Students test benefits case

January 23, 1998

THE GOVERNMENT is coming under increasing pressure to stop students who take a break from their courses being left destitute.

Students can claim neither maintenance grants and loans nor social security benefits if they take time out.

Welfare officers in Oxford and Sheffield are bringing test cases before the Court of Appeal in the next few months to highlight the anomaly.

The National Union of Students is offering its support to a Sheffield student who was left without financial support when forced to take a year out to resit exams. It will be the first to go to appeal under new benefit regulations.

It will also be the first since the Webber case, in which appeal court judges ruled that a modular student who had switched from studying full-time to part-time should be able to claim income support. Part-time students are not eligible for student loans but can normally claim benefits, provided they study for fewer than 16 hours week.

Judges said Anthony Webber should not continue to be treated by the benefits office as a full-time student. They stated: "A course that does not require full-time attendance cannot be described as a full-time course."

Rules concerning students and benefits have been complicated by a series of contradictory rulings and benefits changes over the past ten years.

With the introduction of student loans in 1988, the government made clear that students should no longer be dependent on benefits.

The 1988 white paper Top Up Loans for Students said: "The benefits system is intended to serve social and not educational purposes; the taxpayer supports the latter through the grants system."

A student was considered to be attending a course "during the period for which his maintenance grant or award is ... payable" and during vacations other than the summer vacation.

But in 1990, the rules were amended so that a "course of study" was "any course of study whether or not a grant is made for attending it".

Students were treated as attending a course "throughout any period of term or vacation within it until the end of the course or such earlier date as he abandons it or is dismissed from it". This meant students who took time out, ending their claim on a grant and loan but without ending their course, were not legally entitled to any state help.

Peter Turville, an officer with Oxfordshire Welfare Rights expecting to bring another four cases involving such students to the Court of Appeal soon, said: "The government has to sort out what it is doing with students and benefits."

Since the Webber case, several hundred claims involving students from Oxford Brookes University on modular courses have gone for consideration to the housing benefit review board.

Oxford Brookes Student Union is hoping to join Oxford city council in bringing the case to judicial review.

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Employment said the implications of the Webber case were still under consideration.

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