The people uprooted and in limbo because of the Student Loans Company’s failure to address its contradictions

Back in November we interviewed four postgraduate students about the cancellation of their postgraduate loans at the last minute by Student Finance England. Three of them were in their early twenties and had previously obtained finance from Student Finance Wales. One however, is in a rather different position.

James Robertson is a 41-year-old from Scotland who moved down to England initially to complete his undergraduate degree at Newcastle University, having obtained funding from SAAS (Student Awards Agency for Scotland). At the same time, James moved his wife and three children with him in order to settle permanently in England. As such, after completing his degree the decision was made to do a masters and a postgraduate degree loan was applied for through SFE. This loan was, as with over 108 other students, cancelled just as the term started, leaving him in the position of having to self-fund his degree alongside supporting his young family.

James recently got back in contact with us to give an update on his situation. More specifically, the appeals process through which every student affected can, if they so wish, go through in order to challenge the Student Loans Company’s decision. Unfortunately, it is in the appeals process too where the SLC is also failing in its duty to care for its customers.

After failing at stages one and two of the appeals process, James’ case was fast-tracked to stage three whereby an independent assessor analyses everything over a period of eight weeks and makes a final decision. For once a step in the right direction, it seemed. Except, this was when the problems restarted. Four weeks later James received an email informing him that his claim had been incorrectly upgraded to stage three.

The reason? A phone call that had been made by James to Student Finance England to confirm that he would, despite previous issues, be eligible for the second year of his now two-year part-time degree. Unbeknownst to Mr Robertson his phone conversation was being recorded. Consequently, the SLC took the decision not only to downgrade his appeal to stage two but to also notify James that he would be ineligible for funding in the second year of his degree, forcing him into further debt. However, the damage has affected more than James’ bank balance. He now also suffers from mental health issues as a result of the stress placed on him through this whole ordeal.

There is fundamentally a substantial lack of understanding from the SLC of their own appeals system. Even after admitting to James that the costly mistake had been due to their error, they made no effort to offer compensation.

This incident will likely further harm the SLC’s reputation. Particularly since they had promised, after the recent blunders, to make changes to their protocol and the way they train their staff. From this incident it is clear that nothing has changed, nothing has been improved upon and no lessons learnt. How many more postgraduate students must succumb to significant debt before the body responsible for their loans makes changes? And the question is: what should be changed?

Further analysis of the problem suggests that the most basic and helpful change would be to alter the wording of one of the requirements for postgraduate loans. Currently, in order for a postgraduate to obtain a loan they, ‘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’. After stating that students can have been resident in any location that constitutes the United Kingdom, the statement then immediately expands that they can actually only have been resident in England — a complete contradiction that has caught out hundreds of students.

The first action would be to reword this statement and remove the contradiction for greater clarity. The second action would involve changing the statement so that it enables students such as James to benefit from the system before they make the decision to uproot their whole family to settle in England. According to law, James is now residing in England with his family and is an English resident. But because of his previous funding by SAAS, the SLC view him as a Scottish resident even though he is legally and physically based in England.

Until the corrections are made, postgraduate students in a position similar or identical to James’ will continue to be in financial and psychological flux. They is a group of people being penalised for simply wanting to further their lives in a different country to the one they were born in. Even though they have made efforts to settle and put down roots in England, they remain at a disadvantage because of the negligence of the SLC and their refusal to support these postgraduate students out of their forced debts.

How much longer then can this raft stay afloat given all the holes appearing in its structure?

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