Bills, food, rent... and tuition fees

Returning to university or college is a costly business, but financial assistance is available.
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The Independent Online

Universities and colleges make no bones about it: they welcome mature students and want more of them. But before such students cross the welcome mat, these students have to consider whether they can afford to spend up to six years studying. Many have jobs; many have homes and families to support.

Universities and colleges make no bones about it: they welcome mature students and want more of them. But before such students cross the welcome mat, these students have to consider whether they can afford to spend up to six years studying. Many have jobs; many have homes and families to support.

The good news is that there are ways of making the return to education pay. Take the case of Dorothy. She is unemployed, a single parent aged 29 with two children: a boy of six and a little girl of two. She is on income support and receives housing benefit. She has just enrolled on a full-time course at Wolverhampton University. Her fees will be paid by her local education authority; she is eligible for a student loan of £3,725 and a lone-parent grant of £1,050; a dependents' allowance will bring in £2,125 (first child) and £445 (second child); she also receives a £245 school meals grant.

That's a total of £7,590. The University could also give Dorothy up to £1,000 from the Access Bursary Fund and, if necessary, provide a loan of up to £500 and at least £100 from the hardship fund. She will also be able to continue claiming housing benefit and income support.

Now for the details. Those on full-time courses whose residual income or parental income is less than £17,805 a year need not pay a penny of the annual £1,050 fee. According to the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE), 85 per cent of them fall into this category. Those whose residual income ranges from £17,805 to £28,504 pay only part of the fee. Only those whose income surpasses that ceiling are liable for the full amount.

Residual income is the amount that remains after various allowances have been deducted from the gross figure. Such deductions include allowances for mortgage interest repayments, other dependents living in the same house, superannuation and also trades union subscriptions.

Those paying the full £1,050 should remember that the average undergraduate course costs £4,000. The student's local authority pays the rest.

But what of those who sign up for part-time degrees? Five years ago there were 149,000 of them. There was a time when part-timers had to meet all fees and could expect no favours other than handouts from hardship funds. These are still available direct from the student's higher education institution.

Today, a part-time student on benefit or low income has all fees met from a Fee Waiver Fund. Those whose income falls below £13,000 (or £15,000 if it is a joint income with a partner - with another £2,000 "disregarded" for a first child and £1,000 for every further child) may obtain a loan of £500 to help with books and equipment. This will be available from next January.

Full-time mature students, as well as part-timers on initial teacher-training courses, may obtain loans of up to £3,725 at universities other than those in London, where the loan rises to £4,590 to help meet the higher cost of living. Students living at home may borrow up to £2,950. These loans come from the Student Loans Company and are repayable only after the graduate has found a job paying over £10,000 a year.

But be warned. The Government won't allow students aged 54 or over to take out loans - presumably on the grounds that by the time they graduate they might be too old to get a job and pay them back. Even students aged 50 to 54 are required to sign a promissory note that they intend to work after graduating.

David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, has announced further support for mature students in England and Wales, from the start of the current academic year. This includes non-repayable access bursaries of up to £1,000 for those with dependent children and is particularly aimed to help lone parents meet childcare and travel costs.

From next year these bursaries will be replaced by a means-tested school meals grant for students with dependent children aged three to 16. They will range from £245 for a primary school child to £265 for a secondary school child. And there will be childcare grants of up to £100 a week based on childcare costs.

The DfEE, which has allocated funds to institutions, has provided them with a set of guidelines on who should receive grants. A student whose income falls below £10,000 a year could qualify. But the final formula is left to the university or college.

South Bank University has taken such matters as additional travel costs, the higher cost of living in London, and the cost of books, photocopying and computer purchase into consideration. It will provide a grant of up to £1,000, including a flat rate £500 for a child aged four years and under and £250 if aged five and over.

The University of the West of England has decided to fund 194 bursaries each worth £1,000 to students facing hardship. As with SBU, priority goes to lone parents. "We hope that, by easing the financial burden, more people will be able to study at UWE," said Tim Roberts, a student adviser responsible for administering the grants.

A lone-parent's grant of up to £1,050, obtained from the Student Loans Company from 2001-02, does not need to be repaid. Nor does the lone parent's dependents' allowance of up to £2,125 for a first child or adult dependant and up to £1,700 for each other child.

 

For further details of available grants for mature students see the 'Making a Difference', booklet produced by the DfEE. Freephone: 0800 731 9133 or the DfEE website: www.dfee.gov.uk/support/index.htm

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