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.”
One third-year student from Co Louth who had been interviewed that day for help from the student assistance fund is “Áine”. She does not qualify for a Susi-administered grant.
“For the first two years I went home every weekend, because I had a job in retail. My mother is a single parent, and she pays my fees and rent. My living expenses are up to me. I was lucky to have a job, but I was working seven days a week: college from Monday to Friday, travelling home, working all weekend, and then coming back again to Galway. There was no let-up.”
The weekend job went in her third year. Since then the shortage of money has become an increasing source of stress. “It gets you down,” she says. “You feel you don’t know how to budget for the next week, and it has a direct effect on your mood and a direct effect on your college work. My hair began to fall out with the stress.”
Áine was prescribed anti-depressants, but stopped taking them, because “at €60 a month I couldn’t afford them any more”.
Audrey Grant is a 24-year-old mature student who gave up her job at Boots to study accountancy. She is sitting in one of the two college canteens between lectures. “I applied for my grant back in August,” she says. It still hasn’t arrived, and nor is she now certain whether she will receive one at all. “I thought everything was finally done. Then on Friday they told me they needed yet more documents from me,” she says. Grant had already sent documents and had telephone contact with Susi six times previously, for an average of an hour each time.
“I was in tears on the phone on Friday to be told that, after being on hold for half an hour. I’ve been living on savings, which I really didn’t want to do. I’ve nearly ended up in hospital from the stress. It is so stressful and so distracting from my studies. If I don’t get the grant, I’ll have to drop out.”
Susi queue Where did it all go wrong, and why?
When the new authority for awarding student grants, Student Universal Support Ireland (Susi) was launched, in June last year, it was heralded as an “excellent example of public-service reform” by Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn.
It looked like a fantastic plan. The grants system would be centralised. Previously, 33 VECs and 33 local councils had dealt with grant applications. Now City of Dublin VEC would be responsible for the system.
Susi would consist of “an easy to use, online system of application”. Staff levels would be lower, down from 170 to 65. Savings, once the system was up and running, would be €5 million a year. But thousands of students are still waiting for their money.
The problems are being dealt with, but everyone agrees the process is too slow. It’s easy to pinpoint problems but hard to understand why some of them weren’t addressed before the system was rolled out.
Susi received more than 65,000 grant applications, all from new students. (Those already in the system are still dealt with by VECs and local authorities.) Numbers were up but not significantly.
The volume of documentation required from students, and the difficulty in obtaining forms, were underestimated, however. Students had to go through a means test with 15 financial indicators. Birth certs, proof of residence, previous education, and social-welfare and Revenue forms were all required.
Susi staff were dealing with 1.2 million pieces of documentation from students, as well as fielding calls and emails. Between October and November 35,000 emails overwhelmed the system, and workers were inundated with calls, up to 70 a day for each member of staff.
The staff of 65 turned out to be a woefully inadequate number. More were recruited, and then more. By November, the total was up to 180.
Not all of the problems were one-sided. Many applications that Susi received were incomplete, further increasing the workload. Susi says almost 9,000 applications are still incomplete. When students submit all their documentation every effort is made to provide a next-day decision.
The old system was not without its flaws, and cheques were often late. But, says Cat O’Driscoll, the Union of Students in Ireland’s vice-president for academic affairs, “In the old system, students generally got the letter saying they had been awarded the grant around October. They could show the letter to their landlord.”
On Wednesday, more than 30,000 student-grant applications had been approved, and payments made on more than 28,000 of those.
Susi has now established links with the CAO, the Department of Social Protection and the Revenue Commissioners, so documentation can be accessed directly. Mistakes of the past are unlikely to be repeated, but it remains to be explained why they happened in the first place.
- GRAINNE FALLER
Wheels of misfortune The student who sleeps in his car
“John” is 32 and from Co Limerick. He’s a second-year electrical-engineering student, and for the past four months he has slept in his car during the week.
He has a mortgage on a house in negative equity, and is also supporting a partner and small child. When work as an electrician came to an end, he decided to go to college as a mature student.
He is still awaiting his grant. When it comes, it will cover only his overdue fees.
“I didn’t realise there wasn’t an accommodation grant,” he says.
Monday to Thursday, he sleeps in his car, usually on a Galway industrial estate.
“I have a duvet and fill up a hot-water bottle at a filling-station toilet. I wake really early with the cold. When college opens, I come in here and get warm.
“I go home on Fridays and come back Monday morning. I haven’t been able to afford to tax my car for six months, so I’m taking a risk every day I drive.
“By Thursday, I can smell my own body odour.”
John does make sure he eats hot food every day. “If I didn’t, my concentration would go totally.”
Instead of buying his textbooks, he copies pages from books owned by classmates.
John is being allowed to do the three-year course in two years, due to his previous experience, and is grimly determined to stick with it.
“When I qualify next year, I’ll never be out of work again,” he vows.