Private Members’ Business – SUSI

PaulConnaughton-2-150x150

Dáil Éireann, 13th November 2012

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on this motion.  I am heartened to learn that a tracking mechanism is to be introduced for student grants as I believe that the total lack of clarity in relation to the student grant application system was causing huge frustration for students and their parents in recent weeks.

The introduction of any new centralised system will always have teething problems, but special care must be taken when these problems can result in huge difficulties for students, many of whom are living away from home for the first time.

I have heard of many students dropping out of college because their parents simply couldn’t afford to sustain them through this torturous process, with no information as to when they could reasonably expect to have a decision.  In fact, many parents have told me of their frustration at the fact that when older children were starting college, they could at least go to the local office and speak to someone face to face about the documentation required or get answers as to when they could reasonably expect to have an answer as to when the documentation would be reviewed.

The centralised system sought to create a more streamlined system, but failed to provide for the human element of this thorny issue or failed to take into account the very real worries of parents wondering what would happen in the event of their grant application being turned down after a number of months’ rent had been paid.

The state’s resources are being squeezed on every side and, in common with any household across the country, we have to spend within our means, but we should also consider the high cost in terms of economic, social and emotional costs when a student drops out of college because they are no longer able to finance their studies and remain unsure as to whether or not they will receive the grant.

In recent weeks, I have met with representatives of Students’ Unions, with students and with many parents who were worried by the uncertainty of the situation in relation to their sons’ and daughters’ grants. In particular I have met with many parents who found that they were spending large sums of money ringing the student support line, money which was badly needed to support their sons and daughters in college.  The tracking system will allow people to see where they are in the queue and while delays will still be difficult, at least people will have a better idea of when they can reasonably expect to hear back in relation to the matter.

With just 3,000 grants awarded out of over 65,000, over 60,000 students are caught up in the current impasse.  I know that more staff have been drafted in to the centralised system in recent days and that is beginning bear fruit, as anecdotally, a number of students have received notice that their application has now reached the final stage of processing.

While there are problems with the system now in place in the City of Dublin VEC, it is worth remembering that under the previous system many students didn’t receive their grants until well into the new year, while the current system aims to have all grants administered by the end of this year.

I also believe that there are many lessons to be learned from the centralisation of the student grant system.  Firstly, I believe that in cases where people’s very livelihoods depend on getting the grant, greater care must be taken in the planning process for the introduction of a new system.

For example, if the SUSI system was first introduced for Leinster in 2012 to allow the system to be tested, while counties outside Leinster continued with the status quo, it would have shown up a number of inadequacies and then in 2013 Munster could have been added to the centralised system, with Connacht and Ulster following the year after.

Such a phased introduction of a centralised system would have greatly facilitated the changeover and would have greatly reduced the number of parents and students affected by a difficult transition process. I believe that it is a lesson that can be learned from this process.

 Of course, another facet to this is the whole issue of centralisation of services.  A number of centralisation processes introduced in recent years have seen the national process centralised to a location in Dublin and I believe that this flies in the face of our spatial strategy and we should be seeking to take the pressure off Dublin by locating more centralised processing services in regions outside the capital city, encouraging a greater balance in terms of population and enhancing the opportunity for young people from the Western fringes of the country to work within commuting distance of their own homes.

The operation of the SUSI grant system, even with the additional staff that have now been provided, must continue to be monitored to ensure that parents and students are getting a service that meets their needs and one that is fair and balanced.

I know that the Minister has recognised the difficulties being encountered in the SUSI system and has brought increased resources to the system as well as greater clarity. However, for most families the only test of the success or otherwise of such a grant application scheme is how soon eligible students can receive the money necessary to ensure that they can continue with their studies.