My Lords, last year, the service delivered by the Student Loans Company was unacceptable. The Student Loans Company now has a strengthened leadership team and is engaging more effectively with its stakeholders, including those representing disabled students. My department has provided increased resources to help the Student Loans Company put the service back on track, and has set tighter turnaround targets for applications for the disabled students’ allowance.
I thank my noble friend for that Answer. As something like 10,000 students did not receive their disabled students’ allowance last year, can the noble Baroness give an indication of what is being done to make sure that any future reorganisation of the service does not result in a disaster like this one, where a locally run service was replaced with a central one and ended up failing totally?
My Lords, the Student Loans Company has made a number of improvements in the way it processes applications, which I hope will improve customers’ experience. The scanning technology that was at the heart of the processing problems last year has been moved from Glasgow to Darlington where the processing teams are based so that all paper documentation is sent to one location, allowing the Student Loans Company to react quickly to any problems. A more user-friendly online application process has been introduced for new and returning students. Applications for disabled students’ allowances are now being turned around faster, and in consultation with stakeholders—who have proved to be an invaluable support to us—the Student Loans Company has streamlined its processes for dealing with these applications. That includes a fourfold increase in the number of staff allocated to the work, with better training and quality assurance to ensure consistency in the service provided to its customers.
My Lords, I welcome the assurances given by the Minister. Can she confirm that arrangements have been put in place to enable contacts between disability groups and the Student Loans Company? My experience of going around universities suggests that they bend over backwards to assist potential students with disabilities.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a contact person for disability at the University of York. It is my experience that, essentially, help does not arrive on time. The problem is that there is no system whereby an advance can be offered to students whose cases have not been processed, but disabled students need help from the moment they arrive. Unfortunately, even a little delay can cost them a great deal in their studies. Is there a way of advancing an initial sum to these students so that they are given assistance on arrival?
As noble Lords can imagine, we have studied this question very carefully to see what can be done. Special financial arrangements have been made to get people over the difficulties that they are experiencing immediately, and money has been set aside for that. The applications that we have received are receiving good attention now. However, we are mindful of the fact that people do not seem to realise that for this year, for example, starting in September, students—whether able or disabled—should apply now; they do not have to wait. If they or their representatives were to start applying now, we could get to the core of their difficulties, so that by the time they start their year arrangements will be in place. We have found particularly that disabled students wait until they are on the course before they start applying, by which time the lag that they experience causes them difficulties. However, even in such cases we will make sure that, because of last year’s awful experiences, people will not be put off starting their studies for fear of not having their money.
Does the Minister agree that the setting up of this disability stakeholder group is a major step forward, as it provides a proper assistance set-up? A great deal of credit for this forward movement should go to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for his pressure and assistance.
My noble friend Lord Addington has been an absolute champion of the disabled. He very kindly gave us of some of his questions in advance so that we could start to process them already. If the noble Lord has other questions that he would like answered, I very much hope it will be okay for us to write to him. This is a big and complicated subject and we really do not want to see it get into the trouble that it did last year.
I rather thought I had covered that. We have strengthened the leadership team; we are engaging more effectively with stakeholders, including those representing disabled students, which is very important and went wrong last time; and we have provided increased resources to help put the service back on track. I really do hope that this year, for the sake of us all and all our students, we will see a much clearer run at things—if they get their applications in early enough, please.