Report: Student loans body funding ‘inadequate’

RESOURCES at the Scottish Government agency that provides financial support for students are “inadequate for the task”, a review has concluded.
Picture: TSPLPicture: TSPL
Picture: TSPL

• Review finds only 12% of calls answered at pre-term peak

• Saas receives 150,000 applications a year

• Scottish Government pledges £2 million for improvements in service

Last year thousands of students across the country did not receive vital bursary and loans cash in time for the start of their classes.

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Concerns about the time it took to deal with some of the applications led to a review of Students Awards Agency for Scotland (Saas), which found it had “insufficient resource in its core functions” including both IT and its call centre.

It concluded that “significant” time and money requires to be invested.

The Scottish Government has now announced £2 million for improvements at Saas, including taking on 50 staff to deal with calls, process applications and help students with queries.

Education Secretary Mike Russell said a number of the review recommendations have already been acted on.

“This year we have recruited 50 more people to help process applications, extend opening hours, provided more advice and guidance on how to fill out the forms as well as simplifying the system of student support,” he said.

“I would encourage all students to take care with their application, to apply on time and access their share of the £778 million that is earmarked for student pockets this year.”

Saas is a Scottish Government agency which provides financial support to eligible students doing a higher education course in the UK. Its website says it receives more than 150,000 applications a year.

The review was led by David Wallace, deputy chief executive of the Student Loans Company. It said at least 5,936 students did not receive their financial support by the start of the term last year, although this number “is likely to be understated”.

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Applicants tried to phone the Saas call centre one million times last year, suggesting “students had to try numerous times” before they could speak to someone.

The review report said: “In September 2012, for example, when calls were at their peak, only 12% were answered.”

Resource levels in the centre are “inadequate”. Based on industry standards, it had “approximately one fifth of the resource it needed at peak time in September 2012”.

Saas did not have the necessary information and tools to manage demand, measure its workload and plan resources adequately, the report said.

The online application process for students is “not designed sufficiently around the customer’s needs” and fails to provide applicants with enough guidance, “resulting in errors that create additional work for both student and Saas”.

The agency has failed to meet the goal of processing 90% of applications within 21 days in eight out of the last 10 years, the review said.

While the review could “identify no single factor” that caused the problems last year, it said Saas did not meet its own standards for processing applications, “leading to students phoning, visiting the office in person, submitting questions through social media and emailing in large numbers”.

The report said: “In terms of meeting published processing standards or being able to deliver an acceptable level of customer service, we would regard Saas’s resource levels in 2012-13 as inadequate for the task.

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“Although it is beyond the scope of the review to quantify the investment needed, we are under no illusion that the time and money required will be significant. If Saas is to fulfil its role, and Scotland reap the full benefit of the nation’s unique higher education heritage, the Scottish Government will wish to consider carefully how that investment can be made.”

The review makes a string of recommendations including a call for a comprehensive review of Saas governance, management systems, roles and responsibilities.

It also suggests that it improves its administration system so student applications are managed more easily, while it says the online system also needs upgraded.