New degrees of difficulty: Students today face a growing struggle to pay their way. Neasa MacErlean reports

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MOST of this autumn's intake of university and Higher National Diploma students can expect to spend their courses struggling to avoid financial disaster, according to the authors of The Student Book 1994.

Only a quarter of the estimated 720,000 first-years are expected to be eligible for the full student grant of pounds 2,265 ( pounds 2,845 in London). But Klaus Boehm, a co-author of the book, says many will receive grant cheques late. Even with the new student loans - for pounds 830 in London, pounds 715 elsewhere - Mr Boehm believes, students do not have enough to live off. 'It's getting worse and nobody is taking any notice,' he said.

This autumn could be particularly bad for students. Local authority cut-backs may mean the processing of grant applications will be even slower and even greater delay in sending out the money. (Last year at least 25 local authorities had not sent out grant cheques three weeks after the start of term, according to Jenny Lees- Spalding, the other co-author.)

Students are being urged by the National Union of Students and the Department of Education and Science to get their grant applications in to their local education authority as soon as possible - even if they have not yet been offered places.

. Entitlement to grants can take weeks to process. 'If they are late, they can be waiting all term for a cheque - particularly if the case is complex,' Ms Lees-Spalding said.

However, students who want to top up their grants with loans must wait until they begin their courses before sending off applications to the Student Loan Company, which is based in Glasgow. IFA Promotion - the independent financial advisers' marketing group - reckons over 50 per cent of freshers will apply for a loan this year.

IFA Promotion has produced a guide - 'Paving Their Way' - to advise parents on their offspring's finances while in higher education.

A student can take the loan in a lump sum at the start of the year or in three instalments. IFA Promotion advises it be taken in a lump and invested in a high-interest account that allows only a limited number of withdrawals each year.

As interest payable on the loan is fixed at the level of inflation, this allows the student to make a little extra from the loan. It also makes certain that it will not be spent in one go.

Two groups of students are likely to be cushioned from severe financial hardship, according to Mr Boehm. Oxford and Cambridge universities are far more reluctant than others to see students abandon their courses for financial reasons. They provide more cheap accommodation and food and have larger hardship funds. Medical students are regarded as safer bets by the banks, which will lend them money that they must repay during their first hospital appointments.

But for many other students, their university careers promise to be financially agonising.

'The Student Book 1994' is available from 26 March, at pounds 12.99. Free copies will be sent to the first 10 readers to write to Student Book Offer, Macmillan Ltd, Cavaye Place, London SW10 9PG. 'Paving Their Way' is available free. Send a postcard with name and address to IFA Promotion, Studio House, Flowers Hill, Brislington, Bristol B54 5JJ.

(Photograph omitted)