A drop in the bucket for students: The demand on Access Funds far outstrips supply, writes Sue Fieldman

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The Independent Online
STUDENTS up to their eyes in debt were thrown a crumb of comfort by the Government last week.

An extra pounds 2m, or 9.6 per cent, is to be provided for the Access Funds, set up to help students in financial distress. For the next academic year pounds 23.8m will be available.

The Committee of Vice- Chancellors and Principals said, however, that the latest funding increase would not come close to satisfying demand.

Ted Nield, a spokesman for the CVCP, said: 'Last year, the Government put it up 1.75 per cent; it was not even in line with inflation. Yet there was a 15 per cent increase in demand. This year's 9.6 per cent is too little and too late, but it is better than the usual kick in the teeth.'

With Access Funds, which do not have to be repaid, each college is allocated a certain amount. On average it is about pounds 150,000 - a drop in the ocean of student financial debt.

Colleges distribute the money entirely at their own discretion. The only prerequisite is that applicants must also have applied for a student loan.

Universities have a difficult job distributing limited funds. Whether they get to the people who really need them is hit and miss. Many students have never heard of the scheme, and the Government is not going to broadcast its existence; there would be even more demand on the small reserves. Other students find that the money has run out long before they need it.

Amanda Kubik, Daniel Drew and Neil Wilson are all third-year students at Sheffield Hallam University. They live in the same house but they have had very different experiences of the Access Fund.

Ms Kubik got into financial difficulties in her first year. She said: 'When I applied to the Access Fund, I was about pounds 400 overdrawn and thought I had a good case, because my parents could no longer help with the parental contribution.

'I did not get anything. But my sister, who was at another university, got money from its Access Fund because they had completely different criteria.'

Ms Kubik has not applied again after the first refusal. She now has three student loans totalling pounds 1,500 and is about pounds 300 overdrawn. She keeps her head just above water by working through the holidays.

She said: 'I can get by. There are a lot more people in greater need than me.' Mr Drew fared much better with the Access Fund. He also applied in his first year and got pounds 400.

He said: 'A friend of mine got pounds 700. We were not really any more in debt than anyone else, so I thought I would try. I had to fill in a form and say why I needed the money. There was no interview or anything. I just got a letter through saying the money was being paid into my bank account. It paid off my debts and a few miles of petrol.'

He applied to the Access Fund the following year, but was refused. He has finished his course about pounds 200 overdrawn and with a pounds 500 student loan.

Mr Wilson has taken out three student loans - pounds 1,500 in total. Some time has elapsed since his fellow tenants applied to the Access Fund, and he had never even heard of it.