Why means-testing will end in tears

August 15, 1997

IF THE Government is intent on charging fees, means-testing loans and protecting the "poorest" students then it must seriously consider how it determines who are the poorest. The Mandatory Awards Regulations are deeply flawed and basically inequitable. They reflect the social realities of the 1950s, not the 1990s, being biased in favour of well-off parents with a house, a large mortgage and life assurance and against poorer parents in highcost rented accommodation. Capital assets are ignored but other dependent children receive little financial allowance. Step-parents' income is ignored regardless. These rules create glaring anomalies and injustices and are no basis for any future means-testing.

The whole vexed question of "dependence" needs urgent consideration. Parental and spousal assessed contributions are unenforceable in law (except in Scotland). How will any student support agency deal with those whose parents/spouses refuse to complete the application? Will they be regarded, as now, as totally dependent on relatives who do not want them to study in the first place? It is time we accepted that people of 18-plus, especially those who have not lived at home for several years, are no longer "dependent"? Large numbers of mature students struggle on a small income belonging to a spouse which debars them from the child allowances in the maintenance grant. This causes great strain on relationships already let alone when fees are also means-tested.

Income-contingent loans have been "sold" in other countries on the basis of open access to adequate levels of income while studying. The present level of grant and loan is inadequate causing many students to take paid work to the detriment of their studies. It is a shameful indictment of the system that students, especially those with children, are generally worse off than if they were on income support and housing benefit. And yet the Government apparently intends to maintain student incomes at more or less the same level, and to means-test both fee liability and loans.

Carol Smith

Student services manager Leeds Metropolitan University (writing in a personal capacity)

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