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Student Support Direct

Student Support Direct is a wonderful (!) organisation set up recently, seemingly to complicate the process of applying for support whilst studying at university in the United Kingdom. Currently, it's in a trial, but the aim is to roll out nationwide for the 2004-2005 academic year. I pity students in university in England and Wales for that year. This introductory letter explains things in a bit more detail, and was sent to me on 20 June 2003, 18 days after a letter saying that they'd received my application for support on 2 June 2003:

Student Support Direct

Nottinghamshire County Council Education

Education Dept, Student Support Service
County Hall
West Bridgford
Nottingham NG2 7QP

20th June 2003

Dear Mr. Headland

We are writing to you to introduce Student Support Direct, which is a new service for the delivery of student support, provided by the Student Loans Company, LEAs in England and Wales, and the DfES working together. Student Support Direct will deliver student support for student from some LEAs studying in the 2003/2004 session. We expect that the new process will make applying for an receiving student support easier, both for students and their families. At the moment, the new services are available for students from Birmingham, East Sussex, Hampshire, Nottinghamshire, Waltham Forest and Durham LEAs. Soon, students throughout the UK will benefit from Student Support Direct. Student Support Direct will provide:

To use our Contact Centre, you will need your "ART" number shown above. This number is important because it helps us to identify you. It also makes sure that your personal information remains confidential.

We will send you a further letter in a few days containing a secret answer which will allow you to use the Student Support Direct Contact Centre.

Yours sincerely

D C Drabble
Senior Officer Student Support Service

There are a few points I'd like to make about this letter at this point that turned out to be misprints, inaccuracies or just downright lies:

  1. "Student Support Direct will deliver student support for student from some LEAs": it's interesting to note that this letter, dated 20 June 2003, is the last piece of correspondence I have received from Student Support Direct, the Student Loans Company or my LEA, Nottinghamshire County Council Education Department.
  2. "We expect that the new process will make applying for an receiving student support easier, both for students and their families": well, that is in fact correct. The application process went very smoothly with the application acknowledged quickly. Top marks there.
  3. "A new Contact Centre which you can phone on 08456 077 577": this is as opposed to the old one that was a freephone number. Calling the freephone number results in you being told to go away and call this chargeable number.
  4. "A new computer system which your LEA will use to decide how much support you are entitled to receive": any, it seems, also something that people don't consistently know the features of, see below.
  5. "Your support will not be delayed…": yeah, right. I don't know who they were talking to here, but it wasn't me.
  6. "To use our Contact Centre, you will need your "ART" number … It also makes sure that your personal information remains confidential": how, exactly?
  7. "We will send you a further letter in a few days containing a secret answer": As of writing at 15 September 2003, I still haven't received it, but more on that later.

I moved back to my term-time address in Manchester on 2 September 2003, by which time I was starting to get more than a little worried that I'd not heard anything from Student Support Direct, the Student Loans Company or my LEA for over two months. I decided to call them that evening. The following topics were discussed:

I left that at that and waited for the "secret answer" to arrive. This would at least prove that they knew how to send a letter to me. By Friday 5 September, the "secret answer" had still not arrived. Quite concerned by this point, I went to see Dr. Oakley for advice on what to do next.

The resulting discussion was quite reassuring. He first made sure that I had enough money to live on (I do, thankfully, due to keeping savings in case of just such an emergency, but I suspect many students may not have this luxury), then went over with me my current correspondence with the SSD/SLC/LEA. He reassured me that I could get provisionally registered by UMIST if they didn't get things sorted out quickly, and not to let the problem affect me too badly.

He also suggested that I sent a letter to SSD, giving them a month deadline to reply. So, I did so. This is the letter sent to them:

Student Loans Company Limited
T/A Student Support Direct
100 Bothwell Street
Glasgow
G2 7JD

Dear Sir,

I am writing to you in connection with my application for a loan and assessment for my contribution towards tuition feed for the academic year 2003-2004. My ART ID is xxxxxxxxxxx. I have not received any communications from you since 20 June 2003.

On Tuesday 2 September 2003 I called your contact centre to discuss this situation. The conversation centred around the fact that I had not received a passphrase for use with the contact centre. Once my identity had been identified, my contact address was updated to my term-time address as listed above, as I had just moved back here for the start of the academic year. I was told that I should expect to receive a passphrase by recorded post.

Nothing had arrived from any branch of the Student Loans Company by this afternoon, so I again called the support centre at 8:35 PM, this time speaking to a gentleman called Alex. He assured me that the passphrase had been posted to me and that I should receive it soon.

Before ending the call, he told me that there had been some delays by my LEA, Nottinghamshire County Council Education Department. I was assured that my loan application was progressing, but that since it had not yet been approved he could not provide any details.

On pointing out that for the academic year 2002-2003 I had to contribute £59 towards my tuition fees and that I was concerned about having to pay far more this year without being able to present a financial assessment at registration on 22 September 2003, I was told that since my application had not been approved by the LEA he could not inform me of how much I would have to contribute this year, but it would be present on some literature that should be posted to me within the next couple of weeks.

The purpose of this letter is to request a written confirmation from you that my application is progressing to aid my financial planning for this year. If delays are likely to occur, I would appreciate any advance notice you could provide to allow me to try to make arrangements for provision of funds from elsewhere.

If a response has not been received by 4 October 2003, I will summarise the current situation and ask for advice from my university on how to proceed.

Thank you very much for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you in the near future.

Yours faithfully

David Headland

cc: Dr. J Oakley, UMIST.

This letter was written shortly after another telephone conversation with Student Support Direct on the evening of Friday 5 September 2003. As mentioned in the letter I spoke to someone called Alex this time. What isn't mentioned in the letter is that whilst getting through to a human, an automates service pointed out that for the academic year 2003, my application was progressing, but I need to sign and return a declaration.

Having heard nothing from SSD quite some time, this worried me. I raised this issue with Alex, and was told that the information given there hasn't been updated since last year, and that didn't apply with the new single application procedure that was in place for this year's trial. It did make me wonder why such information was being presented to people, especially people like me that really didn't want a recorded message, as their problems are clearly outside the scope of their automated systems.

One other thing that wasn't mentioned in the letter, although probably should have been, was that Alex assured me that the "secret answer" had been posted recorded delivery. By 15 September 2003, I still hadn't received it, so called Student Support Direct once again to find out what was happening. This time I spoke to Mr. Crawford, and these areas were discussed after three minutes of verification that I was who I claimed to be:

So that's the story so far. It looks like I'll have to get provisionally registered to start with, and then get things sorted properly later on. This is far from an ideal situation, and I almost certainly lose my prompt payment discount for tuition fees because of this.

I will keep this page updated with any new information as I get it. I hope to be updating frequently!

Password received

News, everybody! On Saturday 20 September I received my first piece of mail from Student Support Direct. It was the "secret answer" that I need to quote to them over the phone to quickly identify myself. If everything was running smoothly I wouldn't ever need this information as I'd never need to talk to them, just send in the applications, receive the payments and then later in life pay it all off through PAYE. It seems as though it's not going to be quite that simple for me.

The really interesting thing about this is the timing. This should have arrived before the end of June. On calling them for the first time to check what was happening, I was told that another copy would be sent out on 2 September. The subsequent phone calls on 5 September and 15 September confirmed this. This letter is dated 16 September 2003 and arrived on 20 September 2003. Hmm…

Provisional registration

Today I went for departmental registration at UMIST. That went perfectly, as expected. By the time we'd finished that there was an unusually small queue for institutional registration, so I decided to pop my head in and discuss the Student Support Direct problem with them.

I'll have to say, I'm really pleased with the way they handled it. I'm now provisionally registered for six weeks, and should contact them as soon as I receive the financial assessment from Student Support Direct, whenever that may be. Bang goes my prompt payment discount on the tuition fees, all the same.

After getting that sorted, since they weren't very busy I had a quick chat with the registrars. Apparently, I'm far from the only person having problems because of the Student Support Direct trial. Interesting.

Basic mathematics

I was woken up by the postman this morning delivering rather a large bundle of mail. Surprisingly, there was a letter from Student Support Direct in with the pile, so I immediately opened it to see if they'd finally managed to send me my support notification. Sure enough, they had. Unfortunately, it was completely useless. Here's a copy of the notification:

Student Support Direct

Support Notification

Name:David Paul  Headland (sic)
Student support number:NTTSxxxxxxxxM
Your University or College may need this to identify you.
'ART' number:xxxxxxxxxxx
Date:23-Sep-2003
UCAS Number:xxxxxxxxx
University or College:UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER INST OF SCIENCE & TECH
Campus:UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER INST OF
Course:MEng

ELECTR & MICROEL SYS ENG
Course runs from:01-Sep-2000 to 01-Jun-2004
Assessment status:Final
Tuition Fees
Maximum possible support towards fees:£1125
Assessed student contribution:£300
Assessed parents' / partner's contribution:£0
Your contribution to tuition fees:£1125
This is how much you must pay towards your fees.
Fees paid on your behalf to your University or College£0
Grant for Dependants
No Dependant Grant is payable.
Student Loan
Basic loan (not subject to income assessment):£2605
Loan subject to financial circumstances:£865
Less:
Assessed contribution towards living costs:£0
Loan available to you:£3470
This is the amount of student loan you can borrow.

I'm sure most people reading through the "Tuition Fees" section will be bewildered by the figures quoted. It seems sensible to think that my contribution should be the different between the maximum possible support figure, and the student/parents/partner contribution. Indeed, in the accompanying one page and three line explanation, this is exactly how the process is described.

I decided to take this to UMIST and see what they had to say about it. I got directly to a very helpful lady called Maria Hayes at the Student Support department (part of the registrar's department according to the UMIST directory). She agreed that there was something wrong, and after checking that I'd tried appropriate measured to get things rectified, called Student Support Direct on my behalf.

I think this had some effect. Whilst they would not discuss any of my details with her, I seemed to get much further on the phone after she had said who she was. It was still a long way from getting things sorted out properly, but at least I got some answers this time.

Eventually, after some explaining of the mathematical mess in the "Tuition Fees" section, Elaine from SSD agreed that there was a problem. After going over the income brackets, it was decided that I should definitely not be paying for the full amount myself, and that the £300 figure for the student contribution is probably also inaccurate (in previous years this has been zero).

Elaine claimed not to be able to do anything at that point, but is going to get in touch with Nottinghamshire County Council and ask them to call me to discuss the issue. At least when I've dealt directly with the council in previous years things have worked out well in the long run. More to follow on this as I experience things.

On the plus side, the loan amount looks correct and has now been authorised and paid, so I do at least have some money to live on for the next three months.

Still no improvement

It's now Monday 6 October 2003, and I've still now heard anything. I decided to call Student Support Direct again this evening and see what their current excuse was. This time I got through to a lady called Laura, who was apologetic and sympathetic without sounding just plain pathetic - quite an achievement.

She confirmed that a note had been added to my account that Nottinghamshire County Council should have been contacted, but was unable to say whether or not this had been done. The did seem to at least know the format of the support notification, which was a big improvement over the last call.

Apparently, there was nothing she could do on the phone, but she added another note to my account to get someone to ask Nottinghamshire County Council to contact me. Also, I'm informed that the priority of my problem has been raised to "critical". All I can do, once again, is wait for something to happen. Hopefully, that'll be some time soon before my swipe card expires.

More effort, no more progress

It's now Thursday 30 October 2003, and it still doesn't look like anything particularly useful is happening. About a fortnight ago I called Student Support Direct once again and spoke to a lady called Leanne. I was told that she would send yet another message to Nottinghamshire County Council asking them to call me. On asking whether she could supply me with their phone number, I was, rather unsurprisingly, told the she couldn't do that. On asking whether Student Support Direct themselves had a contact phone number for Nottinghamshire County Council, I was told that they don't and that all their communications have to be done electronically. This I found very hard to believe - surely they must be able to talk to someone to explain difficult situations where many email exchanges may be required to explain complicated concepts.

On 27 October, having heard nothing further, I called Student Support Direct once again, this time speaking to a lady called Claire. She was actually very polite, being apologetic and sounding as though she has a real interest in the problems without being at all patronising. She acknowledged my problem without prompting, being the only Student Support Direct representative to take the initiative to check for existing problems rather than waiting for me to explain everything and then check all I've said against their records. This was definitely a good start.

Claire agreed that the support notification sent to me didn't make sense, and said that she would call Nottinghamshire County Council herself tomorrow and discuss the problem with them. She would then call me back at around 6:00 PM. On mentioning that Leanne said they didn't have Nottinghamshire's phone number, I was reassured that they did indeed have Nottinghamshire County Council's phone number, but were not allowed to disclose it to the public.

Sure enough, I did receive a phone call from Claire at 6:18 in the evening the next day. She had spoken to Nottinghamshire County Council, who should give me a phone call, hopefully within two days, but certainly by the end of the working week.

By Friday, I'd still not heard anything, so I called Student Support Direct back in the evening, this time speaking to a gentleman called Nick. After five minutes of being on hold after describing my situation, he said he would not be able to do anything and suggest that I called back during office hours on Monday. Definitely not the most helpful response I've ever received. Still, what more can I do?

Contact from Notts

Jubilation! On the morning of Monday 3 November 2003, I received a phone call from Adam Battersby of Nottinghamshire County Council Student Education Department, Student Support Service. He apologised for the delay, but on being questioned claimed that the first request he'd had to call me was given on 28 October, which, given the performance of Student Support Direct so far, I can definitely believe.

Anyway, he has admitted that there has been a big mistake, and told me that this year I have nothing at all to pay towards my tuition fees. He would get the information corrected and sent back to Student Support Direct that afternoon, and I should expect an updated Support Notification within five days. Excellent news - now all I have to do is wait and see if Student Support Direct can manage that.

SSD put a spanner in the works

It was all looking so good last Monday. All that had to happen was for Student Support Direct to send me out a new support notification, but that seems to have been far too difficult. Yesterday, Tuesday 11 November 2003, I still hadn't received my new support notification. Since Adam from Nottinghamshire County Council thought everything should be complete within five days, and since it'd been six full working days since he called, I decided to give Student Support Direct a ring and see if he'd passed the revised information on to them.

I spoke to a rather nervous sounding lady called Alison. After spending quite some time confirming my details, and then three times asking what the problem with, putting me on hold after each time, she said that they had received a change to the support details. It turns out, though, that these changed details weren't enough to make anyone think to send me a revised financial statement. I ask you, what good are they sitting in some computer that neither myself nor UMIST have access to? Oh well.

Anyway, she said that she would get one sent off straight away. On enquiring how long I should expect it to take, I was told that it'll be posted second class and would take 7-10 days. Now, I'll admit it's been a month or two since I last checked on this, but I thought the Royal Mail aimed to deliver second class items of mail within 3 days. On pointing out that I'd already been waiting over two months to get this sorted, I was told that there was no way to expediate this process. What a wonderful company. You can tell there is no competition for them.

It struck me today (Wednesday 12 November), though, that they hadn't confirmed how much they were now expecting me to pay. I decided to call today and equire about this. I spoke to Nick (possibly the same one as on 30 October, I don't know), and without hinting as to what figure I expected, he confirmed that my fees would be paid in full on my behalf. I also asked if an amended support notice had been sent out, and he said one had been dispatched yesterday and that it would take 7-10 days to arrive. At least that's consistent. I suppose it's just a case of waiting now, once again.

And finally

It's now Thursday 20 November 2003, nine days after they claim to have sent off the new support notification. I have that support notification in my hands. I went to open the post this morning, and when I saw this I couldn't believe it, I just sat there holding it for five minutes. It has been accepted by UMIST accounts and I am now fully registered until the end of my course. All I have do do is stop by card services tomorrow and pick up an updated swipe card. Amazing, after two and a half months of trying to get this error corrected, it finally has. I really do hope they don't get the whole country to to this next year.

I don't know if they're trying to sweep all this bad behaviour under the carpet, but they seem to have changed their name to Student Finance Direct. The support notification below is my current copy, showing the new organisation name.

Student Finanace Direct

Support Notification

Name:David Paul  Headland (sic)
Student support number:NTTSxxxxxxxxM
Your University or College may need this to identify you.
'ART' number:xxxxxxxxxxx
Date:12-Nov-2003
UCAS Number:xxxxxxxxx
University or College:UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER INST OF SCIENCE & TECH
Campus:UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER INST OF
Course:MEng

ELECTR & MICROEL SYS ENG
Course runs from:01-Sep-2000 to 01-Jun-2004
Assessment status:Final
Tuition Fees
Maximum possible support towards fees:£1125
Assessed student contribution:£0
Assessed parents' / partner's contribution:£0
Your contribution to tuition fees:£0
This is how much you must pay towards your fees.
Fees paid on your behalf to your University or College£1125
Grant for Dependants
No Dependant Grant is payable.
Student Loan
Basic loan (not subject to income assessment):£2605
Loan subject to financial circumstances:£865
Less:
Assessed contribution towards living costs:£0
Loan available to you:£3470
This is the amount of student loan you can borrow.

They acknowledge my letter

Okay, I thought it was all over, but then this morning I receive another letter from student support direct. This is quite amusing, in fact. The letter itself is reproduced below, but it's the supporting leaflet explaning the complaints procedure that I really like. More on that later, firstly here's the letter:

Student Loans Company Limited

100 Bothwell Street, Glasgow G2 7JD

Calls may be recorded for training purposes or fact verification.

Ref: 1097/03/C.P.

Mr David Headland
[Address not shown]

9 December 2003

Dear Mr Headland

STUDENT SUPPORT NUMBER: NTTSxxxxxxxxM

Thank you for your recent letter.

Your complaint has been registered and will be investigated in line with the SLC Complaints Procedure. A response will be issued to you within 10 working days.

I have taken this opportunity to enclose a copy of the SLC Complaints Procedure.

Yours sincerely

[Signed: pp Chris Pearson]

Moira Miller
CUSTOMER ASSISTANCE TEAM LEADER

Enc

Okay, so that was the letter. Now for the contents of the leaflet sent with it. Whilst you're reading that, I'd suggest you bear in mind that my letter of complaint was sent on 5 September 2003:

Student Loans Company Limited

We promise you the best service possible

We promise that you will be dealt with quickly and efficiently and have easy access to information about getting student support and repaying loans.

www.slc.co.uk

The Student Loans Company Ltd is committed to deliver the highest possible standard of service to customers whether you are applying for student support or, having left full time education, you are now in repayment.

We do this by applying the regulations laid fown by the Government under which loans are given and repaid and by ensuring that the ifnormation you need is always available to you, when you need it. If toy have any issues with government policy you should take these up with the Department of Education and Skills, the Scottish Executive, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly (which ever is appropriate) or your member or parliament.

Information about the Student Loans Company, the application and repayment process is available from our web site. The address is www.slc.co.uk

Improving our service

We monitor all telephone calls and regularly call customers back to ensure they are happy with the service they have just received. To help improve our service further we also undertake customer surveys which tell us what kind of service you want and then take appropriate action.

We welcome your views on how we can make further inprovements to our service and you can contact us at the Student Loans Company Ltd, 100 Bothwell Street, Glasgow, G2 7JD.

Help us to keep our promise by putting things right

Much as we try to ensure that you get the highest standard of service, things can and, unfortunately, do sometimes go wrong. This concerns us greatly and we are committed to resolving and problems or issues quickly and effectively. So, if you think something has gone wrong, we want to know about it and will work with you to try to put it right.

How to complain

Problems can usually be settled most quickly and easily by simply telephoning the department you have been dealing with, explaining your problem and asking to have it sorted.

If this does not resolve your problem to your satisfaction, or you belive that this approach may be inappropriate, you can make a complaint in writing to:

Customer Assistance,
Student Loans Company Ltd,
100 Bothwell Street,
Glasgow,
G2 7JD.

Please quote your loan account or student support number in all correspondence

What happens next?

You will receive an acknowledgement of your complaint within three working days of receipt. We will fully investigate your complaint and respond within 14 working days. You may have further points that you wish to address and we will, therefore, respond to each further piece of correspondence within 14 working days.

If your complaint is not resolved

In the unlikely event that you remain dissatisfied with the outcome of the investigation into yuor complaint, please highlight any point in our response with which you disagree and tell us why you are not satisfied. At this stage, you should tell us if you would like your complaint escalated. If so, a senior manager will review your complaint and respond in writing within 14 working days.

If you still disagree you should highlight any point in the response with which you disagree. Please tell us if you remain dissatisfied and if you wish your complaint to be escalated to the next level. If so, a director will review your complaint and respond in writing within 14 working days.

If you still disagree at this stage, you should advise us whether you wish your complaint to by escalated to the final stage of our complaints procedure. After reviewing your complaint the Cheif Executive will respond to you within 14 working days.

Anf finally - if you are still not satisfied

You can ask for your complaint to be referred to the independent Assessor. The independent Assessor is completely impartial and has wide powers of investigation and recommendation. The Assessor will report any findings to you and the Student Loans Company simultaneously, and will include the number of cases reported each year to the Assessor in our Annual Report and Accounts. We cannot refer a complaint to the independant assessor until the complaint has completely exhausted the internal complaints procedure.

Our promise to you

We promise that you will be dealt with quickly and efficiently and have easy access to information about getting student support and repaying loans. You will be dealt with fairly by knowledgeable and helpful people who will work with you to make sure you get the support you need - when you need it. All of our employees will treat you as an individual by giving you the service you expect, and will behave professionally at all times.

Well, it'll certainly be interesting to see what comes of this. I'll wait for this response, and will probably go through each point mentioned and, where appropriate, point out exactly how they haven't done what they said they will. More on this as it occurrs.

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