Supporting learning in HE


Kathryn Bennett provides a useful guide to the Disabled Students’ Allowance

Attending higher education (HE) can and should be an exciting time. It can also, though, be the source of a great deal of stress, particularly for many students with SEN or disabilities who can find themselves disadvantaged when it comes to accessing learning.

Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) is a government scheme which enables these students to take advantage of specialist technologies and support throughout their higher education journey. This scheme is funded by the Government and suppliers invoice directly to the funding bodies.

Higher education providers are becoming more and more inclusive and can provide a wide variety of support for students with and without SEN and disabilities. In some cases, though, the use of specialist software and equipment that is not be available on campus may be required, so this needs to be installed on the student’s own computer so that they have regular, continued access to it. Students who are studying on a distance learning course may require all support to be available externally. 

Students may require non-medical help, such as a sighted guide, communication support, specialist note-takers, mobility trainers, specialist one-to-one study skills, specialist mentoring, BSL interpreters and specialist support professionals for sensory impairment. Again, not all institutions provide this kind of support in-house and providers, both external and internal, need to be funded by the DSA. Some students will need to attend a needs assessment in order to receive this support.

It is a good idea for students to apply for DSA as soon as possible, so that needs can be assessed and support can be put in place ready for the start of their course.

Students are always advised to discuss their additional support needs with their disability advisors at university or college so that reasonable adjustments can be made and any further support that falls outside the scope of DSA can be discussed.

Eligibility for DSA

Any UK undergraduate or postgraduate student (including Open University or distance learning) with a visual or hearing impairment, long-standing health condition, a physical disability, mental health difficulties, specific learning difficulties and/or autism/Asperger’s may be eligible. Support can include specialist equipment, specialist software, assistive technology training and specialist human support. 

If a computer is recommended as part of the support package, students are required to pay the first £200 towards this cost. For some students, this cost can be a worry and they are advised to speak to their university or college to see if they have a scheme such as a hardship fund which might be able to help with payment, or if they have any other advice on how to get financial help in meeting this cost.

Students need to make an application for the relevant academic year via a funding body, such as Student Finance England, NHS Student Bursaries or Social Work Bursaries, and include their medical evidence. Students with a specific learning difficulty (SpLD) will need a post-16 full diagnostic report from a psychologist or suitably qualified specialist teacher. For other conditions or disabilities, a report or letter from their doctor or consultant will be required to confirm their diagnosis.

The assessment

Once approved, students may be asked to attend an assessment at any approved DSA assessment centre; this could be at their university or closer to their home. A full list of approved centres can be found on the DSA-QAG website (see further information section below). Students are advised to attend the assessment before commencing their course so that support is in place before the first term. Assessment centres will also require a copy of the medical evidence along with the approval letter (they do not automatically receive copies from SFE/NHS); they require these so that assessors can be prepared to conduct the assessment and carry out any necessary research prior to meeting the student. The assessment takes around 1.5 hours and is conducted in a fully equipped centre. Although the term “assessment” is used, this is not another attempt to diagnose and does not include any tests. It is required to determine what specialist equipment, software and support would provide the student with strategies to help them overcome their barriers learning due to SEN or disability. Students will be given demonstrations of the recommended equipment and software and will be able to discuss with the assessor what strategies they prefer.

After the assessment

A detailed report is then written and sent to the student’s funding body within ten working days. Students will also receive a copy, as will their higher education provider (consent allowing). The funding body will then confirm to the student what support has been agreed. Students should allow a few weeks for this to be produced, especially during peak times. This confirmation is usually sent by post and email and can sometimes be made available on the individual’s student finance online account, if they have one.

Putting support in place

Contact information for each of the student’s suppliers will be provided on the confirmation letter so they can put support in place and arrange delivery of their equipment and any training. It is important to note that suppliers may require a copy of the letter to facilitate delivery.

Students may be awarded specialist support, which could include specialist mentors and specialist study skills tutors. Other support may also be identified and recommended.

Specialist mentors support students with a mental health difficulty, ADHD or autism/Asperger’s. This support can address a range of issues such as coping with anxiety and stressful situations, concentration difficulties, time management, prioritising workload and creating a suitable work-life balance.

Specialist study skills tutors support students with SpLDs, ADHD or autism/Asperger’s. This support can address a range of issues, including acquiring, recalling and retaining information in written and spoken language as well as the range of memory, organisational, attention and numeracy difficulties students often face in HE.

Support workers should aim to develop the skill of the student and promote their independent learning.

Support should be tailored to their individual needs with individual learning plans devised and regularly reviewed. The role of each support worker is to help students recognise the barriers to their learning due to their SEN or disability and to support them in creating strategies to address these barriers.

With the right support in place, students should feel confident that their needs are being met and excited about starting their journey at their chosen university or college.

Further information

Kathryn Bennett has worked in the disability support sector for over seven years across various roles and currently coordinates students’ non-medical help support at Sound Support:

More information on the topics discussed above is available from:

Kathryn Bennett
Author: Kathryn Bennett

+ posts


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here