Concerns are raised over Western Isles’ student support from government

Students in higher education facing financial hardships this summer as a result of the impacts of the corona-virus pandemic will be able to apply to their university or college for support.

By Peter Urpeth, Local Democracy Reporter
Tuesday, 16th June 2020, 11:17 am
Iain Macmillan, Principal and Chief Executive, Lews Castle  College  UHI,  welcomed  the  government’s move but warned  that  the Scottish  Government’s announcement was not of additional funding.
Iain Macmillan, Principal and Chief Executive, Lews Castle College UHI, welcomed the government’s move but warned that the Scottish Government’s announcement was not of additional funding.

The move comes after the Scottish Government brought forward access to an £11.4m discretionary hardship fund.

Announcing a package of measures aimed at supporting students over the summer, Minister for Further, Higher Education and Science Richard Lochhead said that many students who usually rely on seasonal and part-time work over the summer months will struggle to meet their living and housing costs as a result of the impacts of the COVID-19 lock-down measures.

He said that “no student should face financial hardship” as a result of the lock-down, and that the new measures “will support students until the start of the next academic year when bursary, grant and loan payments will begin again.”

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As part of the package of measures announced, colleges will now also be able to offer discretionary funds to further education students to bridge ‘the timing gap’ between bursary payments ending in June and Universal Credit payments starting.

Scottish students studying in Europe as part of EU Portability or historically arranged schemes will now be able to access an emergency fund administered by the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS), and SAAS has now suspended all new debt recovery actions in respect to grants and bursaries until September for students whose circumstances have changed and may have to return overpayments.

UK government benefit rules do not permit most students in higher education to claim benefits such as universal credit.

NOT ADDITIONAL FUNDING

Iain Macmillan, Principal and Chief Executive, Lews Castle College UHI, welcomed the government’s move but warned that the Scottish Government’s announcement was not of additional funding.

He said: “It’s good to see the Government providing some flexibility in making funding available to meet student hardship over the summer.

“That being said, this is not however additional funding but funding that had been budgeted for the next Academic year being brought forward to address the immediate problem.

“Care will be needed over the next academic year to make sure that there is sufficient funding available for all students for the full year.”

Highlands and Islands Student Association (HISA) Lews Castle College Depute, Florence Jansen, also welcomed the Scottish Government’s move, but raised concerns that it was not clear how much of the funding would reach students at the University of the Highlands and Islands and Lews Castle College UHI.

She said: “Many students are experiencing financial difficulties as a result of Covid-19, and loss of seasonal employment means that students are now unable to top up bank balances.

RISK OF HARDSHIP

“There is a real risk of many students still being in financial hardship before SAAS resumes in the Autumn.

“While a move in the right direction, there is now extra pressure on institutions to administer and promote funding support.

“It would have been far simpler for SAAS to make the extra summer payment and avoided delays to support due to unnecessary paperwork and application forms.

“University management must ensure”, Florence Jansen concluded, “that the message to students is clear and that they are aware of the help and guidance available to them.

“The application process, like the university itself, is incredibly complex and senior management must consider yet again why it has 14 student support departments rather than one single cohesive unit focused on helping our students.”

Responding to HISA’s concerns, a spokesperson for UHI said: “We welcome the Scottish Government’s plans to help higher education students who are in financial difficulty over the summer.

“The well-being of our students is our main priority and we are dedicated to supporting students who are in challenging circumstances as a result of COVID-19.

“We will continue to work with HISA and colleagues across the University of the Highlands and Islands to ensure students know how to access the support they need.

“We deliver educational opportunities through a partnership [of] colleges and research centres across the Highlands and Islands, Moray and Perthshire.

“Our dedicated local and regional staff provide personalised support for all students wherever they choose to study.