Scottish universities and colleges are being forced to make emergency loans to students after delays by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland in processing grants.
As most higher education institutions began the new academic session this week, it emerged that almost half of 100,000 applicants face a delay in receiving their grant, with new entrants being the worst hit.
Shamin Akhtar, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, has warned that many students could have to drop out of their courses because of hardship. She demanded a full explanation for the delays from the Scottish Office, as Scottish education minister Brian Wilson prepared to meet with SAAS officials.
Ronald Crawford, secretary of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, said: "There have been delays to a greater or lesser extent for a number of years, but institutions are saying this is the worst yet. We look to Mr Wilson to use his authority to sort this mess out."
An SAAS spokesman blamed the delays on "teething problems and staff unfamiliarity with a new awards processing system".
There were delays averaging nine or ten weeks between the receipt and processing of grants for new students, but continuing students who had applied by mid-May had been notified of their awards, he said. "The agency is taking all possible steps to address the problem, including weekend working. Priority is being given to new students attending further education colleges and higher education institutions with early starts, and to those with dependants."
But a spokeswoman for the Association of Scottish Colleges said its information from further education colleges suggested that more than half the students on Higher National courses had still to receive their grant.
"They have noted a trickle of money this week, but it's not a deluge," she said. "Hardship is a real issue for many of our students, 54 per cent of whom are over 25 and likely to have family commitments."
Institutions are still trying to assess the scale of the problem. Stirling University, whose session began mid-September, said it had had a "flurry of applications" for help. The Robert Gordon University is giving students a maximum weekly grant of Pounds 75, while Aberdeen's students association is offering a free phone line to the SAAS.