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Guest post: It’s Not “The Taxpayer’s” Money – It Belongs to the Public


So, back in January, I attended the Westminster Higher Education Forum on disabled students with two people from the Getting Things Changed project I am a part of.

Following the event, delegates are invited to submit an article to the briefing document for the event, and I submitted a text about role models in academia.

My friend Lilit focussed on responding to a talk by Paul Williams (Deputy Director, Student Funding Policy, Department for Education), and she's allowed me to publish her text here, which you can find below.

"A number of delegates highlighted their concern at the repeated reference to “taxpayer’s money” in Paul Williams’ (DfE) talk on Disabled Students’ Allowance. Williams framed the main challenge regarding the future of the DSA as one of weighing up how to improve the system for students (provide more flexible and effective support) against how to improve the situation for the taxpayer (reduce costs). Although a number of notable ways in which undesirable costs could be reduced were noted (high administrative costs, focus on individual interventions overlooks collective actions), framing the problem in this way is not helpful for a number of reasons. I will suggest helpful alternatives.

As one delegate put it, the multiple references to the “taxpayer” in this short talk wedges a gap between us, the disabled student, who requires extra funds, and them, the taxpayer, whose funds must be spent only where necessary. This ignores the fact that many disabled people and disabled students are also taxpayers. A fellow University of Bristol delegate [yours truly], highlighted this point to Paul Williams when she pointed out that if disabled students received adequate support they would be more likely to access higher education, attain higher-paying jobs, and as a result contribute more in tax. Placing “the taxpayer’s interests” in opposition to students’ interests is language which widens this gap between identities.

It’s not taxpayers’ money we’re using, after all. It’s public money.

“The taxpayer” may be one source of money, but this is no longer taxpayer’s money. The government is entrusted with spending public money for the good of the public – for all our society’s citizens. Moreover, “the taxpayer’s interests” need not align with the public interest (and to be clear it is the latter with which government should be concerned). Referring to “the taxpayer” is language which conjures an image of a stereotypical bread-winner (I’m seeing a thirty-something, non-disabled white man in a suit trying to pay the mortgage). In this way, the term “the taxpayer” homogenises the category of ‘those who pay tax’, erasing the multiplicity of taxpayers’ identities and social positions, each of whom faces different problems and concerns. This homogenisation, in turn, whittles down “the taxpayer’s interests” to ‘the (self)-interests of the stereotypical bread-winner’.

An alternative approach is to speak in terms of public interests and, importantly, public money. Rather than encourage the divides of the sort exemplified in the “scroungers vs taxpayers” mentality, talk in terms of public money would help engender the sense of unity we desperately need in these times. I call on ministers and those working in government positions to adopt this terminology exclusively; for it is paramount that you, at the very least, do not slip into confusing the good of the public with the good of the few. As well as changing this language, there are other ways the debate on the future of DSAs can be framed. Rather than focussing on the problem of reducing costs, reform could be given more weight. Over-reliance on DSA and the individual patches it supplies has allowed institutions to neglect the social-model-style changes that need to be implemented if we are to make our learning environments inclusive.

The challenge, Williams says, is to incentivise this move towards collective solutions. Of course, one way is to focus on reducing costs for the taxpayer; but removing the crutch of DSA will not help all institutions bounce into social model approaches. We heard plenty of incentive to promote integrated systems of enablement from De Montfort University’s example of universal inclusivity: embedding accessibility into an institution’s structure and culture not only saves money per head, but integrates disabled students into the community so they can take charge of their own enabled learning. Disability funding needs to reflect this move towards integrating accessibility."

Biography: Lilit Movsisyan is a disabled postgraduate student at the University of Bristol, studying philosophy. Lilit is a co-researcher on the ‘Getting Things Changed (Tackling Disabling Practices: Co-production and Change)’ research project. She plays wheelchair basketball with Bristol Bisons, who are currently competing in the national Women’s League games.

--- I would add that the comment Lilit refers to in her text is one I made during the Q&A. I do want to emphasise one thing: disabled people's worth is not linked as to whether or not we pay more taxes.

I was making this point because the speaker seemed to be suggesting that disabled people themselves are not taxpayers, and it was grating me a lot. It was all about "value for money, more value for the taxpayer", as if we are not taxpayers ourselves. My comments were purely within this context. I was trying to say: hey, we already pay taxes, and if we were supported adequately, a bunch of us would pay even more taxes, how's that for a treat?!

There are disabled people who are unable to be at University although they wish they were, because of lack of support. There are disabled people who are unable to work because of lack of support. Similarly, there are disabled people for whom neither of these things (studying, working) are a realistic goal, and that's fine too. We all deserve support and safety regardless of whether we pay a load of taxes or not!

Tags: academia, conferences, disability, guest posts