Student's shock £22k course bill

She has overcome adversity and won first prize in a design competition, but Gemma Orton's dream of studying for a masters degree looks set to flounder in the face of a £22,500 bill - because she is disabled.

She has overcome adversity and won first prize in a design competition, but Gemma Orton's dream of studying for a masters degree looks set to flounder in the face of a £22,500 bill - because she is disabled.

Talented Gemma, 22, who is confined to a wheelchair through spinal muscular atrophy, is desperate to enrol in the MA textiles culture course at the Norwich School of Art and Design from October.

But she was shocked to discover that apart from the £3,300 fee for the two-year part-time course, she would have to shell out in the region of £22,500 to pay for a learning support assistant and to finance transport by taxi to the college from her home in Attleborough.

Her shock turned to distress when she found out the disabled student allowance scheme, which has helped finance her current degree course at Lowestoft College, would only be able to pay out about £6,000 for her post-graduate studies.

Gemma said: “I was really shocked and I just don't know how I will find that kind of money because it is so much. It was so frustrating because if I didn't need support, I wouldn't have to find all that money.

“I have lived with this condition since birth, but have so far managed very well to lead as normal a life as possible. I have always been very creative and interested in art and design and studying for my degree at Lowestoft College has opened up a wealth of possibilities, which I would like to continue to develop in greater depth.”

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Gemma's talent for design was confirmed recently when she won first prize in the Bradford Textile Society Design Competition for her entry in the embroidered fabrics for fashion category.

She is currently in the final year of her BA (hons) design crafts course at Lowestoft, but is keen to develop her passion for wild colour and textured fashion items.

While studying, Gemma needs the support of a learning support assistant for physical tasks such as lifting, fetching books, taking notes in lectures and cutting material because her muscles are deteriorating and are so weak.

She said this would cost £14,000 for the duration of her masters' course while she has been told she would need to shell out about £8,400 for taxis.

Liz Clark, Gemma's tutor at Lowestoft College, said she had never come across this type of funding situation before.

“It is difficult enough for able-bodied students to raise their course fees,” she added. “Gemma is working very hard to achieve her BA and now she has to raise this enormous amount of money by October on top of that. I'm horrified by it all.”

Norfolk Local Education Authority spokesman Steven Reilly explained that under the disabled student allowance scheme, people on degree courses could claim up to £12,420, while the level dropped to a maximum of £5,915 for those wanting to take part in post-graduate schemes.

He said: “These are national guidelines which we simply administer on behalf of the Department for Education and Skills.”

Andy Rickell, executive director of national disability charity Scope, said he could not comment about individual cases, but added: “There is a general lack of advice and information available to disabled people - particularly to young disabled people going into further and higher education - about what they are entitled to and their options.”

Susan Tuckett, the principal of the Norwich School of Art and Design, said: “It is a shame, but we would always help and support someone in their application for grants.”

The DfEA was unable to comment on the policy of grants issued under the disabled student allowance scheme.

t If you can offer help to Gemma, contact Lowestoft College on 01502 525035.