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Discretionary funds

This advice applies to Scotland

This information applies to Scotland.

Discretionary funds are a source of financial help for students in further or higher education in Scotland.

There are different funding arrangements in England and Wales. If you're a student from Scotland who is applying to, or already studying at, an institution in England or Wales, you can get information about the funding arrangements in those countries. You can read about help to pay for university on the UK government website if you live in England or on the Student Finance Wales website if you live in Wales.

Coronavirus – advice for students

Each college and university is responsible for making decisions about its higher education courses and exams. Check their website for information for students.

Check Student Information Scotland for more information on support for students and hardship payments.

There’s guidance for international students on the Scottish government website.

What are discretionary funds

Discretionary funds are a source of financial help to students in further or higher education. In further education institutions, the funds are only available to students aged 16 or over.

The funds aim to help students who have financial difficulties or who may not be able to enter further or higher education for financial reasons.

Payments from the funds are discretionary. If payments are awarded, you don't need to repay them.

Universities and colleges decide their own criteria for awarding discretionary payments from the funds, subject to guidance from the relevant agency. You can ask your institution for a leaflet about the funds if you're a student considering applying for help.

Payments from the discretionary funds are different at further and higher education institutions. A payment can be made as a one-off lump sum, in instalments or as a short-term loan, for example if your first student loan instalment has been delayed beyond the start of term.

The Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council (SFC) issues guidance on the funds for further education institutions, and the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) has guidance for higher education institutions.

What can discretionary funds pay for

The funds can:

  • meet particular costs which aren't already met from statutory or other sources of funding, for example childcare, travel, books, field trips and costs for some students with additional support needs
  • reduce financial hardship, for example by helping with priority debts
  • provide emergency payments to meet unexpected financial crises, for example repairs to essential household equipment, travel costs for family bereavement or illness, or hardship due to burglary or fire
  • help a student who may be considering leaving higher education because of funding problems, for example with regular living costs such as rent, food and utility bills.

You can't use discretionary funds to meet the cost of tuition fees or compensate for a lack of parental contributions.

Who is eligible

To be eligible for any scheme funded by the discretionary funds, you have to meet the residence requirements (see below). In addition, discretionary funds may be targeted at certain priority groups, for example:

  • full- or part-time students, including distance learners, following a course of higher education
  • full- or part-time students aged 16 or over following a course of further education.

This doesn't include nursing or midwifery students, as they're not eligible for support from discretionary funds.

Higher education includes courses leading to a degree, a higher national diploma (HND), a higher national certificate (HNC), a professional qualification at or above degree level or a postgraduate qualification. Students at higher education institutions who are doing sandwich courses or periods of work placement, or who are studying abroad as part of their course, are also eligible.

Students who are eligible to apply for financial help from other government schemes will normally be expected to apply for that help before being assessed for help from discretionary funds.

At institutions of higher education, students on part-time courses must study for at least 50% of a full-time course during the academic year to be eligible for assistance. Further education institutions may have their own policies on whether part-time students are eligible. You should contact your institution for further details.

Responsibility for assessing eligibility in individual cases rests with the educational institution. Your own income and expenditure will be assessed, along with that of your partner. A parental contribution to your income will be assumed in some cases, depending on the level of parental income.

Residence requirements

To be eligible for discretionary funds, you must normally meet the following residence requirements on the first day of the first academic year of your course. You must:

  • be settled in the UK - that is, not be subject to any restriction on the period for which you may remain in the UK
  • have been ordinarily resident in the UK, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man throughout the three years before the first day of the first academic year of your course. The three-year residence period shouldn't include any part wholly or mainly for the purpose of receiving full-time education
  • be ordinarily resident in Scotland.

For full details of the residence requirements, you should contact the institution you're planning to attend or are already attending.

Who doesn't have to meet the residence requirements

Students in the following categories don't have to fulfil all the residence requirements:

  • refugees who've been granted indefinite leave to remain, their spouses, children and step-children
  • people who've been granted exceptional leave to enter or remain in the UK, or humanitarian protection or discretionary leave, their spouses, children and stepchildren
  • migrant workers from the European Economic Area (EEA) or Switzerland, their spouses, children and stepchildren. The EEA includes all European Union (EU) countries plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway
  • people who are seeking asylum in the UK and are on a full- or part-time non-advanced course at a further education institution.

If you're in one of these categories, you should contact the institution you're attending or planning to attend to check which residence requirements apply to you.

Brexit update

The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020. However, EEA and Swiss nationals will continue to have the same rights to claim benefits as they did before, at least until 31 December 2020.

EEA and Swiss nationals living in the UK should apply for settled or pre-settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme. Your access to benefits might change if you don’t have settled status by 31 December. We'll update our advice as the situation becomes clearer.

Which priority groups can get help

Within the eligibility rules, the Student Awards Agency Scotland and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council advise educational institutions to target the following priority groups:

  • students with children, especially lone parents
  • mature students, especially those with existing financial commitments, including priority debts
  • students from low-income families
  • some students with additional support needs
  • students who've been in care
  • students in their final year who are in financial difficulty.

Discretionary funds and benefits

Payments from discretionary funds may affect your entitlement to means-tested social security benefits, for example Universal Credit. 

If you're worried about the impact of discretionary funds on your benefits, you should consult an experienced adviser, for example at a Citizens Advice Bureau. Find out where to get advice.

How to apply for discretionary funds

You should apply to the educational institution where you're following, or hope to follow, your course. Each college will have its own procedure, application form and information leaflet.

You should be able to apply at any time during the academic year. You may be able to apply more than once, but usually only if your circumstances have changed or you're applying for assistance during the summer vacation.

You can't appeal to the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council or the Student Awards Agency Scotland against a refusal to grant money from discretionary funds. Each educational institution has its own procedure for appeals.

More information

The National Union of Students (NUS) student welfare officer or the careers adviser at your institution will be able to provide more information about the discretionary funds and how they're administered at your institution.

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