But while tuition fees are always in the speeches, maintenance is always oddly missing. And it would be nice if ministers could turn their attention to the chronic failures in the system for full-time students before we try to sort loans for module gatherers.
Here’s an example. Most of us understand the concept of the academic year – which in the Department for Education’s regs, runs for 12 months beginning on September 1st for programmes that start on or after 1 September and on or before 31 December.
In a given academic year, students can’t apply for more than the maximum amounts of tuition fee and living costs support – including grants for dependants – for that course in respect of an academic year.
The good news is that for other HE entry points, other academic years are available. These are for courses:
- on or after 1 January and before 1 April;
- on or after 1 April and before 1 July;
- on or after 1 July and before 1 August.
But here’s the problem. If you’re a student on a course that (for example) starts in late March, that means that your “academic year” starts on January 1st.
That may be straightforward enough if we’re thinking about the standard maintenance loan. But for student parents who already depend on the childcare grant (up to £188.90 a week for 1 child or up to £323.85 a week for 2 or more children), things get a lot trickier.
The childcare grant is paid into a Childcare Grant Payment Service (CCGPS) account. The childcare provider then sends requests for payment to the CCGPS, which students approve through their account every week. That then triggers the provider being paid directly from the money in that account.
The problem is that because that entitlement runs for 12 months, if a student starts their course in March, their childcare funding ends on 31st December of that year.
They are still entitled to childcare funding for the remaining months of study (January to March the following year), but that’s counted as part of the next academic year, so they have to submit another application for the following year, with a special extra application in the final year.
And so unless you know this, and someone warns you, you can have your kids in a nursery getting the childcare grant… and then without warning, it will just… stop.
You’ll then have to cover the fees yourself while you wait 12 weeks or so for your “new” application to process, in the notoriously flush month of January.
And depending on the course you’re on, that may well also be a month where your placement expenses (which may generously fund you “up to £55 a night for commercial accommodation”) almost always have to be incurred first and then claimed back.
Bodges would work. Improved communication to students from SFE for March students, to both inform them prior to their course starting and each year with a reminder, would at least alert students to the issue.
Dedicated support from universities might also help, knowing that this will happen in advance – with warnings for those impacted and dedicated loan funds for those who miss the small print.
It might be that “alternative entry points” within providers have to align more closely with the start of each of DfE’s quarters rather than the end.
And of course ideally SFC/SFE and DfE’s underpinning regs would change to stop having to apply the bodges altogether.
If we want, in this case, student parents to be training as nurses or midwives, they really ought to be able claim what they are entitled to – without the deep worry and stress that comes with having to find 12 weeks of nursery fees for fear of losing their place in the local nursery – impacting their children, their family and their wellbeing.
There’s a minister for that. Claire Coutinho, DfE minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing said:
The government has no plans to change this approach. Decisions on student finance must be taken alongside other spending priorities to ensure that the system remains financially sustainable.