THE MEANS tests of hundreds of thousands of students for tuition fees next year could be inaccurate, the British Universities Finance Directors Group has warned.
Miles Hedges, the chairman, said the "administrative complexity" of the new self-assessment tax returns and an overly complex system for collecting fees could hit 400,000 students.
Self-assessment mainly affects the self-employed and those with complex tax affairs. Next Tuesday marks the Inland Revenue's first deadline for tax returns from those wanting it to calculate tax on their behalf. So far 3.4 million out of 8 million have returned the form.
The next deadline, for those calculating their own tax burden, is January 31.
Mr Hedges, finance director of Nottingham University, points out that this deadline is four months into the start of the academic year.
He said: "The impact on means testing is that you could end up completing the testing after January, well after the student has started study."
The alternative is to use out-of-date information, but this will not take into account, for instance, job loss and would require corrections to be made at a later date.
A Department for Education and Employment spokeswoman said: "In reality means testing operates on the preceding year. There is no reason why it should be any different next year."
Mr Hedges fears problems caused by self assessment could be further compounded by a highly complex system of collecting fees.
This would involve institutions telling local education authorities which students they have from the authority, and the authority carrying out the means test andproviding the invoicing data to the institution.
The institution would then invoice the students for none, part or all of the Pounds 1,000, and send another bill to the LEA for any outstanding balance.
Mr Hedges said: "If the means test information is wrong you would have to go through the loop again with the correct information. On the basis of my knowledge of the system, I suspect that about one-sixth of means tests have been wrong in the past. Under the new system, the number of errors could double."
Mr Hedges hopes the Government will consider simpler alternatives. One of these would involve institutions invoicing the student for Pounds 1,000 and the student being made responsible for obtaining any support due from the LEA.
The DFEE spokeswoman said LEAs will be doing the means testing and "it will be up to universities as to how and when they collect. LEAs, Government and university bodies are working closely to ensure the system will operate smoothly."
THE FUNDING TIMETABLE
October/November: Announcements expected on arrangements for funding higher education in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and for further education.
November: The Higher Education Funding Council for England learns how much funding it will receive from the Government for the 1998/99 academic year.
The grant will include Pounds 129 million more than the amount announced for higher education by the previous government. This means a projected cut of about 2.7 per cent will now be below 1 per cent. The extra money will include Pounds 4 million to bring in 1,000 additional students through sub-degree programmes, mainly in further education colleges.
December: First deadline for student applications to university in 1998/99.
The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales is told its 1998/99 grant by the Welsh Office and the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council is told its grant by the Scottish Office.
1998 January: Local authorities start means-testing university applicants for tuition fees and maintenance grants/loans.
February: HEFCE allocates block grants.
March: HEFCW and SHEFC allocate block grants.
April: Start of 1998/99 financial year.
August: Students receive results and confirm university places.
Institutions receive the first instalment of their 1998/99 block grant from the funding councils. They receive further instalments every month for the following 11 months.
Beginning of autumn term: Students collect the first instalment of their maintenance loan. Part-time and disabled students and those facing particular hardship will be able to claim from an extra Pounds 36 million access package.
Institutions start collecting fees from students and local authorities. It is up to institutions whether they ask for the full year's fee of Pounds 1,000 up front, or stagger it over a longer period. The DFEE suggests collecting the fee in two instalments, with all income in by February. All local authority fees should be in by February.
Autumn 1998: Announcement of public expenditure for 1999/2000.
1999 Beginning of spring term: Students receive their second maintenance loan instalment.
February: Most tuition fee income collected by universities.
April: Start of 1999/2000 financial year.
Beginning of summer term: Final maintenance loan to students.