A leading performing arts college has described the decision to stop housing benefit to its students as "catastrophic".

From today financial support has been axed for around 140 students living in Epsom and studying at Laine Theatre Arts in East Street, Epsom.

Those affected are on the college's foundation course and three year diploma in theatre and dance - which costs £16,500 a year - and launched the career of many of the country's top performers, including Victoria Beckham, and actress Kerry Ellis who sings with Brian May.

Epsom Council previously considered these diploma courses as further education which meant students were entitled to housing benefit.

But last month a judge ruled that such courses were in fact higher education so councils must stop housing benefit to students on these courses.

A council spokesman said the students living in Epsom had been receiving £70 per week on average.

Your Local Guardian:

Besides the loss of housing benefit support, student are also no longer eligible for discretionary housing payments.

The vast majority of the college's students are studying for the diploma, a total of 240, including 90 due to start the course next month.

Peter Barlow, consultant at Laine Theatre Arts in East Street, said they informed the students of the ‘sudden loss’ by email today.

Mr Barlow said: "We are understandably very upset.

"It’s devastating really because it is going to have a catastrophic effect on individuals and the college itself.

"Some of these students may not be able to return to their studies. They have been relying on that additional money."

Mr Barlow said the students are not eligible for student loans so relied on housing benefit in order to help fund their courses.

He said: "They want to pursue vocational training to become highly skilled professionals. The Government are continually penalising them and making it more and more difficult."

Last month Judge Bano ruled in an Upper Tribunal case that a National Diploma in professional musical theatre or dance was higher education.

A council spokesman said housing benefit had also been withdrawn for students on the foundation course but the council has suggested that the college appeals the decision through the courts and tribunal service.

He said: "It is important therefore that those on the foundation course apply for housing benefit.

"Although they will not get anything in the short term, if the ruling is in their favour, they may be eligible at a later date from when they made their application."

There will be 23 students on the college's one-year foundation course from September.

Councillor Neil Dallen, chairman of the strategy and resources committee, said: "The council values the presence of Laine Theatre Arts and the contribution its students make to the vibrancy and diversity of the borough.

"It is deeply regrettable that we can no longer offer them support through the housing benefit scheme."

The council said it had ‘no discretion and no choice’ in the matter.

The administration of housing benefit is governed by regulations laid by Parliament.

Are you a student or the parent of a student at Laine Theatre Arts? 

Have you been affected by the change? Call the newsdesk on 020 8722 6337 or email Alice Foster