STUDENTS and graduates are being hit by expensive call charges when ringing helplines set up by the government body charged with overseeing university loans.
Figures obtained by The Scotsman show the Student Loans Company (SLC) has raised more than £1 million in revenue over the past five years using 0845 numbers.
While the money has been reinvested by the non-profit-making organisation, there are concerns over the use of the numbers, which can cost up to 11p a minute or 41p from a mobile phone.
The SLC operates several 0845 numbers for students and graduates to make inquiries about their loan or make repayments.
While the numbers are not classed as premium rate, the communications watchdog Ofcom estimates the cost of calling an 0845 number can be up to 11p per minute, with calls often including an additional fee of up to 14p.
Just over £1m has been raised by the SLC across the UK over the past five years, although the sums have fallen from over £300,000 a year in 2009/10 and 2010/11 to just under £80,000 last year.
While it is the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) – an agency of the Scottish Government – which is responsible for administering loans in Scotland, it is the SLC which is responsible for overseeing their repayment.
Last year, SAAS agreed to adopt numbers using the prefix 0300 – which cost no more than calls to numbers beginning 01 or 02 – following a campaign by the National Union of Students (NUS).
Gordon Maloney, president of NUS Scotland, said: “It’s not right that students and graduates who already face large loan payments must pay to get help resolving a loan query.
“These charges by SLC add up to hundreds of thousands of pounds out of students’ and graduates’ pockets every year, and are simply unnecessary.
“Last year, we raised similar concerns with SAAS as part of the wider review on improving their services for students, and they rightly responded by moving away from 0845 numbers.
“The SLC should follow the lead of SAAS and switch to at least an 0300 number, or better yet stop charging altogether, so students and graduates can put their money to better uses, such as paying off loan debt.”
Student finances are under increased pressure due to higher-rate tuition fees which see students from England, Northern Ireland and Wales pay up to £9,000 a year in fees to attend some Scottish universities.
While Scots are exempt from fees, the scrapping of student grants means most students are reliant on loans, with many racking up huge levels of debt during their studies.
In a statement, the SLC said: “At peak times, SLC has seven contact centre locations and the use of 0845 numbers provides us with the most effective means of routing calls across those locations.
“Using non-geographic numbers allows calls to be routed to the next available adviser at any location, ensuring that calls are answered as quickly as possible.
“SLC is a not-for-profit organisation and wholly in public ownership. Any revenue from telephone calls is used to offset our overall telephone charges.”