Thousands of disabled students are still facing “unacceptable”, lengthy delays when they apply for vital support grants, according to a committee of MPs.
The Commons public accounts committee said the Student Loans Company (SLC) – set up by the government to take over the handling of grant and loan applications from local authorities – had improved its performance since 2009, although the “rate of improvement has been disappointing”.
Last November, SLC was forced to apologise and launch an internal review after admitting that, by late October, it had completed only 2,500 of the 14,000 disabled students’ allowance (DSA) applications it had received.
SLC insists that its performance has improved sharply, with the current average processing time from when it receives an application until it confirms to the student how much funding they are due now 13 weeks, compared with 20 weeks in December 2009.
And of the 16,000 applications from new students for 2010/11, payments had been made for 3,300 students, compared with 800 at the same point last year.
The committee’s report says disabled students suffered “disproportionately” in 2009, because SLC “devoted too few staff to processing their applications”.
And it says SLC must now work with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to set “stringent targets” for processing DSA applications, and “ensure sufficient resources are in place by next summer to provide a better service for disabled students”.
The British Dyslexia Association (BDA) said the problems last year left thousands of students with dyslexia without their DSA.
But the charity said that Student Finance England, which is run by SLC, had been working closely with BDA and other disability organisations, which was “a very positive step forward” and had “already brought about some improvements”.
An SLC spokesman said it had taken “significant steps” this year to improve its service to all students, including those applying for DSA, such as raising awareness of the application process among disabled students, and more than doubling the number of customer advisors dealing with DSA enquiries.
He said SLC had answered 96 per cent of calls – including those handled by the DSA team – during the peak period of July, August and September.
David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said SLC had “significantly improved” its level of service this year, but its “weak” performance in 2009 had been “completely unacceptable”.
He said: “The new government acted quickly, replacing the company’s senior team and making clear our expectation for substantial improvements for students taking out a loan last summer.
“There is no room for complacency. We will continue to work closely with the SLC to ensure students and their families get the service they rightly deserve.”
8 December 2010