Mr X complained that the Student Loans Company (“the SLC”) failed to inform him that he was not eligible for funding for a tuition fee loan for the 2014-15 academic year in a reasonable and timely manner. He said that the SLC incorrectly asked him for evidence of his personal circumstances in 2015-16 when he was not entitled to additional funding, and did not tell Mr X that his position was such that he would not be entitled to that funding in a reasonable and timely manner. Mr X also complained that the SLC did not handle his complaint in a reasonable and timely way.
The investigation found that the SLC failed to inform Mr X that he was not eligible for a tuition fee loan for 2014-15 in a reasonable way. It found that it should have been known from December 2014 that Mr X was not eligible for a loan, but this was not properly communicated to Mr X until after he had incurred fees for the full academic year, leaving him in considerable debt. The investigation also found that the SLC knew from October 2015 that Mr X would not ever be entitled to additional funding due to his personal circumstances in 2015-16, but that the SLC continued to ask for information about Mr X’s personal circumstances, and even (wrongly) granted his application for additional funding, until February 2017, almost 18 months later. This, on top of the debt burden Mr X had already incurred, caused him considerable stress.
The investigation also found that the complaints process had taken almost 2 years, of which a significant amount was attributable to the SLC and an Independent Assessor appointed by the Welsh Government. It also found that the SLC and the Welsh Government’s complaint handling process was confusing, noting that the Independent Assessor completed a Stage Three report into Mr X’s complaint, but then had to issue an addendum report and an apology for referring to incorrect Regulations. This was stressful and confusing for Mr X, and unfairly raised his expectations that he was entitled to funding, only for him to be disappointed again when the position was clarified.
The SLC accepted the findings of the investigation, and agreed to apologise to Mr X, and pay him £250 redress for the poor complaints handling and £250 for requiring him to enter into unnecessary correspondence regarding his personal circumstances when it knew he was not entitled to funding. The Ombudsman also recommended that the SLC satisfy the debt Mr X had incurred to his University between December 2014 and June 2015 (which he was not properly advised he was incurring), and instead arrange for Mr X to pay the debt back to the SLC on the usual terms and conditions which apply when SLC funding is granted. This would ensure Mr X was in no worse a position than he would have been in had the failings not occurred.
The SLC said that it had already commissioned a review of its complaint handling processes, and was in the process of working with the different UK administrations to implement changes. The Ombudsman recommended that as part of the review of its complaint process it should take on board the issues raised by this complaint.
The Welsh Government also agreed to work with the SLC to review the complaints handling process applicable to students in Wales and to work with the Ombudsman’s office to ensure that it complies with the Principles of Good Complaint Handling and any model complaint handling process the Ombudsman issues in his capacity as the Complaints Standards Authority for Wales.