Bringing the Student Loans Company into focus

They say that your view depends on where your put your camera. In recent years as CEO of the Education and Skills Funding Agency and CEO of the Institute for Apprenticeships I’ve been focused on supporting academies, colleges, private training organisations, employers and ensuring that citizens can find routes to the skills training they need to succeed to help them play their part in society and in growing the economy.

This perspective has undoubtedly informed my view of the Student Loans Company and its role. I have to say, I have always thought they did a good job in terms of administering student finance.  But then how difficult could that be? Student applies for loan, gets loan and then repays loan.

What a difference just a few months can make. From the day I stepped into the Glasgow headquarters as interim Chief Executive my focus and perspective has been changed almost daily, as I absorb the myriad of policies, processes and procedures that SLC works within to deliver those three simple outcomes.

Volume and complexity

I had lesson one on policy complexity within my first week. One of my senior managers took me aside to quietly explain that there are 500 different policy, product and process interactions within the portfolio we administer on behalf of the UK Government and Devolved Administrations (DAs). The recent expansion of loan availability – in terms of HE and FE, part-time and full-time, and postgraduate masters and doctoral, all with their own unique policy features – is further compounded by policy divergence between the DfE and the DAs.  This has increased the complexity that SLC faces beyond that of any retail bank I can think of. Add to that the fact that the SLC can’t pick and choose to serve specific customer groups so, by having to process all eligible applications, we inevitably get into complex evidence requirements.

In addition, there has been a significant growth in the number of providers (not to mention systems!) that the SLC has to work with. At the last count SLC was in contact with 730 HE providers, 620 FE providers and 480 Learning Centres.

With almost 3000 staff based across three sites in Glasgow, one in Llandudno Junction and one in Darlington we are not only a major employer in these locations but also – significantly, the SLC is the DfE’s biggest non-departmental public body (NDPB) by a long way. We are trusted to pay out over £17bn per year, and safeguard a loan book of over £100bn on their behalf, so not surprising that they keep us close!

Around half of our workforce is Darlington based, working on the site of the former Patons and Baldwins wool factory at Lingfield Point. Here they process 1.8 million loan and tuition fee applications from new and returning undergraduate and postgraduate students every year. That’s seven applications every minute in an almost round-the-clock operation at peak times. In the last financial year our customer advisers handled upwards of 4.7 million calls and responded to almost 40,000 social media posts in our chat rooms.

Literally hundreds of thousands of documents and letters arrive in Darlington every year. On average 3000 pieces of mail arrive at Lingfield Point every day. But this year, thanks to the introduction of e-signatures for most new applications as part of the AY18/19 service for all domiciles, that’s about to change. From spring this year we estimate that as many as half of our customers will be able to apply entirely online, removing the need to sign paper contracts and mail these to our offices to be processed.

When it goes right

For the majority of our customers their relationship with SLC is already virtually contactless, their application barely touches the sides of our operation from first contact to the final confirmation that their maintenance loan has landed in their bank account – that’s the happy journey, and the one we never hear about. But for many that journey can be much more complex, and much more challenging, for customer and adviser – requiring a much more hands on experience with multiple interventions. Take an assessment for disability support as an example: this can be lengthy and requires judgement, and a keen understanding of complex policy requirements and I make no apology for that. I accept it can sometimes seem overly bureaucratic and cumbersome to the customer and we need to look hard at how we might address that.

Student funding is taxpayers’ money. Just as we have a duty to pay the right money to the right people at the right time, we also have a duty to identify, prevent and disrupt the activities of those who seek to defraud the system, dodge repaying their student loans when the time comes or target our customers’ funds. It seems to be working too. This year – for the first time – not one single student lost funding because of a targeted phishing scam and in 16-17 we prevented £16.3m in fraudulent payments being made.

When it goes wrong

So why then isn’t the SLC everyone’s favourite NDPB, with glowing tributes from customers and commentators alike, when it is doing so much, so often and so well?  To return to my opening observation about SLC’s purpose “Student applies for loan,

gets loan and then repays loan” – that’s not news. What is news is when it goes wrong.

But let’s shine a light on that too. At the end of the FY16-17 SLC had 8.2m customers and received a total of 12,770 formal complaints, of which 3,894 were in respect of SLC service failure, the others related to other expressions of dissatisfaction – with, for example, the Government’s policy on student funding.  Almost 4000 unhappy customers equates to just 0.005% of our customer base – but that’s still a lot of people. I never forget that behind each and every one of the numbers I have mentioned in this article, there is a person, a unique individual with unique needs.

When I joined SLC, the executive team were already well into the development of a far-reaching change programme called SLC 2020 that would involve a root and branch review of both the “what” and the “how” of the SLC operation. At its core there lay a recognition that to service the increasing demands of both our shareholders (the Government and Devolved Administrations) and our 8.2m customers SLC would have to change their operating model and adopt new ways of working that put the customer at the heart of what we do.

So it turns out that I, in my previous roles, and the SLC, have both looking out for the customer – just from different angles.

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