Page last updated at 04:59 GMT, Friday, 9 October 2009 05:59 UK

New students still without funds

By Angela Harrison
BBC News education reporter

Students are starting university with funding problems unresolved

Up to 175,000 students in the UK may still be waiting to receive their student loans and grants, a week after most courses started.

Of the record one million students who applied for funding this year, 16% have not yet received any loans or grants.

First years have been hardest hit, with just 72% of applications dealt with, details given under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed.

The Student Loans Company blamed late applications and technical problems.

Serious problems

The information given under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act says problems with new scanning equipment led to a "slight delay in the processing of documents" in April and that the group then went back to "manual processing of documents".

However, the body insists the "vast majority of students who applied on time will have received their money after they registered at university".

Unless they sort this out, universities and students will be left high and dry
Pam Tatlow

But university vice chancellors are reporting serious problems and are pressing ministers for action.

England's Higher Education Minister David Lammy held a meeting with the Student Loans Company on Thursday to discuss the situation and so that the body "could hear the concerns of those working with students".

Student Laurence Hunter: "This is making my life a misery"

The delays mainly affect England, although the Student Loan Company is the parent company of the bodies running the student finance system in other parts of the UK. It is non profit-making and runs the student finance system on behalf of the government.

Malcolm McVicar, vice chancellor of University of Central Lancashire, said: "The evidence we have is that the level of students who have not had any money is greater than in previous years.

"We have had to make a number of emergency payments - about 250 - at a cost of about £70,000."

Universities are giving some students hardship grants to help them and are not fining them over late payment of tuition fees.

"We need an assessment of the scale of the problem," Mr McVicar added.

"Our students are facing serious problems. Many can't find out the status of their applications. They have bills to pay. Some have families that can help but others do not."

Pam Tatlow, the chief executive of the million+ group of universities said: "The fact is that there are more applicants this year and they have processed fewer (as a proportion) than they had last year," she said.

"At our universities, some people enrol in January, so this backlog could continue. Unless they sort this out, universities and students will be left high and dry."

Waiting for confirmation

Last month the Student Loan Company pledged that all those who applied before mid-August would be given at least a basic level of funding a few days after starting their courses, with the rest of their funds coming by the end of October.

In its FOI response to questions from the BBC, the SLC said it had received a total of 1,091,653 applications for student finance by 4 October.

Of those, 916,295 (84%) had been processed.

We have processed and approved the majority of applications received
Student Loans Company statement

That suggests there are 175,358 applications outstanding, but the SLC says this number includes applications which have been cancelled or which have been started online but have not been submitted by the student for processing.

It also includes applications where more information is needed, the SLC says.

The SLC said it could not give a more precise figure at this time because of the complexities of the system.

A further statement from the organisation said it was waiting for confirmation on the attendance of tens of thousands of students at university before releasing payments.

Hundreds of students have emailed the BBC News Website in the past few weeks to complain of delays in the processing of their applications, lost documents and telephone help lines that offer no help.

Most are first year students, who have been worst hit.

I feel very stressed and worried that I might have to leave the course
Nichola Watkiss

The SLC says it received 487,179 first-time applications and that 72% (351,773) have been processed.

That leaves 135,406 of first-time applications outstanding.

This time last year, 78% of first time applications had been dealt with.

In a statement, the SLC said it had processed and approved 84 % of applications, compared to 86% this time last year.

It said: "The variance between the applications that have been sent in and those that have been processed is due to a combination of factors, including late applications, of which we are still receiving thousands every day.

"We have now paid 750,000 students who have started their university course. This compares well to the same time last year, when we had paid 743,000 students.

This year applications to UK universities were up by 60,000 on last year.

Lost data

Nichola Watkiss, 20, from Oswestry, is one of the hundreds of students who have emailed the BBC News Website on the issue.

She started her graphic design course at Chester University two weeks ago but has yet to receive any funding. She is living at home and her university has said it will not fine her for late payment of her tuition fees.

She said: "I feel very stressed and worried that I might have to leave the course. I worked through the summer and am working in a shop at the weekends so have been able to start.

"I applied really early, in May, and have just spoken to them on the phone and they have admitted they have lost all our documents - my birth certificate, my mum's P60, they told her to apply for a new one."

This is the first year that first-time applicants have had to apply directly to Student Finance England for loans and grants.

In the past, they would have applied to the loans company through their local authority, which would have sent the details on to the Student Loans Company.

Students who are applying for their second, third or fourth years are still being dealt with by their local authorities.

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