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Baroness Maddock: My Lords, we have already debated those matters at great length. When we were dealing with the Bill before it became an Act, some of us were rather hazy about what would be in the regulations. To be fair to the Minister, it is much as was forecast when we looked at the Bill.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for her explanation and I welcome in particular the understanding of the problems of those who become sick while undertaking their courses and those who have particular caring responsibilities. The Minister talked about hardship funds and how they would be dealt with and referred also to the cost of administration. When she winds up, perhaps she will tell us whether the money that is to be given for the increase in administration will be top-sliced from money which might be going to universities in any event. I should be grateful for that information.
I wish to comment on four matters. The first is the payment of loans by instalments. Under the regulations, that will be three instalments. For most students, that is probably satisfactory. It seems a shame that there is not the opportunity for some students to have the money in a lump sum at the beginning. That is particularly relevant for mature students who perhaps have quite high outgoings. That is one issue that has been raised by the National Union of Students.
Similarly, the National Union of Students raises the point that the regulations will, as the Minister explained, allow two loan applications to be made in a full year. It would seem more logical to allow students to make three applications in line with the fact that three instalments are to be made. That seems logical.
Many people are very pleased, especially those of us on these Benches, that the Government have recognised the importance of lifelong learning and have indicated that they will eventually extend the loans to those aged
Perhaps I may take this opportunity to talk, once again, about those who are part-time students. On the whole, these loans are only available to students on full-time courses. I hope that it will not be too long before the Government can extend such facilities to part-time students, as is possible under the legislation. However, I welcome the fact that part-time students who are undergoing teacher training courses will be eligible for loans. That is a most important point.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, I, too, am concerned that we have not as yet received details on collection arrangements. We debated this at some length during the passage of the legislation. I do not think that it is satisfactory just to have it in simple language. It is a legal requirement, and I have not changed my view in that respect. It is the Government's duty to produce the information as fast as they possibly can.
We are now at the initial stage of these new arrangements. In a sense, they will be interim regulations. I hope, therefore, that the Government will look most carefully at what actually happens on the ground. My experience of legislation made in Westminster is that, so very often, what happens on the ground does not filter through to those of us who are making the legislation and those who are administering it. For the sake of students, I hope that the process will be looked at and scrutinised very closely so that anything that goes wrong and which causes unnecessary hardship to students will be put right next year.
We are talking about a big change for students. It is very difficult for them to get their minds round such matters, although I know that much information has been supplied in that respect. Indeed, I believe that local authorities have, on the whole, done a sterling job in advising students on what will happen, even though they did not know the nature of the regulations. I admit that the Government have played their part in the process. However, at the end of the day, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Indeed, I hope that the eating will be heavily scrutinised so that it will be an even better meal for our students next year.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I have a few brief comments to make. Before I begin I should declare an interest as chair of the Further Education Funding Council. Obviously, I am concerned about these regulations in terms of the impact upon students in higher education. Most of the institutional references that I make during the course of my remarks will overwhelmingly relate to universities because the issues clearly impact upon them rather more than on colleges.
However, I shall begin by being slightly more generous than the two previous speakers have been in their contributions. We should recognise the advantages to be derived from the increase in the fee to the
The only area in which I should like to emphasise real difficulties is one where the Government have been most constructive. The concept of the hardship loan is very welcome. We all know that we must pay real attention to the dangers of students dropping out of courses because of problems associated with finance. It seems to me that the issue here is just how efficient it is necessary for the administration to be in response to such problems. Looking at the document, it seems to me that students must be able to identify that they are in danger of dropping out unless they receive additional support. By definition, that identifies a student as being in a somewhat parlous state and it means that such an application would need to be processed very rapidly so as to enable the student to sustain himself on a course.
As we all know, the final term of the academic year is a time when students are likely to be facing examinations and academic tests which will determine whether or not they will be able to sustain themselves on the course in terms of their academic competence. Therefore, the issue of hardship bites in at the most difficult part of the educational process so far as concerns students. I hope that I heard my noble friend the Minister correctly and that real attention will be paid to the rapidity with which these decisions are made. We all know that a delay at such a stage would place a student in a quite invidious situation.
In the expectation of some reassurances on that front, perhaps I may say how much I welcome the improvement in the position which is represented by this structure as regards students. I hope that the challenges which have been made from the other side of the House--indeed, proper queries about the way in which things should be administered--are set against the general background where it is recognised that improvement lies ahead of us so far as concerns students in higher education.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I should like to thank all those who have contributed to this short debate. I am especially grateful to my noble friend Lord Davies for welcoming the hardship loans, which I believe are an important way to help those students who get into serious financial difficulty. Perhaps I should, first, deal with the issue of hardship loans. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, wanted to know what the criteria for awarding a hardship loan would be. As I said in my introductory remarks, the Government believe that it is for higher education institutions to decide who should have hardship loans. They are in the best position to judge the circumstances of individual students.
It is certainly the case that we would expect those institutions to take into account taxpayers' commitments and that students who come along with sob stories, which really cannot be sustained under investigation, should not be given additional support. However, at the same time, there will be many students who, through no fault of their own, may have got themselves into a position where they are in serious financial difficulty and are in danger of dropping out of a course. Occasionally, it may be the case that a student has made a mistake in terms of the kind of accommodation that he thought he would be able to afford and he may need advice and help in securing accommodation, which is not as expensive, so that he can actually survive for the rest of the year.
I shall try to deal with the various questions which were put to me by both the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, began by pointing out that there is a manuscript amendment on page 7 of the document. I believe she particularly mentioned page 7, which she said was indecipherable. All I can do is apologise to her. In my particular version there is no manuscript amendment on that page. However, I shall do my best to ensure that another version of the document is passed on to her where all the amendments in manuscript form are clear and legible. That was a fair and reasonable point for the noble Baroness to make.
The noble Baroness also suggested it was important that regulations on repayments should be produced as soon as possible. We shall do that but as I explained earlier there are complex technical issues that need to be sorted out with employers. I am sure the noble Baroness will agree it is important that employers are consulted, as they will be responsible for providing information to the Inland Revenue on the collection mechanism. I certainly hope that we shall not produce guidance for students that is full of cartoon "balloons". I hope that the guidance will be clear and readily comprehensible to all students.
The noble Baroness also asked about the means testing of overseas students. Overseas students are, of course, not eligible for loans. Therefore that is not entirely relevant to today's regulations. In any case the Government covered the means testing of overseas students in the mandatory award regulations that were made earlier in the summer in May.
I turn to the issue of when students will have access to their loans. The noble Baroness suggested that students may be left without any money at all in the first 30 days because the regulations prescribe a time limit of 30 days. That is the maximum time which should be required to pay loans, allowing for delays if the information provided by students is incomplete. We intend to set the Student Loans Company a target of paying new loans. My officials are in the process--
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