The grant application process is set to be simplified for students after roughly 9% of students who applied for the maintenance grant appealed the decision, 24% of which appealed on the grounds of changed circumstances.
A check box will be added to the form allowing students to easily declare reduced incomes for the year of application, as currently all grants are assessed based on the family income from the previous year. Though this avenue was open to students this year, it was not clear from the application form that this was an option.
Department of Education Secretary General Seán Ó Foghlú told the Dáil Public Accounts Committee last Thursday that a “flag” had been raised by the sheer volume of appeals being overturned. Of the 5,275 applications through the SUSI system that were appealed, 3,246 were overturned on a variety of grounds.
UCD Students’ Union Welfare Officer Mícheál Gallagher believes that this is a necessary and welcome change, commenting: “I do believe that these measures need to come in, as deals such as Croke Park II are driving down public sector pay, at the same time as what remains a volatile private sector where there are very few “secure” jobs remaining.
A number of TDs criticised the fact that this number of appeals had been submitted to the various councils, with Louth Labour TD Ged Nash stating: “It is extremely rare for a government department or State agency to have such a high level of refusals in the first instance, which suggests there are serious errors on the administrative side.”
While critical of the disastrous introduction of the SUSI grant application system, Gallagher welcomed this move, saying: “By having a grant system that is flexible to unexpected changes in students circumstances (such as parental unemployment, bereavement etc.) it will help lift some of the pressure currently felt by colleges hardship funds.”
However, he believes this is only the first step in a string of essential reforms to the grant system, including changes to the physical document requirements placed on students, which has held up thousands of grant payments and which is still preventing 7,744 applications from being processed. Gallagher commented: “The whole system needs to be put online, with P21/60 forms accessible through government department data sharing. As soon as a student applies for their grant the CD VEC (SUSI) should be able to access their tax documents from their PPSN. I feel that this would help fix a lot of the most common appeals.”
Deputy Michelle Mulherin suggested to Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn that mortgage repayments also be taken into account when applying for grants, due to reduced income but similar levels of mortgage repayments. Quinn rejected this suggestion, stating: “The assessment of means under my Department’s student grant scheme is based on gross income from all sources. Therefore all income is assessed from the same starting point, elimination any distortion which might arise from different spending decisions.”
An independent review of the SUSI system is currently underway, with results set to go to the parent body of the system, City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee. It has been set up to examine the causes of the backlogs and delays which resulted in less than 25,000 students receiving their grants in the first semester.
This year, only first-time grant applicants applied through the online SUSI system, however it was intended that this be rolled out to all students, in the next two years. Commenting on these plans and the review, Nash stated: “These students are under pressure as it is from the college registrars to pay their fees… As soon as the lessons are learned from the introduction of SUSI, changes must be made if it is to be successfully rolled out for all college students next year.”