The Student Loans Company ‘spied on’ the social media accounts of estranged students and withheld funding from some with no evidence of fraud, according to a Guardian exclusive.
As part of an anti-fraud investigation by the Student Loans Company (SLC), a random selection of 150 students who applied for student finance as estranged were asked to provide evidence that they were not contacting their families. If they failed to supply this within 28 days, their funding was suspended.
Students estranged from their biological or adoptive parents are recognised as being a vulnerable group. In order to be considered estranged by SLC, the estrangement must be irreconcilable and they must not have had contact with their parents for a significant period of time.
The SLC website states that ‘if the student has difficulty in providing robust evidence SLC will contact the student to discuss and help them to review other possibilities’.
81 out of the 150 randomly selected ended up having their funding withdrawn, according to minutes of an SLC meeting that were seen by Guardian journalists.
Though some of this number have since got it back as cases have been resolved, estrangement charity Stand Alone claims that this has taken up to five months for some, putting estranged students in poverty (even homelessness) and triggering deteriorations in mental health.
The charity’s Chief Executive, Becca Bland, criticised the move by SLC as ‘ethically and practically unacceptable’, though she said that the charity did understand the need to monitor fraud.
She said ‘students who are estranged from family suffer from extreme financial disadvantage whilst studying at university as they don’t have family support, and may have mental health difficulties linked to abuse, neglect or rejection from their family or the time they may have spent in the care system.
‘In this exercise, the actions of this fraud investigation have had negative consequences on students, who have had their funding cut off for many months, have been forced into homelessness or sofa surfing, and in some cases have dropped out of university’.
A National Union of Students spokesperson called SLC’s actions ‘overzealous’, pointing out that only a small number of students apply for estrangement status. They said it was ‘critical that appropriate means of communication and language are used and that students are directed to sources of support to avoid confusion’.
The social media accounts of some of the 150 were monitored by SLC to check for contact with their parents. Salford University Zoology student James Smith, 20, whose funding was suspended, says that the decision was made by SLC after they looked through his Facebook account and misinterpreted a five or six-word long post. He has now dropped out of university, claiming ‘I’m not strong enough, to be honest’.
Smith, who had hoped to open an animal sanctuary with his degree, was quoted in the Guardian saying ‘it’s all I think about. It’s had a dramatic effect on me. I feel like I’ve been persecuted’. He said his housemates became worried for him when they saw him not eating or sleeping.
Bland said ‘the idea of a financial institution monitoring a random sample of students’ social media to determine their family relationships is unsettling, and an invasion of their privacy’.
SLC says that this anti-fraud investigation led to them removing of all funding from a student who faked an estrangement letter, and ending the estrangement element of the funding of five students. Four students who had applied for estrangement funding withdrew their applications voluntarily.
34 students who have not yet responded to SLC’s requests for information have had the final installments of their maintenance and tuition fee loans withheld, without SLC finding them guilty of fraud.
An SLC spokesperson said ‘we would ask them to please call us on 0141 243 3324 as soon as possible to allow us to review their evidence and future funding’.