Page last updated at 14:24 GMT, Monday, 28 September 2009 15:24 UK

Q&A: student finance delays

freshers' fair
Those starting university have enough to think about without money worries

What is the problem?

"I have never dealt with such a shoddily run incompetent organisation in my life," is typical of the complaints sent to the BBC about Student Finance England.

The organisation that administers student loans and grants in England has said some 50,000 people will start university courses this term without all the loans and grants they expect.

It blames this on a 16.7% rise in loan applications this year, with 120,000 new applications in the past four weeks - although people began warning of problems in e-mails to the BBC in July, saying they were being told then of a six to eight-week backlog.

What is being done?

Student Finance England is run by the Student Loans Company (SLC), whose chief executive has promised that all those who applied by mid-August would at least receive "basic funding" - that is, tuition fees for their university and the basic maintenance loan - within seven days of starting a course.

The SLC said: "Student Finance England apologises for the difficulty customers are having getting through to their contact centres."

It added: "They acknowledge that this will be a worrying time for those students affected, and are focussing resources on making sure applications and callers are dealt with as quickly as possible."

Updated advice on the Directgov website says: "If you applied on time, you will be paid when you register on your course."

But there is a rider: "If you get an initial payment that's less than you were expecting, it will have been made to ensure you are paid on time. Your full entitlement will be paid as soon as possible."

More detailed guidance defines applying on time as "including all supporting evidence" - but one of the most common complaints is that this sort of documentation appears to have been lost.

People also report being told that their online application accounts have been "deleted", and beign asked to reapply using a paper form.

There is also a warning: Some people are getting bogus 'phishing' emails that claim to come from Student Finance England, asking for security details.

It says: "Don't follow the links in any email that claims to come from Student Finance England. Make sure you're logging into the genuine site by typing into your browser."

Can I start my university course without funding in place?

Universities are autonomous and each will treat the situation slightly differently but they are aware of the problems.

It seems likely the typical response will be to enrol people provisionally, provided they can show that they have actually applied for funding.

Some are saying they are in a position to help financially from hardship funds and students who are struggling should get in touch.

A crucial issue for the universities is whether a student qualifies for the funding that covers tuition fees: students get loans which they repay after graduation - but the institutions get the fee money up front (50% in February and 50% in May).

What's the background to all this?

Applications for student finance used to be administered by England's 150 local authorities.

Payments were then made and records kept by the Student Loans Company (SLC).

From this year the system is being centralised, with everything going through the SLC subsidiary Student Finance England.

Why was the system changed?

The change followed a review and consultation.

This confirmed, according to the government, "that we would only obtain the level of service customers expect by providing a primarily online service, in addition to making a single organisation responsible for both the assessment and payment of [higher education] students' grants and loans".

The announcement of the new system, in 2006, now has an ironic ring:

"Student Finance Delivery is Transforming," it was headlined.

"Student Finance England is the new one stop shop for anyone who wants to know more about what help is on offer to students wanting to take a higher education course. It's the definitive, official source of information on student finance."

The then higher education minister, Bill Rammell, said: "As well as clearer information, faster decisions, timely payments and accurate repayments, the transformed service intends to provide taxpayers with better value for money by generating savings from delivery processes to be spent on other priorities."

That sounds like cuts?

Minutes of the Student Loans Company's board meeting in January show finance director Les Campbell as saying discussions about budgets were ongoing with the department then responsible for higher education in England, Dius.

They add: "At this stage, there was a significant gap between what the Company believed it required and what Dius could provide."

Mr Campbell reportedly said that in spite of efforts to reduce costs, "it was unlikely that the savings gained would close the funding gap and therefore, service standard levels may eventually be affected".

The warning seemed to be heeded, however, and the government has provided an extra £4.1m to the SLC for 2009-10 to support the system.

It will have known that it needed extra resources because minutes of its board meeting in November 2008 show huge numbers of phone calls were being abandoned: more than a quarter of a million during the previous three months - which was before it took over responsibility for all new applications.

This comment received by the BBC is typical of people's intense frustration: "I must have tried to call Finance England over 100 times in the last week but unable to get through - only the same message over and over again 'high number of calls... call back later... visit our website'.

"We are not stupid! If the website could answer our queries, we wouldn't be wasting our precious time and energy trying to get through to an advisor."

Did Dius miscalculate student numbers?

Two things happened a year ago. One was that a planned expansion of student numbers in England this year of 15,000 was cut to 10,000.

The other was that grants students would get were cut by altering the means testing family income bands. This in turn delayed the launch of Student Finance England and the opening of student finance applications for 2009-10.

The underlying reason for these was that the financial support available had been increased in 2008 - but more people had qualified for it than had been expected.

The then universities secretary, John Denham, told a committee of MPs his department had expected a third of students to qualify for the full grant - but 40% had.

The result had been a £200m funding shortfall.

But this summer there was an outcry when applications for university places soared - fuelled by the lack of alternatives in a recession - and news headlines predicted tens of thousands of prospective students would be left out.

So late in July Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced there would be 10,000 more university places in England this autumn (mainly in maths, science, technology and engineering subjects).

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