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AHEAD: Association for Higher Education Access & Disability
AHEAD: Association for Higher Education Access & Disability

AHEAD Response to the proposed model for the Fund for students with disabilities in 2009/10

1. Allocation of the Fund for students with disabilities in 2009/2010

Following a meeting on the 8th June 2009, the National Access Office is proposing to continue the model introduced last year for the fund for students with disabilities. This year 2009/10, €12.5 million is to be allocated to the fund which is a 6% increase on the amount allocated in 2008. The gross average allocation in 2008/9 was reduced by 21%, however according to HEA figures this is 17% in actual spend.

While this may appear sufficient in the current economic climate, nevertheless AHEAD considers this amount to be totally inadequate given that the NAO anticipate that there will be a 30 % increase in students applying to the fund in 2009/10, up to 5,000 from 3,960 in 2008/9.

Maintaining the funding at current levels as proposed will, in reality, mean a 25% reduction in funding for students with visible disabilities and a 65% reduction in funding (compared to two years ago) for students with specific learning disability.

While we respect that in the current economic climate of budget cutbacks, no one can escape entirely; the proposed model of funding is not commensurate with the cost of resources needed to support the increasing of students with disabilities and is unfair to those students. If implemented it risks discriminating against students with disabilities, in particular those with hidden disabilities and could lead to a high drop out rate. We recommend that additional funding is sourced elsewhere to cover this shortfall and to bring funding for students with hidden disabilities up to at least to 2008/9 levels.

The model of allocation in 2009/10 is based on different models of funding for two different categories of student, those with visible disabilities and high support needs and those with hidden disabilities and lower support needs.

1.1 Students with high support needs

  • Blind and who have visual impairments
  • Deaf and hearing impairments
  • Multi Disability
  • Physical disability and Mobility Impairment

1.2 Process

Students with high support needs will make an application to the fund based on an assessment of their needs carried out by the college. The amount is not capped and once the application is approved the Fund will provide 75% of the amount requested.

1.3 Applications from students with low support needs

  • Add/ADHD
  • Autistic Spectrum
  • Mental Health
  • Other
  • Significant Ongoing Illness
  • Specific Learning Difficulties

1.4 Process: The allocation in 2009/10 for students with low support needs will be a fixed amount to be provided to the colleges on the following basis


Per capita Rate new students 2009/10

Per capita Rate for Renewal students




Autistic spectrum



Mental Health






Significant ongoing illness



Specific Learning Difficulties



1.5 Previous Years

In previous years the only group to whom a fixed rate applied are students with specific learning difficulties. This amount was based on the average costs of providing supports, as follows:

New students Rate in 2008/9

New students Rate 2007/8

Renewal 08/09

Renewal 07/08





The funding available to provide supports to the students with specific learning difficulties or approximately 55% of the applications has been dramatically reduced by 65% over two years.

2. Impact of reduction on Students with disabilities

This new model has differentiated students into two categories, visible disabilities and high support needs and hidden disabilities and low cost needs. While it is positive that the funding for students with high support needs has not been capped, and that the NAO has agreed to greater flexibility allowing colleges to move funding from one student to another where it is not spent. Nonetheless it will mean a considerable loss of funding to all students with disabilities. Students with visible disabilities and high support needs will loose 25% funding, yet their accommodation needs remain the same. Negotiating college life is difficult enough for a student who is blind or deaf without the added worry of insufficient funding. There is a high risk here of drop outs and of colleges deciding they cannot afford to offer the student a supplementary place.

Unfortunately, on the other hand, students with hidden disabilities are more vulnerable to cutbacks as their support needs are less obvious. These students in particular those with dyslexia, will experience a significant loss of funding, up to 65% reduction in funding over the last two years. Yet their impairment is still there and their support needs remain the same. The consequences for these students will be severe. If they only get half the supports that they need, then they cannot be expected to produce the same level of performance and outcomes.

For students with specific learning difficulties and other hidden disabilities the question is whether or not this level of reduced funding is adequate to provide the reasonable accommodations they need and are entitled to under equality legislation? For example, the average payment to new students two years ago was €3,200 now it is reduced by over 60% to €1,255.

Typically a new student with significant dyslexia has required:

  • Training in assistive technology, (assuming the college has a fully equipped assistive technology lab), 20 sessions @ €25 per hour.
  • 30 or more hours tuition a year with a qualified dyslexia support tutor @€45 per hour
  • Specialised equipment, mini disk to take notes, a scanner to scan texts etc.

These supports are based on a professional assessment of need and are vital for the student to survive and keep up with the demands of the course, they do not advantage him/her but enable him/her to deal difficulties caused by the impairment. These supports are expensive as the hourly rate for tuition is around €45 per hour. In this case the cost of tuition alone would cost €1,850 which exceeds the allocated amount and would have to be covered by the college. A larger college will have the capacity to hire staff and to deliver tuition, but this will now be extremely difficult in a small college with perhaps only 20 students with specific learning difficulties.

Similarly, many students with Aspergers Syndrome may require a Personal Assistant as an accommodation, and under this model the funding simply will not be available.

Students from the more traditional backgrounds will have to rely on family to cover the extra costs of tuition, however students from more disadvantaged backgrounds who are totally reliant upon the college supports will drop out due to insufficient supports.

Without doubt these supports have a cost, but the cost of not providing them is far greater in terms of the long term costs of social welfare payments, disability payments and the loss of potential of the student.

3. Background to the fund

As acknowledged by the HEA in their recent Access Plan 2008-2013 “This significant increase in the numbers of students with disabilities has been due in part to the fund for students with disabilities” this is also the view of the OECD who in a recent report identified the key role of additional supports and funding in the access and retention of students with disabilities.

The OECD report highlights the importance to students with disabilities of accessing third level education it is according to the author “ provision for the disabled in higher education is not just a matter of rights, however their access to the labour market depends on it as unemployment is much lower amongst those with university degrees than those without”.

We cannot over-estimate the role the fund plays in helping to change attitudes and encourage staff to work with disabled students through the provision of additional supports. Unfortunately there are still many barriers in the third level sector as the system of teaching and learning was not designed for students who learn differently. In fact we cannot underestimate the negative attitudes that still exist towards disability. Students with disability are still perceived as the problem, as too much work and as a lack of ability.

4.The Benefits of the Fund for students with disabilities

The Fund established in 1994/5 by the Department of Education and Science has made a profound contribution to the increase in the participation and retention of students with disabilities in higher education. It provides the funding for the essential supports and accommodations without which these students simply would not be able to take part. Over the years the NAO ensured that the fund kept pace with the increase in the numbers of students with disabilities applying to it. Support works and data within third level colleges indicates the correlation between supports and outcomes and the success that has been achieved in third level by students with disabilities who are performing as well as any other student.

5.Review of the fund

The proposed funding model is based on the calculations of the cost of provision alone and does not take account for other important factors such as the effectiveness of supports, the context of disability support services within the college and the availability of alternative mainstream provision. AHEAD would welcome a full Review of the Fund for students with Disabilities so that the support mechanisms can be fully understood in terms of both equity of learning and cost effectiveness. It is timely to proactively evaluate the effectiveness of the fund taking account of the overall changes in the context of mainstream third level provision of technology, teaching and learning, and establish minimum criteria for provision. The current climate of cutbacks requires measured thinking and innovative solutions rather than quick, indiscriminate and discriminatory cuts. For example the mainstream provision of mini-discs, ipods and notes via blackboard etc could eventually make the need for note-takers obsolete.

6.Mainstream teaching and learning

Because the mainstream teaching and learning provision has not traditionally been designed to meet the needs of students with disabilities, there has been an over reliance on the fund for students with disabilities to provide add on supports and accommodations. While some cutbacks in the funding can be compensated for within colleges by the mainstreaming of technology and the greater use of technology such as blackboard to put notes on line, instead of relying on note-takers. However these inclusive practices are not yet sufficiently in place to justify any reduction in the funding available to individual students. Embedding inclusive practices will require time, cultural change, leadership and quality assurance across the sector.

7.Impact of the current proposals

We cannot afford to go backwards and loose the gains made in third level education for students with disabilities over the past ten years. In 1998 The Report of the Commission on the status of People with Disabilities pointed to a lack of resources in the system as one of the main barriers to participation. Students with disabilities including those with specific learning disabilities have needs unique to their disability which MUST be met in order to enable them to participate in education on an equal footing. The model proposed is not only unfair to these students who will proportionately loose significant funding but it is based on insufficient funding to cover the needs of the increasing number of students who have an expectation of supports in third level education.

This is particularly the case in the Institutes of Technology where students have not had equivalence of supports with the university sector and are therefore much more vulnerable in a shrinking funding environment. The lack of infrastructure within the IOT’s is well documented and many have no designated full time staff to provide study support, assistive technology or other essential supports, but rely wholly upon the fund to provide staff.

8. Response to the proposed model of funding

While we respect that in the current economic climate of budget cutbacks, no one can escape entirely; the proposed model of funding is simply not commensurate with the resources needed to support the rapid rate of increase of students with disabilities. If implemented it risks discriminating against students with disabilities and could set Inclusive Practice in higher education back several years. We recommend that additional funding is sourced elsewhere to cover this shortfall and to bring funding for students with hidden disabilities up to at least to 2008/9 levels.

We welcome the greater flexibility given to colleges in managing the fund and the proposal to reduce the amount of bureaucracy involved in monitoring the fund. Furthermore we ask that the review of the fund be given priority and that these cuts are not implemented until the outcomes of the review would inform its implementation into the future.

There is also a real need to adopt a universal approach to teaching and assessment as outlined in the Disabilities Act 2005, as this will reduce the need for add on supports for individual students. But until universal design is embedded within the mainstream teaching and learning practice, these proposed reductions in funding will place the problem once again with the student and will risk undermining capacity building throughout the sector.