Before this summer, Employment Support Allowance (ESA) was a lifeline for many disabled students. Those receiving Disability Living Allowance and Personal Independence Payments were automatically treated as having a limited capability to work, and could claim ESA as a top up to the student loan, helping them to manage the additional costs that living with a disability creates.
In August, the Conservative government began replacing ESA with a version of Universal Credit (UC) that refuses to provide disabled students with the support essential for them to attend university. Universal Credit, which currently only exists in certain parts of the country, is not automatically eligible to students on DSA or PIP. Instead, students are required to prove that they are eligible through a Work Capability Assessment (WCA).
The cruel and bizzare twist to this, and the thing that makes UC so harmful, is that students living in UC areas are barred from undertaking these assessments. As Ken Butler, Disability Rights UK’s welfare adviser, has summed this up: “They cannot be entitled to universal credit unless they have a WCA but they cannot have a WCA unless they are entitled to universal credit”.
Disabled students are being forced into a senseless ‘postcode lottery’, in which the place they choose to live and study affects their ability to study at all. No prospective student should have to make their decision about what university they will attend based on whether they will be able to survive in that particular area. The legislation reveals the cruelty behind the austerity currently being imposed on the most vulnerable; this government is creating structures that target disabled students directly, all but barring them from accessing higher education.
Before the Universal Credit was introduced, the percentage of disabled people with a university degree was 16 per cent, compared to 30 per cent for those without disabilities. It is beyond doubt that this new legislation will see that number diminishing.
While education for education’s sake should be equally accessible to disabled people, it should be acknowledged that university is also often a means to an end. Possessing a university degree undeniably increases the likelihood of a relatively well-paid job relevant to one’s interests and abilities. In making university a near impossibility for some disabled people, the government is also reducing their chances of attaining higher employment. As well as denying students their right to education, they are setting in motion a cycle which will leave those with disabilities less able to support themselves in the future.
This government’s policies are reducing the quality of life for disabled people, starting with students. In doing so, they are forcing disabled people into further dependence, and laying the ground for the perpetuation of the false distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor that the Conservatives thrive from.
What is perhaps most startling about this legislation is the lack of attention it has been given. Despite Disability Rights UK campaigning hard over the summer to ensure that all disabled full-time students are eligible for Universal Credit, it was hardly touched by the national press, with left and right-leaning publications remaining equally quiet on the issue. The injustices faced everyday by disabled people are never afforded the attention they deserve.
We cannot stay quiet while the Conservatives continue to systematically and knowingly chip away at the opportunities and quality of life of disabled people in this country. All students should expect to receive the support they need, and being disabled should not be a barrier to accessing education or a skilled, well-paid job.
Image : Sholeh via flikr