Higher Education: The rich and poor students of Europe: Britain should take a hard look at the diverse grant and loan systems that operate in other EC countries, argues Stephen Pritchard

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FROM the start of the next academic year, students from the Netherlands will be able to receive Dutch grants while studying in Germany or Belgium. Eventually the scheme will extend to study in all European Community countries.

This is one example of new ideas for student support in Europe. While British debates on student funding have tended to concentrate on transatlantic examples, neither the Department for Education nor the European Commission has made any detailed study of grants within the EC. The National Union of Students has not formally examined the subject. Yet EC states have a variety of funding systems, awarding grants and loans of up to pounds 6,000 a year.

No EC country now operates a loan-only system - Germany, which did between 1983 and 1990, now has a grant/loan combination. And only four countries have grant-

only systems - Belgium, Ireland, Italy and Greece. 'Top-up' loans are becoming more common throughout the Community. In France, there is a means-tested grant with an optional loan that parents must guarantee. In Denmark, a generous grant is combined with an optional loan.

The Dutch basic grant, guaranteed to all students regardless of income, is assumed to cover only 50 per cent of a student's outgoings. A means-tested loan is available towards the shortfall, as is a further grant for low-income families. Luxembourg also has a means-tested grant/loan system.

Germany's student support package assists only 20 to 25 per cent of students, mainly from poorer families. Half the funding is a loan. Uniquely, there is a repayment discount for students who complete their courses in fewer than the maximum number of terms. In Britain, the proportion of funding given as a loan has increased annually since the student loan scheme began in 1990.

In Portugal and Spain, no state help is available for students' maintenance. Families are expected to support their children at college, although in Spain, private bank loans are available. As a result, a high proportion of students study at the university closest to home.

In Greece, scholarships are awarded according to academic and financial criteria, but only to students with high grades from poor families - the number available is small. Italy recently abolished centrally administered grants and now passes money to institutions to distribute on a means-tested basis. This scheme is run in a similar way to the hardship funds at British colleges.

DFE data in the booklet Study in Europe shows that only Greece and Portugal have lower living costs than the UK. Denmark and Germany rank the highest, with Danish living costs 43 per cent above Britain's and Germany's 19 per cent above.

Just as living costs vary widely from state to state, so do grant levels. Currently, the UK grant and loan together come to pounds 2,980 ( pounds 3,765 in London).

The Danes are the wealthiest European students. For a student living away from home the grant is 3,198 kroner ( pounds 335) per month all year round. From this month there is no parental means test. Students' own earnings are taken into account, but as payments are on a 'punch card', stamped as the grant is claimed, they can 'save' credits in months when they earn money. These can be collected later - for example, at exam time. Loans are worth an additional 1,439 kroner ( pounds 151) a month, giving a package worth pounds 5,832 a year.

In Germany, eligible students receive up to DM795 ( pounds 323) a month - pounds 3,876 a year. The Dutch basic grant

is 570 guilders ( pounds 205) a month - pounds 2,460 a year. The maximum loan is 321 guilders ( pounds 116) a month and the maximum supplementary grant is 202 guilders ( pounds 73); the annual total can be as much as pounds 4,730. Belgian students can claim a maximum of 136,200 francs ( pounds 2,692).

In Ireland, grants are made at a variety of levels: full maintenance and fees, half maintenance with full fees, fees only, or the minimum - half fees only. The maximum maintenance award is Ir pounds 1,461 ( pounds 1,542). In Italy, universities can award up to 250,000 lire ( pounds 112) a month to local students and 500,000 lire ( pounds 224) to students from other towns - a maximum of pounds 2,688 a year.

In Luxembourg, the grant is worth 273,158 francs (about pounds 5,500). For students under 27, part of this sum is a parental contribution. The French grant can be up to 17,244 francs ( pounds 2,065).

Government grants pay for different things in different countries, which makes comparisons complicated. Fees are a significant cost in some countries.

The Dutch pay 1,950 guilders ( pounds 703) a year, but this is refunded in the means-tested loan. In Italy, fees can be as high as 1 million lire ( pounds 447) a year for laboratory-based science subjects and medicine. Spanish universities charge about pounds 300 a year, although government help is available for poorer families. In Ireland, fees are Ir pounds 2,000 ( pounds 2,111) a year; the maximum student contribution is Ir pounds 1,000 ( pounds 1,055) - the largest sum in the countries surveyed. Belgian students pay 15,000 francs ( pounds 296) a year. German students pay about pounds 100 towards student union membership and health insurance.

Other factors affect the value of grants. Dutch students are entitled to free nation-wide travel. In Italy, support can be given in kind; for example, vouchers for the university canteen or free accommodation. Germany has recently seen a steep increase in student housing costs. Only 10 per cent of German students live in college accommodation; pressure for cheap rooms from newcomers from Eastern Europe has forced prices up.

In Britain, grants are not intended to cover vacation periods, while those in other EC countries are paid all year round. The French point out that their students' costs are among the lowest in Europe because of heavily subsidised canteens and accommodation. In Greece, books and study materials are provided free and all but the wealthiest students can apply for free university accommodation.

Despite the differences, the figures show a pattern. Southern Europe tends to rely mainly on the family to support its students, while northern countries place greater responsibility on the state.

But grant levels cannot be explained simply on the grounds of students' costs. Denmark's place in the cost of living index suggests that its students need pounds 4,260 to equal their British peers; in fact, they receive almost pounds 6,000. Similarly, German students would receive pounds 3,550 a year, while the actual figure is nearly pounds 4,000. Yet some states pay no grants at all.

This may reflect the different values governments attach to higher education. But then, as one education attache remarked, students will always be short of money.

(Photograph omitted)