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Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) for PhD Students

If you’re studying a PhD with a disability in the UK, you may be eligible to receive Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). This is a form of additional financial support provided to students by the UK Government.

Disabled Students’ Allowances are designed to help cover expenses incurred through a disability or chronic illness. This can include the cost of purchasing any necessary equipment (such as a computer), paying additional travel costs, or providing specialist staff to assist you.

This guide will help you investigate whether you qualify for Disabled Students’ Allowance as a PhD student, find out how much support you can receive and begin your application process. We’ve also included a few common FAQs about DSA for PhD students to help you with any other queries.

You can read more about studying a PhD with a disability and your legal rights as a disabled PhD student elsewhere in this guide.

Who is eligible for Disabled Students’ Allowance?

You will usually be eligible for Disabled Students’ Allowance if you legally qualify as disabled, are ordinarily resident in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland and are not receiving equivalent funding from another source.

More detailed information on these criteria is provided below.

Disability criteria

To qualify for Disabled Students’ Allowance you will need to have a disability that fits the criteria defined in the Equality Act. This means you will need to have a long-term condition that significantly impairs your ability to complete your studies.

This could be:

  • A physical disability
  • A mental health condition
  • A chronic illness
  • A learning difficulty

You can read more about the legal definition of disability and the rights of disabled students in the UK in our detailed guide.

Proof of disability

You will need to provide proof of your disability to receive Disabled Students’ Allowance. This will usually be quite a simple process. In many cases your existing doctor will be able to supply medical proof of your condition and its impact, and will do so free of charge.

If you suffer from a learning difficulty such as dyslexia you will need to supply a diagnostic assessment made since you were 16. You may already have this if you have received specialist support at previous stages of your education. If you require a new assessment you should be able to receive one from a qualified individual (such as a psychologist, special needs teacher or education specialist).

Residency

In order to qualify for DSA you must be ordinarily resident in the UK prior to beginning your PhD.

This means that the UK is your normal place of residence and you have the right to live there. The benchmark for this is usually having lived, legally, in the UK for three years prior to your application.

Note that this residency criteria means that you will not qualify for DSA if you are an EU student about to study a PhD in the UK, but ordinarily resident elsewhere.

Mode of study

You can receive Disabled Students’ Allowance to study a PhD on a full or part-time basis. If so, your course must last at least one year. This means that there must be a year or more of your PhD remaining (based on your registration status) when you apply.

Additional criteria also apply regarding the intensity of part-time programmes:

  • Part-time PhD students in England and Wales must be studying at a rate equivalent to at least 25% of full-time study. Under normal circumstances this will mean you expect to complete a standard three year PhD in no more than 12 years of part-time study.
  • Part-time PhD students in Scotland and Northern Ireland must be studying at a rate equivalent to at least 50% of full-time study. Under normal circumstances this will mean you expect to complete a standard three year PhD in no more than six years of part-time study.

Financial circumstances

Disabled Students’ Allowance is designed to help you cover additional costs associated with PhD study as a disabled student. It is therefore needs-tested rather than means-tested. This means that you can receive DSA as a PhD student regardless of your personal financial circumstances, provided you have a need for support arising from your disability.

DSA and other PhD funding

You can apply for DSA from a Student Finance Body regardless of any PhD funding you receive, unless your PhD is already funded by the NHS or one of the seven UK Research Councils. These organisations provide their own Disabled Students’ Allowance and you should apply to them in the first instance. You cannot combine Disabled Students’ Allowances from different sources.

Your right to any form of DSA is unaffected by any other PhD funding you receive (such as university scholarships), unless that funding is specifically intended to assist you with costs arising from a disability. This means that:

  • If you receive a scholarship from your university to cover tuition fees and living costs, you can still apply for Disabled Students’ Allowance to meet other costs associated with your disability.
  • If you receive financial support from your university that is specifically intended to cover all costs associated with your disability, you cannot apply for additional Disabled Students’ Allowance from the Government.

How much money does Disabled Students’ Allowance provide?

Disabled Students’ Allowance is paid up to a maximum rate that varies slightly in individual UK countries. With the exception of Scotland, UK Student Finance bodies pay Postgraduate DSA as a single grant (whereas undergraduate rates are broken down according to different types of expense).

Postgraduate Disabled Students' Allowance in individual UK countries

The maximum rate of Disabled Students’ Allowance for postgraduates in individual UK countries varies year on year. It is currently as follows:

  • Disabled PhD students in England may receive up to £10,362 per year.
  • Disabled PhD students in Northern Ireland may receive up to £10,469 per year.
  • Disabled PhD students in Wales may receive up to £10,590 per year.
  • Disabled PhD students in Scotland receive DSA at the undergraduate rate. This breaks down into a basic allowance of up to £1,725, a large items allowance of up to £5,160 and a non-medical personal help allowance of up to £20,520. You may also submit additional claims for travel expenses.

Each of these figures is the maximum rate payable for a year of full-time study. In practice DSA is needs-tested. The amount you receive will be based on the specific costs you will incur as a disabled PhD student. This means you will probably receive less than the maximum amount, but cannot normally receive more than it.

How much Disabled Students’ Allowance do part-time PhD students receive?

DSA for part-time PhD students is paid on a pro-rata basis. The rate depends on the speed at which you are studying in comparison with an equivalent full-time student.

So, if you are completing your PhD at 50% of the full-time rate (in six years instead of three, for example) you could receive a maximum of 50% of the maximum payable DSA per year. This amount will still be needs-tested.

What costs does Disabled Students’ Allowance cover?

Disabled Students’ Allowance is designed to cover additional expenses you incur as a student that derive from your disability. These can take a variety of forms, but the four Student Finance bodies group them under broadly similar categories. These include:

  • Equipment costs - DSA can help pay for specialist equipment you require as part of your PhD. Common examples include computer hardware and software to assist with learning difficulties or sensory impairment. DSA will not necessarily cover mobility aids such as wheelchairs unless these are very specifically required by your PhD (and would not be otherwise needed).
  • Non-medical help - DSA can also help cover the cost of additional personal to help you with difficulties arising from your disability. These could include staff to assist you with mobility problems or note-taking. DSA may sometimes pay for additional tuition to help manage learning difficulties such as dyslexia. However, it will not normally cover any medical assistance or assisted living support you require on a routine basis (separately to your studies).
  • Travel Expenses - DSA may help cover any additional travel costs you incur as a result of your disability whilst completing your PhD. This money may be provided as part of a grant or claimed back in the form of specific expenses.

You may also receive DSA funding to pay for other costs that derive from your disability, but do not fall under any one of these categories.

What costs doesn’t Disabled Students’ Allowance cover?

Disabled Students’ Allowance for PhD students is only intended to cover costs that are specifically incurred as a result of your disability whilst studying a PhD. This means that it will not normally cover:

  • PhD fees and maintenance - Disabled Students’ Allowance is not a form of normal PhD funding and will not be awarded to pay normal tuition fees or routine student living expenses (such as routine food, drink and accommodation costs). You can still receive other funding to help with these costs as a PhD student, but you cannot pay for them with your DSA.
  • Other costs, not associated with your PhD - Costs that arise from your disability, but do not result directly from your PhD, are not normally covered by DSA. These include mobility aids or medical help that you would require anyway and which do not specifically support your PhD study.
  • Services that are already being provided by your university - Under the Equality Act, your university has a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments to avoid disadvantaging you as a disabled PhD student. You do not need to use your Disabled Students’ Allowance to cover these, but nor can you claim for services that are already being provided by your institution.

Don’t worry too much if you are unsure what specific costs you can claim DSA for. Individual circumstances vary and the disability or student support office at your university should be able to advise you.

Applying for Disabled Students’ Allowance

You should make your DSA application to the appropriate Student Finance body. This will depend on the country in which you are (or will be) studying your PhD. Application forms and further information are available organisations’ websites:

Supplying proof of disability

Applications to the above Student Finance bodies will require you to provide appropriate evidence of your disability and its impact on your PhD studies. The form this takes will depend on the nature of your condition, but it will need to be provided by a medical professional or other suitably qualified person.

See the earlier section on eligibility for Disabled Students’ Allowance for more information on providing evidence of your disability.

Study Needs Assessments

Part of your application for Disabled Students’ Allowance will usually involve completing a Study Needs Assessment. This may take place at a specific Assessment Centre or it may be completed by a qualified person at your university.

Other sources of Disabled Students’ Allowance

Other sources of Disabled Students’ Allowance for UK PhD students include the UK Research Councils and the NHS. If you are already receiving PhD funding from either of these organisations you should apply to them for DSA and not to Student Finance bodies. Remember, you cannot combine Disabled Students’ Allowance from different sources.

Disabled Students’ Allowance from UK Research Councils

If your PhD is funded by one of the seven UK Research Councils, you may be eligible to receive Disabled Students’ Allowance from them on top of your normal PhD studentship.

You normally apply for Research Council DSA through the university at which you hold a Research Council studentship. They will be responsible for appointing staff to confirm your eligibility, assess your needs, and claim relevant funds from the Research Council. Those funds will be paid to your university, who will use them to cover the cost of support on your behalf or pay them directly to you, as appropriate.

The amount of DSA you can receive from a Research Council will depend on your individual needs, but will normally be similar to the support available through a Student Finance body.

More information on Disabled Students’ Allowance from the UK Research Councils is available at the RCUK website.

Disabled Students' Allowance from the NHS

Students on courses funded by NHS bursaries should apply for DSA from the NHS itself. NHS bursaries are available on degrees that lead to registration as a qualified medical practitioner such as a Doctor or Dentist. This can include some PhD programmes.

DSA from the NHS covers similar costs to the Student Finance bodies or Research Councils and will normally be paid directly to you alongside your bursary.

More information on Disabled Students Allowance from the NHS is available at the NHS website.

Further information about Disabled Students’ Allowance

You can find out more about DSA at the websites of the individual student finance bodies (Student Finance England, Student Finance Wales, Student Finance Northern Ireland and the Student Awards Agency for Scotland) as well as Research Councils UK and the NHS.

We’ve also covered some other questions you may have about Disabled Students’ Allowance as a PhD student:

How long can I claim Disabled Students’ Allowance for?

You can claim DSA for the duration of your course, provided you continue to be defined as disabled. Some providers may ask you to review and renew your DSA application each year, but this will usually be a simple process.

What if my condition changes during my degree?

If your disability improves or worsens this may affect the amount of DSA you can claim. If so, you may be asked to undertake a new Study Needs Assessment. Your DSA provider will then increase the amount of money you receive to pay for any new expenses. Alternatively, they may reduce your DSA to take account of any reduction in in the support you require.

Do I have to apply for Disabled Students’ Allowance before I start my PhD?

No, you do not normally have to apply for DSA at any specific point in your studies. However, you should try to apply as early as possible. The DSA application process can take some time. Evidence must be submitted and Study Needs Assessments are usually required. The sooner you apply, the sooner you can receive the support you need to get on and succeed in your PhD.

In most cases you can apply for DSA along with other funding. For example, if you are applying for a Research Council Studentship, you can include a claim for DSA as part of that process.

Do I have to inform my university about my application for Disabled Students’ Allowance?

No, you are under no obligation to inform your university that you are applying for, or receiving, Disabled Students’ Allowance. In such situations you can contact DSA providers directly and they will treat your application sensitively. Bear in mind, however, that not informing your university of a disability may prevent you from receiving support you are legally entitled to. See our guide to the legal rights of disabled PhD students for more information.

Do I have to repay my Disabled Students’ Allowance when I finish my PhD?

No, DSA is provided as a supplementary bursary, not a loan and you do not have to pay any of the money back at any point.

Last updated - 15/02/2016

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