Changes to benefit rules could cause hardship for Britain's most needy students, the National Union of Students has warned.
While most full-time undergraduates are not eligible to claim income support or help with housing or council tax, benefits do go to students with certain disabilities, lone parents and student couples with dependants.
Ministers have announced that student loans and dependants' allowances will be treated as a 38-week rather than 52-week income for purposes of calculating benefits.
The change means these students will be better off over the long vacation, because means-testing for benefits will not take into account any student loan income, but their entitlement to benefits will reduce during term time. Some people entering their final year, who have been eligible for term-time support until now, could lose the term-time entitlement altogether.
Under the new rules, which came into force in September, entitlement to benefits assumes student loans and allowances are paid over the three academic quarters in which the student is studying, defined by the Education (Student Support) Regulations 1999. These are September 1 to December 31, January 1 to March 31 and April 1 to June 30.
But this may not coincide with the periods in which a student's course actually starts and finishes and in which loans and allowances are paid. For example, students starting on October 1 and receiving their student loan then could find themselves with no income for a month.
An NUS spokesman said: "This could have serious implications for retainment and hardship for the very vulnerable groups that the government is trying to retain within the higher education system."
The government has also announced planned new rules to help students who take time out because of illness or caring responsibilities.
Until now, these students have only been entitled to claim student loans after 60 days at the discretion of their local authority. If the authority declines to pay, they have not been eligible for any other support unless they leave their course altogether.
Under the new proposals, intercalating students will now be entitled to claim Job Seekers' Allowance but only once their illness or caring duties have ended and they are waiting to return to their course.
Students at the University of Cambridge are holding a rent strike in protest against proposed rises that they claim will push room rents up by between 33 and 47 per cent in real terms over the next five years.
They say the rise will mean costs of Pounds 70 per week, making Cambridge the most expensive university outside London.
But Charles Larkum, chair of the colleges' bursars' committee, said this figure included a food subsidy and heating, which means that Cambridge rents are about average. He said rises were being phased in to rectify a historical anomaly.
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