by Annabel Cooper
Scottish universities are close to running out of special funds that help bail out students in financial difficulty.
The ‘Hardship Loan’ or ‘Discretionary Fund’ is a life-line for hard up students but with borrowing on the downturn and part time work harder to come by, demand from students is up and funds are beginning to run dry.
Each university is allocated funds from a Government pot and then the emergency loans are allocated at the discretion of the institution. About £16 million was distributed in this way in 2008-9 – an 8 per cent increase on 2007-8. But already this year, universities in real difficulty have gone back to the Scottish Government with demands totalling £882,500 to cope with urgent student appeals for help.
Claire Baker, Labour’s higher education spokeswoman, said funds could be reallocated from universities’ underspending, but that, across Scotland, hardship funds were being “stretched beyond breaking point”.
“The government has responded to university concerns, but demand for hardship funds is still outstripping supply. It is a worrying trend, and none of the universities is expecting it to stop any time soon.
Napier University in Edinburgh is symptomatic of the Scottish trend. Applications from desperate students are up 28 per cent compared with last year, and it predicts it will run out of money before the next discretionary funds are handed out.
Napier staff are advising students to try renegotiating debts, as they cannot help all those going to them for aid. Professor Joan Stringer, the principal, said:
“It is becoming increasingly apparent that many of those fortunate enough to have a part-time job are having their hours or shifts significantly cut and many others are struggling to find any part-time work.
“We are also finding many students’ parents are no longer able to provide the level of help previously afforded, due to, for example, loss of their own employment, less work available to the self-employed and loss of income from savings.
“In order to most efficiently manae the remaining discretionary funds, applicants are being advised, where possible, to negotiate suitable repayment plans for any outstanding bills, particularly utility bills, and to rearrange any existing debt or loan repayments.”
“We do not expect we will have sufficient funds to support applicants to the level that many of them will need, and it is very unlikely we will have sufficient funds left to support students during the summer vacation period.”
Just two weeks ago newly elected Rector for neighbouring Edinburgh University, Iain McWhirter, made student finance the heart of his election campaign, insiting upon a £7k basic income for students. Gurjit Singh, the president of NUS Scotland, is also demanding an overhaul of the “unfair” student support system and guaranteed annual income for every student through loans and grants.
“Student financial hardship has reached a critical level,” he said. “Students are not being able to find part-time work as well, or access commercial debt. If our students had the right level of support in the first place, they would not have to apply to hardship funds.”
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “We recognise that the current student support system was inadequately funded by previous administrations. That is why we have provided £38 million to introduce grants for 20,000 part-time students and why we are consulting on proposals to improve the student system more generally.”