A complex challenge

August 17, 2001

The government will not achieve its ambition to widen access until it overhauls the student-support system, writes Lindsey Fidler.

Since 1997, anybody involved in higher education has had it drummed into them that they are part of a common cause working towards widening access and generating revenue for the sector - goals facilitated, says the government, by its twin policies of means-tested tuition fees and student loans.

Does the system help to widen access and generate revenue? Are prospective and existing students clear about the system for applying for support? The answer from the National Union of Students is a resounding "no".

Although the government has increased funding to some of the most vulnerable student groups, this is dispersed across many agencies, requiring incredible tenacity by anyone wishing to ensure that all funding entitlements have been accessed.

A lone parent, for example, might have to deal with up to seven agencies: the local education authority; the education and library board; the Student Loans Company; the higher education institution; the Benefits Agency; the Inland Revenue; and the Prescription Pricing Authority.

It is unreasonable to expect a student to know about and navigate through this maze of funding options. Doing a "better-off" calculation for a prospective student with children has become a hazardous task for student advisers, who are obliged to give out the warning: "You might get this, but don't rely on it."

In a recent NUS consultation project, one student adviser commented: "The complexity and lack of information at crucial times has, at the very least, put off potential students from entering higher education. Someone on benefits (a lone parent, for example) contemplating entering higher education is entitled to know exactly what their income level will be... How else can they make an informed decision?" Any student who successfully completes a yearly budget planner and decides to enter higher education regardless of the caveats should be accredited with a first-year module in risk assessment!

But what can be done? Any review of the administration of student support must start from the customer's experience. This would quickly set some general parameters.

Basic principles demand that support should be administered by, or at least advocated through, a central agency or divided between one agency for basic support and another for vulnerable groups. This would ensure that government departments worked together. Also, bursaries for low-income groups and for specific needs should be statutory to allow prospective students to make informed decisions about their ability to support themselves.

As an interim measure, clear information should be provided by the government for prospective and existing students, explaining the difference between statutory and discretionary funding and outlining where students can go to claim entitlements. At present, student advisers, the NUS and other organisations provide this information, but not surprisingly the government has shied away from this challenge.

Finally, it is essential that administrative systems should be able to cope with the demand on services, particularly in peak periods, such as August to October.

Ironically, the Inland Revenue's consultation on integrated childcare credits could be the opportunity to begin a review. A recent analysis showed that students often draw on a mixture of formal and informal childcare and have difficulty securing childcare for their needs because of inconsistent study patterns. It would make sense from the government's perspective to integrate student childcare funding into tax credits. But will this mean just one more agency for students to deal with, and can tax credits address students' childcare needs?

The government recently announced plans for a programme of modernisation - a simplified system of administration and a "customer-focused" approach to student support. If it is genuine about its goals on participation, this programme must involve a thorough review of the student-support system.

Lindsey Fidler is research officer, student financial support, the National Union of Students.

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