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Student Awards Agency

Volume 300: debated on Monday 10 November 1997

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To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will set up an inquiry into the administration of the Student Awards Agency for Scotland. [14292]

I have asked the Chief Executive of the Student Awards Agency for Scotland to provide a full report on the difficulties encountered by the Agency in processing student award applications timeously this year so that we can determine what measures need to be implemented to prevent a recurrence.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what factors underlie the delays in the payment of grants by the Student Awards Agency for the current academic year; and what steps he is taking to address the problem. [14291]

A number of factors have combined to affect adversely the ability of the Student Awards Agency for Scotland to process awards within its normal timescale in the current academic year. Most of these flow from the introduction of a new awards processing system in April of this year. There were a larger number of initial problems encountered than had been anticipated and these, together with delays in converting data from the previous system, unfamiliarity with the new system, and the need to enter large volumes of 'standing' data in its first year of operation, resulted in a backlog of applications building up. The profile of receipt of applications is heavily concentrated into the months from May to September and it is extremely difficult for the Agency to recover from a backlog once one has developed. The new awards system has, however, performed well after the initial problems were overcome. It has proved resilient under intensive use and significant improvements in efficiency are expected to be realised in future years.Scottish higher and further education institutions were provided with an advance of their block grant in recognition of the fact that their income from tuition fees in October would be less than they had reason to expect. This was also designed to enable institutions to offer short term assistance to those students in financial difficulties because of delays in receiving their grant cheques, and was in addition to the Access Funds which are normally used for this purpose. Meanwhile, the Agency was set a demanding target to clear the vast majority of the backlog by the end of October, which has largely been achieved. It is expected to be up to date with processing applications by the end of November.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland how many applications for grants by students from Scotland to study at Scottish universities and colleges for the Session 1997–98 were received by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (a) before the normal closing date and (b) after it; how many were processed and paid (i) by the beginning of the student term, (ii) by four weeks after the beginning of the term and (iii) at the latest count; and how many remain unpaid. [14293]

The closing date for the receipt of undergraduate applications by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland in academic year 1997–98 is 31 January 1998 and it is not therefore a factor in the present situation. Students continuing a period of full-time education were, however, advised to apply by 15 May 1997 in order to ensure that any grant payable would be available at the start of the first term. New students are encouraged to apply as soon as they receive an unconditional offer of a place on a course.Of the 71,436 applications received from continuing students up to 3 November 1997, 20,656 were received by 15 May. At the same date 40,434 applications had been received from new students. Applications are not attributed to a specific course at the point of receipt and term dates vary between institutions. The best estimate is that about 27,750 applications had been received four or more weeks before the start of the term, which is the normal period allowed for processing fully completed applications.As at 3 November, 42,884 awards had been processed in sufficient time to allow any payment to be made at the beginning of the students' terms and a further 22,721 had been processed in time to allow any payment to be made by 4 weeks after the beginning of the term. A total of 90,217 applications had been processed and 28,927 had yet to be processed; many of the latter are likely to be "fees only" cases with no payment due to the student.These figures cover all Scottish domiciled students eligible for support under the Students' Allowances Scheme and the Student Nursing and Midwifery Bursary Scheme rather than only those attending Scottish institutions. Detailed figures split by institutional location are not readily available.