Those hard times, college grant blues

Thousands of students are waiting to learn whether `access funds' will save them from hardship. Nic Cicutti reports
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The Independent Online
Some time around the beginning of next term, tens of thousands of higher education students will be sent letters telling them whether they face mere financial hardship - or total economic collapse.

The letters from colleges will indicate whether applications for access grants have been successful, and how much the students will receive.

More than 85,000 higher education students in the UK are expected to apply for access grants this academic year. About 65,000 will get help.

For a very small number the amount may be substantial, even up to £3,000. The vast majority, however, will get much less, an average of £200.

Access funds were introduced by the Government in October 1990 to replace students' entitlement to housing and unemployment benefits, which were removed at the time.

MPs were told that ending these benefits would save up to £100m, while the fund would help those disproportionately affected, especially disabled people, single parents and mature students.

Although figures are hard to come by, the National Union of Students has calculated the amount paid through access funds as £33m this year, a rise of 30 per cent on 1990-91. Inflation in the same period has been about 12 per cent.

This rise, much of which has taken place in the past two years, takes little account of the increase in student numbers since 1990.

At York University, the increase has been from 4,750 students five years ago to 5,660 today. Funds have risen from £126,400 to £136,000. But in practice the amount of money available per eligible student has fallen from £26.61 to £24.03.

Peter Smith, senior assistant registrar at the university, says: "Even the name is misconceived. We call our scheme the Special Support Fund, because we think `access' is a classic misnomer. The purpose has not been to give more access but to save money.''

Further problems are caused by the different funding criteria adopted by colleges. Guidelines are laid down by the funding councils disbursing the money on behalf of the Department for Education, the most important of which is that only home and some EC students are eligible. Also, all applicants must have applied for a student loan.

Even so, a recent study by researchers at the University of North London found significant policy differences between colleges. While 60 per cent give priority to single parents and 43 per cent to disabled students, others preferred to target mature students or those who were self-financing.

The report, by Mee Foong Lee and David Crosier, showed that more than half the colleges believed the money had very little effect in facilitating access to education among the target groups.

Some colleges do try to arrive at common guidelines. Dr Philip Harris, assistant registrar at Manchester University, says 20 colleges in the north of England meet to pool knowledge and determine a common framework for applications.

But colleges are allowed to apply the rules their way. At City University, students in halls of residence or living at home are not eligible for help. At Bristol University, by contrast, awards of up to £200 are available for people at home, £100 in halls.

Meanwhile York's guidance to students emphasises: "Holders of mandatory grants will be presumed to receive the notional maximum grant. Failure by parents to meet in full their assessed contribution will not be acceptable as evidence of hardship.'' Many other colleges apply different rules.

Colleges can decide whether to give more money to fewer people or spread it thinly. A spokeswoman at Exeter University said: "We decided last year to change the emphasis of our grants. We are seeing fewer cases and making bigger awards.'' In practice, some hard-up students get nothing.

Priorities vary between colleges. At Bristol a significant proportion of the fund goes to help disabled students, including facilities for deaf students.

By comparison, a spokeswoman at Bradford said: "Our panel, which includes representation from the student union, has decided to make child care a priority.'' Last year £18,000 was awarded to 66 Bradford students to help to pay for their child care, about13 per cent of the budget.

Even timing can make a difference between how much - if any - money is available.

Although she stresses that money is held back until the second term, Jill Ringland, at City's accommodation office, says: "We find that students already know whether they are hard up before Christmas. The majority will apply before then and are dealt with early in January.''

Yet Exeter's spokeswoman said: "The most difficult part of the year is the second term. That is when students begin to run out of money.''

Jim Murphy, president of the National Union of Students, adds: "It can be quite humiliating to justify why you need the money by parading your particular hardship before a group of people you do not know. Many students feel that, compared to others, theydon't deserve the money.''

A spokesman at the Department for Education said access funds were a backstop to existing provisions for students: "If we include both the levels of grant now available and the loans students are entitled to apply for, they have received 4 per cent abovethe rise in inflation over the past few years.

"The benefit of access funds is that they target those who need help the most. Universities are in the best position to tell whether their students are in difficulty and need assistance.''

At York, Peter Smith rejects this argument: "To be honest, we are a little resentful at having to do this work because we are now administering rough justice.

"The real problem, though, is not the level of access fund but the fact that students' grants are too low. If they really wanted to solve the problem they would do something about that.''