'Mistakes' made in new grant system

 

The head of the body overseeing student grants has told an Oireachtas committee it made “mistakes” but was “trying to improve” the system.

Less than a third of first time applications have finished being processed, according to figures City of Dublin VEC chief executive Jacinta Stewart gave to the Oireachtas Education Committee

The committee convened at short notice to discuss delays in processing grants for thousands of students by the Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI), which comes under the City of Dublin VEC.

Of some 66,0000 applications received, 20,350 are at reward stage, 25,310 are being processed and 20,500 applications were awaing documentation from students, Ms Stewart said.

“The system is working but it needs to work faster,” Ms Stewart said.

Ms Stewart said packs of grant documents were being assessed at 800 per day, this had moved to 1300 per day and by the end of next week would be 1900 per day. Assessments of the grant applications were at 750 per day and it hoped to move to 1150 per day, she said.

Ms Stewart said she expects the majority of students who applied for grants “with full documentation” to receive them by Christmas.

So far some 3,000 students have received their grant payments. CD VEC principal officer Kay Cullinane said it would have 30,000 grants approved by the end of December.

SUSI had scaled up staff at the support desk and increased staff at the assessment unit, with 10 more workers due to start on Monday , Ms Stewart said.

Ms Stewart outline ways the organisation hoped to improve the system next year, including; giving students the option to pass on details through the CAO, accessing student or parent’s financial details through Revenue and the Department of Social Protection.

They had “underestimated the complexity of the kind of detail needed from students, Ms Stewart said.

Several TDs said they had received complaints that documentation had been lost. However, Ms Cullinane said they only had “one formal communication” that documentation had been lost.

“The idea of documents being lost – it’s not happening,” SUSI unit manager Tom Prizeman said.

“When you say documents are being lost, this does not add up [with] what we hear on the ground from students,” Sinn Féin TD Jonathan O’Brien said.

Fine Gael TD James Bannon called for an apology from SUSI. The treatment of students was "appalling” and the system was a "bureaucratic nightmare” he said.

Some students had to drop out of college, which was “shameful and wrong” he said.

“I was surprised by the statement that the system is working when it demonstrably isn’t” United Left Alliance TD Clare Daly said.

This is the first year SUSI is processing grants and it is currently only dealing with first-time applicants.

Earlier, Labour TD and committee chairwoman Joanna Tuffy said while there were grant delays in the past, “SUSI was established to change that and to streamline the process”. There had not been enough staff in SUSI “at the outset”, she told RTÉ Radio.

In a statement the Union of Student in Ireland (USI) described the problems with SUSI as “a fullblown scandal”.

The USI supported the new centralised system because it was assured it “would be more efficient and accessible,” USI president John Logue said. “Yet now, tens of thousands of students are still waiting for their applications to be processed and many are close to dropping out of college because they can’t afford to pay fees and rent,” he added.

Mr Logue called on Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn “ to publicly statethat he will not make any further cuts to the student maintenance grant” in the Budget.

Earlier Mr Quinn said there were clearly “problems” with the new centralised third level grants system, adding delays were “not satisfactory” and has was "not entirely sure why”.

Mr Quinn said colleges “should not put barriers in the way” for students to access library and other services “until there’s a definite yes or no to their application”.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil is to table a private member's motion on third level fees and the problems with the grant processing system which will be debated in the Dáil tonight and tomorrow.

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