A serious processing problem has left 90,000 students without their study grants and could lead to over half of them dropping out of education.
That is the verdict of a report by the National Union of Students. It said that nearly two months into the start of the new academic year up to 50,000 students would be unable to afford to study because their applications for the grant had still not been processed by Liberata, an outsourcer to the Learning and Skills Council.
Under the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) grants scheme, students between 16 to 19 years that come from low income families and are taking A-Levels, diplomas or GCSE re-sits, can receive up to £30 a week. It also offers bonuses to students who meet targets set at the start of their course by their teachers.
But undisclosed technical problems that emerged with the online application system during the summer meant students were forced to apply on paper, and the LSC phonelines, experiencing technical difficulties, were jammed with enquiries. The backlog is still being processed, and Liberate took an extra staff to cope with the job.
Beth Walker, NUS vice president, said the grant was vital for many students to be able to afford to continue education. “The current delays to processing EMA applications are totally unacceptable. Students should not be put at risk with bad contracts, shoddy procedures and ropey technology, as has too often been the case in the past.”
“There must be a full investigation into why many thousands of learners have been failed and to ensure that this situation can never occur again,” she said.
Mark Haysom, chief executive at the LSC, said he welcomed the report. “I very much regret that there has been a delay in the processing of some EMA applications this year, but the backlog is now reducing steadily.”
The LSE has extended the application deadline to the end of the month as a result of the problems, and vowed that successful applications would be backdated. “This means that those young people who might have been put off by the delays can apply for an EMA before the end of October and, provided they are eligible, will have their EMA payments backdated to the start of their course.“
Hardship funds were also available to students experiencing financial difficulties, Haysom said.