The Fund for Students with Disabilities (FSD) helped nearly 10,500 students last year, almost treble the number assisted in 2008, according to a report for the Higher Education Authority (HEA). Although funding has increased slightly over the last three years to €10.4m, it remains less than the €10.6m provided in 2013 when less than 8,000 students benefited.
The HEA is to lead the implementation of 14 recommendations arising from the review, including an extension of the fund to part-time students. It administers the fund on behalf of the Department of Education, with third-level and further education colleges helping students to access funding and organising appropriate supports on campus.
Half of the students who benefit have specific learning difficulties (dyslexia or dyscalculia), and one-in-10 have multiple disabilities, with mental health or significant ongoing illnesses each accounting for the issues affecting over 8% of support students.
The main supports were around exams, but other common help included assisted technology, extra academic or learning support, or personal assistants.
“The FSD has had a positive impact on students’ decisions to progress to further/ higher education and without support they would have struggled to remain,” said the report by RSM UK Consultants.
While most students who took part in the study were happy with the level of support they received, nearly one in five felt they did not get enough assistance to meet their needs. There was also a lack of clarity about the process for seeking funding or eligibility criteria among participants before they benefited.
Difficulties were reported by students and administrative staff about the strict requirements for diagnosis and supporting documentation, echoing issues that led to reforms of how extra teaching supports are allocated to schools for students with special educational needs.
The difficulties led to delays for college students, and further education staff said that the length of the process meant supports were often not in place for much of their students’ courses, usually shorter in duration than higher education programmes.
A working group has been set up, chaired by the HEA, to implement the recommendations of the new report. As well as developing a system that would see funding allocated earlier in the financial year, it is proposed that around 5% of the total budget be held back by the HEA each year to be available for exceptional circumstances.
It will also make provision for the eventual transfer of responsibility for the fund’s disbursement in the further education sector to SOLAS, the further education and training agency.
The report recommends any new funding model should take account of each college’s historical trends on numbers of students supports, to facilitate issuing earlier grants that reflect likely demand on the FSD.
However, greater accountability would also be expected, with the HEA carrying out regular random checks to ensure funding is used in line with guidelines and to monitor the fund’s effectiveness in terms of student access and progression.