Fund 'fails to cope with severe student hardship'

STUDENTS ARE being driven to consider dropping their university and college courses because they have been unable to survive on government grants and loans.

A survey by the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux has found that three groups are particularly hard-hit: those with parents who are out of work, students on sandwich courses who cannot find jobs in their year out, and those who fall ill.

The association wrote yesterday to John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, urging him to tackle student hardship. It says that the Government's Access Fund 'has proved quite inadequate' to cope with the most severe cases among the 2,657 reported to bureaux over the summer. Many students are having to survive on incomes which are below the basic income support level - in other words, below the Government's own minimum subsistence level.

Income support for a young adult claimant paying average student rent outside London ( pounds 32.55 a week) would work out to pounds 3,439.82 a year; the maximum grant and loan for an out-of-London student is pounds 2,980 - or pounds 459.80 less. The same calculation for London students - where rent is pounds 46.20 a week on average, but the grants and loans are also higher - leaves a student shortfall of pounds 474.60 a year.

Paid employment has 'become an essential ingredient of students' income', the association says. But many students were unable to find vacation work during the summer, and so depended on their parents for food and lodging. 'When their parents were themselves on benefit, this caused unacceptable levels of hardship.'

Some of the worst cases are students on sandwich courses - a form of degree study which the Government is keen to promote. The sandwich year is not grant- funded, because it is assumed students will find employment in the business or industry related to their course. But recession has made it hard for students to find suitable placements. Those who cannot find themselves in a 'catch-22' situation over benefit.

Ann Abraham, the association's chief executive, said: 'The present system is particularly likely to deter poorer students from continuing their education, thus undermining policies aimed at ensuring equal access to higher education.'