Students: overdrawn & overcharged

Deputy News Editor 27 November 2008

– CUSU approves petition to have student loans to be paid earlier in term

– Caius students did not receive maintenance loans and grants until late October

– Many Jesus students massively overcharged in college bills delayed until November

Some Caius students have gone without

maintenance loans and Jesus students have been over-billed after a series of administrative difficulties at the colleges.

In the wake of the problems Cambridge

University Students’ Union (CUSU) Council last Wednesday approved

a petition, originally drawn up in Easter of 2008, calling for a university-wide change in the timing of student loan and grant payments.

The External Affairs Officer for the Gonville and Caius Students’ Union (GCSU), Joshua Baker, put the petition

to the meeting, where it passed with a large majority.

Student Loans are currently paid according to Full Term dates, despite the fact that many students arrive according to University Term dates, which often start up to a week earlier.

The petition requests that “the University Office responsible for informing

the SLC of relevant term dates submit university term dates in the place of full term dates at the next available opportunity”.

GCSU President Sam Bishop explained

why the petition had been brought to Council:

“We felt that most students would be coming up to Cambridge at this point, if not earlier, and would appreciate

having a source of income to cover the costs of their first few days at university, making their experience

far less stressful.”

Mark Fletcher, President of CUSU, has expressed support for the petition.”This has raised very serious concerns about the timings of financial

support for students,” he said.

“The CUSU Council motion from Josh at Caius seems an extremely sensible way to help improve the situation, but students also need to explore the financial support available

to them, as many miss out on assistance that they are entitled to.”

The Cambridge Student (TCS) has learned that several Caius students have encountered problems this term with the SLC and the loan payment system, experiencing serious delays in receiving their maintenance loans and grants.

After several students had difficulties

paying their college bills in mid-October, the College realised that many had failed to receive maintenance

loans and grants. It was only then that Caius stopped cashing cheques from students. The Busary offered additional financial support and information, and contacted the SLC about the problems.

The College Bursar, Julia Collins, told TCS: “We have had a great deal of difficulty in communicating with the SLC this year. Once students arrive

in College we send notification through to the SLC and they are supposed

to release payments.”

“If there are any problems with submissions, SLC are meant to tell us within 24 hours. We had no notification

that there was a problem. As students started to call in to the Bursary saying that their loans had not arrived we contacted the SLC directly.”

At this point, the College was informed

that they had sent financial notifications in the wrong format, despite having made an arrangement Films of the year

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with the SLC about such a format before term. After resending the information

to the SLC, a promise was eventually made by the company to guarantee that payments would arrive

by the 24th October.

Collins added: “All the College issues

with the SLC are now resolved. We believe that the few outstanding issues that remain are due to students

not completing their paperwork.”

The GCSU President added in correspondence

with TCS: “While it was a very stressful situation for all students,

especially those who rely on their loan to survive in Cambridge, the Senior Bursar handled the issue very well.”

He added: “I think that the message

I would like to convey is to the government: take the Student Loan Company in hand, make sure it sorts out its affairs and make sure it treats students who call to get advice with respect. At the moment the SLC is a complete shambles.”

The SLC has been quick to refute such claims. A spokesman told TCS:

“The Student Loans Company regrets the delay that some students

experienced in receiving their loans this term.

“However, on investigating the issue it was found that there was no recorded fault with our systems.

“Without being able to check the individual accounts of everyone

involved, it wouldn’t be appropriate

to comment on the actual

cause of the delay,” he said.

Caius students weren’t alone in experiencing mix ups with college bills and student loans this term. Errors made on student bills at Jesus

College earlier this term saw some students asked to pay over £1000 more than expected. One Jesus student, who wished to remain

anonymous, told TCS:

“Important documents about students’ LEAs were lost, meaning that the majority of students were treated as if they were privately funded.”

They added that, as a result of the confusion, some students, who should have had their College Consolidated Fee paid by their LEA, and their University Composition

Fee paid by the SLC, saw these charges adding significant amounts to their expected bills.

The mix-up caused many students,

especially Freshers, unnecessary

anxiety, and that it was only after a request from the Jesus College Students’ Union (JCSU) that the Accounts Office sent an email explaining the situation, calling for students to provide the relevant documentation so that the problems could be rectified.

The college Finance Manager, Rob Shephard, told TCS that the problems were, in part, caused by staff changeover during the summer.

He explained: “There have been some difficulties with billing at Jesus this term.

“In August, the staff member responsible for student billing retired

after 30 years of service. Perhaps

unsurprisingly, this resulted in bills being sent out later than planned; but we gave students a longer period to pay.”

“The Finance Office worked closely with the JCSU in order to communicate with and re-assure students about their bills and are not expecting these difficulties to recur,” he said.

An anonymous student at Jesus

agreed that staff changeovers appeared to have been the cause, but added that the confusion had caused greater frustration than the college suggested.

Speaking to TCS, they commented:

“Frankly, the whole thing has been chaotic. One would hope that this is a problem that has only arisen because of the staff changeovers and will not be repeated,

but students have been treated pretty badly throughout this whole process.”

TCS has also heard from another

anonymous source that, whilst bills have now been corrected, some still haven’t been asked to pay the corrected amount. They added that, in their opinion, the response of the JCSU had been insufficient

to calm students’ fears.

Lucie Fortune, President of the JCSU, has, however, defended their actions. She told TCS:

“The JCSU responded immediately

to student concerns over incorrect bills by approaching the Accounts office and holding a meeting with the relevant staff.

” A course of action was decided in collaboration with college authorities

and it was resolved that the college would contact the students

with regards to explaining the mistakes that had occurred, and outlining the steps that would be taken to ensure students were billed the correct amount.

The JCSU remains eager to assist any students who have outstanding

concerns about their bills, or the billing process as a whole.”

This term’s problems at both Caius and Jesus have raised serious

questions about the efficient administration and delivery of student funds.

It remains to be seen, however, whether petitions such as that passed by CUSU on Wednesday will provide any answers.

Anna Croall

Deputy News Editor