A third of Scottish FE students face an administrative nightmare when the jobseekers' allowance comes into effect on October 7, according to the London-based Unemployment Unit. Up to 80,000 part-time students on benefit will be affected.
Clara Donnelly, a researcher with the unit, said colleges would have to negotiate learning agreements with all part-time students claiming the new allowance. The Scottish Office has delayed release of the details of the agreement which students would have to present to jobcentre staff. English colleges were alerted earlier.
Ms Donnelly warned: "In England, learning agreements for each student have proved to be a huge administrative task. In Scotland, colleges have not even known until now that they need to produce a similar document. If they do not have this evidence to provide to benefit offices on October 7 they will lose their unemployed students."
She added: "The Government has shown a lack of concern for unemployed students and further education colleges in Scotland by failing to ensure that the colleges were briefed about the new rules in sufficient time to plan for the next academic year."
Students may be forced to abandon part-time courses because of tougher rules, the unit claimed this week. College managers also admit that the scheme, which allows the unemployed to study for 16 hours a week while signing on, will be a "massive disincentive".
Tighter regulations could also lead to cuts in benefit. Some colleges in the west of Scotland have 90 per cent of their students registered as unemployed.
Alistair Tyre, principal of Langside College, Glasgow, accepted the new documentation would be a "massive job". At Langside, 2,500 students are entitled to benefit.
Mr Tyre's major concern was over jobcentre definitions of full and part-time courses. Students could apply for a course which was full-time, although they attended part-time. "I hope jobcentres all sing with the same voice," he said.
Langside received guidance from the Scottish Office this week but staff had already been in contact with local jobcentres.
A senior manager in another Glasgow college predicted that some benefit officers could penalise students who were too honest.
Scotland, however, has fared better than England over the 16-hour regulations. Unemployed Scots will be able to receive 16 hours' tuition and undertake five hours of self-programmed learning, in effect retaining the current 21-hour rule. College principals accept this places the onus on staff to produce more self-teaching materials.
The jobseekers' allowance replaces unemployment benefit and income support for the unemployed. They will be able to study or train if they can show they are on a part-time course but are still available for work and actively looking for a job. Ministers have insisted the scheme is not designed for people who spend a majority of their time in education.
Ms Donnelly said: "Although Government research shows unemployed people want to study or train in order to improve their chances of finding work, and that they want training or education to lead to qualifications, the only way many can afford to take a course is to stay on benefit."
College principals also believe the "snooper" phoneline launched this week will add to their paperwork burden. Benefit staff will be more likely to check on students, shopped by their neighbours who believe they are working and claiming social security.