The Student Loans Company (SLC) welcomed the opportunity to listen directly to students with vision impairment about the range of issues they have experienced when applying for student finance in a recent meeting.
Facilitated by Thomas Pocklington Trust (TPT) Student Support Services, the meeting brought together representatives from SLC and students to discuss the accessibility of the application process.
Madeleine Firth, External Affairs Manager, said:
“We are always trying to improve what we do. This conversation helps us to understand what the biggest challenges for students are and will enable us to feed back to our government shareholders on priorities.”
SLC administers Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) on behalf of the UK Government. TPT has been campaigning for change to the DSA since 2019. Earlier this year SLC kindly hosted a webinar session for students to learn more about applying for student finance. This session was the stimulus to get representatives from SLC around the table to hear first-hand about the issues faced by students with vision impairment when applying for student finance and DSA.
A parent and her daughter who are both vision impaired explained the difficulties they had navigating around SLC’s huge website with a Screenreader, being given hard copy forms to complete and a lack of communication throughout the process. They explained “We had to get a carer to complete the form for us. You want to do these things independently. You should be able to do these things independently.”
Tracey’s experience was not dissimilar. She described applying for finance as an absolute nightmare. She was sent an inaccessible pdf to complete and offered the form in Braille. But she cannot use paper and pen nor read Braille. Eventually she was sent a Word version of the pdf but this had inaccessible text boxes. She battled through the form by deleting boxes but when she submitted this was told she had been sent the wrong form. Similarly, to others experiences she had to ask someone else to fill in the form for her. There was also an issue that she had applied for DSA first rather than the student finance process.
The students agreed it would help if they could have one point of contact who understood the case rather than having to speak to a different person each time.
Another student highlighted training issues across staff at SLC after she was told the Word version of the application form did not exist. She suggested: “What you can do is change the system so that when you tick the box for disabled – you get another online form and the ability to upload evidence. The Word version of form should be made available online as well as the pdf.”
Emily applied for DSA and had her needs assessment which identified she needed notetakers and specialist vison support. When she contacted the supplier listed on her assessment plan, they told her that they couldn’t provide the note taker support. Elaine then had to go back to her needs and assessor, Student Finance England said they would review the list of suppliers, but she only received an update two months later. A lot of stress was caused without knowing whether her support would be in place in time for university.
Other students on the call reported similar issues of having to go back and forth to complete the process, original evidence having to be physically posted rather than submitted electronically and having to ask a sighted person to fill in the form which includes sensitive information like their bank details.
Five people from SLC attended the session and listened intently to the students’ stories.
At the end of the meeting Elaine Sweeney, Head of Service Design at SLC, concluded: “This was a powerful call that will live with me for a long time. I feel terrible that you have had such a poor experience. This is not much consolation to you, but we are listening, and we will engage. It’s about more than ensuring we are compliant; it’s about doing the right thing and making sure everyone has access.”
Marcus Gavin, user experience and research lead, said: “This was really useful. There are a number of things I have taken away from this meeting: the importance of having accessible online services; the importance of ownership by one or two people so that students do not have to explain their situation every time. And access to information and guidance – the student finance website is a big repository of information and it can be difficult to navigate.”
Amy Hedges, DSA Manager, added: “There are a few things we can do locally. We can improve training. Due to the sheer volume of customers we have not been able to offer a single point of contact as standard. We will look at that. And regarding the Word versions of form – we will do an education piece to make sure all staff know this form is available.”
Tara Chattaway, Student Support Manager at TPT, wrapped up the meeting and thanked both the SLC and students for being involved with the open dialogue. She said: “It is great to have this direct link to SLC to be able to share these stories. We will continue to talk to SLC and keep the lines of communication open.”
TPT has joined SLC’s stakeholder group and will continue to advocate for students and press for change.