An administrative nightmare is looming for local education authorities as they race to put in place the machinery demanded by the new student funding regime.
David Line of Surrey County Council says the new arrangements represent "the most difficult and far-reaching change in the mandatory award system that LEAs have ever faced".
One of the big problems the 150 education authorities face is revising computer software to deal with two student award systems, one for students already in the system and another for the 1998/99 intake.
All existing software is geared towards continuing students who will have their maintenance entitlement protected and will not have to make contributions to tuition fees. The 1998/99 intake, by contrast, will have to be means-tested for Pounds 1,000 towards tuition fees and be partially eligible for maintenance grants.
In addition to running two award systems, the big change for LEAs is that any parental contribution for new students will be offset against tuition fees rather than against the maintenance grant. One student awards officer in a north London local education authority said: "This really is a fundamental change. Inevitably it will require LEAs to reprogramme computers. The cost of it all could be a problem."
Gareth Flint, manager for student support at Enfield LEA, said details of how the new system is going to operate next year are needed quickly. "The late announcement of the details of the proposals is going to cause problems for authorities in planning and getting their service ready for 1998/99. For instance, changes to software and stationery will be needed and the timescale is very tight." But he stressed that all LEAs are working with the Department for Education and Employment to overcome the problems.
LEAs will also have to means-test European Union students, posing further problems with computer programs and administration.
One LEA student awards officer said that the EU problem would hit particularly badly those authorities which had universities in their locality with a heavy intake of students from the continent.
A DFEE spokeswoman said a technical working group had been set up with LEAs to look into the new student funding arrangements. "There is no reason why funding arrangements should be a nightmare."