Thursday, 12 February 2009

GOVERNMENT CHANGES ON STUDENT FINANCE UNDER ATTACK



GOVERNMENT CHANGES ON STUDENT FINANCE UNDER ATTACK

The Government decision to centralise student finance applications has come under attack from Birkdale Liberal Democrat councillor Simon Shaw.

Until now applications for loans and grant finance for students attending universities and colleges has been processed by Sefton Council and other local authorities.

However students starting in higher education from September 2009 will now apply direct to the Student Loan Company via a national call centre.

Councillor Shaw spoke out against the proposal at last week’s (Tues 10 Feb) meeting of Sefton’s Scrutiny Committee for Education and Children’s Services.

“I am concerned that this change is a big mistake. Many people have experiences of centralized government operations going seriously wrong – problems over the last 5 years with the tax credit system being the obvious example,” commented Councillor Shaw.

“More recently, in recent months many young people have encountered serious difficulties in claiming Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). The government’s track record with these centralized IT-based operations is far from good. I am worried that this could be another disaster waiting to happen.”

Councillor Shaw also voiced concern at the loss of local contact. Under the old system staff from Sefton’s Student Finance Section visited local Sixth Forms each spring to give guidance to local students and their parents.

“Now the only contact will be with a call centre 150 miles away. One of the biggest concerns is in relation to vulnerable students. How many of those are going to be discouraged from going into higher education through having to deal with a remote bureaucracy?” asked Councillor Shaw.
Southport's MP, Dr John Pugh, has written to the Education Minister , asking for assurances that the students will not suffer as a result of these changes.
Dr Pugh said:

"A serious amount of my constituency caseload in Southport has been taken up trying to put right the mistakes made by these centralised and sometimes privatised computer-based call-centres. The systems which they use mean that, even when they know that they have got it wrong, they cannot stop the system from acting on the wrong information. Tax Credits and Education Maintenance Allowances have been two of the worst offenders. Otherwise good systems have been tainted by an unacceptable error rate and the difficulties in putting things right. I really do hope that this is not going to be another one of these."