Publication date: 26 November 2018
Some of you may recall that in 2016, consideration was given to modernising the procurement and supply of Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) funded hardware, software, and specialist equipment items. The proposed changes were based on the need to embed a sustainable supply model that is both compliant with commercial legislation and better placed to deliver value to students and the tax payer. Consideration was also given to improving the disabled student experience, addressing feedback which shows that students continue to find dealing with disparate organisations in order to access awarded support both confusing and frustrating. Assistive Technology (AT) training is a vital component in ensuring that disabled students are able to optimise the use of the software they have been awarded, yet the take up of their training remains low.
Unfortunately, due to the machinery of government changes and many other pressing student finance matters, it was not possible to prioritise this work. The Department for Education (DfE) and Student Loans Company (SLC) have continued to reflect on the work that was undertaken to support this development, along with the rich information that was gained through engagement with the existing market and sector representatives. It is felt the need for change is as compelling as ever and now is a much more opportune time to progress with this development.
Therefore, this is a note to confirm that DfE has instructed SLC to progress with launching a tender exercise to identify preferred supplier(s) who will provide students with both equipment and AT training.
The intention is for SLC to issue a Prior Information Notice (PIN) in the near term, which will set out the procurement intention to existing and prospective suppliers. SLC will be looking to engage further to gain key market information to help prepare for the procurement process. The preferred supplier(s) will contract with the Student Loans Company directly and this will introduce clear lines of accountability. The expectation will be for the new contracts to be in place for Spring 2019.
In addition to expected improvements in sustainability, process times and a reduction in the number of touch points for DSA customers, a key objective of the new supply model will be to ensure a seamless transition. Measures will be in place to mitigate impacts for any DSA customers already in study or those in the process of applying for support.
Update - FAQs
As you will be aware SLC issued a letter on the 23rd of November 2018 outlining our plan to launch a tender exercise to identify preferred supplier(s) who will provide students with both equipment and AT training.
Understandably, we have received a number of questions from stakeholder groups and individuals about this project and the potential impacts on various groups. We have taken the opportunity to respond to points that have been raised within this FAQ document.
We hope that colleagues will understand that there are some questions about the tender that we have received, which we are not able to answer due to commercial sensitivities.
In light of the publication of this document, we will not be responding to individual correspondence that we receive.
What is the rationale for this decision?
It is necessary to introduce a supply model which is commercially compliant, sustainable and delivers value to the tax payer and our customers. A robust procurement process will be held to identify capable suppliers and SLC will monitor and manage performance through contracts.
How will continuing students be supported?
We would expect any company who has been paid in advance for warranty and insurance to continue to support our customers for the duration of the pre-paid period. We will ensure there are contingency arrangements in place for our customers, should any of their existing suppliers not be in a position to continue trading.
Why was there no consultation on this?
This is not a change to Government policy which impacts eligibility or entitlement to the DSAs. This is a project to establish commercially compliant relationships with suppliers of assistive technology and training. As outlined in the initial letter, this is a matter which has been considered for a number of years and there has been prior engagement with sector representatives.
Has an impact assessment been done on this change?
As above, this is not a policy change which impacts eligibility or entitlement to funding. Throughout the commercial project, we will be planning to ensure there is an effective exit strategy from the current supply model.
Does this mean that the valuable experience of independent AT Trainers will be lost?
This change will not reduce the demand for experienced and capable AT trainers. It will be incumbent on the contracted suppliers to ensure they have the capacity and capability to meet demand.
Will the contracted equipment suppliers need to be members of DSA-QAG?
No, continued membership of DSA-QAG will not be a requirement. This will be an open tender and organisations who are not currently members of DSA-QAG will also be able to submit a bid.
Will suppliers of NMH need to remain members of DSA-QAG?
AT Training will be moving under this contractual arrangement but all other aspects of NMH will still be monitored through the DSA-QAG audit processes.
If anyone can bid, how will you ensure that students are properly supported by people who understand their needs?
As part of the assessment of tender submissions, we will be evaluating the credentials and capability of all bidders.
Will quality of provision been taken into account?
Yes, improving customer satisfaction and delivering value are fundamental goals of the project. The means and methods of measuring performance will be shaped through the procurement process. The accountability for the performance and quality of the suppliers will sit with SLC.
How will this change the Needs Assessors role?
Needs Assessors will continue as they do now, in terms of meeting with students and recommending equipment and AT training strategies for their students. The only change as part of this project is that they will no longer need to source quotes for these two aspects of the student’s support. Needs Assessors will continue to recommend what they believe to be the most suitable assistive software for their students – down to the brand – based on individual needs and functionality.
How many companies will you have contracts with?
We do not have a definitive at this stage. We will determine the optimum number of suppliers to contract with through the tender process.
Will the supply of equipment and training be on a regional or national basis?
This will depend on the tender process and the bids put forward. However, DSA is currently delivered on a national basis and we would expect successful bidders to have national coverage.
Will those companies who offer only AT training be able to bid?
To be able to bid, a supplier must have the capability to offer a service which encompasses both the equipment supply and training.
As a Higher Education Provider or Needs Assessment Centre, we offer AT training, will we be able to continue to provide this to students?
No, DSA funding for AT training will only be delivered through our contracted providers.
What will happen to companies who just provide AT training to DSA – will they be forced out of business?
We are unable to comment on the future of individual businesses. However, we are convinced that combining the management and delivery of equipment supply and AT training, is in the best interests of customers and the tax payer.
Will the equipment tender include all equipment, such as ergonomic or specialist equipment for students with a visual impairment?
Yes, we will expect any company who bids to be in a position to source anything that is currently supplied to a student through their DSA equipment allowance.
Will companies who provide ergonomic or specialist equipment and or training be able to bid?
We expect any supplier who bids must be able to offer all equipment and AT training, along with all other requirements within the specification.
Will it be possible for winning bidders to outsource any provision under the contract?
This may be possible subject to the terms and conditions of the contract being met. However, in this event, SLC will only deal with the main contractor and our customers must have a seamless experience, with a single point of contact for all queries. Subcontractors will also be held to exactly the same rigorous standards set by SLC.
What if a customer is unhappy with the service or training they have received from the new suppliers?
This is an issue for DSA customers at the moment, as there are a large number of disparate organisations involved in delivery and there is little sense of accountability and ownership. There will be clear feedback and complaint resolution processes in place for DSA customers in the future. SLC will ultimately be accountable for the services provided by contracted 3rd parties.
January 2019 – Issue PIN to inform of tender (Prior Information Notice)
January/February 2019 – Supplier days commence (to validate and shape our specification)
March 2019 – Launch tender
April 2019 – Evaluate submissions
May 2019 – Award contracts
Aug/Sep 2019 – New services launch