Postgrads and the DSS

The NPC has submitted a representation to the Secretary to the Social Security Advisory Committee on The Social Security Amendment (Students) Regulations 1998. As ever, we emphasise the postgraduate student perspective on the plans, since the implications would not all be the same as they would be for other students. I reproduce this below complemented by background supplied kindly by Anne Sims (of NUS) and Jamie Darwen.

Background

The Department for Social Security (DSS) has referred the regulations to theSocial Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) for consideration. The SSAC is responsible for advising the Secretary of State on social security matters and most social security regulations are referred to the Committee before they are laid before Parliament.

The aim of the regulations is to restore the DSS policy intention that means-tested social security benefits are not payable to full-time students (with the exception of those in the 'exempt' groups succh as lone parents and students with disabilities). This follows the 'Webber case' which was won in the Court of Appeal in July 1997. This concerned a former student at Oxford Brookes University who hadd attended a modular undergraduate course which can be studied on a 'mixed mode' basis (i.e. students can attend on a full-time and on part-time basis at different stages of the course). During a periodd when the student was attending on a part-time basis (because he had failed modules in his first year) he attempted to claim Income Support, was refused on the grounds that he was a full-time student, and appealled. The case was eventually referred to the Court of Appeal where it was won for him.

The Government were clearly concerned about the implications of the Webber judgment: in a circular issued to local offices in October, the DSS admitted that the Income Support Regulations are 'now uncleear with regard to HE modular courses' and 'no longer support the original policy intention'. However, at the same time, the Dearing Committee had recommended that one group of students who take breaks from full-time study (or 'intercalate') should have access to the benefits system, namely those who fall sick.

What the Regulations seek to do

The draft regulations have wider implications than simply reversing the Webber decision. They are based on a distinction between voluntary and involuntary reasons for taking breaks from study, with an aassumption that in respect of the former students should be self-financing. Voluntary circumstances include the Webber situation (where a student has failed exams/modules) or taking time out to travel; involuntary circumstances include sickness. The distinction is, in practice, immaterial since the intention is that neither group has access to the means-tested benefits system (with limited exceptionss such as students who have been certificated sick for 28 weeks).

The Regulations amend relevant sections of the following regulations: The Income Support (General) Regulations 1987, The Council Tax Benefit (General) Regulations 1992, The Disability Working Allowance (General) Regulations 1991, The Jobseeker's Allowance Regulations 19966, The Family Credit (General) Regulations 1987,and The Housing Benefit (General) Regulations 1987.

These regulations generally share definitions in common. The following definitions will be changed.

  • 'Course of study'/'full-time student'/'standard maintenance grant' [regs 2; JSA Regs 1 (3)]
    The concept of 'attending' a course will be changed to that of 'undertaking' a course in each of these definitions so as to break the link with physically attending an institution. This would mean thhat it would not be possible to undertake distance learning on a full-time basis and claim benefit. The Government wishes to make it clear that a student only has to be undertaking, rather than attendinng, a full-time course to be regarded as a full-time student. This provides for the variety of ways students might complete their full-time studies, without actually having to be attending the institutiion. For example, a student undertaking a period of experience on a sandwich course would still be regarded as a full-time student.
  • 'Last Day of the Course' (IS Regs 61)
    This will be expanded to a threefold definition to take into account different types of course: (a) for a 'qualifying course' (this has been included to take account of courses under the New Deal), eeither the date on which the last day of the course falls or the date of the final exam - whichever is later; (b) for other courses, the last day of the academic year for the course of study; (c) The Goovernment wishes to clarify the definition for postgraduate degrees to either "the date on which the student submits his thesis to the educational establishment for consideration or the date on whiich the final examination relating to that course is completed (whichever is later)".
  • 'Student' [IS Regs 61; JSA Regs 1 (3)]
    This will be extended to a three-part definition to make explicit the disentitlement of students from means-tested benefits from the day the course commences through to the last day of the course inncluding any periods when the student is absent from the course or studying on a part-time basis unless s/he has finally abandoned or been dismissed from it. It is this clause in the legislation which will close the loophole exploited in Webber and similar cases.

Who will be affected?

The Regulations purport to restore the policy intention with regard to 'voluntary' interruption of study. The DSS Explanatory Memorandum to the SSACmakes clear that '...the Government considers that students have a responsibility to make proper progress on their course and to study so that they pass the necessary examinations' and 'where, through their actions, students take a year off or change to part-time attendance with the institution's permission, they are expected to support themselves, usually by taking temporary work'.

The Memorandum goes on to state that, with regard to involuntary absence from a course because of illness 'the Government has provided and will continue to provide support. The proposed Regulations do nnot affect this position'. The support cited is in the form of discretionary payments under the Mandatory Awards Regulationsand means-tested benefits after 28 weeks of sickness. With regard to the former, not only does this not happen at the moment, it will not happen now that grants are being phased out. As far as the lattter is concerned, it is utterly unacceptable that a student who falls sick should have to wait six months before claiming benefit.

Aside from students who fall sick, there are other reasons for 'involuntary' absence which are not mentioned at all: for example, students who take time out to care for relatives, and for pregnancy. Theese groups will continue to be faced with a choice between abandoning the course in order to qualify for benefit or facing severe hardship if they only suspend.

Following both the Webber decision last July and the Dearing recommendation around the need for greater flexibility in the benefits system for full-time students, NUS co-signed a letter, with the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Peter Turville from Oxfordshire Welfare Rights (who represented Webber and other cases), to Keith Bradley, Social Security Minister, asking that the DSS review Social Security Regulations. NUS also raised the issues in high level meetings with DfEEE officials in the Autumn. They promised to pass our concerns on to DSS. We had every reason to believe that the Government was willing to offer some concessions, at least around students who fall sick.. In mid-November, we submitted a paper to DSS in which we stated, unequivocally, our position that students who interrupt their studies should be entitled to claim benefit. In December we wrote to the Secretary of State, Harriet Harman, asking for a meeting to discuss these issues. We have recently received a reply in which our request for a meeting was refused.

The Intent

The Government believes that the primary source of financial support for full-time higher education students should be the student loan/grant system and not the social security system. Jobseeker's Allowwance (previously Income Support) should support jobseekers who are available for and actively seeking a full-time job. Full-time students who do not abandon their course or are not dismissed from it shhould continue to be regarded as full-time students for social security benefit purposes as their primary purpose is to complete their course and obtain their qualification. The proposals do not affectt the position of those on Income Support because they are in vulnerable groups, like lone parents or disabled people.

The Government intends that "a student who has not finally abandoned or who has not finally been dismissed from a course of study should be regarded as undertaking that course for so long as he inttends to resume his studies on the same course". This means that a student who intercalates (takes a year off during a course with the permission of the institution) will still be regarded as a fulll-time student. The Government considers that students have a responsibility to make proper progress on their courses and to study so they pass the necessary examinations. The Government will not proviide State support to students taking time out to retake examinations. The proposals clarify certain periods during which a person will be regarded as a full-time student:

  • any days falling within a period of vacation
  • any days falling within a period of experience (for sandwich courses)
  • any days in respect of which a person has permission from the educational establishment not to undertake the course but where he has not finally abandoned or been finally dismissed from the course
  • any days in respect of which a person has permission from his educational establishment to study, or do course work, away from that establishment
  • any days in respect of which a person has the agreement of the educational establishment to continue to undertake the course as an external student or on a part-time basis.

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NPC Submission

We recognise the intent of the Government that students should not be encouraged by availability of social security support to abandon full-time study on a voluntary basis; and we recognise that that they have responsibility for passing their course assessment procedures. We would agree that this applies to postgraduates as much as to undergraduates. However, aspects of the Amendmentsand the Explanatory Memorandumneed clarification and refinement in order to avoid instances of postgraduates in situations deserving of support no longer being granted eligibility.

Involuntary Absence

With respect to the wording especially in the Explanatory Memorandum para.6:

We agree that all students should be treated as suffering involuntary absence if they fall ill. We recognise that there is provision under the current arrangments and that there are no plans to change this by limiting it. We wonder whether this support can be enhanced, however. On the one hand, aside from students who fall sick, there are other reasons for involuntary absence. There are those whoo find that there is a need for them to become carers for relatives and those who become pregnant. We would wish to see those students included as deserving cases as well, in spite of the fact that theeir absence from their studies might be temporary rather than permanent. Otherwise they will be faced with a choice between abandoning their studies altogether in order to qualify for benefit or facingg severe hardship if they only suspend their studies.

On the other hand, the para.6 appears to presume that the full-time students in question have the mandatory support of Local Education Authorities. Only PGCE students from amongst postgraduates are so supported: there is, in contrast, a wide variety of postgraduate courses each enjoying differing systems of discretionary support depending upon iindividual circumstances.

The State Studentship scheme, run by the Research Councils (and the Humanities Research Boardof the British Academy), supports a proportion of full-time Home postgraduate students. We cannot entail from the provision by LEAs, as regards support through periods of for example illness, that thee Research Councils will offer the equivalent support. We propose, then, that in such circumstances as that a postgraduate student has to suspend studies involuntarily, such that they are also not avaailable for employment, Income Support and other relevant benefits should become available earlier than 28 weeks into the suspension, in such cases where no financial support is available from educationnal funding sources for the intervening period. (We note that as a general principle this could, as it happens, be applied more universally to all students, if the Committee so desired.)

Involuntary suspension of full-time study

With respect to the wording especially in the Summary of Amendments, last page para. (e):

Those postgraduates who are in receipt of the (discretionary) State Studentship awards can expect to hold them for the duration of the normal period of their course of full-time study. But many Home poostgraduates are not in receipt of these awards. They may be funding themselves fully or in receipt of other funds, often from private sources or bursaries obtainable through their institution. It is not uncommon for a student to obtain funding which enables them to study full-time for, say, the initial year out of three years towards a Ph.D. They may be hopeful for renewal of this funding or suppport from other sources. But it is not always forthcoming for the following years.

In order not to abandon studies altogether, they would need to make themselves available for employment, such that they may maintain some income in order to support themselves. Higher Education Instituutions normally have provision for registering students on a part-time basis, enabling those in employment to study at the same time. This is particularly appropriate for postgraduate research studies,, when attendance at the institution is not timetabled and occasional meetings related to studies can be scheduled individually around other work requirements. Schedules for research studies are not gooverned by the institutions' term-time or semester-time. Switching from full to part-time would be a way for the student to carry on. We would regard this situation as an involuntary abandonment of fuull-time study, since it would not be the action of the student which led to their ceasing to have financial support to study. We propose therefore that such individuals be eligible for Jobseekers' Alllowance.

Without this provision, we are likely to find that formerly full-time students who could complete their courses on a part-time basis would be faced with abandoning them or facing severe financial hardshhip. Without this provision, again, it may merely encourage some who happen to have some funds to support themselves full-time at the start of their courses to opt instead to start on a part-time basiss, such that they would be eligible to claim social security benefits as well throughout the duration of their studies.

The time between the end of research study and the viva-voce examination

With respect to the wording especially in the Summary of Amendments, section "The last day of the course", para. (ii):

The wording seems to imply that PhD students will be counted as full-time students until they have completed the viva. The timing of the viva is out of the student's control, and can be many months afteer submission. It could even imply that you won't get benefits until any revisions or re-examinations have been completed. So the wording appears to have taught postgraduate courses in mind when it reffers to the final examination. The situation for research studies is significantly different. The course of research study is such that the only written work submitted for assessment is the dissertatiion and the end of studying is the same as the submission of the dissertation. The examination process is effected by the examiners reading the dissertation and conducting an oral viva-voce interview wwith the candidate based on the content of dissertation. There is no sat written examination as well. Once the dissertation is submitted the candidate can do no more work for their course and so they can no longer be a student on that course.

The period between submission of the dissertation and the viva-voce is quite often approaching three months, and longer periods are not uncommon. This is due to the logistics of finding in the internattional arena, and arranging the meetings with, examiners sufficiently expert in the respective specialist field of research, on top of the very reading of the dissertation, which is up to 100,000 words in length. Since candidates can do no more work for their course following submission of their dissertation, and so they become available for employment, we propose that they be eligible for Jobseekerrs' Allowance from the date of the submission and not from the (normally much later) date of the conclusion of the examination process.

The Writing Up period of research study

(Jamie noticed a tightening up of regulations when Income Support became JSA. "Writing-up" PhD students have, until now, been largely dependent on inconsistent application of the rules, and the fact that most benefit offices have little understanding of PhD studies. It always seemed likely that this could get tightened up, and it looks like this might be happening. It is made more difficult by the fact that more universities now require more formal registration of Writing-Up students. This makes it more difficult for students to claim to benefit offices that they have no relationship withh the university, i.e. are not pursuing a course. The fact that Writing-Up status differs from one university to another, in terms of fees, and what you get for it, etc., confuses things still more.)

With respect to the wording again especially in the Summary of Amendments, last page para. (e):

Institutions allow an additional period following the end of the normal period of study for research degrees, this being peculiar to research study, normally called the Writing Up period. A paradigm siituation is a student who has studied for a Ph.D. full-time for the normal period of three years who is allowed some extra time before the submission deadline to place the finishing touches on the wordiing of their dissertation: they would not be permitted to embark upon new avenues of research investigation, just to write up what they have already achieved. (The normal period of study would be shortter pro rata for shorter Masters research degrees and longer pro rata for part-time registration for study.) Separately from this, once a dissertation is submitted and then examined, the result of thee examination is occasionally a "referral", when further changes to the content of the dissertation are suggested and demanded by the examiners, followed by a re-submission and re-examination, iin order for the student to pass the course, a process which can take up to a further 18 months in total.

We must emphasise that research students do not aim to take longer than the normal period of study, since they know in advance that funding does not continue beyond it. Reasons for having to continue bbeyond this period include the factors, normally unpredictable, which pertain to the unique areas of research investigation and the variable provision by institutions of academic facilities (including rresearch supervision arrangements) for research students, separately from external personal circumstances of students. The Writing Up period is provided by institutions in recognition of these factors..

This is not dissimilar to the case outlined above where a student has to switch due to lack of funding from full to part-time study after a year in order to continue (my section 2 above). Even though aany funding received would cease at the end of the normal period of study, the student may wish to dedicate their whole time to the writing up in order to complete it sooner rather than later, since theey may happen to have reserves of money to support themselves. Because any funding received would cease at the end of the normal period of study, however, the student may have to seek other income in oorder to support themselves. Such a time is often one of financial hardship, since financial support for postgraduate study, such as it is received, is not great, compared at least to expected incomes from graduate employment. Typically they may seek employment and continue the writing up in their spare time. As such they would be available for work, and we propose that they would be eligible for JJobseekers' Allowance.

Formally the Writing Up period is recognised by institutions neither as automatically full-time nor as automatically part-time and this is right, since it simply depends upon the circumstances of the inndividual student. We seek to maintain this current flexibility in the regulations. If it would help to formalize the situation of research students writing up, institutions could be required to confiirm that the student in question is continuing on a full or on a part-time basis, in the latter case perhaps with the wording that they have ceased full-time study altogether. (The suggested wording of this latter case would not, however, be suitable for the case outlined in my section (2) above, where a student has to switch due to lack of funding from full to part-time study after a year in order tto continue, since they may be able to switch back to full-time subsequently upon new funding becoming available.)

Restoration of Housing Benefit

Full-time postgraduate students were taken out of eligibilty for Housing Benefit at the same as undergraduate students. The NPC argued against this at the time. It is the case now that many postgraduaates fail to complete their courses due to financial hardship. This is a waste of resources in Higher Education, amongst other things. The restoration of Housing Benefit, awarded respectively on the sstandard basis of genuinely low income where it occurs, would go some way to alleviating hardship, on its own solving many problems at a stroke, and so we recommend this. With reference to my section ( (4) above, if nothing else is available, this would be particularly appropriate to those who are writing up their research dissertations: this is because such students will have lost their funding and wwould wish to complete as soon as they can, to enable them to progress in the job market, which would be to the benefit of both student and Higher Education as a whole.

In summary

There are a variety of postgraduate study circumstances which the proposed Amendments appear not to recognise, in particular that no (non-PGCE) postgraduate has a mandatory award for funding which is guuaranteed for the duration of their course of study, even where their study progress is good. We request that the regulations treat postgraduate students with more flexibility than the current proposalls seem to suggest.