Beware starting a full-time course in March

When Westminster ministers talk about the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE), they trumpet its future flexibility - arguing that it will allow adults to “upskill later in life in a way that suits them”.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

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.

Thanks Claire.

2 responses to “Beware starting a full-time course in March

  1. Excellent piece, and well said. This is a persistent and egregious issue. Complications with those programmes which have an eligibility for a long courses loan simply compound these problems. My university, and surely many others, put great effort into helping students and applicants understand and apply for their funding. We take care when determining term dates, and spend time and effort in ‘shaping’ systems which are built to norms that fail to represent the diversity of parts of the sector and their students.

  2. This is something that has been an issue for a number of years – the LLE is just highlighting it even more.

    For years we have had intakes throughout the year, particularly in courses like nursing which attracts a higher than normal rate of students with dependents, needing to access things like the childcare grant. The Student Loan Company have had these bodges in place for years. They are unwieldy and complicated for students and practitioners alike.

    I sincerely hoped that bringing in a new loan system that had an inherent flexibility in it would cause the SLC and DfE to look at the mechanisms they have in place and the modern way that universities are operated. Clearly that was wishful thinking and it will once again be left to support staff in universities to implement these complicated workarounds!

    Cohort switching is a similar problem – and as a result so far universities have tried to keep this to a minimum due to the disruption to the student’s funding. But cohort switching is essential to the LLE model – allowing people to step on and off modules and courses at different times of the year.

    DfE and the SLC cannot seem to understand that not all undergraduate students are 18 year old school leavers coming straight from Mum & Dads house to halls and completing their degree in 3 straight years…

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