10/12/2012 08:20 GMT | Updated 10/12/2012 10:00 GMT

Payday Lenders Are Exploiting Vulnerable Students, Warns NUS' Pete Mercer

Payday lenders are exploiting vulnerable students, according to the National Union of Students, which has condemned such companies as "unethical and irresponsible".

Pete Mercer, the vice president for welfare at the NUS, told the Huffington Post UK students are being targeted by payday loans companies who tell them not to approach their university for financial help.

"One of the outrageous things payday loans companies are saying on their websites is you shouldn't approach your university to apply for hardship funds because you're unlikely to be successful," said Mercer. "They are telling students these funds are only available for those in extreme circumstances.

"And that's just not true. These websites are actively dissuading students from getting the help which is actually on their doorsteps."

In a statement released over the weekend, the NUS named what it said were the five worst offenders for targeting students, including SmartPig and Simple Pay Day.

In a section titled "Cash strapped and no-one to turn to?" Simple Pay Day tells customers: "Universities can occasionally provide hardship loans and grants to students who can prove they have a significant financial problem, but for most their situation will not be deemed drastic enough for this extra form of help."

Tom Parks, director of Smart Pig, has previously accused the NUS of being "out to get us", saying the union's claims were "contradictory and misleading".

In response to the recent criticism, Parks said the NUS' efforts were "misdirected".

"Students in general are not excessively vulnerable, however underwriting and fraud prevention measures ensure that we do not lend to them intentionally.

"The vast majority of our customers are students who are already looking for a short term loan online and would otherwise be serviced elsewhere. We are a small firm going up against giants in a tough industry filled with controversial conduct, all to offer students a better deal in this sector."

The NUS has recently published research from its "Pound In Your Pocket" campaign, which was launched in order to investigate the financial costs faced by students. The union questioned more than 14,500 students and found many in debt struggled to concentrate on their studies.

Of those in further education, aged 19 and above, 10% had taken out a high risk loan. The majority (78%) of students with debts of more than £1,000 said they regularly worried about not having enough money to meet basic living expenses, while 23% said they were unable to concentrate on their studies.

Mercer has been leading a campaign to cap payday loans, which can charge up to 4,000% APR since his election in July 2011. The welfare officer says the the amendment to the financial services bill, which is due to be heard in its final stages in the House of Commons on Monday, is "fantastic news".

"It's a huge step forward and it will see a limit on the interest rates being charged."

The bill will introduce legislation to give the Financial Conduct Authority new powers to cap the often extortionate interest rates charged by payday lenders as well as increasing rules on allowing customers to repeatedly roll over loans.

Although Mercer admits payday loans haven't been a priority campaign for the NUS, he says the body has been arguing for more student financial support.

"While the amendment of the bill was a huge step forward, there is still work to be done to tackle unethical lenders. They are still targeting all of their advertising towards particularly vulnerable groups, and one of these is students.

"Do a simple Google search for payday loans and you'll immediately find at least five targeting students, who are vulnerable because of the low income they live on.

"It's very irresponsible for them to be branding their services as some well known replacement of student financial support."

Mercer says students don't feel they have any other option but to turn to companies such as Wonga, as they have nowhere else to turn to financially.

"Whilst the bill is great news it doesn't change a lot of students feeling compelled to take out these high risk debts because they have no other avenue. That's really down to a lack of government student financial support."

According to Mercer, the government's own statistics show students are living by an £8,500 income shortfall.

"That deficit is presumably to be made up by parental support or money from part-time employment or savings. Unfortunately a lot of students don't have access to these three. It's a massive equal opportunities issue.

"Everybody knows that these loans aren't an actual alternative to financial support, they're just for people with cash flow issues. So it's massively irresponsible for them to be advertising as life-long loans."

In January this year, the NUS called on Wonga to withdraw information on its website which was aimed at undergraduates. The site said:

"A student loan is fine to help you pay for your university and living costs, but what about those times when you're waiting on money to come in and you need to buy or pay for something unexpected now?

"There's a totally new way of borrowing money to see you through until your next cheque and it's called Wonga.

"A Wonga loan is essentially a short-term loan that can help you manage your cash flow - without having to extend an overdraft or credit card even further, or get a large student loan."

"Student loans are usually far cheaper than your standard personal loan. But there can be a downside - you potentially end up borrowing more than you need, while a nasty debt accumulates for your graduation that could take years to repay."

As a result of the NUS' campaign, Wonga publicly apologised and removed the information from its web pages.

Hardship funds are available from universities for students who have a disparity between their income and expenditure, not just for those in extreme circumstances.

Females, black and minority ethnic groups, student parents and disabled students are the most affected by debt. A tenth of student parents classed themselves as being in "high risk debt", with 22% saying they had considered dropping out of university due to money concerns. More than a quarter (27%) of student parents and 30% of students over 25 owe in excess of £5,000.

The NUS concluded "relatively small amounts of debt cause significant stress, leading to students strongly considering leaving their course."

Simple Pay Day was contacted by HuffPost UK but the number on its website appeared to be no longer in use.