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Wednesday, 2 May, 2001, 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
Indebted students face exclusion
Thousands of students in the UK are running the risk of being kicked off their university courses through debt.
But many who are unable to find the money will be excluded from teaching and from libraries and computer facilities, in effect ending their university careers.
Student unions say the government's push to widen access to youngsters from poorer backgrounds has worsened the problem, and that the system needs rethinking.
The union at the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol protested to the university authorities when some 2,400 letters were sent to students there telling them they were overdue on meeting their bills.
Of these some 400 had missed both this year's payments, due at the end of November and the end of January.
The union president, Edwin Dyson, said: "One of our key demands is that they allow students in the process of renegotiating their debts to continue using IT facilities and the library and attend lectures - to continue to learn.
"The university has to take a hard line," he acknowledged. "It's funding for lecturers and courses and everything else.
"While we recognise that students have a responsibility to abide by the university's regulations, we have to support those members who simply cannot pay."
The debts range from £18 to the full tuition fees for the year - £1,050.
The deputy vice-chancellor, Rob Cuthbert, said most had now paid up.
"We don't have a serious student debt problem," he said.
This is significant because nor does the university have an unusually high number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds - it almost exactly fits the national average in that respect. It is rated very highly for the quality of its teaching.
Yet the 2,400 who got into difficulties represent 10% of its students.
"There is no doubt there is a body of students who do face financial hardship, especially mature students with families, and there tend to be more of those in the new universities," Mr Cuthbert said.
The new universities - the former polytechnics - have been at the forefront of the government's drive to widen participation in higher education by those from so-called "non-traditional backgrounds" - older students or those from families, perhaps whole neighbourhoods, which have never sent anyone to university.
At the University of Central England in Birmingham, some 500 will get final demands for payment next week.
At Luton, 206 students are facing exclusion for debt. They are the ones who, despite repeated appeals by the university to get in touch to discuss their problems, have not responded.
'We know it's tough'
"We do sympathise," said a spokeswoman. "We have a high number of students from non-traditional university backgrounds and we recognise that it's tough for them to pay but at the same time we can't be unfair to the students who are paying and negotiating methods of paying."
The government points out that fees are means-tested: People from poorer families do not pay them. Figures just published show that 45% make no contribution, 20% some and 35% pay the full £1,050.
Gary Burns said it was more complex than that. In his own case, he was estranged from his parents and exchanged a lot of letters with them to get them to contribute to his going to Luton.
"A lot of students are just not going to go through that," he said.
But it was not only about fees. His union reckoned that if someone took out the maximum student loan and lived in the most central of Luton's halls of residence next year they would be £35 out of pocket after paying rent and fees - before taking living expenses into account.
"It's just not something a lot of these kids are used to dealing with. They probably haven't even had a bank account before - and the notion of getting into debt really knocks them back, you can see it when they talk about it."
The problem was made worse by student loans arriving late - often towards the end of the first term.
And the paying of bonuses to the more prestigious universities for attracting students from non-traditional backgrounds was good for them and for the students involved - but hit places such as Luton by reducing their pool of potential recruits.
"They rush out these initiatives but they don't always fit the system," he said. "The system can't cope with it."
Luton's pro-vice-chancellor, Tim Boatswain, agrees.
"It is a problem for the sector now and I think it's becoming more of a problem," he said. "I don't think the system has bedded down."
Universities were used to having a supportive relationship with their students: "We are not geared up to debt collection."
In a time of economic buoyancy and relatively high employment, young people faced with a choice between getting a job or running up £10,000 of debt were unlikely to opt for student life - although Luton graduates are snapped up by employers.
"Students from 'cash families' where debt is quite a serious problem are saying 'I don't want to take the risk.'
"I would find it psychologically very difficult if I were a student now."
And there is a feeling that those students who have not responded to the final demand letters from their universities have already decided to quit. Either way, they soon will be lost to the system.
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