Aid for grants

15th May 1998 at 01:00
A PICTURE of an under-resourced and poorly staffed organisation stretched to breaking point by computer hitches and a huge caseload emerges from the Government enquiry into the Student Awards Agency for Scotland.

The review group of student and staff representatives, Scottish Office officials and private sector experts was set up in January on the orders of Brian Wilson, the Education Minister. He had suffered political embarrassment as thousands of further and higher education students faced hardships when their grants failed to arrive on time.

The TESS first revealed the looming crisis last September when FE students on advanced courses began to experience delays. These worsened a month later as the new university session got underway.

Mr Wilson acknowledged: "The performance of the SAAS last year was simply unacceptable, resulting in uncertainty, confusion, frustration and distress for many students."

But the Minister refused to blame the staff, who had to cope with a new IT system introduced in April 1997. It was virtually out of action for a crucial six-week period just as grant applications were building up.

The backlog forced staff to deal with 2000 calls a day at the peak period, so they had less time to process grants. And only a fifth of continuing students applied as recommended by mid-May.

Mr Wilson did, however, point the finger at the previous Government for "piling on student numbers without making the necessary arrangements".

Figures show that grant applications steadily grew from 118,451 in 1994-95 to 129,420 in 1997-98, while staff numbers were progressively cut from 154 to 134.5.

The Government has now put an extra pound;380,000 into the agency's budget and sanctioned additional staff during the peak period from May to October.

An operations manager is also to start work on Monday to work alongside Ken MacRae, the agency's chief executive, during the 1998-99 grant round.

"I am as confident as I can be that this will have the desired effect," Mr Wilson said on Tuesday. He did not believe the agency's new responsibility for handling tuition fees would complicate matters since fee charges would not be introduced in one "big bang" next session.

Student and college leaders broadly welcomed the Government's moves but are suspending final judgement until after this year's grant round.

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