Biggest barrier is student debt

College students face a monetary minefield and student support urgently needs reform, says James Alexander
24th October 2008, 1:00am
James Alexander


Biggest barrier is student debt

Students in Scotland's colleges receive funding from numerous sources. These range from the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (student loans and fees) to the Scottish Government (college bursaries, hardship allowances, childcare bursaries and discretionary funds) and Westminster (benefits, tax credits and allowances).

Since Scottish devolution in 1999, the interaction between the Scottish student support system and the UK-wide benefits system has become increasingly complex. This has led to students applying for college courses, largely unaware of the impact it may have on their existing benefits or household income.

Due to the complexity of the system, college student support officers are required to work with students on an individual basis to calculate their support entitlements, working out many possibilities to determine which combination of benefits and bursaries gives a student the highest income.

Frequently, these support officers have to quote legislation to benefits officers in Job Centres to ensure students receive all the funding to which they are entitled. Clearly, this is a very time-consuming process and leaves students marooned in a funding mechanism they don't understand.

On September 3, the Scottish Government announced a consultation on plans to restore free education for all in Scotland, and develop student support measures in light of that. Scotland's Colleges sees this as a tremendous opportunity to enhance the student support structures for those who find it the hardest to navigate.

Over the last few years, research has revealed the groups of students for whom getting into debt poses the biggest barrier to studying. These are lone parents, mature students and those from the most deprived backgrounds. These are demographics that colleges serve above all other institutions, and the groups which are far more likely to enter higher education through the HNCHND route than via universities, which is sadly still the preserve of "traditional" students.

It is because debt poses such a barrier for students in colleges, and because the students from these three debt-averse backgrounds are frequently disenfranchised and commonly fail to achieve their full potential, that ASC is working to tackle the barrier of debt in HNC and HND courses.

Our campaign aim is to have students studying HNCs and HNDs moved onto a bursary system. This would not be administered through SAAS, but by the people that students already know and trust - the college bursary officers.

Such a system would allow students to progress seamlessly through the different levels of college provision, through FE and onto HE without having to worry about how a change of course might impact on their family income, or whether their course will force them into thousands of pounds of debt.

This proposal will also help solve another huge problem arising from the student loans system - that, because a loan is an entitlement, not a discretionary amount, any loan allowance will be deducted from a student's benefits. This is the case whether the student chooses to take out the loan or not.

Moving students onto the discretionary bursary system, which is not off-set against benefits, will allow them to keep this safety net, and retain the funding with which they are secure.

Meanwhile, a second consultation of relevance to FE has been launched by the Westminster Government. This is a UK-wide consultation on welfare reform and large-scale changes to the benefits system. With at least a fifth of students in colleges receiving some form of benefits, this is clearly an issue for Scotland's colleges.

The proposals plan ambitious reductions in the numbers of people receiving out-of-work benefits, and set the target of a record employment rate of 80 per cent. This target is to be achieved through various means, including the development of skills for work, community volunteering and the abolition of income support.

ASC believes that a key partner in the aim of reducing unemployment, particularly through the development of a skilled workforce, is the college sector. Sadly, the role of colleges as providers of skills has been largely overlooked in this consultation.

We will be taking the opportunity of this consultation to highlight our role, and to push for a system of welfare benefits which interacts positively with the student support mechanisms in use throughout the UK - helping a generation of benefits claimants to attend college and build better lives for themselves and their families.

Over the next few months, many positive changes can take place in the student support landscape. We need our governments to be brave enough to make the difference our students and our potential students call for and deserve.

James Alexander is a policy adviser with the Association of Scotland's Colleges, specialising in student support and learner engagement. He is a former president of the National Union of Students Scotland.

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