Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 13 November 2012
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection
Student Grant Application System: Discussion with SUSI
We will defer all housekeeping matters to tomorrow's meeting. Our main business today is the student grant application system. The meeting has been convened at short notice to address problems and delays that have arisen in the new system. I understand many frustrating delays are being experienced by students applying to the new body, Student Universal Support Ireland, known as SUSI. It appears the SUSI system has problems in coping with the volume of applications received. As a result, some students and their families are suffering without any indication being given of how long it will be before the students receive their grants. I thank the City of Dublin VEC officials for attending. We all remember the crisis in dealing with the backlog of medical card applications. The Joint Committee on Health and Children adopted a very proactive approach to solving that problem. This committee is attempting to do something similar. We have invited representatives of City of Dublin VEC to seek answers and outline what actions can be taken immediately to address the backlog of applications. To that end, I welcome Ms Jacinta Stewart, chief executive officer of City of Dublin VEC; Mr. Tom Prizeman, unit manager of SUSI; and Ms Kay Cullinane, principal officer in the Department of Education and Skills.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to this committee. If they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person or persons or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I now invite Ms Stewart to make her presentation.
Ms Jacinta Stewart:
I thank the members of the joint committee for the invitation. SUSI wants to award grants to students. I will make a short presentation on current issues and the efforts we are making to deal with them.
SUSI opened the new grant application scheme on Monday, 11 June 2012, with a closing date of 31 August. Students applying for a new grant filled in an on line application form. At the closing date of 31 August, 56,935 applications had been received. We have, however, continued to receive applications beyond the closing date. Over 9,000 applications have been received since. Currently, the rate is approximately 200 a week.
SUSI includes a stringent means test to discover if a student is eligible for a grant. Following the on-line application, each applicant was sent a pack by post, with a personalised check list, requesting a set of documents. The SUSI figures as of 12 November are as follows: 20,350 applications are now complete at award stage; 25,310 are being processed; while documentation is awaited from 20,500 students.
I will describe how the system works. Students complete an on-line application form and then each applicant is sent a pack by post containing a personalised check list and requesting a set of documents. There are two parts to the process. The first is to review the pack and ensure is it complete and the documentation is returned to SUSI. The second is to assess the completed application. In order to ensure the pack is complete, SUSI has provided a support service which has, to date, dealt with 175,000 telephone calls and 35,000 e-mails.
In the early stages of the process students who had applied early submitted complete packs. As we moved towards the closing date of 31 August, it was noticeable that a number of the packs from later applicants were incomplete. By incomplete I mean, for example, a failure to sign the declaration form or the final course acceptance form; submitting income details for the wrong year; only submitting supporting documents for part of the year; students under the age of 23 years failing to supply parent information.
We had been assessing packs at the rate of 800 a day, which figure then increased to 1,300. By the end of next week it will be 1,900 a day. These are the numbers of submitted documents being assessed. At the assessment stage of the process, we are assessing 750 packs a day but want to move to 1,150 a day. The system is working, but we need it to work faster. We have taken a number of measures to make the process work faster. We have scaled up the staffing of the support desk, in line with the volume of calls received. At support and review stage, staff numbers have been increased from 39 to 79. We have assigned more staff to the assessment unit. At assessment and payment stage, the number of staff has been increased from 55 to 96, with ten further staff due to start next Monday. We have increased text and e-mail communications to encourage those whose responses are awaited to contact us and provide the correct documentation. We are making reminder telephone calls to students to request that they submit their final course acceptance form. We have posted the ten top reasons for incomplete documentation packs. These include reminders to supply the long form birth certificate and a copy of a passport must be certified by a member of An Garda Síochána or a Commissioner for Oaths. We have a representative on boards.ie to address issues raised by applicants through this forum.
SUSI has taken the following measures to speed up the process for the next academic year: we have agreed with the CAO that students may opt in to allow it to pass course details to SUSI. We are working with the Revenue Commissioners to explore methods of data sharing, particularly P21 details. These discussions are at an advanced stage. We are in early stage discussions with the Department of Social Protection to explore the issue of access to social welfare payment data. We will continue to expand the SUSI information campaign which, to date, has included working with the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, the Union of Students of Ireland and the citizens information service centres to enable them to assist students in the process.
We will continue and expand the SUSI information campaign which to date has included working with the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, the Union of Students of Ireland and the Citizens Information Service centres to enable them to assist students with the process. We have also developed a tutorial for schools. We will put in place a tracking system for the next academic year in order that students can monitor exactly at what stage their applications are in the process.
To get a student grant, students and their families go through a very complex process involving a stringent means test that has 15 different financial indicators. Students must also provide proofs, for example, details of their nationality, proof they are resident in this country, proof of independence if they are not living at home and proof of previous education. We need to get the message out that a student when applying for a grant must supply all the documents requested in one go. The measures already taken will ensure the system will work further. This is not simply a grant, it is a means-tested grant. It is a complex process. We want to help the students get through the process and to get the documents back to us as soon as possible in order that we can access their grant application. We want to pay the students as soon as possible. The system is working and we will make it work faster. All the measures we have listed will be taken and implemented by next year and that will make a huge difference to the future student grant experience.
I remind members we agreed previously the order of speakers which is the spokespersons of Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the Government, other Deputies in the order in which they raise their hands, Senators and then non-committee members. I will first call Deputy McConalogue and I ask him to confine his contribution to three minutes and he can speak again at the end if he has any further comment to make.
I join the Chairperson in thanking Ms Stewart and her team for coming in here today to discuss this situation. It is at crisis stage in that 46,000 students have not been told yet whether they will be awarded a grant and only a small percentage of those would have been paid. How many students have been paid their grant at this stage? I do not have to tell Ms Stewart or her team the trouble and hardship this is causing for students across the country. Ms Stewart outlined that SUSI has dealt with 175,000 telephone calls in the recent period. She and her team more than anyone else will be aware of the stresses students and their families are under from not being able to get their grants yet.
Unfortunately, a new system has been set up replacing the job of work that was previously done by 66 authorities, 33 VECs and 33 county councils, and this work has now been given to one national organisation to do centrally. My party and I do not have a problem with the centralisation of this system, however, we have a very serious problem with how the Minister has gone about doing it in conjunction with SUSI and about delivering it. Unfortunately, many students now face Christmas still not knowing whether they will be awarded a grant and based on the evidence before us many of those students will not be paid their grant until into the new year.
Ms Stewart outlined that 20,000 applications are complete at award stage and she might break that down. She also outlined that 25,000 are being processed. Previous answers given by the Minister indicated that those being processed are just starting to be checked to see if information is missing. Also, in replies to questions tabled by myself and other Deputies, we have been told that the expectation is that 40% of those packs will be returned to students as incomplete. Those students who have not yet been told their documentation is incomplete have to wait to hear from that from SUSI and then send the information back to SUSI and we are only five weeks from Christmas. SUSI is awaiting documentation packs back from 20,000 students. I know from dealing with students that in many cases they have sent in the information but it has been lost and they have been told by SUSI that it has been lost. Despite sending in the full information the first time they were asked for it, they have been asked to send the complete packs back in again because their information has not been found or SUSI did not keep a proper record of it. That is a very serious issue and I am sure other Deputies will have similar accounts.
Ms Stewart mentioned that SUSI had been processing packs at the rate of 800 a day and that this has increased to 1,300 a day. I would question that because the figure we were given for the number of applications processed two weeks ago was 18,000 and the figure Ms Stewart has given us today is 20,350. That means that only an additional 2,350 were processed in a period of two weeks. I do not see how the rate she gave us can be the case.
She might outline the way the number of staff was increased from when SUSI was set up in June to now. She told us that at the support and review stage the number of staff has increased 39 to 79.
Also, at the assessment stage, the number of staff has been increased from 55 to 96. Any responses we have had from the Minister on this have indicated that SUSI has a staff of 65 and that it would be increased to 85. The Minister does not seem to know how many staff are working in SUSI. I heard him say on a radio programme this morning that he does not fully understand why the grants process is where it is at. How much engagement has Ms Stewart had with the Minister, Deputy Quinn, in recent weeks? Has he met her or how many times has he been in touch with her to check how this process is moving along and what exactly is happening?
I ask members to keep their contributions brief bearing in mind we may have further questions at the end. There are many people here and everybody has indicated they want to speak. I call Deputy O'Brien.
I thank the officials for coming in today at such short notice. Ms Stewart said twice during her presentation that the system is working. That is simply not true and that is not only my opinion. I have received tens of e-mails from students over the weekend who would also be of the view that the system is not working. Some of the issues students have raised with us include a student who is attending college 155 km from their residence yet only receives an adjacent grant rather than a non-adjacent grant. That is not the only instance of that issue that has been raised with us. Some students who have had their grants processed are now appealing those decisions because they believe the grant that was awarded was not the correct grant. Can Ms Stewart indicate the number of appeals that have been submitted to date?
When SUSI first raised the issue of the backlog with the Department what was its response? Did Ms Stewart ask for additional resources to be put in place to deal with the backlog and, if so, what was the response? Did SUSI get all the additional resources sought and, if not, was there a reason it did not get them? Is Ms Stewart satisfied with the numbers working in SUSI? As Deputy McConalogue said, there is a difference between the numbers Ms Stewart has given us and the numbers the Minister has stated in the past number of days. Ms Stewart is talking about 96 and 79 staff which is nearly 180 staff and we are being told that the number has increased to 85. I would like to know which figure is correct. Are the figures Ms Stewart gave us correct or is the Minister mistaken about the number who are working in SUSI?
Can Ms Stewart give us some background to what happens to the packs when they are sent off? Is it true they are sent to an outside company which compiles them, uploads them on to a computer file from which they are then sent back to SUSI? The information we have is that the SUSI office is a paperless one, that no documentation goes to SUSI and that it goes to an outside agency, and that is where the documentation is being lost. I have received an e-mail from an individual indicating that when their original documents were sent back they included documentation belonging to a different student, a birth certificate of another student, which that student then returned to SUSI. I would certainly disagree with Ms Stewart's statement that the system is working.
It is clear that the system is not working. I want to know what the City of Dublin VEC and the Department have done to try to ensure that every application currently awaiting processing will be dealt with in time. The indication is that the backlog will be addressed before Christmas. I would also like information on the number of appeals that have been made on decisions taken to date.
Like Deputy O'Brien I was surprised by the statement that the system is working when it demonstrably is not. I do not wish to be smart about it but I expected an acknowledgement or apology to the students and families who are enduring monumental hardship as a result of the flaws in the system. It is not a matter of dispute. The impression being given was that somehow this was the fault of the students who were not capable of filling out forms. I know from my dealings with local authority grants over a long period that it can be the case that forms are incorrectly filled out but we all received much correspondence from people who seem perfectly competent and who stated that they did send in all their documentation. I refer to people who were able to get their leaving certificate and get into college and parents who have done it before and can read and fill out a form. They said they did send documents and that the delay in the process was at the SUSI end.
What investigations have been made? There seems to be a litany of missing documentation. Is there a flaw in the system in that regard? How is the issue of missing documents being addressed? One issue that emerged from the correspondence is that four or five months after an application was made an applicant would be asked for a final course acceptance form. I presume that is an additional document but people did not know about it. Prior to submitting applications people specifically inquired as to whether all the documentation was present and they were told that everything was in order, but later in the day further documentation was sought. What is the correct system?
We acknowledge that it is a new system but it has not come out of the blue. It was years in the making. We know approximately how many people will seek grants. It is not the case that some strange phenomenon emerged in the course of the year. Those issues should have been anticipated. It seems to me that a complicated process was adopted. Why is the City of Dublin VEC only going to Revenue now? The grant is means-tested. It is public money and the public has a right to know it is going to deserving cases, but much of the information that is being sought is with Revenue anyway. We heard a story about a person from Waterford dropping out of college because of what he was put through in terms of looking for a profit and loss statement for his parents who have a small farm income even though the tax authorities and the tax assessment would have provided the information. He had to employ an accountant to do ridiculous profit and loss statements. That just seems completely unnecessary.
A number of people who endured the hardship got the grant only to find that it was wrong. I received five or six e-mails from people on the matter and I presume far more than that were affected. Those applications are now back in the pile of applications that still has not been processed. How many people have submitted appeals and what is the appeals process? There appears to be some confusion. If someone is clearly getting the non-adjacent level but the mileage is obviously on the wrong rate, I presume that is an error that could be corrected that does not require a major appeal. What is the attitude of the witnesses to that?
I have a problem with what has been said about the plans for dealing with the backlog. A total of 29 working days remain between now and Christmas, including today. Even if we were to accept the figure of dealing with 750 applications per day that would give a total of 21,000 perfect applications. If we go on the upgraded estimate of a target of 1,100 applications per day, one would reach a total of 30,000. It is an impossible aim. Based on the plans that are currently in place the majority of cases will not be processed prior to Christmas. I would like a response in that regard, in addition to the number of staff involved because I am unclear about it.
I too join with you, Chairman, and the committee in welcoming staff from the VEC. It is my first time as a recently appointed member of the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection to meet members of the City of Dublin VEC. I admire so many initiatives provided by the VEC, not least adult education and post-leaving certificate courses.
I too very much welcome the decision of the Minister for Education and Skills to centralise the process, which in theory is something to be acknowledged. However, concern and anxiety have been expressed about the fact that the system is not working. I would like clarification to be provided on some of the figures that were mentioned. If I am not mistaken the chief executive referred to 56,000 applications. I thought the figure was 66,000. My understanding is that 9,000 applications were refused. Is that a different 9,000 to those that were received since the closing date or does it refer to another 9,000 applications?
Much anxiety and uncertainty has been caused where applications have not been processed or documentation has been mislaid but there are consequences for students who, for example, cannot get accommodation or access to equipment, laboratories or libraries.
I very much welcome the announcement of the increase in staffing from 55 to 96, which will be of great assistance. What was the process that led to the outsourcing and how was the contract awarded? Was the decision based on the provider’s capacity to deliver, cost or other criteria?
Ms Kay Cullinane:
Currently, 14,000 of the 25,000 packs we have on hand with SUSI are being checked for valid documents. The large majority of them are being checked for the second or third time. They were returned because the checklist did not come in complete more than once, which will mean that it will be possible to do the check more quickly on this occasion as we will simply be checking for the one or two pieces of documentation that are still outstanding and those applications will move up to us more quickly than applications requiring initial assessment.
A total of 5,600 packs are with us at the moment having gone through a complete document validation and they are ready for us to assess and move them on to final award or refusal stage. In addition, we have 5,250 new applications. We received approximately 10,000 applications after the closing date and 5,000 of those remain to be provisionally assessed. That accounts for the packs on-hand.
A total of 20,500 packs are still awaiting supporting documentation; 14,500 of those applicants have not yet responded to us with any documentation and another 6,000 are back with the students because they were submitted to us incomplete. We have requested the students to send in the additional information.
I will answer Deputy Keating’s question on the applications that are completed and at award stage. The 9,500 applications that were refused is the total number of applications refused to date since the scheme opened. Awards or awards pending subject to final course details have been made in 11,000 cases.
Ms Jacinta Stewart:
The reason the final course acceptance can only happen in September is because it is not until then that the student will know what course he or she is taking. That is why it is not part of the initial completed documentation requirement. Currently, because of the time period we are in, we ask students for the documentation plus the final course acceptance. I will ask Mr. Prizeman to talk about the staffing.
Mr. Tom Prizeman:
With the staffing, the figures are 64 whole-time equivalents for the assessment unit. That figure breaks down to 57 core staff, and the balance would be temporary staff brought in at peak times. That refers only to the staff assessing the documentation packs and paying students. There is a different staff quota for the contact centre and the document packs. The documents come in and we check the document packs, therefore, that is 27 whole-time equivalents. The picture for a full year is actually 92 whole-time equivalents but there are peaks of staff at different times. There are peaks in August, September and October. As of next week there will be 175 staff in total, which is 96 in the head office of Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, and 79 in the contact centre and the document centre. It is a ramping up of staff. There were three people in the contact centre when it opened in February to give students the data about grants. As the months pass that number increases with the peaks of applications. We now have 175 people in total dealing with grants. As the peaks subside, that level will drop again. It will go up and down depending on peaks but overall the figure is 92 whole-time equivalents in terms of everybody doing the applications. That includes the contact centre, the document management centre and the assessment unit.
Ms Jacinta Stewart:
That was raised. When the documents come in they are scanned. We have checked to see what documents were lost. We had one formal complaint about documents lost. We are not sure but one of the issues may be that we have been getting only parts of documents. For example, in social welfare it might be a January to June amount and we then go back to look for something else. Without a name it is very difficult for us to check that and allow us investigate the concern.
Senator, you will get an opportunity to speak the same as everybody else. There was another question from Deputy Keating on the decision to outsource the contract. Will the witnesses clarify how that was made?
Ms Kay Cullinane:
I will take that question. It was a European tender under a process called competitive dialogue. That is a process whereby a tender is put out across Europe and companies are invited to express their interest in providing the service requested, namely, the contact centre and document management. We received a number of expressions of interest. They were evaluated and five were invited to proceed to the next stage in the competitive dialogue process. That involves meeting with the companies to discuss the issues around the process to allow them get a sense of what is required in terms of the service we wish them to provide. It was a lengthy process. A number of different specialists and consultants were brought in to help deliberate on the process. We would have evaluated across costs, quality, previous experience, and capacity of the company to provide the service. That would have been evaluated and the final contract awarded.
This is important, Chairman. I also asked when SUSI first raised this issue with the Department and when it asked for additional resources, and the response of the Department. We must get answers to those questions before we move on to new questions.
I asked about the number of students who have been paid their grant. I also asked about the contact SUSI had with the Minister, Deputy Quinn, since June and if the witnesses met him personally to discuss this issue.
Ms Kay Cullinane:
I will deal with the appeals. There have been 1,100 appeals to date. To clarify the appeals process, when students are issued with a deliberation, a refusal or an award, if they are unhappy the documentation they receive informs them of their right to appeal under the Student Support Act.
Ms Kay Cullinane:
There are 650 in place today, therefore, 500 have been processed. When the students receive the documentation informing them of their refusal or award, they are then directed to the CDVEC website to download the first stage appeals documentation. They then forward that on for processing.
Mr. Tom Prizeman:
The number of grants paid to date is 3,101. We are doing a weekly payment run and the process is that when a student is awarded, the college must be informed and confirm that the student has started. A weekly file goes out to each college. Currently, there is approximately 250, and they confirm that the student is registered in the college. A person cannot get paid until that is done. Also, the student must enter his or her bank details on-line. For data protection reasons we do not ask for the bank details from the student up-front until we know the person will be awarded. When students are awarded the grant they enter their bank details on-line, the college confirms that they are registered, and the payment is made. Currently, we are doing a weekly payment for that.
Ms Jacinta Stewart:
We met regularly with the Department of Education and Skills on this matter. We meet with it on a weekly basis to keep it up to speed on what is happening and to ensure it is fully aware of the position. I have talked to the Minster personally three times in the past few weeks about SUSI and the concern to ensure we can move faster on it.
I realise that. I ask Ms Stewart to keep a note of the questions to ensure they are all responded to. If any Deputy wants to come back in on a question they should do it through the Chair. Ms Stewart might reply to Deputy O'Brien's question, and I will then call the next speaker.
I agree with Deputy Clare Daly that an apology must be issued to the students because the treatment of students, and their parents, has been appalling. I attended a students' union meeting last night in Athlone at which a great deal of anger was vented.
The SUSI system is a bureaucratic nightmare and is at the heart of the delay. Why were the experienced personnel in the local authorities and VECs not called in to deal with this crisis? They had been administering applications for a number of years and could have offered assistance in this area.
The only solution is to set up a one-stop shop in every third level college to deal with the crisis. Students are finding it impossible to make ends meet and are in arrears with their rent and book fees. A considerable number of students are dropping out of college because of the delay. In a progressive or civilised society, we cannot continue to allow this to happen. It is shameful and wrong. The body set up to deal with the grants was not ready to deal with the avalanche of applications.
A certain student told me her application had been sanctioned for payment on 14 October, yet no money has gone into her account. I checked this with her this morning. It is not good enough. Another student who applied in August was told everything was okay when she rang up. She rang again in September but the officials wanted further information stipulating whether her father had a private pension. The girl said he had not got one. She was told she had to put this in writing and revert to SUSI. She rang several times since then, without any success. Why should this be happening to students? They would love to get on with their studies rather than deal with their grant applications.
I thank the delegates for their presentation. I will not reiterate what was said. My constituency office finds it very hard to get through to SUSI. Is there a special number that Members can ring? They cannot get through at present.
My eldest child started college in Maynooth this year. Many students who have no grants yet cannot enter the library and use many of the amenities on the campus. One must have a card but if one does not have a grant, one cannot obtain one. Next year, no cash whatsoever will be exchanged on the campus and only cards will be used. Therefore, we must get our house in order. This is very serious. We must examine the longer-term implications.
Consider the case of the son of a lady who came to my constituency office yesterday. Somebody rang the lady last Friday to state somebody down the country has the same PPS number as her son, thus delaying the processing of his grant application. We checked this and discovered it was totally untrue. Are excuses being made to stem the tide? When we discovered there was no duplicated PPS number and that the young man was genuine, we could not get through to SUSI. Are major excuses being made to try to curtail the backlog?
I have a couple of questions. To echo what Deputy O'Brien said, the statement that worried me most this morning was that the system is working. It clearly is not. Does the delegation not accept this? Does it acknowledge the considerable distress and hardship experienced by applicants? As Deputy Daly and others said, SUSI should apologise to the applicants. If the delegation acknowledges that the system is not working, there will be some hope of having it fixed. Until then, there will be none.
If documents are not being lost, why are applicants asked repeatedly for documentation they have already submitted? I do not refer to the seeking of further information. There are many examples of what I describe in my constituency and I am sure the other Members have examples also.
What is the nature of the telephone system? What is the average time for which one must wait when one telephones about an application? Am I correct in stating one person might have had to wait for 26 minutes only to be given a very unclear message, the only audible part of which relayed him back to the online system and referred to SUSI's e-mail address? What does SUSI intend to do about staffing? What is the current staffing level? What new staff will be put in place and what is the timeframe be for the arrangements?
Considering that the system is largely online, it is absolutely unbelievable that people cannot scan documentation and e-mail it to SUSI. We tried to do so through our office but were told to put the documentation in the post. It is like a pub not selling drink. If SUSI cannot accept scanned documentation in the same way that Departments and other online application facilities do, it is unbelievable, especially in this day and age. I would like answers to these questions and I would like the delegation to consider acknowledging that the system is not working.
I thank the officials for attending. I will be brief because many of the points I wanted to raise have already been made. Moving from 66 awarding bodies to one was always going to be problematic. It was always the case that there would be teething problems. Nobody has a difficulty with that but most members did not expect so many problems. Members throughout the country are inundated with representations from exasperated applicants.
What message does the delegation have for those students who are considering dropping out? I received a communication from a gentleman who told me he has already dropped out of his course because of the delay in processing his application. What message can SUSI give directly to students or the third level colleges on the issue of dropping out? I do not want it on my conscience, nor do the delegates want it on theirs, that somebody's educational potential will be limited because of a glitch in the SUSI system. Nobody wants to stand over that.
Ms Jacinta Stewart:
I have said we want the students to get their grants. Unfortunately, we must go through a process, and that is proving difficult. However, I do not want any student to drop out or any student who is entitled to a grant not to receive it. I cannot say that more sincerely than I am actually saying it.
We have a process in place. Deputy Bannon raised the issue of local information. The staff in the citizen information centres were trained and we worked with local guidance counsellors in the schools to ensure that, in so far as it was possible, we were providing the relevant information. Of course, I believe we could do this better. We have learned a considerable amount from this. We produced a video on YouTube to bring people through the process. We underestimated the complexity of the kinds of details required.
Consider the question on the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Protection. All sorts of legal issues arise with regard to data protection. With regard to the CAO, it would take 18 months for us to be able to gain access to the documentation, and for the student to give permission for his or her information to be released. We must be really careful to honour the arrangement in place and to ensure we are not releasing information that we should not release and that we do not receive information that should not be released to us. However, we do want to award grants and are doing the best we can at this stage to ensure that.
We have already talked about how we increased the number of staff working on the backlog. In the initial stages, there was a return rate of 56%. There are still a number of people in the system in respect of whom documentation was sent back on a number of occasions because it was incomplete.
The amount of money involved in this is €350 million, which is what grants cost in this country. We must get the documentation right for next year. Again, I cannot emphasise this enough and I will give members a practical example. One issue we have pertains to P60 and P21 forms. People give us a P60 form but when one examines the P21 form, it transpires there is other income and we have to go back for that. We must go back for information like that all the time. I visited Abtran and went through the process from beginning to end. It is written on the flap of one envelope, "Please ensure you have signed the declaration". On opening the first one, the declaration was not signed. We must be much better at getting the message out but I do not want any student to leave college or to be in a position in which he or she is obliged to do so.
Ms Jacinta Stewart:
A mobile telephone number is available for Oireachtas Members. We take a record of each telephone call we get and of the response we have given. In Abtran, each telephone call is recorded. One issue raised by Deputy Griffin that I missed, for which I apologise, pertains to someone waiting for 26 minutes. We are conscious that there are peak times, such as, for example, 12.45 p.m. to 1 p.m. There is a system in place in Abtran whereby on telephoning, one is informed that if one leaves one's telephone number, a representative will come back to one and consequently, one is not obliged to wait in a queue for a long time.
I agree with Ms Stewart about all telephone calls being recorded. The lady to whom I referred told me yesterday that when she was contacted about the PPS number, the gentleman concerned informed her that the telephone call was being recorded. However, how could such a mistake be made if SUSI is in touch with the Revenue?
What is the point of asking questions if they are not going to be answered? Members came to this meeting to act on behalf of the hundreds and probably thousands of people, collectively, who have asked them to scrutinise the system, but the questions are not being answered.
No, the Deputy has had an opportunity and can have another opportunity, but to be fair to those people who have not yet asked questions, I wish to move on to them, after which we can revert to people-----
Deputy, I am entitled to decide the order of this meeting and I now wish to move to those members who have not had an opportunity to contribute. I can revert to the Deputy, in order, after everyone has had his or her chance. I now call Senator Moloney.
I thank the witnesses for their attendance. While I acknowledge they are coming under fire, that is the job to which they signed up, like the rest of us present, and the questions must be asked. I must take issue with the witnesses with regard to the loss of documents and the statement that SUSI has received one complaint. A number of people approached me stating they had submitted all their documents but that two full months after so doing, they received a letter requesting precisely the same items they had sent in previously. The person concerned had actually registered her pack, as had a number of her friends, and they approached me together with their registered letter slips. I spent an entire morning tracking those registered letters, only to find they went to Dublin and were redirected to Abtran in Cork. The last place I could find a record of them was in the sorting office in Cork. I was then obliged to approach the postmaster to track them to this company Abtran, where they were signed for by an individual. Obviously, one cannot give names at this meeting. I rang SUSI, which, I am sorry to be obliged to say, was most unhelpful. First, its representatives would not speak to me. I deal with housing grants, medical cards, agricultural grants and social welfare payments, and every office I contact will speak to me as a public representative, with the exception of SUSI. Its representative stated he could not speak to me, whereupon I asked to speak to his supervisor. Eventually, after arguing on the telephone - as Ms Stewart has stated, the conversation is recorded and she should go back and listen to it - I got to speak to a supervisor, whom I also will not name, as members are not allowed to use names. The supervisor also was most unhelpful and kept telling me to tell the student to send in the application again.
This is not good enough in the case of people who have sent in all their documentation, have registered them to ensure they got there and who have them signed for by an individual. Those documents got to SUSI, which lost them and there are no two ways about it. This simply is not good enough. I acknowledge the application form suggests the applicants should photocopy everything, but human nature being the way it is, many people put original documents into an envelope without having photocopied them. They are now running around trying to find P21 forms again Incidentally, P60 forms cannot be reissued as they can only be issued once. Consequently, people are in an awful state.
I have a few other points to make. As for the self-employed people who sent in their self-assessments and their notice of assessment from the tax office, this is not good enough for SUSI. It now seeks a letter from their accountants stating they are self-employed. I cannot understand this as it is quite evident that they are self-employed, yet this is not good enough. Moreover, I have encountered cases of students who are pulling out of college. While I acknowledge Ms Stewart will state the authority does not wish them to do that - of course it does not - SUSI should try to hurry up the process for such individuals because they will pull out.
I will just finish what I have to say. I have to hand the e-mails I received over the weekend. I did not need them because I have enough from the constituency in which I live without receiving others from throughout the country, as I am sure did everyone else. In one e-mail, a lady wrote to state SUSI does not come under the remit of the Ombudsman. Is this true? If not, I seek the reason. Someone mentioned a person who was obliged to hang on the telephone for 26 minutes. Most students use mobile phones and if one is obliged to wait on a mobile phone for 26 minutes, I can guarantee most such students would be out of credit by that time.
I thank the delegation for attending the meeting at such short notice. It is disappointing, however, we do not have any Department officials or the Minister here which is a matter the committee should consider. The questions about students’ access to services, sitting examinations at Christmas and submitting projects can only be answered by the Minister. It is not the job of SUSI to answer these questions. I have had telephone calls and e-mails about students dropping out because they cannot submit projects due this week. The committee needs to call in the Department, the Higher Education Authority and the institutes of technology to sort out how this is causing distress to students as it appears it will continue for several weeks.
In theory the centralised system is good and City of Dublin VEC is the right organisation to run it as it has a good track record in this area. My concern is that from the very start it was not given the resources it needed to properly process these claims. This is evident from the fact staffing levels have changed several times since this started. Ms Stewart informed the committee how many extra staff she has been given. How many did she ask for? How many staff does SUSI need to ensure every application is decided on by Christmas? As Deputy Clare Daly pointed out, on SUSI’s best estimate there will still be thousands of students who will not have a grant by Christmas. It is important the committee is given the information it needs to put pressure on a cross-party basis on the Department to ensure SUSI is given the staff it needs to sort out this mess.
The delegation pointed out that there is only one formal complaint of lost documents. I have had several complaints to my office about documents being lost in the system. Is this an issue with quality checking with the external provider? I appreciate quality analysis was part of the original tender. What quality monitoring process is in place now?
I thank Ms Stewart for her presentation. The delays in the grant application process are not new. However, SUSI was put in place to sort out these delays. In a short period of its existence, the agency is already in crisis management mode which is totally unacceptable. I am not going to focus on what is being done to sort out the problems. I believe Ms Stewart will sort them out as she has outlined what she is trying to do in that regard.
Instead, I want to focus on the preparations for the major task City of Dublin VEC took on. It clearly wanted it and pitched for the tender. How did it prepare for it? It clearly underestimated the task involved and put insufficient resources behind it. Was a project planning team put in place? If so, were the right people on the team? Were widely used project-planning principles followed? In my view, there was a complete failure on the part of City of Dublin VEC to plan properly for this task it took on. It had experience in this area already and would have known the pattern and behaviour of student applications, so there is no excuse. Does the City of Dublin VEC understand what went wrong and how it failed to plan properly for this task?
Mr. Tom Prizeman:
Students are sent a pack and are asked for documentation that could range from seven to 20 pieces. That pack goes back to a PO box for Abtran in Cork. The post is sent to a secure postal room and is then scanned. Currently, it is being scanned every day. In early September, there was a delay of three days before it was scanned because of the volume of documents. Every piece of documentation that comes in is scanned.
It then goes into a merging queue. The scanner picks up the application number which is then merged with the person’s application. When we investigated claims of lost documents, we checked it with Abtran to discover the documents were scanned but the system did not know they were for that three-day period until they were merged into the system.
Mr. Tom Prizeman:
We can look at the separate case the Senator raised. However, there has been only one case so far in which the documents have not been tracked which could be because they were not delivered in the first place. We are investigating that one case.
I do not believe documentation is being lost. It is being scanned and merged with the application. For example, take the case of a student being asked for 15-piece documentation. When it is scanned in, it is then merged and an assessor checks to see the 15-piece documentation is all there. If some of the requested supporting documents are not there, a letter is generated to the student requesting them. A student may think it was submitted but it may not have been. I guarantee every piece of documentation received is scanned into the system. We have sent out 20,000 requests for full and complete packs. Back in September, when the packs were beginning to be returned, up to 56% of them were not complete. One could see on the system a tick for, say, two items requested and how two other requested items were not ticked. We would then recheck it to see if the items were missed in the scanning or not included.
In the first week when the packs started to come in, they were running at 100% accuracy. After the CAO offers on 15 September, the majority of packs started coming in and it got worse. Sending in incomplete applications may have been just students wanting to get something back to SUSI. It is probably our fault that the message sent out to students and their parents that the packs have to be complete was not strong enough. We need to get the message out clearly next year that all documentation needs to come back in one go to speed up the process.
We will look at any case the committee is concerned about, track it down and see the exact position.
Senator Moloney also asked about a matter that I have come across. The requirement for documentation to be signed by an accountant or solicitor has been pointed out as a problem for those who might not have an accountant or solicitor because they are on low incomes. They may be self-employed but may not have any money coming in.
Senator Power asked about the use of facilities. She also raised the matter of resources.
Ms Kay Cullinane:
I will take the question on the notice of assessment for the self-employed. In the main, if someone is self-employed we seek a notice of assessment and a copy of the accounts that he or she lodged in order to obtain that notice of assessment. That is the standard documentation for which we ask. As Mr. Prizeman stated, if there are questions about an individual case we would be happy to look into it. However, the normal documentation requested of the self-employed consists of the notice of assessment and the accounts submitted.
Businesses owned by the self-employed are closing down every day of the week. The self-employed can receive social welfare once they get a letter from their accountant. Many of those who are self-employed and on low incomes and who are in trouble cannot provide these accounts. If they can get social welfare from the State, surely if they get a letter from their accountant they can get this grant.
I must interrupt Deputy Bannon. I will let him comment afterwards, but I want to hear the answers to the questions asked by the remaining speakers. Then I will go back to members in the order in which they indicated they wished to speak.
Ms Jacinta Stewart:
Deputy Ryan asked about planning. We looked at a number of models of centralised systems. This is one of the developments that is taking place with regard to grants. In particular, we examined the Scottish awards system. We spoke to and consulted with bodies such as the Union of Students in Ireland, Institutes of Technology Ireland, the universities, the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Protection.
As the committee will be aware, we have much experience over a long period of awarding grants in Dublin city. We had an online system in place in Dublin city for the past two years - a practice run, if you like. We also had a group working on that who were planning and putting a structure in place. We went into a great deal of detail. We produced training manuals. We produced detailed documentation on Abtran. We have a service level agreement with it which specifies what we expect to happen at various stages of the process. We had expectations of how the documentation would come in at various stages, what would happen at each stage and how it would be dealt with.
Ms Jacinta Stewart:
Ideally, we would like every student to be paid now. That is not possible. We are doing our best. We did make mistakes. We are trying to improve and we are trying to ensure that the best possible service is offered to students. I cannot emphasise enough that we need full documentation.
Mr. Tom Prizeman:
Our projection of 30,000 grants being awarded by 21 December may be compared to the figure for January of last year, when 32,000 grants had been awarded throughout the country. Around 11,000 or 12,000 application packs did not come back last year, and we are finding the same this year. It is historical. Every year a certain percentage of applications do not come back. At present, there are between 13,000 and 15,000 applications that will probably never come back into the system and, historically, never have come back. The online system probably made it a little easier for students to apply. The process of online application might take 15 minutes. We will find that approximately 15,000 applicants will not come back into the process. After applying online, they receive their packs, they realise their incomes are over the limit and they do not take it any further. Historically, there is a percentage of applicants who never complete their applications.
Mr. Prizeman stated that 30,000 grants would be awarded by 21 December. Of the 66,000 applications, what is the expected total number of awards? We need to know the total in order to know the percentage of the total that will be made by 21 December.
Almost half of all applications processed have been refused. In response to a Topical Issue in the Dáil, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government stated that she expected 35,000 of the 66,000 applicants to be successful. If that is the case, it means that 30,000 will be unsuccessful. There is a big issue in this regard. If many of those who have applied are simply waiting to be told they will not get a grant, that means they will have to come up with the money to pay their student registration fees themselves. Many of them have persevered while awaiting the grant and they will be waiting a long time to get a negative answer, quite possibly leaving their futures in college in jeopardy.
On a final point, the witnesses might clarify whether the Ombudsman's remit covers SUSI.
I accept that Ms Stewart sincerely does not want to see a situation in which any student who is entitled to a grant is not awarded it, and she does not want to see any student drop out as a result of this fiasco, but the reality is that students are being forced to drop out. There are students who are now getting letters from their colleges asking for late fees because they have not been able to pay the charges. There are students who are being denied access to libraries. We have an e-mail from one student who, because he or she was denied access to a laboratory, was unable to hand in a project on time and is being penalised.
Mr. Prizeman's statement that documentation has not been lost simply does not correspond with what we are hearing from students. It is incredible that only one complaint has been issued. I do not accept that figure. SUSI gave a guarantee that every piece of documentation is scanned when it is received by the company in Cork. How does SUSI know that is the case? What checks has it put in place to ensure this happens?
SUSI is relying on the assurance of an outside agency that the documents are not being lost. What procedures has it put in place to ensure that is the case? The information we have received at this meeting does not tally with the information we have received from hundreds of students. Somebody is making a mistake and SUSI may have been misinformed by the company that is scanning the documents.
Students who live 150 km from their colleges are receiving the wrong grants. Can we be given figures for the number of cases that have gone to review rather than appeal? I am particularly interested in cases relating to adjacency and non-adjacency.
I again ask the witnesses to acknowledge that the system is not working. That will not do anything to help those students who are still waiting but at least we would have an admission of the problem by SUSI.
Several members have asked about personnel and we deserve an answer. How many personnel did Ms Stewart request from the Department to clear the backlog? Have additional personnel and resources been put in place? I do not want an answer on the increased numbers. I want to know if SUSI asked for a specific number of personnel to clear the backlog by December and, if so, whether the request was granted.
I do not want to rehearse questions raised earlier but, further to Deputy O'Brien's comments, there is a difference between the number of staff that will be provided to deal with the backlog and the number that are actually required. It is argued that 30,000 applications can be processed by 31 December. This leaves a large number of students in their current predicament. It is not good enough. What does SUSI need to clear the backlog more quickly?
Other speakers have referred to Deputies' having access to telephone helplines for medical cards and social welfare. Would it be useful to establish a one-stop shop in colleges to deal with issues with applications? It should not be up to Deputies to deal with the problems arising. The colleges should be able to work with SUSI so that a student can walk in and get help. A student from my area was told to send in his file and acceptance form on 24 September, and he did so only to be told his application was still at review stage. There appears to be a breakdown between what students are told and what is happening. If we do not see improvements quickly we will see some very angry students on the streets.
Our discussion has revealed that a crisis exists. I am not being smart when I say that the huge human cost has not been adequately acknowledged. Ms Stewart has acknowledged that the proposed solution will not alleviate the problem for at least 10,000 students. We will have a problem leaving this meeting, although it is nothing compared to the students who cannot sit their exams, go to the library or pay rent. We need some form of emergency action.
The proofs demanded from people are like a bureaucratic fetish. Is there any way in which we can simplify the procedure? If, for example, somebody can provide a tax assessment, why does he or she need to draw up a profit and loss statement to prove he or she did not earn money on a little bit of land? It should not be necessary if the information is already available from the Revenue Commissioners. It is not good enough to acknowledge that people will be left hanging.
If staffing is the answer, I ask Ms Stewart to quantify her resource requirement. Perhaps we will need to meet the Minister for Education and Skills or officials from his Department to discuss emergency measures, because it clear that the colleges will have to be dealt with so that the students who are being treated as second-class citizens through no fault of their own can be allowed to continue their education while this mess is being sorted.
In regard to providing services in colleges, during my time as an elected representative at Trinity College, the students' union, and its welfare officers in particular, were at the front line of helping students. I understand that SUSI has not yet put a system in place, which is a big gap. Will Ms Stewart consider putting such a system in place so that student union welfare officers can assist students? Will she ensure that more information is given out over helplines? The usual reply I receive to inquiries is that SUSI has issued a response to the student concerned, which is not particularly helpful because I am then required to get back in touch with the student to identify the gaps. If SUSI is going to deal with public representatives it must be able to provide an adequate amount of information.
I apologise for arriving late to the meeting and thank the Chairman for allowing me to contribute even though I am not a member of the committee. I raised this issue in the Dáil last month and I am glad to see that some of the issues have been addressed. I understand the appeals system has been outsourced to somebody in Cork. How many records have been lost? When I contacted SUSI in regard to one student who had appealed, there was no record of his appeal. The student had proof of postage but he had to resend his details.
Are late applications a major problem? Some students may not have been offered courses until the beginning of September, which means their applications will be arriving late. Can anything be done to help SUSI to deliver this service? Finally, what will it do differently next year?
When questions are asked in groups, we are not getting answers. Could I have answer to that question? Will deploying additional staff ensure the problem is sorted before Christmas? It is not acceptable that only 30,000 grants will be paid by the end of the year. That leaves thousands more without payment. What are those people to do? Are the systems in place not adequate to sort out this mess? Who is accountable? Who will take responsibility? Will Ms Stewart accept that the system is not working? Will she acknowledge the hardship and distress caused to the applicants who still await payment? Will an apology issue or will the message to the students who are waiting for their payments from this meeting be that the system is working?
Ms Stewart did not reply to my question about the Ombudsman. What percentage of people are not proceeding with their applications? I take it that 99% applied online. SUSI has an e-mail address for all of them. It is a simple matter to send them an e-mail asking them whether they intend to proceed with their application. If they say "No", they can be ruled out and SUSI can start work on the others.
Since students are not fully registered in college, as well as all the problems pointed out, there is a knock-on effect. If one is applying for social welfare payments, one needs the application stamped by the college to say one is registered to get a social welfare payment. Will Ms Stewart comment on that?
I had a query earlier from a parent of an applicant. They were informed last week that the payment was coming through but yesterday they were informed that there was a mistake in the system and everything had been wiped from the computer. I can give Ms Stewart the names and details after the meeting and I would be grateful if she would look into it. The man I spoke to was distraught.
I have a few questions. Does a letter issue to students that they can show college administrators confirming they have made a grant application in order that they can use the facilities?
When people make tax returns online, only digital copies are available, yet the students are asked for original documents from Revenue. Will Ms Stewart clarify the position on that?
I refer to the Deputy Griffin's question about applications being processed by Christmas. Will applications be outstanding at that stage? Ms Stewart said earlier that she believed that of the applications received, 15,000 will not proceed because the applicants have probably realised they are not eligible when they were asked for documentation. How many applications will remain to be assessed after Christmas? Did SUSI consult VECs and local authorities around the country about potential pitfalls? I acknowledge CDVEC did this.
Ms Kay Cullinane:
We have Department of Education and Skills statistics on this. Historically, 35,000 new applications were awarded every year. While we have 66,000 applicants, 35,000 will receive a new award this year. Based on the current trend, another 13,000 will be refused and as the chief executive officer pointed out, approximately 15,000 do not complete the grant application. We will still be looking at possibly 5,000 applications after Christmas. The majority will be applications we received after the closing date, which was approximately 10,000. We have provisionally assessed 5,000 of those and have moved them through the system and we will work on the remaining 5,000 as we move towards the end of the year and the start of the new year.
Ms Jacinta Stewart:
Up until now, the VEC was not subject to the Ombudsman's remit. My understanding is legislation is currently going through the Dáil to ensure VECs-ETBs will be part of that.
Mr. Tom Prizeman:
I refer to the question about the planning that went into the scanning of the documents. In 2010, the grants online system went live for 11 awarding authorities. At that stage, the student got a rough guide of what documentation was required and we found that, because we had used e-mail, the student did not return the documentation. Historically, many parents deal with the applications on behalf of students and, therefore, the decision was made that it would make the system straightforward to send out a pack to the student through which they would be asked for the documentation required and told in the appendix where to get it. It is a three to five-year project and we hope to get rid of much of the documentation by year five but it will take time to do that. We looked at the idea of students scanning in the documentation and it is something that will potentially happen in year two or three but a great deal depends on the quality of the photocopies coming in. Part of the job that has to be done is to darken or lighten the photocopies to make them legible. It is a good idea for the students to be able to send in their documentation by e-mail or a format like that but there are drawbacks relating to quality. It was looked at and it is being looked at.
Ms Kay Cullinane:
The appeals system we have in place is working with Cork VEC as a unit of SUSI. It was chosen because it has expertise in grants and we felt the person doing the appeals should have expertise and should be slightly removed from the assessors carrying out the initial assessment. When the students fill in the appeal form, which they download from the CDVEC's website, Cork VEC processes it. The students and our main office are then informed by Cork VEC about the outcome of the appeal.
I do not want to get into individual cases. Appeals are not logged when they arrive by post. There was documentation in the case I referred to and the student had postage receipts but there was no evidence it had arrived in Cork. That is the issue. Are there other examples of that?
Ms Kay Cullinane:
The appeals process is a formal legislative process that students enter into starting with our internal appeals unit in Cork and finishing, if the student is unhappy with the determination, with the national appeals board.
However, if a student feels an error was made in our general processing as opposed to an application of the scheme which can be addressed by SUSI we will address it in a review.
With regard to adjacent and non-adjacent grants, I spoke to a student who felt the grant awarded was not correct. When she contacted SUSI to point this out she was informed she had to appeal the decision. She was never told about the review option. The witnesses should examine this because students are being told they must appeal decisions rather than have them reviewed. Perhaps there is miscommunication which could be rectified very quickly.
Ms Jacinta Stewart:
This year the scheme opened in June and we would like it to open earlier because if it were opened in March it would give everybody a chance to have the documentation in place. There is a real question mark over whether the closing date should be hard. As we stated, approximately 10,000 applications were received after the closing date. Deputy Griffin asked whether we can reduce the amount of documentation required and we can do so in a number of ways. One way would be for students to give us permission when they are applying through the CAO to obtain the information once they are accepted onto a course. At present, people are going to social welfare offices to obtain their social welfare documentation and then sending it to us. It would make far more sense to have a direct link between us and the Department of Social Protection. It would also make a huge difference if we could develop links with Revenue's online service. It would take much of the paper out of the system and make it clearer.
Ms Kay Cullinane:
The documentary evidence required for the scheme is laid down in the regulations and statutory instruments on administering it. We are required to ask for the documentary evidence as laid down in the scheme. For a self-employed person this involves the accounts they submitted to Revenue in whatever form they were submitted and accepted, and the notice of assessment which issued. We do not have a choice in this as we must administer the scheme as it is laid down in the regulations.
One question remains unanswered and perhaps the witnesses either do not want to or cannot answer it. How many additional resources or personnel were asked for and were they obtained? The witnesses keep stating they will receive X amount but what we all want to know is whether this was what they asked the Department to put in place to deal with it.
Considering the fact that thousands of applications will not be processed and payments will not be made until after Christmas will the witnesses consider asking for more staff on top of what they have already asked for to ensure students are paid earlier?
Ms Jacinta Stewart:
We have a process in place of bringing in more staff. As I mentioned, there will be ten such people next Monday. We must ensure they are properly trained and in place and have the knowledge to deal with the system. We will ask for more if we feel it necessary and that we will not achieve what we want.
Ms Jacinta Stewart:
The reason I am being very careful about answering this is that we need people with a knowledge of the system and how it operates. It is quite technical and we want to ensure possible inconsistencies or mistakes arise as rarely as possible. This is how we are trying to get through the system at present.
Students and lecturers in Letterkenny Institute of Technology state students will drop out shortly because they are awaiting a decision. Many people in local authorities and VECs have dealt with applications over the years and have local knowledge and expertise. Is there a reason such people could not be placed in third level institutions to deal with stressed students? These students could meet someone face to face who could then deal with their case. At present people are telephoning and e-mailing. Whether or not the system is working is of no comfort to students and parents waiting for applications to be processed.
The quality of photocopies submitted with applications was mentioned. Are the original documents also submitted?
In that case there is a risk of falsifying the photocopies, which is the simplest thing in the world to do. To bring this back to my first point, if people with local knowledge were involved they would be more aware of people and would know to ask for originals. If one asks for a photocopy of a tax clearance certificate there is no way it is 100% verifiable. I am in the insurance business and one does not rely on photocopies and faxed documentation. A major scam involves people using false no claims bonuses from around the world. The issue of photocopies must be addressed.
I welcome the witnesses. From my experience I know this is a very difficult time for them because I used to be an education spokesperson and I was a lecturer in colleges. Since last Thursday I have had 134 contacts from students. It is the worst crisis I have seen with regard to student grants. It reminds me of the mess when medical card applications were first centralised.
Has the problem in administration been pinned down? What action has been taken to rectify it? Has contact been made with the universities and colleges? When students contact me they tell me they were told weeks ago that the money was on the way but it has not come. What action has been taken to intervene to save their places in college? Some of these students do not know whether they are coming or going and it is affecting their learning. It also puts pressure on their parents. Some of these kids are just hanging on and we must remember they are only 18 or 19.
This is not the first time this has happened as we have had backlogs previously and, for example, if NUI, Galway received confirmation from the student grant office the students' places would be held and they would be allowed into the library. Have these interventions been made? Why were students told the money was on its way when it has not yet arrived? Is the application method web-based whereby if not all of the information is received the application cannot be processed?
If all of the information is not being submitted, the application cannot be processed. One third of applications are incomplete. It is not as simple as booking a Ryanair ticket, as one needs a great deal of supporting documentation, but a method of fool-proofing the web-based process at the beginning could expedite matters.
Mr. Tom Prizeman:
The online application form is intelligent. For example, if one tells it that one has parents, it asks for their details. If one tells it that does not have parents, it does not ask for those details. The online application form is good, but incomplete applications fall on the documentation or follow-on side. The online system guides people through depending on the answers they give.
Mr. Tom Prizeman:
A question was asked about students being told that payments were on the way. A letter is sent telling the student that he or she has been awarded and directs him or her to go online and enter his or her bank details. Once that is done and the college confirms the student's registration, the payment will be made from the following week onwards. We are currently paying on a weekly basis. A process is in place - bank details must be entered and a college must confirm that a student is in attendance. It is the last step in the puzzle.
Mr. Tom Prizeman:
When the student applies online, he or she receives an e-mail straight away confirming receipt of the application. This has been done since 11 June and forms part of the first assessment. The system has been improved so that the majority of people who are going to be refused are refused up front. They do not need to be asked to send documentation. A question was asked about the 10,000 applicants refused. It will be to a lesser extent from this point on, as those who are still in the system will more than likely be paid, although this depends on their courses being approved and not being at the same academic level.
Mr. Tom Prizeman:
I did not answer one of Senator Moloney's questions. She stated that some calls could last for longer than 20 minutes. That would be a worst case scenario. The average waiting time is between five and six minutes and the average length of a call is six minutes. After two minutes on the telephone, the applicant is offered the option to leave a message for our call-back service.
Mr. Tom Prizeman:
We did that for ourselves last year just to finish up the process. Some 800 applicants to the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee, CDVEC, had not sent documentation by February, at which point we sent out letters. Only 15 or so applicants replied. The remaining applications were dead, that is, when a student does not say whether he or she is continuing the process. We are concentrating on the applications that we have in hand. They are our main priority.
I appreciate that, from 11 June onwards, there was up-front confirmation of receipt of the applications and that a student could give that letter or e-mail to the university. We are five months on. What can the CDVEC do to help the outstanding two thirds? I accept that the process must be worked through. Will the Chairman please secure an answer to my question?
Has the CDVEC considered how the system in, for example, the UK operates? What are its structures and how successful has it been? Does the CDVEC have an annual budget for the grant process? What does the typical student grant amount to each year?
Ms Jacinta Stewart:
It varies. We considered the Scottish model in particular. One problem is that the grant is being means tested within a short period, as the student is more or less in college from the beginning. We wanted to commence the system as quickly as possible. The annual budget is approximately €5.5 million this year.
I thank Ms Stewart, Mr. Prizeman and Ms Cullinane for attending today's meeting. While this has been a helpful meeting, there are many matters outstanding. This meeting was convened following representations to members by constituents around their concerns about the system. I will emphasise again that we may be in contact about individual cases and would be anxious to obtain as much information as possible for constituents.
I thank members for their contributions to what has been a lengthy but informative meeting and remind them that we are meeting informally tomorrow at 4 p.m. with a visiting group from the Australian Parliament.