THE timing could not be more unfortunate. In the week that MPs are expected to endorse significant increases to tuition fees, a policy made even more likely by Lord Ashdown's considered intervention yesterday, it emerges that the company responsible for processing grants and loans to students is riddled with bureaucratic inefficiencies.
This is a familiar story. Many of the weaknesses highlighted by today's scathing Parliamentary report have blighted the Rural Payments Agency for many years, and continue to do so. Even though this latest shambles at the Student Loans Company is another sorry legacy of the last government's mismanagement, Vince Cable's business department needs to respond to today's promptly – rather than allowing the Liberal Democrats' introspection to divert attention away from this important issue.
Why? Even though political opinion is divided over tuition fees, students are, nevertheless, still entitled to loans to cover their subsistence costs. If these payments cannot be delivered promptly, it is likely to penalise young people from low-income backgrounds – the very people that the Lib Dems want to protect with their reforms.
In a week where students are, once again, expected to take to the streets, Mr Cable needs to demonstrate, clearly, that the new payments system will work effectively when payments for cost of living loans, and the handling of tuition fees, come under the auspices of his department.
If, indeed, tuition fees are going to be raised significantly, the systems in place to handle the changes must, at the very least, be credible. At present, they are not. And, while the coalition is not directly to blame, it needs to instigate the necessary changes before students have even greater reason to speak out and there is another repeat of the RPA fiasco.