Fresher in student loan debacle

James Burton - Deputy News Editor 1 October 2009

A Clare college fresher has this year found himself a victim of the chaos  enveloping the student loans and grants system.

Ben Burcombe-Filer, who is coming up to Cambridge this year to read history, suffers from cerebral palsy, and is in a wheelchair following an operation over the summer.

He applied for a disability allowance of around £3000 to purchase a laptop wth voice recognition to compensate for difficulties with writing, and an ergonomic chair .

Mr Burcombe-Filer told The Cambridge Student (TCS) that the Student Loans Company (SLC)had lost his application for disability support. His Disabled Students Allowance (DSA)  was submitted on the 21st of June, after the requisite deadline, and he was initially told that his form had not been processed not because it had been lost, but because of delays in the system.

He branded SLC’s handling of the situation a “debacle,” and said “I was lied to on the phone originally and told I had simply heard nothing because of a two week backlog.”

As freshers across the country head to university for the first time, many will face similar uncertainty over the availability of loans and maintenance grants due to a huge number of applications still waiting to be processed.

SLC has struggled to cope with a 16.7 per cent increase in applications for finance on the last year, leaving some students still uncertain as to whether they will receive money months after they applied.

Although Derek Ross, Deputy Chief Executive of SLC, promised earlier this month that “everyone who has applied on time should be paid on time”, the National Union of Students has registered its concern in the strongest possible tones, with president Wes Streeting branding the backlog “completely unacceptable”.

“Student loans are a lifeline to many people, and without them the costs of university would simply be unbearable.” he said.

CUSU’s Exec also assured students that they have “been closely monitoring the situation since stories of problems first broke.”

In a statement sent to TCS via email, they said: “We have been in contact with senior University officials to ensure not only that they are aware of the potential problem, but also that the existence of sources of financial support is communicated to new students.

“We were very pleased to learn on 22nd September that, in addition to normal college arrangements, the University’s Access to Learning Fund (ALF) will be used to offer small, short-term loans to students in difficulty who have been affected by delayed payment of their loans or grants.

“Students who find themselves in financial difficulty should always see their college tutor; tutors can offer detailed advice about the range of financial support available, as well as provide an ALF application form and help students complete it.”

Many colleges are equally concerned. Dr Graham Virgo, Downing College’s Senior Tutor, and Dr David Munday, Financial Tutor at King’s, have both sent undergraduates an email confirming that their colleges will be providing short-term loans where possible to any junior members who face difficulties because of the delay. Several JCR presidents have told TCS that hardship funds will be available to combat any difficulties occasioned by the backlog, with Patrick Farmbrough, President of Corpus Christi JCR, also saying he had been contacted by a number of freshers concerned they would not have had loans confirmed by the start of term.

Trinity College Bursary has issued a statement saying that “we shall not press for payments which fail due to the College from those awaiting receipt of student loans. We are also considering sympathetically requests from students facing genuine hardship as a result of such delays.”

The problems have forced the SLC to increase the number of phone lines they use by 50 per cent , and take on 24 more staff. This measure follows the earlier recruitment of 120 extra staff to deal with the increased volume of calls.

Rona Cameron, SLC’s Press Officer, told TCS that applications for finance sent to the company before the deadline had all been resolved. “We are still receiving applications, and are now processing those sent to us at the start of September,” she said.

Despite these assurances, Mr Burcombe-Filer ultimately had to resend his application, which was then “simply placed at the back of the pile. They were then processing August applications and said that we should have sent our form on time in the first place,” he said.

“I called Glasgow last Friday to enquire if they had finally processed my claim, and the supervisor again insisted it was my fault as I should have submitted my form sooner.

“They stubbornly refused to escalate my claim or admit any fault on their part, in the face of overwhelming evidence, and the only reason we were eventually able to resolve the situation was the discovery of a direct dial number to the governing body for DSA (Disabled Students Allowances), Darlington. They were very upset about us using this, but with no call centre to hide behind they were eventually forced to deal with my application.”

Rob Mindell, CUSU’s Officer for Students with Disabilities, said: “Although I have not been in contact with the student in question, I would like to echo the views expressed by the National Union of Students that the manner in which student loans have been dealt with this year is unacceptable.

James Burton – Deputy News Editor