Ministers have simplified the "dog's breakfast" of financial support available to the most vulnerable students amid concerns that the confusing array of grants and subsidies was putting people off going to university.
The Department for Education and Skills today revealed plans to rationalise the £124 million of bursaries and funds available to those students most in need, especially mature students with children. An overhaul of mainstream student support in the new year is expected to reintroduce a limited student grant and increase tuition fees.
Contrary to expectations, today's review contains no additional money and there is little sign of additional targeted funds in the January review. But DFES officials insisted that the simplification of the funding pool would leave no student worse off than they are now, with many students better off and better able to access the available cash.
Some 14 hardship funds have been streamlined into six new sources of help.
Higher education minister Margaret Hodge said the government had put more money than ever into targeting students with particular needs. But she said: "There is no point in having extra student support that is complicated to understand and difficult to access."
The changes follow a review of targeted support by Manchester University's Philip Harris, who reported earlier this year. They also came amid high-profile criticism from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, which recently said that a "dog's breakfast of a system had become a major barrier to increasing participation" from non-traditional students.
Among the changes are moves to make a number of diverse and discretionary grants for hard-up students part of the statutory support system. A new statutory Parent's Learning Allowance worth up to £1,300 a year will be set up. This will subsume grants available for travel books and equipment and the £500 discretionary bursaries available to student parents though their universities.
The Childcare Grant, which covers 85 per cent of term-time childcare but is reduced during the long vacation, will also be improved to cover costs for the entire academic year.
From April next year, a new national Child Tax Credit - introduced by the Treasury for all parents - will also apply to parents who become students who previously had some benefits stopped and had to apply for specific grants for student parents.
The old Child Dependants Grant and School Meals Grant for student parents will be replaced by enhanced benefits available under the Child Tax Credit.
From 2004-05, a number of discretionary grants - including the £59 million hardship funds and access bursaries - will also be rationalised into a "one-stop" Access to Learning Fund. The £500 hardship-loans system will be scrapped.
Student support at a glance
The Childcare Grant, which replaces the Lone Parents' Grant, will be expanded to maintain payments throughout the academic year, rather than being reduced for the long vacation
* A new Parent's Learning Allowance worth up to £1,300 will replace the travel books and equipment grant, the Additional Dependants Grant and access bursaries
* Disabled students will be able to apply for funding earlier under the £47.5 million Disabled Students Allowance, so their additional needs can be met before they begin their course
* From 2004-05, an Access to Learning Fund will replace discretionary hardship funds, access bursaries and loans
* The mature student bursary has been discontinued.
Yasmin Han (pseudonym) is a Muslim divorcee with four children under the age of 13. She is in the first year of a medical degree at Sheffield University.
Ms Han found the student-support system incredibly complex. "It took me weeks to fill in the forms, and the level of evidence required seemed excessive," she said. "I was so worried about missing out on something I am entitled to."
Her local authority pays her fees and gives her a dependants' allowance of £1,600 a year for her four children and a childcare allowance covering 85 per cent of her childcare costs. She also receives child benefit. "It is very little money and the people at the local authority keep telling me to go back to the university to get more. I feel caught between the two," she said.
This year she received a bursary of £500 from the university as well as travel costs of £20 a week. "But I live in Leeds and have to drop the children off at the childminder's at 7am, drive to Sheffield and drive back - the cost is at least £50 a week. Maybe it is a luxury to have a car but to take the children on the bus then rush and get the train is not realistic."