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Education

Student finance ‘discriminates against women and mature students’

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Very friendly and supportive: Neil Hamilton

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.”

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Education

Wales gets cosmic ray detector network

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Truly innovative research: Welsh students' major opportunity

A NETWORK of instruments used to detect showers of high-energy particles raining down on Earth, are in the process of being set-up in Wales for the very first time.

The major international project will give schoolchildren the chance to explore some of the most important questions in astrophysics.

The particles, known as cosmic rays, travel from deep space at nearly the speed of light and are thought to originate from the regions around black holes and exploding stars. They’ve been hitting the earth and other planets since the solar system formed.

By detecting cosmic rays, scientists all over the world hope to learn more about some of astronomy’s biggest questions, such as the origin of the Universe, the death of stars, and how galaxies and black holes form. On Earth, observations of cosmic rays have also been used to ‘look inside’ volcanoes, and recently helped discover a large hidden chamber in the Great Pyramid at Giza.

A detector is currently under construction in Swansea University, with plans for another at the proposed Oriel Science exhibition centre in Swansea’s city centre. The network’s first detector has already been installed on the roof of Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy near the city centre.

Professor Chris Allton, from Swansea University’s Oriel Science and Department of Physics, said: “We are excited to link with Cardiff and provide a detector array across south Wales for school students to access. It will really help inspire these students to become the next generation of scientists in Wales.”

The team are now exploring the possibility of installing another detector at a school in Wales, as the network will also be used as an educational resource for schoolchildren across the country.

The £93K ‘QuarkNet Cymru’ project is being funded by the Welsh Government’s National Science Academy and links Wales to two major international projects – the “High School Project on Astrophysics Research with Cosmics” (HiSPARC) in Europe, and US-based “QuarkNet” programme.

HiSPARC and QuarkNet enable secondary schools and academic institutions to join forces and form a network to measure cosmic rays. They offer students the opportunity to participate in real research, with the purpose of finding out more about these mysterious cosmic particles.

When a cosmic ray encounters the Earth’s atmosphere, it creates a cascade of secondary particles called muons which spread out as they travel to the ground. By using detectors sensitive to muons, the schoolchildren will be able to work with the data to find out information about the original cosmic ray, such as its energy and where it came from in the sky.

From January 2018, schools will be able to loan particle physics equipment from Swansea and Cardiff Universities, with the addition of workshops and presentations to engage the schoolchildren in real-life cosmic ray research.

Dr Paul Roche, from Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said: “It’s a fantastic opportunity for school students from across Wales to get involved with some exciting astrophysics, using data taken from our own instruments that are now part of this international research programme.”

Ken Skates, Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport commented: “The QuarkNet Cymru project is an excellent example of how, working with global leaders in the field, Welsh Government investment is helping facilitate truly innovative research into some of the most important questions in astrophysics. More locally, it’s particularly pleasing to see such investment enabling QuarkNet Cymru and its network to deliver engaging Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics activities to pupils across Wales.

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Education

New standards for FE staff launched

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Eluned Morgan: 'Vocational learning every bit as important as academic education'

NEW professional standards for staff in the further education and work-based learning sectors were launched at the ColegauCymru Conference on Post 16 Education last Thursday (Nov 30).

The standards will set high expectations for all practitioners and be more explicit about the role of high-quality collaborative professional learning to support improvements. They reflect the importance of ongoing professional learning for staff and the role vocational learning plays in creating the skilled, innovative and adaptable workforce Wales needs.

Speaking at the conference, Eluned Morgan, Minister for Welsh Language and Lifelong Learning, said: “Vocational learning is every bit as important as academic education and if we want the best for our vocational learners their teachers, tutors and assessors have to be supported in their role. These new standards set out a clear, aspirational framework for the sector to work to.

“The critical principle of vocational education is that those working in both FE and WBL tend to operate as dual professionals, as experts both in a ‘vocation’ and as ‘teachers’. This has been made a central strand throughout the standards.

“I am confident that these standards will further engage and motivate practitioners and their employers in their pursuit for excellence and improved outcomes for all.”

Kelly Edwards Head of Work Based Learning Quality at the National Training Federation Wales said: “The Work-based Learning sector was delighted to be involved in the development of the new standards. The standards will support professional learning for WBL practitioners, with a key focus on developing the dual professional. We welcome the standards as an important step to enhance professional recognition for the WBL sector in Wales.”

Iestyn Davies, Chief Executive of ColegauCymru, Wales’ post compulsory education charity, added: “The development of professional standards is a move which is welcomed by ColegauCymru. Further Education provides the practical skills and knowledge that communities rely upon, we fully endorse and will promote these standards as a way of ensuring that the public and the profession alike are clear on what is required to continue to deliver world class skills in the rapidly changing world of work.”

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Education

Williams wants inclusive education

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Committed to needs-based approach: Kirsty Williams

EDUCATION SECRETARY, Kirsty Williams, has published a new plan outlining how the Welsh Government intends to work with the sector to improve outcomes for learners in Wales who access education otherwise than at school.

The new Education Other than at School (EOTAS) Framework for Action is the culmination of two years of hard work by the EOTAS Task and Finish Group and marks the start of the biggest reform of Pupil Referral Units and EOTAS provision in Wales.

Chaired by former Estyn Chief Inspector, Ann Keane, the EOTAS Task and Finish Group was established in September 2015 with the purpose of developing practical solutions to the recommendations of a number of reports which highlighted where current EOTAS provision in Wales could be strengthened.

The group included representation from the Welsh Government, local authorities, schools, Pupil Referral Units (PRU), Estyn and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales.

The report states that: “Children and young people in EOTAS, and in particular in PRUs, are some of the most vulnerable learners. They often come from chaotic and challenging backgrounds. They can frequently experience family breakdown and mental health issues, and are often exposed to substance misuse and domestic violence. It is no surprise therefore that these children and young people find themselves in negative patterns of behaviour which impacts on their learning and, as a result, have less than positive learning outcomes.”

The new Framework is a long term plan, consisting of 34 actions across six key areas, although some of the actions will be implemented in the short to medium term.

The key areas it seeks to improve are Leadership, Accountability, Resources, Structures, Learner Wellbeing, and Outcomes.

Launching the Framework and extending her thanks to everyone involved with its production, Kirsty Williams said: “We are committed to creating an inclusive education system for all learners in Wales, ensuring that everyone is able to receive the best level of support for their needs.

“I am extremely grateful to everyone involved with the Task and Finish Group for all their hard work in helping us to develop this plan and extend my support to the EOTAS Delivery Group who will now be charged with its successful delivery. The actions contained in this Framework reflect extensive engagement with the sector which has been, and continues to be, the best advocate for learners accessing EOTAS provision.

“We have deliberately adopted a phased approach to the proposals outlined in the plan, not only to ensure that they are implemented in a considered and timely manner, but also because the Framework has to complement wider education sector transformation. I am firmly of the view that EOTAS provision must form an integral part of our inclusive continuum of education; it should not be a ‘bolt-on’.”

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