Dundee College is taking the welfare of cash-strapped students very seriously. Neil Munro reports
Ken Neades, head of student services at Dundee College is officially an education counsellor. But increasingly, he has had to become an expert on the benefits system as well.
All students who come into the college for pre-entry guidance on courses are now confronted with the financial implications as a matter of routine. Mr Neades says 40 per cent of the 6,000 face-to-face interviews with students his department carries out each year are concerned with financial matters, particularly student debt.
"We have even had the horrific situation of students cashing in their insurance policies to make ends meet, leaving themselves and their homes without protection," Mr Neades adds. "The overwhelming impression we get from many of the cases we deal with is students' sheer determination and resilience to see their courses through."
As some students are putting paying for their studies before food the college's catering department now runs courses showing students how they can eat effectively and cheaply. Students' induction packs include recipes for a balanced, if cheap, diet.
The new financial regime which the further education colleges face from April, when their success in attracting students will determine their Scottish Office grant, is likely to put the spotlight firmly on student financial support. If students find their studies come at too high a cost, it could spell havoc for college budgets.
Mr Neades has identified a discernible recent trend away from enquiries about full-time courses towards part-time study. The reason, he believes, is that the majority of would-be students see the Scottish Office grant for higher national certificates and diplomas as inadequate and they are not prepared to saddle themselves with loans.
The majority of students are now no longer entitled to housing and other benefits, which acts as a powerful disincentive to pursuing a full-time college course. "As soon as a student declares he or she is on a course, they are regarded as no longer available for work and their benefit ceases," Mr Neades says.
"Last session we had the ludicrous situation where a significant number of our students had to wait for up to six weeks for the grant for their Higher National CertificateHigher National Diploma courses to come through. During that time they didn't receive any benefit and, although we tried to get emergency payments for them, that was turned down by the Department for Social Security."
Mr Neades adds: "More and more people are seeing FE as a route into higher education. But many of those students also see the prospect of four to five years in penury, with grants reducing and rents increasing.
"This does not encourage them to look upon education as a worthwhile goal, particularly if the only way they can finance their studies is with a debt at the end of it."
One student was a married man who had been made redundant. He was entitled to Pounds 97.20 weekly unemployment benefit for himself, his wife and two children, he also got full rent rebate. His grant would have been Pounds 109 a week with an additional weekly loan of Pounds 27 on an HND course.
But a full-time course meant he was no longer available for work and would therefore lose all his benefit. Even so he embarked on an HND course in business studies and administration - only to give up after four to five weeks. He was later rescued by securing a part-time place through the college's 'passport to learning' scheme.
Mr Neades and his colleagues are also exasperated by the "Catch-22 experience" of single, predominantly female, parents anxious to get a place at college. They are entitled to student grants while also claiming rent rebate. But this is a marginal advantage, if it is one at all, since the DSS considers all "potential gross earnings" of grant and loan when assessing any benefit claims.
Dundee College has set up a child-care fund which provides single parents with up to Pounds 30 a week on top of their grants. The fund is limited to full-time students and 100 children of Dundee students are supported by the fund.
The lesson from Dundee is that increasing the numbers of students, upon which the future of many colleges will depend, is increasingly a matter for the Secretary of State for Social Security as much as the Scottish Secretary or the Education Secretary.