An award-winning access student has had to give up her dream of a university place after discovering that she is too old to qualify for a student loan. Martin Whittaker reports
Jakki Gillett should have started at university this week. It was a lifetime's ambition for a working-class woman who left school at 16 with few qualifications and brought up nine children.
She had a place waiting for her at the University of Greenwich to study humanities. She had confirmation from her local authority that she did not have to pay fees. She had even arranged a house exchange to be within walking distance of the campus.
But despite being an award-winning access student, Ms Gillett cannot take her degree. She has discovered that at the age of 55 she is too old to qualify for a student loan. Her case has been described as "scandalous" by Helena Kennedy QC, a champion of widening participation. She says she will take it up with Margaret Hodge, minister for lifelong learning and higher education.
"If we want lifelong learning to have any meaning at all then there has to be some discretion about making awards to people in an older age group," Baroness Kennedy told FE Focus.
"Of course it's not one of the priorities of Government to make available interest-free loans to people who are learning as a leisure activity in their retirement, but this is different.
"This is a woman who missed out on all the opportunities of an education and is now doing that thing that we always said lifelong learning should be about.
"It's about second chances, having the opportunity of fulfilment and of never being too late. It's just scandalous that this should happen to her and that there isn't any discretion to make some distinction about her case."
Ms Gillett, from Eltham in south London, returned to education last year, enrolling on an access course at Greenwich Community College. Her work won her the prestigious Helena Kennedy bursary of pound;1,000 towards her degree studies.
But she claims the college misled her about her eligibility for a student loan. Because she is divorced, it would have been Ms Gillett's only means of support at university.
"At my interview for the access course I said if I did manage to get the access certificate, how would I fund the degree course? The humanities access tutor said you would apply for a student loan.
"As far as I was aware, if I was successful with the access course I would then be able to get a student loan and that would form the main basis of my finances for going to university.
"In March this year I was suddenly confronted with the new handbook which said that only students aged 54 or less at the start of their degree course can apply for a student loan. I was completely stunned.
"I recently had a letter inviting me to the House of Lords to meet Helena Kennedy and the other 39 students who have been beneficiaries of bursaries.
"I wrote back to explain what had happened since I won the award. I said that I was not sure it would be appropriate for me to attend as it's a day of celebration and I'm not one of your success stories."
Jim Soulsby of NIACE, the national organisation for adult learning, said the student loan system needs to be more flexible to take into account the needs of older learners.
"The Government is saying we want older people included in society, and yet on the other hand within the higher education system they're saying no, you can't if you're over the age of 54," he said.
No one at Greenwich Community College was available to comment on the issue.