Graduate anger mounts over ‘nightmare’ Student Loans Company

When Gary Ashworth moved to Botswana in 2013 to try to start a design business, he immediately told the Student Loans Company that he would be out of the UK. Despite updating the company with his earnings, as requested, last year he discovered that £930 was being demanded by a firm of debt collectors.

The reason for this harsh penalty? He apparently failed to put his date of birth on one of the numerous forms sent by the loan company. Ashworth is just the latest graduate to complain to Guardian Money about what they allege is heavy-handed and unfair treatment at the hands of the SLC, an organisation that appears to be fast turning into one of the UK’s least-liked brands.

The designer, who now lives in Gaborone, was one of the hundreds of graduates to respond to last Saturday’s Money report into the case of Jenny Richards, claiming they had similarly been on the wrong end of poor treatment. In her case, the SLC wrongly quadrupled the interest on her £42,000 loan from 0.9% to 3.9% for a perceived error she had never made. She had also gone abroad, in this instance only for a few months, but then faced a year-long battle to get the SLC to rectify the mistake and provide proof it had done so. Only Money’s intervention finally delivered evidence that her loan wasn’t growing at a higher rate, she says.

Fed-up graduates have since told us of being on the receiving end of similar treatment by the SLC, which many claim is not up to the task of administering the huge sums that student loans have become. They also complain of punitive charges and the bureaucratic nightmare of dealing with the lender. Many are furious it has been allowed to change significantly the terms of borrowing and raise interest rates after loans are taken out.

Ashworth’s case was one of the more extreme. The 37-year-old studied design at what is now Bolton University. “Before I left for Botswana I informed SLC, which asked me to complete an overseas assessment form, which I did, and my loan was frozen for 12 months. I had started a graphic design business, but the market here is saturated meaning it was slow to get going and my income remained below the repayments threshold.

“For the first couple of years SLC was sympathetic. However, last year it all changed and I found myself being contacted by representatives from a company called Transcom, a debt collection agency. My outstanding balance suddenly included a £930 arrears,” he says. Trying to get to the bottom of what had happened entailed countless emails and phone calls over a period of months. Eventually, it emerged that he’d been penalised because he had failed to include his date of birth on a form. “The whole experience was very unpleasant and I felt I wasn’t receiving any support or clarity from SLC. It essentially washed its hands of me. There’s no quick way to contact it when overseas. You can email but it can take 28 days to reply – assuming it bothers to do so,” he says. Ashworth has since paid off the loan apart from the £930, but says he can’t get a straight answer out of the SLC or Transcom as to his exact position.

And he is by no means alone. Those heading abroad appear to have had a particularly difficult time. Another wrote: “The SLC is horrendous to deal with. I’m living abroad studying for a doctorate and, despite sending all requested information, it continues to ask me for it. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare: on the phone they confirm receipt, then I get letters and emails. I repeated this a few times, then was told everything was in order. Next letter I got was to say my loan had been passed to a debt recovery agency.”


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