Debt relief is a credit to college

8th February 2008 at 00:00
Students and credit unions seem like ideal partners: the former bogged down in debt; the latter providing a low-risk path out of the financial mire. Yet Britain's first college-based credit union only came into being last month, as Henry Hepburn discovers.

It is a stark choice but one that faces many students today: go to a loan shark or give up one's studies.

Sadly, it is an increasingly frequent scenario as the rising tide of personal debt reaches critical levels - particularly in former industrial heartlands such as North Lanarkshire, where many communities are blighted by poverty.

But staff at Motherwell College have come up with a third way, a creative solution to student debt that seems so obvious it's a wonder no one has tried it before. So it was that, late last month, a college-based credit union - for staff as well as students - opened for business.

A credit union tends to be a close-knit community, so the lending and saving of money is based on deep-rooted trust.

Doubters have suggested that a large college such as Motherwell's - with 20,000 students - is more at risk than traditional credit unions, because many students and staff come from outside the immediate area and could disappear off the radar more easily. So the recent launch was a leap of faith, but one that the college was happy to make.

Hugh Logan, principal, is acutely aware that he and his colleagues must offer more than just a place to learn, particularly since many of the college's students come from a background of poverty. "We are trying to support the students with a complete package," he says.

In practice, the nascent credit union is being fronted by four volunteers, all HNC accountancy students (although opportunities may arise for students in other departments).

Each has undergone five days of training and will offer services each Tuesday lunchtime with help from Motherwell and District Credit Union; on Thursday lunchtimes, they will be on their own.

Linda McAllister, curriculum leader for office skills, has worked closely with the students to get the co-operative up and running, and believes its launch is timely. "So many students have financial problems," she says. "For many there is the chance of having to give up their studies."

Student volunteer Anne Fannan, 39, says: "There are people who think that loan sharks are the only solution, whose parents go to them, and you'll find that they don't have a credit rating. We can show students that there are people out there who can help."

For Sharon Whitefield, 30 - who makes up the rest of the team with 19-year-old Steven Monaghan and Viki Egan, 25 - the interest in volunteering is motivated by altruism and a determination to further her career. "You get satisfaction in knowing you can help people and advise on a good way of saving," she says. "It also helps us with our courses and with work experience."

The volunteers will make intermittent visits to classes to explain the benefits of a credit union.

They are aware that a 17-year-old joinery student's eyes may glaze over at the mention of credit unions, but they have clever tactics to pique the interest of their colleagues. "I would ask them what kind of things they're interested in, what they're planning to do with their life," Mrs Fannan says. "Do they want a car or a holiday? You'd tell them that even putting away a couple of pounds a week can help them get those things."

The college's credit union came into being with help from the Glasgow-based Greater Easterhouse Money Advice Project, which offers financial advice and education to deprived communities, and North Lanarkshire Credit Union Forum. Support has also come from North Lanarkshire Council whose leader, Jim McCabe, wants to see the benefits of credit unions brought into schools and others colleges. Cumbernauld and Coatbridge colleges have shown an interest in following Motherwell's example.

GEMAP already has experience of helping set up three credit unions in Glasgow secondary schools and two in city primaries.

Tony Quinn, chief executive, believes personal debt is coming to a crunch point, and a credit union can protect students. "In Britain, we have pound;1.5 or pound;1.6 trillion of personal debt - more than double what the United States has spent in fighting a war in Iraq," he says.

"For the last 10 to 15 years, that has driven the economy in the UK. But now there are increasing fuel costs, you're paying more at the supermarket than you used to and house prices are dropping. There is going to be a lot of problems in personal finance in the next few years."

He believes education has a crucial role in combating personal debt, but must be backed by practical solutions. "It's important that we don't see education as the be-all and end-all," he says. "It's pointless knowing it's right to be a member of a credit union when there's not one available for you to join."

WHAT IS A CREDIT UNION?

Credit unions are financial co-operatives owned and controlled by their members. They provide savings accounts and low-interest loans. Many credit unions have broadened their outlook to include services such as current accounts, ISAs and child trust funds.

Each credit union has a "common bond" which determines who can join it. This may be that members live or work in the same area, have the same employer, or belong to the same association - perhaps a church or trade union.

Source: Association of British Credit Unions Limited.

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