Lynne Condell MBE gives a detailed overview of the support available for students taking time away from their studies and what staff need to know.
Lynne has worked in higher education student support for over 30 years. She is currently a freelance trainer on all things student money related and contributes to several national student finance stakeholder groups, including chairing the Student Finance England (SFE) / Wales (SFW) vulnerable student stakeholder group on behalf of the Student Loans Company (SLC).
- Why do students take time out?
- Why is it important to be involved in the process?
- Understanding how a Leave of Absence (LOA) impacts SFE and SFW
- Changes to benefits and Council Tax during an LOA
- Returning to study
- Next steps
Before we begin
All the policies outlined apply only to full-time undergraduate students who choose to take time out from their studies, as opposed to students resitting externally.
The term used to describe students taking time away from their studies can vary. Depending on your institution, these students may be described as taking a:
- Leave of absence
- Temporary withdrawal
For the sake of simplicity, we’ll use the term ‘Leave of Absence’ (LOA).
Why do students take time out?
Students can choose to take time out from their studies for many reasons. Including:
- Health – mental or physical health, ongoing health or disability matters
- Personal – family issues, caring responsibilities and financial issues
- Academic – course issues, failure, considering alternative options
Some of these reasons may fall under the Equality Act (2010). Therefore, it’s important to try and make reasonable adjustments for a student before encouraging them to ‘step off the course.’
Why is it important for staff to be involved in the process?
Taking time out from study is not always best for the student, so it’s important for staff to be involved when a student begins to consider an LOA.
Depending on the problem faced by the student, there is no guarantee that taking a break will solve the underlying issue. In certain cases, an LOA may worsen the situation, disconnecting the student from the safety net of University Support Services.
If a member of staff is involved earlier, they can look out for indicators of vulnerability and help in supporting the student with associated expense issues.
Indicators of vulnerability
Often, a student looking to take an LOA can also be an indicator of vulnerability. This can apply to students who are:
- Estranged students
- Care experienced students
- Students with ongoing health issues
It’s important to check whether a student’s vulnerability is the driver behind taking an LOA, as there may be alternative funds and support available depending on the vulnerability.
Students need to be aware of the extra cost implications of taking an LOA. Even if the student doesn’t need to repay a tuition fee, they will usually still need to invest in another maintenance loan at a minimum.
Considering many students still perceive the student loan as a debt, taking on another maintenance loan for an LOA could negatively affect the student’s mental health.
Now more than ever, financial advice should be embedded in the first instance so a student can weigh up costs and make an informed decision before taking an LOA.
Understanding SFE/SFW LOA processes
Once a student stops attending/takes an LOA, you must then advise the SLC via the change of circumstances (CoC) process.
One the SLC has been advised:
- The student funding will stop and the student will receive a letter recalculating their entitlement according to the number of days they have already attended.
- The student will then be awarded funding based on the number of days they attended. If the reason for the LOA is health, they will receive 60 additional days, which will be extended automatically by the SLC system.
If you would like to learn more about the SFE/SFW process, Lynne’s comments can be found from 11:59 to 17:15 in the recording.
The letters sent to students taking an LOA will usually say the student has been overpaid. This can cause stress to the student, who will look for the quickest way to repay the overpayment.
For staff, it is important to stress that the overpayment is not repayable now.
Instead, this money will be taken off any future payment or funding entitlement when the student returns to study. The student should also know they have the opportunity to defer the recovery of the overpayment even when they return to study by using the hardship process as long as it is 8 weeks before their return date.
Extending student funding
The student can request that SFE/SFW continue to pay funding during the suspension.
They can also use the hardship process as a means of retaining their funding entitlement. However, this is only available for students in certain circumstances:
- The student must be taking an LOA due to circumstances beyond their control, such as health
- The student is still paying housing costs. If they have returned to their family home, they will not be considered as being in ‘hardship’
- Vulnerable students such as estranged students or those with childcare may also be eligible
You can find more details on the latest amendments to the hardship process in the ‘Amendments to financial hardship process’ section of our previous webinar blog with Kevin McMullan, Funding Information Services Account Manager at SFE.
Eligibility for institutional hardship funds
When students taking an LOA apply for hardship funds, the policy can vary across the sector. Here are a few questions staff can use to find where their institution sits:
- Do you allow students on an LOA to apply for your hardship funds?
- How would the student know? Could an advisor let them know while they are considering an LOA?
- What assessments does your institution do during the LOA? Are they fair and reasonable?
- What other funding can be provided/exceptions can be made to students in receipt of Care Experienced or Estrangement Bursaries?
You can read more guidance on the rules around eligibility for hardship here.
Being on an LOA does not change the eligibility criteria for means-tested benefits i.e. Universal Credit.
Some students may assume going on an LOA will change their eligibility. However, because they are still classed as ‘receiving education,’ they would not become eligible regardless of a lack of income.
Unless they have underlying eligibility for benefits, such as a disability or a status as a carer, being on an LOA will not change their benefit eligibility.
Students who have taken time out for caring responsibilities or health issues who have either recovered or the caring responsibilities have ended and are waiting to rejoin the course would be eligible. In addition, you can’t receive a grant or loan for this period.
Students on an LOA can apply for non-means-tested (NMT) benefits such as a personal independence payment (PIP).
It would be useful to integrate a staff member with a strong knowledge of the benefits system early in the process, to again help the student know their options when it comes to support.
Students remain exempt from council tax even if they take an LOA and should receive a certificate as proof.
That said, there is still variation in practice across the sector regarding certificates. The regulations are clear: periods of ‘intercalation’ remain within the normal period of a course, so it’s essential to check whether your institution follows the same guidelines.
Returning to study
There are many factors for staff to consider when students return to study from an LOA. The student should be made aware of the following:
- The right time of year to reapply to return to study (maybe through a student portal reminder service)
- When the student applies for funding the following year, they will still owe any overpayment they previously received. This means when the student restarts, the overpaid amount will be taken off of their next student finance installment and they are likely to receive less than they usually would
- If a student has been gone a full year, what does your institution do to help them secure and pay for accommodation, considering they are only going to be getting pro-rata money for a return after Christmas?
Suggestions to embed into your process for students taking an LOA:
- Get involved early: Getting involved in the process with a student before they make the decision to take an LOA is critical. It means financial education, as well as advice around benefits and support, being embedded into the process earlier.
- Look at your institution’s process: Make sure students get comprehensive advice regarding how taking an LOA can affect their student funding, as well as their tax and benefit status.
- Read up on updated policies: University policies on Hardship, Estrangement and Care are always worth re-reading to see whether they work in line with your current LOA process in a way that is fair and reasonable.
Some universities already have auto emails that direct students to consider taking LOA advice and recommendations. This could be a great way to help students find the information they need earlier.
Good advice is the right advice at the right time
SFE and SFW have updated their guidance on hardship.
Watch the recording
Watch the recording from our CPD-accredited staff training webinar on how to support students taking a break, with expert speaker Lynne Condell MBE.
Download Lynne’s slides here.
- SFE policies for practitioners
- SFW policies for practitioners
- SFE Financial Hardship Support
- Full-time students – Benefits during time out of study
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