A WEST Wales mature student has alleged that Student Finance Wales discriminates against mature female students who have changed their name through marriage or divorce.
Tricia (not her real name) contacted The Herald after she experienced protracted delays in receiving student finance to which she was entitled having been made ‘to jump through hoops’ to prove she was who she said she was.
She encountered difficulties after applying for a one year top up from a HND to a BA.
The situation was rendered all the more frustrating as, Student Finance Wales had all of Tricia’s proof of identity from the previous year, when she completed her HND, access to all of the information submitted in connection with that award, and repeatedly told her that there was no information required from her before telling her on a number of occasions, and only when she rang to query the continuing delay, that further information was needed.
Tricia applied for student finance on June 14 and supporting information for her financial status was provided immediately to Student Finance Wales. Tricia had the same customer reference number, same email, same telephone contact number that she had used for her previous application.
Tricia was particularly exasperated as she had been through precisely the same rigmarole in proving her identity in her initial application two years before.
She told us: “Despite the fact that I applied early for student finance, after that earlier bad experience, I kept on being pushed from pillar to post. Even though ALL of my information was already held by Student Finance and they were writing to me at my home address, which I had already provided and proved, it was not until mid-August that Student Finance Wales asked for proof that I actually lived in Wales.
“Having sent that proof, I rang up to check everything was okay and was told that Student Finance Wales had all the information they needed to process my application.”
She continued: “Having waited for a few weeks and with the start of term already near, I rang to find out what was happening. I was then told that before my application could proceed that they wanted information for an application for a childcare grant, which I have never sought and had not asked for. I had to write a letter telling them this – unbelievably six weeks after acknowledging they had received that letter, the information is still shown as required.
“Anyway, I confirmed again that they now had all the material they needed. And was told they did. A few weeks passed and I had heard nothing. I rang again. This time they wanted me to provide both my birth certificate and a form signed by a third party confirming that I was me!
“I raised an immediate complaint and was told I would be sent a copy of that for my own information.”
On October 26, Tricia rang to confirm that all information had been received and make sure that nothing else was needed.
Tricia’s experience then entered the realms of the surreal. A friend verified her identity. The same person had verified her partner’s identity for their application for student finance and been accepted.
The proof of identity was rejected and during the phone call a claim was made that a letter to that effect had been sent out on October 20, which was remarkable in itself as the identity form had only been posted on October 19. Not only was there no sign of that letter’s arrival, there was no sign of it in the record of correspondence.
Tricia then raised the question of her previous complaint, only to be told there was no record of it. She was then told by a manager at Student Finance Wales that she was not entitled to see the content of any complaint raised by the company on her behalf, although that manager told her that she would now raise a complaint for her and notify her it had been raised.
After waiting a few days, and with no sign of a complaint being made, Tricia emailed a full complaint to Student Finance Wales and copied her constituency and regional AMs in along with Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Williams and the Assembly parties’ education spokespersons.
Response was swift. First to respond was Labour’s Joyce Watson who promised to raise the matter with the Cabinet Secretary. That was followed by responses from Paul Davies – who helped resolve Tricia’s previous complaint – Simon Thomas, and UKIP’s Neil Hamilton who provided a very full and sympathetic response to Tricia’s plight; then, the Welsh Government contacted Tricia and asked for her permission to deal with Student Finance Wales on her behalf.
Finally, a day or so later, Tricia was emailed by Student Finance Wales to say that they were now acting on her complaint.
Mysteriously, the letter telling her that her identity proof was unacceptable arrived postmarked October 31, the same day as her complaint.
Within seven days of contacting her local AMs, Tricia was told that her student finance had been approved and that payments would be made shortly. She does not think that is a coincidence.
Tricia is, however, still frustrated by the whole experience.
“The situation had become ridiculous. I was being discriminated against for being an older woman, who had been married before. They not only had all my information already, they told me they could see it on the computer system and yet still said they needed it again. It’s bureaucracy for the sake of it. And as for not allowing customers to see complaints raised on their behalf, I bet their complaints clear up rate is stellar.
“Again, it was only when I complained and copied in AMs that there was any movement at all. That is not right and just makes me wonder how many students who have not contacted their own AMs have been forced out of higher education by Student Finance Wales incompetence.”
She concluded: “When I initially raised issues about the process way back in August I was told that I should blame the Welsh Government! To make matters worse, it had been suggested to me that I could get my parents to confirm my name change. I could, I suppose, have got a shovel or Ouija board, but neither of those options was very appealing!”
Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education Llyr Gruffydd said: “Plaid Cymru believes education is a right not a privilege so we want to make sure there is fair play when it comes to Student Finance Wales regardless of age or gender.”
Mid and West AM Simon Thomas added: “A constituent has informed me of a formal complaint they have made regarding the way in which their application for student finance has been handled by Student Finance Wales. Their application for student finance has still not been processed – almost five months after the initial application was made.
“My constituent feels that Student Finance Wales indirectly discriminate on the grounds of age and gender.”
Simon Thomas has written to the Cabinet Secretary for Education requesting the following information.
- An outline of Student Finance Wales’ complaints procedure
- The number of complaints received by Student Finance Wales each year in the last five years
- A breakdown of the nature of the complaints received
- An outline of the evidence of income and identity Student Finance Wales asks for in order to process a student’s application for student finance
Tricia’s constituency AM, Paul Davies told The Herald: “The experiences that Tricia has had with Student Finance Wales are deeply disappointing and caused her unnecessary distress, at a time when she should be focusing on her studies. It’s clear that there are failings in the system, which continue to be unaddressed and the Welsh Government should now commit to seriously reviewing Student Finance Wales’ operations.
“Sadly, this is not the first worrying experience that Tricia has faced throughout her studies and it’s simply unacceptable. Lessons clearly haven’t been learnt from previous occasions and therefore it’s important that the Welsh Government urgently addresses these problems to ensure that other students are not faced with similar problems in the future.”
Flying Start needs ‘significant change’
A SIGNIFICANT change is needed if the flagship Flying Start early years programme is to succeed in reaching out to those in most need of support, according to a cross-party Assembly committee.
The Children, Young People and Education Committee found that more flexibility is needed so that funding can be used to help children who live outside existing Flying Start areas.
The Flying Start programme provides services to children under the age of four in some of Wales’ most deprived postcode areas. It is cited as one of the Welsh Government’s top priorities in tackling child poverty, and has four key elements: free part-time childcare for two to three-year-olds; an enhanced health visiting service; access to parenting support; and access to early language development support. However, with nearly two thirds of people who are income deprived living outside geographical areas that are defined as deprived, the Committee heard that a significant number of children living in poverty were likely to be excluded from Flying Start support.
While the Committee welcomes recent changes which will give councils more opportunities to help children outside Flying Start postcode areas, more flexibility is needed to make sure that those most in need are supported.
The Committee was pleased to hear anecdotal evidence from users and front line service providers about the benefits of Flying Start. However, in light of the fact that the Welsh Government has provided funding of more than £600 million to Flying Start since its creation in 2007, it is concerned that there is limited hard evidence at this stage to show that children and parents supported by the programme have experienced improved outcomes.
Lynne Neagle, Chair of the Children, Young People and Education Committee, said: “We welcome the hard work of those delivering Flying Start services across Wales. Nevertheless, with the majority of children living in poverty falling outside defined Flying Start areas, we believe that more flexibility is needed to allow the programme to reach those most in need.
“We also believe that more needs to be done to demonstrate the benefits of the programme, and we welcome the Welsh Government’s assurances that it is looking at different ways to show the direct improvements Flying Start is making to the lives of children and families in Wales. We will monitor this work closely, and believe it to be particularly important given the large amount of money invested in this programme annually, with just under £80 million allocated in this financial year alone.”
Commenting on the report, Shadow Education Secretary, Darren Millar, said: “We’ve been saying for a long time that Flying Start simply isn’t working for the overwhelming majority of families in need of support.
“The Welsh Government must put an end to the Flying Start postcode lottery which excludes families in need simply on the basis of their address.
“The programme needs radical reform to make it more flexible and Wales-wide so that local Councils can deliver help and support to those who need it most.”
Talks call in lecturers’ strike
UNIVERSITIES UK has called University and College Union (UCU) to meet to engage in ‘serious, meaningful’ talks on the future of the USS pension scheme.
A strike by UCU members in the week of February 19-23 was only the first of a planned four weeks of industrial action as employers and lecturers battle out a dispute over the future shape of the Universities Superannuation Scheme.
Universities UK claims that the current scheme – the largest funded scheme in the UK – is unaffordable and that a projected £6.1bn deficit means that retirement benefits have to be cut. The union claims that the deficit is overstated and that, having already eroded some pension rights, further cuts to it are unfair.
In a press statement which accompanied an open letter to UCU members, Universities UK said: ”It is of paramount importance that both side make every effort to meet – despite the ongoing industrial action – to stop any impact and disrupton to students.
”Universities UK has never refused to continue to try to find an affordable, mutually acceptable solution. We would be willing to discuss a credible proposal that addresses the significant financial issues the scheme is facing.
”The problem that we share as interested parties in USS is that, to continue to offer current benefits, contributions would have to rise by approximately £1 billion per annum. The scheme has a £6.1 billion deficit and there has been an increase of more than a third in the cost of future pensions.”
Responding to that statement, UCU said it would certainly be attending as it had been calling for talks for weeks, but refused to call of scheduled industrial action.
However, it said that unless the employers were prepared to talk about the January decision to slash pensions then it did not see how the dispute could be resolved. In its statement UUK said ’talks would not re-open the Joint Negotiating Committee decision made on 23 January’.
That decision is the very reason staff are on strike.
UCU said it was disappointed UUK had ignored the wishes of universities minister Sam Gyimah who stated explicitly that the talks should be without preconditions.
University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt said: ”Because this is so serious for students and for staff we will of course attend. I am however very concerned that UUK has explicitly ruled out discussing the imposed changes that have caused the strikes.
”The universities minister was very clear that he wanted talks without preconditions and we hope UUK will reconsider his words before we meet. We remain committed to serious negotiations aimed at resolving this dispute.”
Universities UK’s position is not assisted by the long-running dissatisfaction with some of the extraordinary pay packages its members dole out to some university vice chancellors.
University vice-chancellors have enjoyed huge pay rises in recent years. The average pay (excluding pensions) for vice-chancellors in 2005/06 was £165,105. Over the next decade it increased by 56.2% to £257,904 in 2015/16.
Professor Peter Mathieson, recently appointed as vice Chancellor of Edinburgh University, will be paid a basic salary of £342,000 – £85,000 more than predecessor Sir Timothy O’Shea. Professor Mathieson will also receive £42,000 in lieu of pension contributions and relocation costs of £26,000, taking his package up to £410,000. He will live in a five-bedroom grace-and-favour home in central Edinburgh.
Professor Mathieson quit his contentious and controversial tenure as vice-chancellor of Hong Kong University to take the Edinburgh post.
Stuck in the middle of the dispute between lecturers and universities are students.
The programme of strikes is taking place at one of the most sensitive times of the year for higher education students, with many final year students rapidly approaching the end of their courses. A suggestion has been made that some universities will take account of disruption to studies when making degree awards, In addition, while many students sympathise with their lecturers’ predicament there is growing frustration among those who are likely to be most severely affected by strikes that will last 14 days initially, with the possibility of further action during summer final exams.
Some students are contemplating demanding compensation, with The Guardian quoting one saying: “I am a third-year student in his last term of university and the fact that my vice-chancellor has told me that I could be without any assistance for a whole 14 days over four weeks in my most important term of education is a joke.”
New lease of life for rescue dog
A DOG that could hardly walk has been given a new lease of life after a 3D printed leg was made for him by CBM, a research company established by UWTSD.
Rescue dog Duke, an Irish retriever, was born with a birth defect in his front right leg and faced having it amputated.
But he is now running around after Swansea printing firm CBM made him a leg similar to blades used by Paralympians.
New owner Phil Brown, from Bristol, said it had been ’life changing’.
When Duke was found abandoned by the Irish Retriever Rescue (IRR) charity in Ireland in 2016, his paw was deformed and he could not walk on all fours.
He was taken to the pound and rehomed with foster owners the Browns, who have since adopted him as their own as they could not bear to part with the loveable pooch.
After a massive fundraising campaign by the charity Duke has been fitted with a state-of-the-art prosthetic by CBM, after narrowly avoiding having his foot amputated.
His new owner said Duke, who is now three, was delighted by his new ’super leg’ which meant he was walking on four paws for the first time.
Mr Brown, who owns other dogs which Duke is enjoying playing with, said: “He had a very tough start in life.
“This is an absolute life changer for him, it really is. He can now walk on it, he can now run at a slow speed.”
Mr Brown said the three-dimensional leg was about a year in a making, and a few months down the line Duke is getting so much use out of it he has already had to have it refurbished.
The leg was entirely printed out of a machine apart from a rubber foot, some Velcro and foam at the top to make it more comfortable for Duke.
CBM product designer Benjamin Alport said creating Duke’s leg was a real challenge for the team, who worked with his new owner and a consultant orthopaedic surgeon on the design.
“We had to go down and assess Duke. We had to consider right down to the thickness of the hairs because you have to take into account the smallest things,” he said.
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