Thousands of the poorest students facing top-up fees next year could have their university bursaries delayed because of data protection laws, it emerged this week.
Prospective students must give consent to allow universities to share their financial details, and thus speed up the application process, by ticking a box on the form. Those who forget or refuse to tick the box will have to send their details to universities individually - which could add months to the process.
Universities will be allocating bursaries worth from £300 to more than £3,000 for the most hard-up students from September 2006 to help offset annual tuition fees of £3,000 a year.
Sir Martin Harris, head of the Office for Fair Access, said he was not predicting that there would be hold-ups. But he added: "It is only if a student or parent doesn't take advantage of the box that there could be delays. It is therefore to everyone's advantage to tick the box."
The Data Protection Act stipulates that "informed consent" is required for financial data to be shared among institutions.
Julian Nicholds, vice-president of education for the National Union of Students, said: "I would not tick the box because I would want confidentiality. Students have the right to say that they don't want their financial details to go any further. That right should not be compromised by potentially late bursaries."
A spokeswoman from the Department for Education and Skills said: "The Student Loans Company and the higher education sector are considering how to obtain the information needed to assist the bursaries when a student has not ticked the data protection box."
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