Some student finance updates from the weekend

First up if you heard Radio 4’s Any Questions, you’d have caught an excruciating moment.

Having written to vice chancellors earlier in the week asking them to prioritise “disadvantaged” students in the university places crisis , Universities Minister Michelle Donelan struggled to define the word – and in the end just said “we have the POLAR data”.

Asked by presenter Anita Anand what that bit of jargon meant, she said it was related to “household income”. It really isn’t.

More interesting was a moment where we got what sounded like a policy announcement. Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy challenged the minister on student hardship, the digital divide and so on – and an indignant Donelan shot back arguing that said that she’d worked with the Office for Students on “funding flexibility” to the tune of £256m for next year.

That’s not a particularly impressive figure even if it was new money. But it’s not. It’s a repeat of the trick the government was pulling earlier this year when an agreement with OfS that providers could alter the detail of Access and Participation Plans to shovel some intended expenditure into hardship funds was wheeled out every time the government was challenged. We covered it here.

Every year the government gives OfS money to give to universities in so-called premium funding. Premiums are intended to support the costs of activities that contribute to providers’ ambitions around student success and progression. A bit of flexibility in the early days of a crisis is one thing – issuing, on the radio, a whole new set of criteria for the ongoing use that that funding can and should be put to, varying APPs on the fly and by implication cutting wider “student success” support for students to alleviate student hardship is quite extraordinary.

It’s even more extraordinary because thanks to her boss’ cuts earlier in the year, that £256m figure is actually down from last year’s £277.

In other news, since Indie SAGE published its controversial recommendation to suspend most F2F teaching for the foreseeable, a whole raft of people have been in touch noting that student finance rules in England and Wales would prevent this. In fact one of the reasons that several people have suggested to me that universities have pressed ahead with a “you’ll get at least some F2F” plan is this very problem.

There’s two issues at stake here. To qualify for loans, courses can’t be full time and “distance learning” – you have to “attend”. And there’s two maintenance loan rates – living at home, and living “at” the university.

Last term when large numbers of students scarpered for home, hastily agreed statements were issued reassuring students that as long as the course that was now online for the summer was supposed to be one you “attend”, you could still get your loan. And no, if you’d gone back to your parents, the Student Loans Company (SLC) wouldn’t demand a change-of-circumstances reassessment to reduce your maintenance entitlement.

Now I’d missed this time at the time – it was on a list to chase down but events overtook me – but it seems that back in July the situation for 2020/21 was clarified.

First, if a student is on a course which would ordinarily require attendance – but will be studying online as a result of Covid-19 – the SLC will count them as in attendance for the purposes of student finance. That’s good news.

Next, if a student is shielding due to Covid-19 and unable to arrive to enrol in person or even engage generally, it will first be considered under the SLC’s standard 60 days’ additional support for health reasons. If a student’s individual circumstances mean they exceed the existing 60 days’ health allowance, SLC will then review on a case by case basis if it can grant further support. That’s also helpful.

Sadly, right now the official position on “which home are you in” hasn’t changed. SLC says that if a student has applied for funding at their university town, but intends to reside at their parental home even initially, they have to inform SLC of the change so their loan can be reassessed. In England that affects the overall amount of maintenance you can get – and in Wales it impacts both the overall amount and the mix between grant and loan. Last Easter it was confirmed that students would not be reassessed and were paid as expected for the summer term, but that arrangement won’t hold for September.

This is really unhelpful – some students potentially won’t be able to move in to student accommodation for large parts of this term due to self-isolation or local lockdowns, and may well want to safely return to a family home soon into term – but in both cases may still have a full term’s rent to pay on that property. It’s a “we trust universities intend to return to normal” but a “we don’t trust students” policy.

The worst bit is that the rule has the potential to encourage lying when it would be good to know where students actually are – but governments in Wales and Scotland will worry that relaxing it would cause commuter students to argue they should get the higher rate too. Would that be so bad for this year? This either needs ministerial direction or a change to regs, but either way – in the circumstances, they probably just do this.

There’s a bunch of wider clarifications on things like EU students and years abroad up on an FAQ on the SLC site and in this note.

One response to “Some student finance updates from the weekend

  1. Let’s hope that Vice Chancellors don’t use POLAR to prioritise university places – there’s a strong case that would be counter to the Equalities Act 2010 given that ethnic minorities are massively less likely to be in POLAR Q1: completely inappropriate for prioritising places at the most selective universities.

    Also it will increasingly look like a big and unfair anomaly to allow maintenance loans for all distance learners unless they go to a specialist distance learning provider if the Covid-19 crisis lasts much longer…

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