THE plight of thousands of students who are still waiting for bursaries or student loans some seven and a half weeks since the start of the academic year is deeply concerning.
In many cases the lack of a source of income is causing severe hardship, as we report today, with some students claiming they are unable to make payments for rent or even buy food.
Not all can rely on the "bank of mum and dad" and there is now a real fear that the backlog in applications will lead to an increase in drop-out rates. At the very least, it has certainly raised stress levels among students and put severe pressure on the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS), which administers payments, and is currently fielding up to 1000 calls a day from applicants.
While it may be pragmatic, it is hardly a reassuring sign that the agency recently took the decision to close its helpline for a day a week in order that staff could concentrate on progressing applications.
While some students dispute this, the Scottish Government insists, on behalf of SAAS, that all of the 6000 outstanding applications were made "late". SAAS offered a guarantee that if people applied by June 30, then any bursaries or loans they were entitled to would be paid in time for the start of term. It insists that 100% of timely claims have been processed.
A deadline is a sensible measure, and there is plainly a responsibility for applicants to adhere to it. However, given that the vast majority of applicants were on time, it isn't clear why SAAS – which boasts of the investment it has made in new technology – has been unable to process the remainder of the claims promptly.
There is also a case for SAAS to review its communication with would-be students. It has not revealed how many of those who applied "late" secured an unconditional offer of a place from a university after clearing in mid-August. This is well past the deadline for seeking funding, but SAAS urged those intending to go to university to apply even if their offers were unconditional.
If this message did not get through to thousands of young people that should be re-examined.
Another concern is that efforts to widen access and encourage people from poorer communities and backgrounds to take up higher education places may be affected by the apparent chaos at SAAS. People who obtain places through clearing may well include those who have less help or who are less accustomed to the system and are most likely to suffer and ultimately to drop out, if financial pressures become acute.
NUS Scotland has called for the Scottish Government to investigate and provide additional resources so that SAAS can process the outstanding applications more quickly.
It should do so as a matter of urgency - to alleviate the immediate crisis some students face and to ensure that the system runs more smoothly next year.
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.