Stressed students: The grant fallout
GMIT in Galway, where half of the students qualify for grants. photographs: joe o'shaughnessy and brenda fitzsimons
Money woes: Joe O'Connor, students' union president at GMIT in Galway. photographs: joe o'shaughnessy and brenda fitzsimons
The grants delay is causing hardship, uncertainty and a surprising reliance on cars among Galway students
‘We always dealt with students having problems with grants,” says Joe O’Connor, the students’ union president at the Galway campus of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. “The difference now is that we have the same number of people in one day looking for help as we would have had over three weeks in the past.”
On Monday morning alone he dealt with eight distressed students whose grants had still not arrived. “These students don’t have any other income strand.”
GMIT’s Galway campus has 5,000 students, and roughly half of them qualify for grant aid. Because that’s such as high proportion, the ongoing problems with administration of the Susi grant system means huge numbers at the college have been affected.
As O’Connor puts it, “There was a lot of understanding shown by landlords initially when we contacted them on behalf of students, but when you ring them again two or three months later and say there’s still a problem, if you’re a landlord it’s going to cause an issue for you financially.”
Before Christmas, a local company donated €1,000, which was distributed in the form of bags of food. Other companies donated food. Most of these food bags have now been claimed by students, but some still sit behind the counter of the students’ union office, ready for anyone who asks. The paper bags usually contain pasta, sauce, baked beans, porridge oats, tea bags, biscuits and an item of toiletry, such as toothpaste or soap.
The college has put a voucher system in place: for €1, a student awaiting a grant can eat lunch or dinner at the college restaurant. There are also price reductions in the main college canteen.
Perhaps surprisingly, most out-of-town students this reporter spoke to on campus have cars. “Even though I’m in a hole financially, I can’t give up my car,” one final-year IT student on grant aid from Co Roscommon explains.
His car cost €200. Insurance costs €80 a month, which he pays for out of savings from two jobs he held at home in previous college years. He decided, reluctantly, to give up both weekend jobs to focus on his final-year studies.
The students who have jobs in their home towns or counties use their cars to travel to and from college. Many come from Cos Donegal, Sligo, Mayo and Roscommon. Those with jobs at home return every weekend, bringing with them fellow students from the area, who pitch in for petrol. “It works out way cheaper than the bus,” says one.
Anita Mahony is GMIT’s student assistance fund administrator. She interviews all students who are seeking help from the fund. “In other years, you could only interview students who were fully registered – who had paid their fees – but because of delays in grants we’ve waived that for now. The need is way worse than in other years.”
Students deemed in need receive €100-€400 a month from the fund. Mahony, who is eight years in the job, says some of the stories she is hearing this academic year are traumatic.
“We have students who are having mental breakdowns because of financial worries, students suffering from stress, students going to Vincent de Paul for help. We had one student who was living in a shed with no electricity or running water. We define severe cases as those who have no financial support or family back-up.”