Plain Jane 111013 blogI AM on a deadline or three. There’s a scarily half-done manuscript to deliver, and articles needed sooner.

I have bills to pay, e-mails to answer, research to complete, phone calls to make, appointments I can’t cancel and the prospect of two days away working, starting tomorrow. And if I don’t send this column off very soon I’ll have the lovely Ed wanting to know if I’m still alive.

But the monster at the top of my stress list consists of three piles of paper I glance at with trepidation, resentment and rage.

They represent an ongoing battle that has lasted two years and has at least another two to go. If the path of true love never runs smoothly, then let me tell you it has nothing on the trajectory of Student Finance.

This inefficient, ridiculous, ill-thought-out white elephant of an organisation is the bane of my life. But before I tell you why it should make you very cross too, even if you are never likely to wave a student off to university, may I just extend hugs to any parents who have.

When I first read Joanna Trollope’s Second Honeymoon – a novel about empty-nests – it was 2007 and my son was 14. What a lot of fuss, I thought, about your child leaving. When the same novel was serialised on Radio Four in 2011, I had to turn the volume down before I fell in a heap.

If you too are feeling bereft, you have my sympathies, and for finding your way through the maze of the finance application process my sincere congratulations. Talk among yourselves for a moment while I do my deep breathing.

I know we are not the average family. My husband has more than one pension, I am self-employed. My income comes from a quirky patchwork of sources. My son chose to change universities after the first year.

But even if we deserve to supply the same information I’ve already given twice about what I didn’t earn two years ago, the system must still be costing the tax-payer a fortune.

I have lost count of the number of times we’ve received a letter asking for a form I’ve already sent because there’s a three week backlog on the processing. “Ah yes,” says the helpful chap I eventually speak to after all the business with my customer number, and pin and security question and some music, “the computer did that – just ignore it.”

We’ve got a dozen such missives – tot up the cost of paper, envelope, postage, printing and then multiply that all over the country. Hasn’t anyone thought to adjust the software?

On one memorable occasion I had to request figures from the tax office, which I sent to Student Finance, so, as a different chap explained, they could be sent back to where they came from, to be verified. “Do you think this is the best possible system?” I asked. He laughed nervously. No, he didn’t really, but that’s how they did it.

I have never run a government department but even I can see at least a dozen ways in which the process could be simplified to save money. And if you spent an afternoon getting through the Fort Knox of security on the website and then making three separate applications, so would you.

UCAS knows which students have gone where, the universities know who they’ve got registered and what the fees are. HM Revenue & Customs know how much I’ve earned (not enough) for the last three years. Couldn’t these bodies possibly share? Couldn’t applicants on year two, just make a simple declaration that “nothing has changed”?

If Student Finance had a policy of only demanding information that wasn’t already logged somewhere else, they would save a rain forest, hours of telephone time, and enough money, I’m sure, for quite a few hospital beds or some care for the elderly.

And I, meanwhile, could put 72 sheets of paper in the recycling bin with good riddance and finally finish my book…

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