Why do some applicants have to be married to be eligible for student finance?

In some cases home fee status can be denied to applicants even though they have a right of residency. Rachel Reeds asks why

Rachel Reeds is Senior Admissions Manager (Faculty Operations) at Anglia Ruskin University.

“You are telling me that if I had not divorced my abusive ex-husband I would be eligible for funding, but because I stood up for myself and my children and left him, I am now being penalised?”

Admissions staff have to let applicants down all the time. It’s never pleasant. But when you hear statements like this it’s so frustrating.

This applicant had been in England several years and is settled here. Her children were born here. She did not qualify for home fee status and therefore was not eligible for funding as she did not meet any of the criteria set out in the fee regulations. She explained to me she had previously been married to a UK national, had retained her rights of residence post-divorce, and was on the 10-year parent route to settled status. I explained that she unfortunately did not qualify in her own right but if they had still been married she would have been eligible.

Another applicant assumed they would be eligible through their partner in line with their visa. The admissions officer explained that as they were not married, the applicant would not qualify. “If you were to marry before 1 September, you would qualify,” I heard her say. There was silence as they listened to the caller. “Oh, I see,” she said after a long moment. “I’m so sorry. I’m afraid the rules are very specific.” Another pause. “Okay, thank you, good bye.”

I asked the officer whether everything was alright. “Did you know divorce is illegal in the Philippines?” she asked. “That applicant couldn’t marry their current partner even if they wanted to.”

Barred from accessing student finance

There is a diverse and substantial group of potential applicants in long-term durable relationships (or having an immigration status linked to a previous such relationship) barred from accessing student finance funding because they are not married or in a civil partnership with their partner.

They have a right of residency that recognises their established relationship with their partner. They may have children born in the UK. They work in the UK. They have lived in the UK a number of years. However, the lack of a legal contract between the applicant and their partner means the applicant is denied access to funding for higher education in England.

Why are such outdated stipulations still included in the fee regulations?

There are a multitude of reasons why someone might not be married or in a civil partnership, none of which stop them being recognised as in a durable relationship by the Home Office. For the Home Office, a durable relationship is defined in the immigration rules as marriage, a civil partnership, or “a person who is unmarried and is part of a couple who have been living together in relationship similar to marriage or civil partnership for at least 2 years.” You can retain your right of residence after the breakdown of such a relationship in some cases, especially when children are involved. Seems sensible.

No such provision exists in the student finance funding eligibility criteria for England. For categories that offer eligibility through a partner, you have to be married or in a civil partnership. The only valid partner relationship is that of a spouse.

Behind the times

A quarter of people living with a partner are not married, according to the 2021 census for England and Wales. Unmarried partners have been recognised in English immigration law since 1997. Why are fee regulations so behind the times?

On a weekly basis across the nation, admissions officers are explaining carefully to frustrated applicants that although they have “retained their rights” of residency or they have the “right to study”, neither means they qualify for home fee status and therefore student finance funding. It doesn’t make sense to the applicants. It doesn’t make sense to the admissions professionals.

No one reports on the numbers of applicants who are denied home fee status (that is, categorised as overseas for fee purposes but not requiring a student visa). There is no way of knowing how many are falling between the gaps in the fee regulations. And let’s be honest, without the capped fee and a student loan, many would not be able to afford to study at university.

Universities are focussed on inclusive, fair recruitment, but this gap between the fee regulations and immigration decisions is not serving universities or applicants well. Debate rages about student debt and fee caps, but we need to take a close look at how inclusive our funding model is and who is being excluded by fee regulations that are 25+ years behind immigration rules.

One response to “Why do some applicants have to be married to be eligible for student finance?

  1. In the first example, the applicant is described as being “settled” and resident “several years”. Were she to have been resident five years or more, there would be eligibility to apply for indefinite leave to remain which would grant access to uk student finance. There is still access to student funding for someone resident for a shorter period provided they are married or in a civil partnership with a UK citizen. Reference is made to the 10 year route to settlement as a parent. Possibly the individual is locked into this scheme which has fewer than five years left to run. In which case, seeing the scheme out could be the best option to avoid having to pay international fees. And btw it is possible to initiate divorce proceedings in the UK if you were married in the Philippines. The law in the Philippines since 2018 has recognised divorce obtained validly in another country where a Philippine is married to a foreign national.

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