Student Finance England leaves students in up to ten-thousand pounds of debt as their postgraduate loan service retracts loans last-minute.

The first year of Student Finance England’s (SFE) Postgraduate loan service is already being tainted with failures and serious mismanagement with the system resulting in last-minute loan cancellations that are leaving students in up to ten-thousand pounds of debt. We spoke to four post-graduate students who have been affected by Student Finance England’s actions; James Robertson from Newcastle University, Toby Pitts and Hannah Collis from Kings College London and Charlotte Winstone formerly of Birkbeck University.

James Robertson started his undergraduate degree at Newcastle having previously done two years at Edinburgh University under SAAS funding. Having checked with SAAS and SFE that there would be no eligibility issues for the loan, a successful application was made for an undergraduate loan and he completed an undergraduate Music degree in July 2016.

Before starting his post-graduate degree James, having made the decision to move his wife and three children down to Newcastle in 2014, applied for a post-graduate loan in June 2016 that got approved by Student Finance England (SFE) in August 2016. However, as the new academic year started on the 26th September, James checked his bank account to find none of the money had been received… the loan had not come through.

James proceeded to call SFE, who repeatedly told him that the loan had gone through. Following further calls he discovered that the loan had been cancelled with no prior warning. SFE were not convinced that James had moved down to England other than for the purpose of studying. This was on the basis that since James had been previously funded by SAAS he was, under SFE’s guidelines, a Scottish rather than English resident, despite being legally and physically based in England. James contacted the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, but no major action was taken.

We tried our luck and contacted the Scottish Government on the matter to which they replied:

“We are aware that the Student Loans Company incorrectly awarded funding to a small number of Scottish domiciled students who had completed their undergraduate course in England and gone straight on to postgraduate study this academic year, having applied to Student Finance England for funding.

“As these students were only resident in England for education purposes, they were ineligible for postgraduate support from Student Finance England. We understand the Student Loans Company has written to any students affected to explain the error.”

“SAAS would be happy to consider applications for support from Scottish domiciled students undertaking their postgraduate study in Scotland.”

The Scottish Government therefore is clearly aware of the situation affecting a number of its undergraduates moving onto postgraduate study. Yet the assumption here by the Scottish Government is that Scottish students doing an MA at an English universities are there just to study, they are seen as Academic Migrants… From our investigation clearly not all of them are. When we talked to James Robertson later on he notified us that he had moved down to Newcastle in order to settle after his degree. James is not the only post-graduate student affected in this way.

Charlotte Winstone, formerly of Birkbeck University of London, was also affected by SFE’s actions, but only after her second application. This had been due to her first application being lost by SFE resulting in her having to send a second application. It was after this second application that Charlotte was told by SFE that she was ineligible for the loan because “the rules changed last week” the SFE stated. By this time her MA had started, but because she had missed the withdrawal deadline for the University she was charged one-thousand pounds that could not be paid back.

Toby Pitts, one of two students interviewed from Kings College London, was the first to contact us. Much like James, Toby applied for a student loan in July and was confirmed soon after in August resulting in him turning down a full-time job due to confirmation. Yet on the 19th September the money had not come through resulting in him searching for any job to cover the costs of an expensive degree and the mounting debt because of it. Toby had juggle two jobs, a degree and an appeal to challenge the SFE. The appeal was responded with a letter of cancellation and an offer of two hundred pounds as compensation, two percent of the fees originally promised. Toby told us later in the interview that despite his efforts, he may not be able to afford to fund a second term at KCL.

Hannah Collis also studying at KCL went through a similar situation. After contacting SFW (Student Finance Wales), who gave her the go-ahead to apply for a loan from SFE, that was approved. However, yet again no money had come in by 19th September. Once again, she made the same calls and emails, receiving the same cancellation email eventually. Hannah said that up to three emails have to be made per week to SFE just to get a reply on any issue raised effectively showing the lack of duty SFE feels it has to the students affected. The situation goes deeper, however as SFE did not notify Hannah the loan had been cancelled until one month after they had cancelled the loan on their system, leaving her no time to find alternative sources of finance for her MA degree.

Both Toby and Hannah told us that they had informed their local MPs and that their cases had been sent off to an Independent Assessor for analysis, but the assessor’s reports do not come out until well into 2017, too late to make any difference to their current situation. Of SFE’s behaviour, both Toby and Hannah notified us that there should be more parity and transparency between the organisation and their students and that more responsibility should be taken by SFE for their actions when U-turning on loans last minute.

This was a common thought amongst those we interviewed about SFE admitting they were in the wrong, but not paying the price or offering sufficient compensation to the students affected as well as delaying any replies to queries they had in the aftermath.

We contacted the Student Loans Company (who administer loans for Student Finance England) for a statement regarding the matter of the cancellations, in return we received a statement not unlike the cancellation letter received by the post-graduate students we interviewed:

“To be eligible to receive a Postgraduate Loan from the scheme provided by Student Finance England (SFE), students must have been ordinarily resident in the UK and Islands for three years prior to the start of their course and most recently in England, for reasons other than the purpose of study.”

It is the decision by SFE to deny non-English MA students funding because of previous loans with other organisations within the UK that has placed all the students we talked to in the financial position they are currently in.

James also told us that despite being a British resident, he now feels “like a foreigner” due to the mal-treatment he has received from SFE. They feel as if they are being called out as Academic Migrants by SFE who are accusing them of coming into England just for Academic purposes and punishing them on that basis.

As the Government and English Universities reassure European students about their ability to study in England after the Brexit vote it is appalling that they are ignoring students from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland who rely on SFE’s financial support to get crucial degrees.

All four of our interviewees received a confirmation letter of the cancellation of their loan. In the letter it states that “you must have been ordinarily resident in the UK and Islands for three years prior to the start of your course and most recently in England”.

sfe
Letter received by students who got rejected by the Student Loans Company last minute.

 

This quote, also included in the Student Loans Company’s statement above, however is contradictory. To say that a student must be resident in the United Kingdom and Islands for three years denotes that they are approved the loan on the basis of having lived in not just England but Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, to then say that they must reside in England contradicts the previous sentence. It is this lack of transparency and clarity that so infuriated and continues to infuriate our interviewees on top of the slow response and notification times of SFE itself.

At the beginning of this investigation and when we were first contacted by these students the situation appeared rather simple, loans had been cancelled and this was having a detrimental effect financially on the students. After our investigation it is clear that there is more to their cases and goes beyond the loans. These students from Wales and Scotland along with so many others have been categorically mislead by a Government organisation that has promised them vital loans.

That organisation has then, without warning, taken them away whilst in some cases, such as James Robertson’s, misinformed about not taking the money out. The reason they have given these students for their ineligibility for the loan resulted not because of the student but because of the negligence of the organisations involved. If Student Finance England are allowed to continue on as they are then we will see more bankrupt postgraduate students falling into the abyss of debt.

Something needs to change as the SFE is not being held to account for its mistake, while the victims pay by being saddled with mountains of crippling debt, as their education is derailed.