Ted Nield argues that financial pressures are increasingly to blame for people having to give up their courses - and the student loan system deters them from borrowing the money to which they are entitled
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Recent press coverage of the National Union of Students' debate on student support has revealed that my time as an undergraduate apparently coincided with the "high watermark of student affluence". Sure didn't seem like it at the lime. Most of my friends lived on Nescafe and garlic, with cauliflower cheese on Sunday if they had girlfriends. For most students, things are certainly harder now - though it occurs to me that things might not have been so bad for me had things then been as they are now.

I have preserved a letter from my former Local Education Authority. It announced that my parents were both working teachers and therefore so fabulously wealthy that I was not entitled to a grant. In 1975, fees were also part of the means test, and my local authority went on to say that it would pay for my tuition - unless I accepted the alternative (fifty quid cash in hand, no questions asked). My only way of getting a grant was for my parents to disown me legally. They refused. I considered a marriage of convenience, but found no one convenient. Not much featherbedding for the middle classes in 1975.

If I were a student now, things would be rather different - for my parents, at least. No matter how enormous their wealth, their student son could get a student loan - at the cheapest rate of interest known to man. Nowadays, instead of paying all my maintenance themselves, my folks could save money by paying only what I needed over the value of my loan. Or, they could offer to support me completely, on condition that I salt away my low-interest loan in a high interest account of some sort.

I believe that if we are to extend higher education to more people, the old system of student support has to go. More still needs to be reformed, notably the free tuition principle established in 1977. Otherwise we shall not honour Lionel Robbins' pledge that higher education be open to those who wish to enter it and have the ability to benefit. The crucial thing is that higher education should remain free at the point of delivery - and that there should be a fair method by which graduates repay what they borrow as students to finance their studies.

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals recently published a survey of student finances. Its results are worrying. They show that during the year in question (1992/93), out of 40,000 students who left their courses, 15,000 did so because they failed exams. This was an increase of 15 per cent on the year before - but then as the system expands, we should expect a higher rate of failure. More significantly, 25,000 students left for reasons other than failure, an increase of 30 per cent in one year.

Students leave for all kinds of reasons, and usually not just one. But we believe that financial pressure is increasingly to blame. Moreover, we think that the Student Loan Company's repayment system deters people from borrowing the money to which they are entitled. Unable to live on their grant alone, they take up part-time work instead.

The survey showed that many universities run job-clubs for students wishing to find part-time work. Many universities also employ students directly, in the gardens, in catering, or the library. A few universities have rules forbidding part-time work among full-time students - but they are now starting to tum a blind eye. Most universities recommend students take on no more than 10-12 hours' parttime work per week. Fine - but you try getting a part-time job in a fast food restaurant on those terms.

Universities do have funds to help students in difficulty. The Government's so-called Access Fund, which is really a hardship fund, paid out between pounds l6m and pounds l7m in 1992/93. This sounds a lot but it was only half the amount students asked for.

Most of those applying for help lived in private rented accommodation. About 25,000 students also had help from universities' own private assistance schemes. Access Funds are a vital lifeline to some students - but they are a patch-and-mend system, inadequate to their task.

Students, denied several rights as citizens, now have a Charter instead. The Higher Education Charter places certain obligations upon local authorities. One of these is to pay students' grants on time. Late payment increases pressure most severely on those students with full grants - those already financially weakest.

Our survey found that fewer than 65 per cent of students actually got their grants by registration time in the autumn term. About 10 per cent of students had to wait more than a month. One university identified 65 LEAs as having paid late the grants of more than 10 students.

Despite their Nescafe and garlic diet, most students were better off in my day. The tragedy of the many now leaving their courses without having failed exams is that many of them could have stayed on if only they had taken out their loan. But as the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals warned at the scheme's inception, while there remains the prospect of default, first-time borrowers will be afraid to commit themselves, no matter how low the interest rate.