CHANGES to the way Scots students are paid travel expenses could leave thousands out of pocket and further in debt.
By Angela Haggerty
FROM term 2011/12, Scots student funding body SAAS began incorporating student travel expenses into the annual student loan, capping payments at £350 each year and meaning students will now have to borrow travel expenses help instead of being reimbursed.
Under the old system, students declared the distance they travelled and were reimbursed mid-way through the educational year based on the cheapest possible route SAAS could calculate. The move has left many Scots students angry, claiming they weren’t properly informed of the changes.
Fashion Textiles student at Cardonald College Glasgow, Emma Miller, said SAAS could have made the changes clearer.
“I found out from my friend at university. She had got travel expenses back last year and that helped her but then she found out it was getting incorporated into the loan,” said the 19-year-old. “I applied online. I didn’t see it on the SAAS website, they didn’t make it obvious. They could have sent emails or sent letters to the students already on their system. Sometimes I think it’s not fair. I don’t think SAAS appreciates how difficult people’s budgets are.”
Miller, who drives to college, travels three days a week from Dunblane to Cardonald College Glasgow, which runs highly regarded courses in fashion. The drive costs her at least £35 per week.
“I travel by car and I would say £35 each week just covers it,” Miller said. “If I travelled by train it would cost £12 every day so it works out about the same.
“Travel’s the one thing that you really need. I could see it putting people off from going to college.”
The Scottish government disputed claims the funding body didn’t do enough to make the changes to student funding clearer and said the money saved from revising the scheme could be used to help the poorest students.
“SAAS updated the website to cover changes – as we do every year – in March 2011,” a Scottish government spokesman said. “The update was also highlighted through SAAS Facebook and twitter pages and SAAS alerted the institutions through our normal routes.
“The decision to change travel support was about the most effective use of resources and reflected messages from students that they wanted more cash in their pockets. Changing the system allowed an extra £10 million to be made available to students – focused on those from lowest income households.”
Lousie Reilly, student advisor at Cardonald College Glasgow who specialises in finance, said many students appeared unaware of the new system at the beginning of term talks carried out at the college:
“We informed the students of the changes when we delivered our finance information talks. Many of the students weren’t aware until we had informed them.”
Changes to the system have meant extra pressure is on the college’s discretionary fund and Reilly raised concerns that students will struggle to balance their finances.
“It’s not really very fair. What happened was that they [SAAS] just incorporated an extra £350 into the student loan which doesn’t covers student’s travel costs over a year,” Reilly said. “That equates to £10 a week. That has had a knock on effect on the discretionary fund we have in the college and our budget hasn’t been increased.”
In response to the revised travel expenses system, NUS Scotland announced they will carry out research into those hardest-hit, but said positives could be taken from the changes.
NUS president Robin Parker said: “At NUS Scotland’s National Conference last weekend, student representatives passed policy to examine closely a range of issues dealing with student support, including changes to the expenses system and its effects, both positive and negative, for students.
“The new system does mean that potentially the very poorest students see an increase in the amount of support they receive, but we’ll be watching it closely to make sure this does happen, and no one suffers.”
“”Given the real squeeze that we know students are feeling, it’s important that they’re being properly funded throughout their studies. Things like travel expenses can seem like a small cost, but it adds up over a year to be a significant sum of money for many of the poorest students.”