Now we’re going to cut loads of students’ maintenance loans

I promise you that I am not making this up.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

***Update 12th Feb – it looks like DfE has seen sense. Scroll to the bottom for an update…***

***Update 22nd Feb – it looks like Wales is now sorted too. Scroll to the bottom for an update…***

Just when I thought that the winner of stupid policy of the year was all sewn up, there’s a fresh contender in my inbox.

Both English and Welsh students who take out a maintenance loan are entitled to different amounts based on whether they are living at, or away from, their usual home during term time.

The differences – rightly, given the cost of student rent – are considerable. In Wales the max maintenance loan and grant combo is £8,335 if you’re a commuter, £9,810 if you study away from home or £12,260 if you study in London. In England, where it’s all loan, it’s £7,747 if you’re a commuter, £9,203 if you study away from home or £12,010 if you study in London.

The good news is that all year, students have been reassured that even though circumstances might mean they’re distance learning, they’ll still be entitled to student finance as if they are attending at a campus. Good.

The question is what rate you’re entitled to – particularly this term. The official position is usually that the rate a student is entitled to is dependent on where the student spends the majority of a given term. But when this happened in the third term last year I’m pleased to report that everyone got the rate they were always going to get – we ignored that they weren’t, actually, away from home.

So when I asked SLC just after Christmas what the deal was with this term (back when we were going to “stagger” everyone’s arrival by Mid-Feb) it said that a short delay in returning after Christmas would not in itself constitute the majority of term two being spent at home, so the higher rate would still apply. Great.

But then the staggering got stopped – first quite publicly in England and then rather more quietly in Wales. So I naturally got back onto SLC and said “look, now that most away-from-home students are being asked to stay away but will still have rent to pay, are you going to cut their loan?”

I naturally expected “of course not Jim, we’ve just not updated the website” or somesuch – but what I actually got was referred to DfE/Welsh Government because it was an outstanding policy question.

Days, weeks even went by with me in full on badger mode – until eventually in England we got a DfE clarification as follows:

Because of the changing position relating to face to face teaching and occupation of accommodation, students’ loan entitlements for the current term will not be reassessed if they are still incurring accommodation costs away from home, meaning that students in receipt of the ‘living away from home’’ loan will retain the maintenance loans paid at the start of term, which will be repaid in the usual way. This should help to ensure students have the financial support they need during these exceptional circumstances.

OK. That makes sense. Although the sting in the tale was as follows:

Students who are no longer incurring accommodation costs away from home (e.g. because they have exited their contracts, or moved home permanently), or who no longer wish to receive the higher rate of loan, should continue to request reassessment.

So the official position is that all students need to keep SLC up to date with where they’re living – that’s a legal and contractual obligation and means students who were planning on spending the term away from home now must tell SLC that they’re not. But it’s OK – they then tick a box to say “I’m still paying rent out there” and they keep the higher rate.

As part of that process, students who have somehow managed to escape their ongoing rental contract have to tell SLC where they are and fess up that they’re out of contract – so their loan gets reassessed down. That’s a harsh blow to students who will already be facing down the barrel of lost part time work and increased costs, but in some sort of way makes sense.

The question comes – what if you don’t know whether you’ll be facing any costs this term because your university has been rebating the rent, but might stop doing so on or after March 8th but before the end of term? And this is the actual, unbelievable, rub-your-eyes in disbelief answer:

A student who studies away from home who right now has followed the guidance on staying away and for the time being is getting full rent relief from their university should tell SLC, who will then reassess the student’s loan down. If their university then reopens campus the week before Easter and they have to pay rent for that week, the student has to get in touch and SLC will reassess their loan back up to the higher rate”

Good grief. Would it really have been so difficult just to give all students the higher rate for this term?

I’m not blaming SLC, by the way. This is yet more bad policy from DfE.

If you’re a university that’s been rebating rent this term, and are planning to rebate until after Easter if courses can’t restart, do students a favour will you. Charge them a fiver for something, I don’t know, call it a Candle Tax or a Special Charge or whatever, then give it back out of your share of the £50m. That way students can keep the higher rate loan.

And before you ask – no, the issue doesn’t seem to have been sorted in Wales at all.

***Update 12th February***

DfE’s guidance hasn’t changed yet, but SLC’s webpage has been updated as follows…

Usually, in this situation you would be reassessed for the January term to the lower ‘living at home’ rate of Maintenance Loan. If you’ve already been paid for that term at the higher ‘living away from home’ rate, it would mean you’d have been overpaid for that term. We would normally then reduce your future Maintenance Loan payments to recover the money that was overpaid.

However, the UK Government has decided that in this situation the overpayment will just be added to your overall loan balance. This will be repaid as normal once you have finished or left your course.

Sense prevails.

***Update 22nd February***

The issue is now sorted in Wales too – see the Student Finance Wales site.

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