2015, are subject to an Equality Impact Assessment, which assesses policies to make sure they do not unfairly disadvantage minority groups.
Hannah Paterson, NUS Disabled Students’ Officer, said: “The prospect of deeply unfair cuts to support for disabled students should concern us all.”
She added: “It is arrogant and out of touch to assume that disabled students can access ‘basic’ equipment or that universities will accept the new responsibilities ministers are seeking to place on them.”