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Tuesday, 23 April, 2002, 01:08 GMT 02:08 UK
College students' money complaints
Further education college managers, staff and students have combined forces to lobby Parliament for more funds.
Students say the government's wishes to see more people staying in education are not backed by adequate resources.
The schooldays of Shelley Howson were by her account a disaster - she uses stronger language - characterised by classroom disruption.
"Chairs being thrown around, that kind of thing.
"A lot of people I was at school with are in prison now."
Nevertheless there was family pressure on her to do well and to go on to university, which she rebelled against.
"I purposefully flunked all my GCSEs," she said.
"I regret it now. Ten years later I moved up north and plucked up the courage to go to college."
But she says she passed up the chance of doing a four-year degree course because she could not have afforded it.
"I had to weigh up the pros and cons, but if I could avoid it I didn't want to go into debt," she said.
Her older partner works abroad for much of the year and although he is supportive to an extent she does not see that he should have to pay for her education.
"He has paid enough in taxes in his lifetime, why should he have to pay again for me?" she said.
"I get no help with childcare, so I have had to restructure my courses so I can get home to pick my son up."
Her wish list would be no fees and a grant "to do what I wanted to do without the big loan debt at the end of it".
Access to education
Neil Dudding's schooling was disrupted for a very different reason. He was born with spina bifida.
Now, at the age of 30, he is studying to be a learning support assistant and wants to work with other disadvantaged students "because I'm all for people with disabilities getting what they need".
But he says the only financial help he gets are so-called "access funds" to pay for materials and equipment for his course - and petrol for his car, his only means of transport.
That amounts to £150 in the first term, another £50 the following February and another £50 in May.
Their fellow Hull College student, Lilly Elliott, has returned to education after raising a family - her children are now 24 and 26 and both married.
"I just thought, sooner than be stuck at home all the time I would like to do something with my life," she said.
But at the age of 50 she would not contemplate taking on a student loan.
"I could have gone to university but I couldn't afford what for me would have been lifelong debt," she said.
"If I were to die I would be leaving the debt to my kids."
Marie Fields, 34, is studying English and politics at Wolverhampton University.
She complains about what she sees as a nonsense in the funding system that means she was better off unemployed.
"I get £14 a week working families tax credit, that's all, because when assessing my income they take into account by student loan - which I have to pay back!
"I would be better off on income support, but I have to think of my future."
When her two children were old enough - 11 and eight - she decided she needed to get some education.
"But the barriers I have come across, I have needed to be very determined otherwise I would have given up," she said.
She took a further education access course that prepared her for her degree studies - one of the major routes into higher education.
Skipping the tutorial classes, and so missing out on support which she felt she needed, brought her hours down to 14 hours, so she still qualified for state benefits - which were the only way she could afford to be getting the education in the first place.
Marie says that if the government is serious about widening participation in education and encouraging everyone to keep learning, it has to address the benefit traps that "breed a cycle of dependency".
The further education sector educates a majority of students aged 16 to 19.
For them, the National Union of Students last week demanded a universal, means-tested system of education maintenance allowances (EMAs), introduced in 1999 but still operating only in designated pilot areas.
In her current work on sabbatical as a student union official at Stourbridge College, Marie Fields sees the effect of the "postcode lottery" in that support system.
Because the college straddles different local authority areas, some of the students get the allowance and some do not.
"It's not a lot but it makes a difference," she said.
According to NUS officials, the allowances are most effective in families with no tradition of further or higher education - the very people the Department for Education is so keen to keep in the system.
"Quite a large proportion of our college are Asian students and it's very difficult for them, especially if they are female, to study and not to have any money of their own," Marie said.
"Students in FE have to work. But 16 to 18 year olds want and deserve a social life. So they drop out.
"Work, study, have no social life - it affects participation in further education."
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