Poorer students being ‘locked out’ of third level, charity says

St Vincent de Paul calls for grants to be paid earlier to help ‘bridge’ funding gap

Delays in allocating student grants are leaving young people from low income families ‘locked out’ of third level education, the Society of Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) has warned. File photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Delays in allocating student grants are leaving young people from low income families ‘locked out’ of third level education, the Society of Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) has warned. File photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

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Cuts in career guidance at schools and delays in allocating student grants are leaving young people from low income families “locked out” of third level education, the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) has warned.

In a submission to the Higher Education Authority on the new national plan for equity of access, the charity said recent cuts in education are hitting disadvantaged students hardest.

Audrey Deane, the society’s social policy analyst, said “it’s almost like the system is conspiring against them.

“Their parents have been outstripped literacy and numeracy wise, and if they drop out of college they can’t get a grant again. It’s a huge waste of resources.”

In the last two academic years, the charity has spent €224,000 helping disadvantaged students access third level institutions.It said it has found itself “subbing” many students who were awaiting maintenance grants, paid in October at the earliest.

“Low income families do not have the means to bridge this gap in funds until the first grant payment comes through and cannot afford daily cash expenses such as travel, lunches, books and sundries,” the charity said.

“This very negative and stressful introduction to academic life is not a positive one and in some cases students simply cannot sustain their precarious existence and drop out.”

The student grant awarding body Susi (Student Universal Support Ireland) has sped up the application process but still only 43,000 of the 73,000 students due to get a grant this year had been paid by the end of October.

The SVP has called for the grant application process to be reconfigured so the Susi application works alongside the CAO application process. “This would result in students knowing that they had funding secured when they are offered a college/PLC place.”

The society identified a number of other barriers including the sharp rise in rental accommodation costs, and lack of support for part-time students and the “gamed” nature of the current CAO model.

“The very widespread, yet undiscussed phenomenon of private grinds, paid for by a large percentage of Leaving Cert students’ parents..., is clearly outside the financial capacity of low income families. This clearly causes inequality in educational outcomes,” it said.

The charity was one of a number of organisations represented at a conference today at the ESRI’s headquarters in Dublin on its Leaving School in Ireland report, exploring the transition between secondary and third level education.

Prof Liz Thomas of Edge Hill University, said studies in the UK showed that students were most likely to consider dropping out of college after Christmas or in the first semester.

Having a circle of friends was a key factor, as well as “meaningful interaction” with academic staff. Among lecturers, it was often seen as a “reward” not to have to deal with first-year students but “investment in time up front” was necessary to hang onto students, she said.

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