Debts may rise in Scots rejig

September 24, 2004

Tens of thousands of students at Scottish universities from elsewhere in the UK could struggle financially because their loan payments are out of kilter with new academic semesters being introduced north of the border.

Students will receive a third of their support just six weeks before the end of the academic year when a number of Scottish universities introduce a new two semester year for students.

The Coalition of Higher Education Students in Scotland, which represents Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews, Strathclyde and the Open universities, is spearheading a campaign to adapt student-loan payments to new semesterised academic years.

The Scottish Executive, which has already made concessions for Scottish students at Stirling and Dundee universities, is set to meet Chess and other bodies to discuss possible changes. But the students believe that officials at the Department for Education and Skills are dragging their feet over the issue.

When Steve Cockburn, Chess secretary and president of Edinburgh University Students' Association, contacted Alan Johnson, England's former Higher Education Minister, the DFES replied that this was a matter for the Scottish Executive. "I was surprised and frustrated," Mr Cockburn, who is English, said. "Fewer than half the students at Edinburgh are Scottish, and there are about 30,000 non-Scottish students at Scottish universities."

But in the wake of a letter to Charles Clarke, Education Secretary, from Nigel Griffiths, Labour MP for Edinburgh South, a DFES spokesperson told The Times Higher that Mr Clarke was "considering his response in relation to the minority of English and Welsh students who study in Scotland".

Mr Cockburn said: "We are worried that if it doesn't get sorted out (by the DFES) this year, it won't be for a number of years because of all the changes in the sector in 2006. It will mean increased debt and hit those people who are already struggling."

Edinburgh, St Andrews, Glasgow, Strathclyde and Dundee have all recently moved to a semesterised system, with Edinburgh starting this month. While the three equal loan payments dovetail with a three-term year, Mr Cockburn said that for Edinburgh students, the first payment now had to last 16 weeks, the second 14 and the third six.

"This means that a first student loan instalment of about £1,000 will leave only £62.50 a week, less than the cheapest rent in university accommodation," he said.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Executive said: "The change to a two-semester system will not mean that students have less money, but they will have to manage it more carefully."

The Student Loans Company has indicated it is happy to change payment dates for non-Scottish students if Mr Clarke grants permission. But Chess understands that this would have to be done by November, at a cost of £250,000, to come into force in 2005-06.

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