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Baroness Darcy de Knayth: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his very full explanation of the regulations. I am particularly grateful for his remark about the disabled student allowance. As to that, I should like to have a brief moan and to give a cheer in more or less the same breath. I should also like to ask the Minister a question for clarification. I am delighted that the Minister is to rectify the situation for those disabled students who would be affected by the change in the rules. My moan is that it is unfortunate that it should be necessary to do so. The situation need never have arisen had the department in the first place consulted the organisations representing those people with disabilities who would be affected by the changes. I have in mind particularly SKILL, to which the noble Lord referred.
My cheer is that I am terribly pleased with the Minister and also the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, who acted very promptly when the matter came to light. I am delighted that they have undertaken to reverse any ill effects that the change will have. SKILL also welcomes this news and the fact that the department is willing to consult on how best to do it. It is very encouraging that the noble Lord has today said that they will meet so soon.
I thank the Minister once again for such a positive response now that the problem has been identified. I look forward to a satisfactory solution, whatever that may be. It matters very little what the package is called. What is important is that a small group of about 200 students should obtain the help they need, and it was intended they should receive, to pursue the course of their choice.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord for taking us through this rather complicated set of regulations. I must record my disappointment that the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, is not dealing today with these regulations. This is a sensitive issue and it was very controversial when it was debated in Committee. When the dates were negotiated with me I was not informed that the noble Baroness would not be available; otherwise, I would have been extremely accommodating in negotiating a date when the noble Baroness and/or the department whip could have dealt with the matter. Certainly, I do not complain at having to do business with the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. It gives me some feeling of affection and nostalgia to work again with the noble Lord.
It will come as no secret that I take no pleasure whatever in dealing with these regulations. The measure under the Teaching and Higher Education Act is beginning to take its toll on students. As the years pass I believe we shall find that that will be increasingly the
Sadly, the Government have not seen fit to address the anomalies arising from students who pay fourth year fees in Scotland or the bachelor of education courses where young teachers, especially in the primary sector in which the majority of our teachers are trained, do not enjoy the fourth year concession of fees, unlike their postgraduate friends who receive the fourth year of education entirely free of fees.
A particular point at issue in relation to the regulations now before the House is the penalties to be paid by students when applying for grants within the time-scale set down in the regulations. The National Union of Students has quite rightly referred to how one-sided it is: the students suffer but the Student Loans Company does not. Very often it is the fault of the Student Loans Company. There are administrative problems at local education authority level, higher education institute level and the Student Loans Company level. At the end of the day it is the student who needs to be serviced, and promptly, because for many students this is a matter of survival. Very often they are left to access the hardship fund and some, sadly, even abandon their courses. There is a catalogue of experiences during the first year: delays in processing the forms; application forms being sent to the wrong destination and gathering dust in places where they are not meant to be; insufficient numbers of application forms being sent out to some universities; and registrars' departments at some universities being understaffed due to insufficient resources to administer the application forms that come in from students.
Another issue that has also been raised by the National Union of Students relates to those students who change courses mid-year from one institution to another. It is important that students should not be required to pay fees in excess of the maximum in any one year at a single institution. My understanding is that there is a risk that students may end up paying part of the fees to one university and part to another and the combination of the two is greater than the maximum for any one year at a single institution.
Dealing with European Union students, I understand that by the middle of October the Government had spent £327,000 in assessing their claims. Can the Minister tell the House how many students from the European Union were subject to an assessment under that heading and how many claims of that number were rejected? It was probably a slip of the tongue when the noble Lord, in referring to part-time students who would be allowed to have a loan of up to £500 from the year 2000, said that
I strongly support the plea of the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth. I also join with her in thanking the department for responding so positively to SKILL. But perhaps I may press the Minister a little further. The noble Baroness rather skilfully used the word "rectify". The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, used rather different words. I wonder whether he could confirm that the omission of this point in the regulations was just that: an omission. Could he confirm that whatever is to be put in its place by some informal means will have the same effect; that is, the effect that it would have had had it been within the regulations, and that, whatever other methodology is to be resorted to, the effect will be the same and students over 55 will enjoy the benefits?
The National Union of Students is concerned about the definition of "unfit to study" and it seems important that we should have clarification. Of particular concern is the Department of Education's proposal that information on previous study that has terminated before conclusion will be requested when assessing eligibility for an award. The students therefore seek clarification from the Minister on its use and the definitions and request that the department includes this in any guidance to local education authorities.
There are a number of other concerns and some which are voiced by the CVCP. First, the issue of local education authorities processing student assessments and the Student Loans Company paying the fees has been discussed extensively in groups involving the vice-chancellors and principals. Given the concerns about the performance of the Student Loans Company this year--I have catalogued some of them--could the department be urged to keep this matter under review and also the option of further grant re-programming by the funding councils next year in order to avert continuing cash-flow problems? This is a very real problem for many students.
With reference to the "borrower" in the second regulation, while the interpretation given may be clear in law, it is not so clear to those who have to administer the loans and access funds. The definition needs to be expanded to clarify the point at which an applicant becomes a borrower. Is it on approval of the loan by the Student Loans Company, or not until the loan has been received? Clarification in the guidance notes would again be very welcome.
Regulation 9 deals with addresses. The tracking of students' addresses was always going to be problematic for the higher education institutions. They cannot do this with any certainty. If students do not tell their higher education institutions, they are unlikely to tell their local education authorities, or indeed the Student Loans Company--especially the Student Loans Company.
Where split contributions are made, the suggestion is that either in the regulations--though of course that is now too late--or in the guidance notes the amounts of contribution notionally attributed to each child shall be expressed to the nearest whole pound. No one will lose money over this; it just makes life rather easier. Rounding fees up to the nearest pence is administratively inefficient.
Although the proposals for support for part-time ITT students look sensible and equitable, there is a need for the department to examine the impact of the changes on part-time ITT courses where the academic year does not begin in the autumn, where the length of the final year is shorter than standard and where teaching practice is not evenly distributed between the years of the course. There may be issues here, for example, for the postgraduate course offered by the Open University and other institutions. The department might note this point and issue guidance at a later date, after consultation with the course providers.
In relation to long-term residential courses, there could be problems for some certificate or diploma courses classed as higher education. In some cases these may entitle students to admission to the second or later year of a degree course, but may only admit to a first year, depending on the closeness of the course content match. It might be advisable for the department to check with a sample of colleges. If this has not already been done, could I suggest that it is done? It would be unfortunate if students from such colleges lost part of their support entitlement, having taken a course which was nominally higher education but which in practice gave them access only to the first year of their chosen degree course.
On previous study rules, could we seek clarification of whether "European Union public funds" means funds administered by the European Union, European Commission or funds from a government of an EU member state? If the latter, there may be problems in establishing the precise status of the funds in question.
As for assisted students, the removal of the "assisted students" provisions is welcome but the new proposals are not problem-free. Many of the assisted students have come from other EU countries whose student support rules allow the support to be used to fund courses in other countries. They have often arrived expecting, under the mandatory award regulations, to qualify to have their fees paid and have faced difficulties when they have found themselves classed as assisted students. The provisions in Regulation 21(7) are not clear unless their purpose is understood, and it is therefore essential for the provision to be explained in simple language, both for EU students and others.
I know that is rather a lot of questions, but these are very complicated regulations. It is important that some of these issues are addressed because there are considerable concerns within the university sector and the higher education sector in general.
Lord Tope: My Lords, I too begin by thanking the Minister both for bringing the regulations to us tonight and for the clear and careful way in which he has explained them. I also echo the comments and the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth. I do not need to repeat those points. They are a matter of concern and we look forward to seeing how things develop. Similarly, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has dealt fully with the concerns raised by the NUS and in the briefing from the CVCP, which I too received. I hope that the House will accept that I simply echo those points and I shall not repeat them as fully as the noble Baroness quite rightly did.
These regulations were debated in the other place earlier this week and I have read the debate that took place there in full. Not surprisingly, the Minister's speech tonight bore a close resemblance to the speech in the other place; indeed, it would have been remarkable if it had not done so. I shall endeavour not to repeat exactly what my honourable friends in the other place said but rather to follow up on some of the points which did not receive the clear answers that we would have wished.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, made reference to the poor performance of the Student Loans Company and the seeming inequity that students are set a fairly tight timetable of one month for supplying the requisite information but that there are no performance targets either for the Student Loans Company or indeed LEAs. My honourable friend in the other place, Phil Willis, suggested that for LEAs there should be a four-week mandatory processing period for establishing eligibility and six weeks for the statutory financial assessment by LEAs and the Student Loans Company. I echo that, but what I wanted to pick up on was the response he received from the Minister, who said in Standing Committee in the other place:
My second point relates to students changing university or perhaps the course. Regulation 7(1)(b) seems to suggest that students can do so only on "educational grounds". All of us know that students change courses and universities for often good reasons but not necessarily good reasons on educational grounds. That point was queried during discussion in another place. The Minister stated that eligibility will
My next point concerns part-time students and completion of courses. Increasingly degrees are unit based. They increase in number and importance. That is especially important for the poorest students. I am unclear about the position of part-time students who may take some time to complete a course. The regulations appear to suggest that failure to complete their course within two years will lead to termination of eligibility. I was not clear of the exact position from the Minister's reply in another place. I hope that the Minister will clarify it and give us an assurance that the leeway provided for in Regulation 8(2) will be used to assist poorer, mature and OU students who are combining study with work and may well take more than two years to complete a course.
Lastly--it is a point of particular concern to my honourable friend Phil Willis--I refer to field trips. Regulation 10(1)(c) specifically excludes field trips. Yet field trips are an essential part of many courses, for instance, in geology, archaeology, foreign travel and study for foreign language students, and so on. I worry that they are so specifically excluded. Perhaps we have misunderstood the position, but I do not think so. I hope that the Minister can explain that and give some further consideration to it.
I have been entrusted with further points which arise more specifically on the Scottish regulations. Although some apply equally to these regulations, I shall raise them later with some trepidation.
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