At least a thousand nursing and other health students are without their bursaries and are struggling to stay on their degree courses as the Department of Health fights to deal with a backlog of cases, it has emerged.
Some universities are putting thousands of pounds into hardship funds to support students, many of whom have become desperate at the lack of communication from the Student Grants Unit, the body that manages bursaries for National Health Service-funded students.
A spokesman for the unit confirmed this week that it was still processing applications. "We had intended to complete our processing for new degree students by the end of the first week in November, but we will finish two weeks later than anticipated," he said.
He insisted that the vast majority of applications had been processed and that just 1,206 out of 78,673 had not been completed within the 20-day target.
Universities said the problem was widespread. Kevin Foreman, dean of the faculty of health and social care at the University of the West of England, said the unit's figures - sent to the university this month - show that just 84 out of 217 nursing students on degree courses had had their applications processed by November 8.
He said: "We have put in almost £100,000 of emergency funding.
"My worry is that the Department of Health is not moving fast enough, and we have students in a real crisis. This does little to welcome them into the National Health Service."
Karen Cox, head of the School of Nursing at Nottingham University, which has about 2,500 students and 900 freshers, said she feared that the problem would result in disillusioned students.
Paul Turner, executive officer at the Council of Deans of Nursing, said:
"The payment of bursaries was chaotic last year, and we were assured that steps had been taken to improve things. But this year the situation appears worse."
He said the inefficiency undermined universities' efforts to improve retention rates on courses.