A growing number of part-time students are losing state benefits despite a decision to delay the introduction of tighter rules, the Unemployment Unit has claimed.
MPs have been told that the cut in the number of "guided learning hours" allowed to part-time unemployed students from 21 to 16 hours will be postponed for six months, during which time their welfare payments will not be affected. Former employment minister Ann Widdecombe said the change would now be introduced in October 1996, alongside the Jobseeker's Allowance, which replaces unemployment benefit.
Miss Widdecombe said: "The extension will make it possible for colleges to consider the full implications. If, during that time, they wish to raise issues with us, we shall be delighted to take into account anything they have to say."
But the Unemployment Unit, an independent campaigning organisation, said it had detected a much harsher application of regulations.
"This new approach has already resulted in a loss of opportunities for unemployed people and heightened the lottery where some claimants lose benefit even though others on similar courses and with similar circumstances do not," said Dan Finn from the unit.
He said recent guidance to staff meant part-time students even faced loss of benefit if their course cost more than Pounds 100 or it led to a qualification needed for the job they wanted. "If the course is essential to the job you say you want to do, then you are a student not a claimant, and therefore you will lose benefit. It is absurd, " said Mr Finn.
A Department for Education and Employment spokeswoman said: "It is important that unemployed people are available for employment and that we should question their availability if there is a doubt."
She added: "The benefits system is not to subsidise the education system. The point of getting benefits is that you are available for work and if you are doing a part-time course to qualify you for that job, that means you are not available for work until then."
The National Association for Managers of Student Services in Colleges this week said colleges should begin to plan courses with the 16-hour limit in mind. "We believe it will begin to operate de facto well before October 1996," said finance chairman John Harvey.
The group's report this week on the Jobseeker's Allowance predicts a move to 16 hours will prevent some students from taking work placements or drawing on extra help with basic literacy or numeracy. It wants the Government to abandon rules that could force benefit claimants to give up training if offered temporary or low-skilled work.
The move to 16 hours has led colleges to lobby exam boards for greater flexibility in assessment, and to consult lecturers on working through holidays to keep the weekly total of hours down.