The NDIS is failing uni students

Many students are excluded from the scheme and the University has done little to fill the gaps

By and large, the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is a failure for people with psychological disabilities.

The scheme, announced in 2013 under the Gillard government and set to be finalised next year, is meant to provide funding packages, or ‘plans’, to people under 65 with a ‘permanent and stable’ impairment or disability.

However, many Australians with disabilities don’t meet the restrictive selection criteria. Whilst physical disabilities can easily be classified as ‘permanent and stable’, those with fluctuating sensory, cognitive, and psychiatric conditions have found themselves unable to receive financial assistance.

USyd’s ‘Mind the Gap’ report, released in May this year, reveals a strong disconnection between the concept of disability and the concept of mental health by failing to recognise the oscillating nature of mental illness. While there are an estimated 690,000 Australians who suffer from psychological illnesses, the report identified that only 64,000 will be able to access the NDIS.

The latest figures from the NDIS also reveal that only 6.4% of participants have a primary disability that is psychological.

Scarlett Franks, an Arts student with post-traumatic stress disorder, suggested that exclusionary eligibility criteria are an obstacle for students with psychological disabilities. “Applying for the NDIS was more onerous than applying for the Disability Pension—and pensioners will know, that’s saying something,”, she said. Scarlett worked on her NDIS application for nine months before it was rejected because, by the government’s standards, her condition did not qualify as ‘permanent and stable’.

She describes the process as “an enormous source of frustration and stress” that prevented her from putting the necessary effort into her degree.

“I can’t spend too much time thinking about it, it makes me so depressed,” she added, reflecting its emotional toll.

The transition process from the existing arrangement to the new scheme has been difficult for those with psychological disabilities, as the NDIS has reduced the amount of funding available to them whilst their financial packages are reviewed.

Scarlett explained her brother’s experience with this. He ran out of funding and needs about four times the money initially granted. Transitional funding is financial help given while waiting for an appropriate plan to be implemented.

Scarlett’s friends have been struggling with the “slow rollout and inadequate funding”, she said, as lengthy application and review processes have taken away valuable time required for studying. One of her friends was forced to drop out of her Master’s when she lost all social and domestic support as the providers transitioned to NDIS affiliates.

Even when implemented, many NDIS plans leave major gaps in the assistance they offer, giving students the extra workload of caring for family members with disabilities.

For instance, Scarlett’s brother has severe autism but has received limited funding during the transition period, an additional strain on her family.

“My brother is currently on transitional NDIS funding as his package is being reviewed,” she explained. “He needs about four times the money initially granted.”

On the other hand, USyd’s SRC Disability Officer, Robin Eames, has had a positive experience with the scheme. They said they felt “quite lucky” for receiving support from the scheme, and acknowledged the positive intentions of Disability Advocacy Network Australia and the other disability activist groups who had campaigned for it.

However, Robin said that miscommunication regarding the funding categories they  required had made it harder to lock in a funding plan.

“It still took ages to sort out my planning meeting, and they’ve given me […] very little funding in the category I desperately need—assistive tech.”

Like Scarlett, Robin ultimately found that they were not offered enough support to engage with their degree.

Both Scarlett and Robin praised the University’s Disability Services, which has provided accessible learning arrangements to support them. USyd is still operating under its 2013 Disability Action Plan, a scheme run separately to government assistance. The key objectives of this plan are to: incorporate the rights and opportunities of people with disabilities into policy and planning, provide an accessible environment for everyone, and create communication and digital platforms accessible to people with disabilities.

However, Scarlett described the level of financial support available under the University’s plan as “woeful”.

“In light of the financial burden of our national transition to the NDIS, disabled students could greatly benefit from a targeted program of financial support to assist students affected,” she said.

Equity scholarships are available for students affected by disability, reflecting the applicant’s degree of disadvantage as assessed by the UAC. However, there is stiff competition for the limited places, so gaps in the coverage remain.

When asked for comment, USyd stated that the current funding arrangement does not need to be changed.

“The NDIS is to provide support where there is a gap, whereas the University provides the required academic support on campus which has never needed to be funded by the student, so there is no gap to fill.”

For students like Scarlett, however, the University has not done enough to fill the holes left by the scheme.

It may be time for USyd to review its strategy—and to begin by helping those students the NDIS has failed.