Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 12 September 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
Eligibility Criteria of Student Universal Support Ireland: Discussion
Our business today is No. 10 on our agenda, engagement with stakeholders on the eligibility, application procedure and appeals process of the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant. On behalf of the committee, I welcome the three stakeholders. We are joined by Ms Lorna Fitzpatrick, president of the Union of Students in Ireland, USI. She is very welcome to her first meeting with the Joint Committee on Education and Skills and I wish her the best of luck in the term she has ahead. I welcome Ms Ciara Fanning, who is president of the Irish Second–Level Students Union. We always make a point of engaging with students and student representative bodies. I wish her well in her year ahead too. I also welcome Mr. Philip Connolly, who is the grants processing manager for Student Universal Support Ireland. I will invite all three witnesses to make a brief opening statement, of a maximum of three minutes each. That will be followed by engagement with members of the committee.
I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by me, as Chair, to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a 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 they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I advise witnesses that any opening statement they make to the committee will be published on the committee website after the meeting.
I remind members 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 either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Ms Lorna Fitzpatrick:
I thank members for having us today. I am here on behalf of the Union of Students in Ireland, which represents more than 374,000 students across the island of Ireland. USI recognises and appreciates that the SUSI grant is a great support to students throughout their time in college. We welcome this review. We believe there is a wider issue with budget decisions that have had an impact on students and their families, such as changes to the adjacency rate and cuts to the levels of awards for both undergraduate and postgraduate students. USI has been lobbying for the reversal of those decisions since 2011, which is laid out in our pre-budget submission, which was circulated to the committee in advance of this meeting.
I will address the eligibility criteria. We understand the need for procedures to facilitate a faster application and decision-making process but we believe there are areas that can be improved, which could lead to a much better system that could better support students through their time in college. We believe there is a need for additional flexibility with regard to the eligibility procedures. As we know, life can be full of unexpected occurrences and as a result, some applications may not fit the criteria as comfortably as others. We believe there should be flexibility to support students throughout the application procedure and that they should be supported when there is a clear need for support but they may not exactly meet each criterion outlined. This flexibility should extend to supporting documentation requested and we believe the documentation accepted should be reviewed and extended, especially about residency and independent status. Given the current costs associated with accessing education, we recommend that the earning limit and specific time period that students can work under be removed from the holiday earnings element of the SUSI application.
The second element we were asked to comment on related to the application procedure. We commend SUSI on the work it has completed in improving the application procedure for students, including the students' union, SU, officer helpline, which is an invaluable source. We believe a change in the system of how SUSI notifies colleges about awards granted to students would be helpful. We have heard from students who have been contacted by colleges about missing fee payment deadlines. However, they received an award and their fees have been covered by SUSI. This has resulted in students being prevented from accessing certain areas on campus and their online learning platforms, which, as the committee will understand, has a significant impact on their educational experience.
We were asked to consider the appeals process. Again, we believe there should be more flexibility allowed for changes in circumstances. Students experience many changes throughout their time in college, some of which are completely out of their control and we do not believe they should be penalised for this. We also recommend that greater emphasis be placed on exceptional circumstances when students are appealing a SUSI decision. If they have applied to SUSI and later experience something that qualifies as an exceptional circumstance, they should be in a position to appeal the original decision and fully understand the procedure available to them to do so.
The Union of Students in Ireland welcomes the opportunity to review the SUSI grants system. We believe this sets the agenda for reforms to ensure students who are in need of financial support can receive such support to further their education. Our submission goes into more detail on some of the topics I have highlighted but also makes additional recommendations, on which I will gladly answer questions. Students and their families are struggling to access post-second level education. SUSI is a great support to students and helps to alleviate some of the financial pressures. However, with fees among the highest in the world and the spiralling cost of living, students need additional financial support. That being said, making the system more user-friendly and flexible would be a welcome advancement. We need to break down the barriers faced by students when accessing education. Reforming the SUSI system would be one step on that path.
Ms Ciara Fanning:
On behalf of the Irish Second-Level Students Union, ISSU, I thank the Chairman, Deputies and Senators for inviting us to discuss the SUSI grants system. As the representative voice of second level students, we welcome the consultation with students on student issues.
One of the biggest barriers facing second level students regarding the SUSI grant is the inability to be classed as a financially independent candidate if one is under 23 years on 1 January preceding the start of one's course. Many students are supporting themselves by working part time while at second level and throughout their third level education. These are the students who are most in need of independent candidate status. Their parents' income, no matter the amount, has no influence on their own financial situation. The criteria for estrangement are very strict, with most students not meeting them but still facing the task of financing themselves if they wish to continue to third level. The ISSU recommends that the criteria for students under the age of 23 years to be eligible for classification as financially independent candidates be made less severe to allow for a more empathic and understanding system for students who are trying to progress their education. With the rising cost of living and education, many second level students work part time throughout their education and during the summer holidays. The number of 16 and 17 year olds in employment increased by more than 20% in three years, from 25,000 in 2015 to 30,650 in 2017. ISSU members have reported having to leave part-time employment in order to be eligible for the SUSI grant, as their own income would put them just over the edge of the eligibility criteria, meaning that there is more to lose than gain by working part time. In an economy where it is necessary for a lot of young people to find part-time work and where many sectors rely on these workers, the system should not be punishing them for so doing. We recommend that the allowance for earnings of students with summer employment be extended to include weekend and part-time work throughout the academic year.
While the SUSI grant, in its current form, still serves its purpose as an accessibility tool to allow students to progress to third level, the amount payable to recipients has remained the same since its introduction in 2012. This is no longer reflective of the cost of living faced by students, particularly for housing in larger cities. Where once a maintenance grant of €3,000 may have covered the full cost of student accommodation for the academic term, now it does not even cover half the cost in major cities such as Dublin, Cork and Galway. For the SUSI grant to fulfil its intended purpose, it is essential that it be increased to reflect the increased cost of living for students in order to make third level education as accessible as possible. Allowances should be made for students attending institutions in larger towns and cities and the rents payable for purpose-built student accommodation on campuses and through private providers should be capped.
Third level education must be accessible to all students, regardless of income and financial background. The SUSI grants system must be as efficient as possible to allow students to progress with the development of their education. The reality is that the cost of living is much higher today than in 2012. We ask committee members to take this into account and take on board our recommendations to ensure SUSI, as intended, will not leave any student behind.
Mr. Philip Connolly:
I thank the joint committee for inviting representatives of SUSI to attend. I am the grant operations manager. SUSI has also been invited by the committee to make a written submission on the grant eligibility criteria which are prescribed in the Student Support Act and the student grant schemes and regulations issued annually by the Minister for Education and Skills. Our written submission summarises the statutory provisions for the information of the committee and outlines the administrative processes and procedures SUSI implements to enable students to avail of grant funding under the schemes.
I take the opportunity to inform the committee briefly about our work and current focus on processing grant applications for the forthcoming 2019-20 academic year. The core work of SUSI is the processing of large volumes of applications within a short timeframe to determine eligibility under the criteria outlined in the legislation. Almost 100,000 applications are received annually and almost 80,000 grants awarded, representing a sum of €350 million annually in grant support for students.
SUSI workflows and staffing levels are seasonally variable, as grant applications are processed from April to October and grant payments made to students and colleges from September to June. Additional temporary assessment staff are recruited annually, while scaleable customer support and document management functions are delivered through outsourced providers. The SUSI support desk provides advice and information for students at all stages of the process through telephone, e-mail and social media communications and our website. We also attend college open days and other information events for students nationwide.
As a modern, centralised Government service, the continuous improvement of service delivery for students is central to our planning and work cycles from year to year. The SUSI application submission process is online and further online services continue to be added. The assessment process is streamlined through the use of information technology. Applications are verified through extended data sharing with other Government agencies. Maintenance grant payments are made directly to students' bank accounts, while fee grants are paid to colleges on their behalf.
Based on these improvements, students have been able to apply to SUSI earlier each year. Application turnaround times are shorter, while the requirement for supporting documents has been greatly reduced, with increasing numbers of students receiving a decision on the basis of their online applications alone without the need for supporting documents. All students receive earlier decisions on their applications and earlier payment of their grants. A very high level of customer support is provided for students throughout the grant application and payment process, including increased communication on opening and closing dates. A service level agreement is in place with the Department of Education and Skills to ensure SUSI continues to meet and improve on its performance targets in all of these areas and, for their part, students are encouraged to apply to SUSI as early as possible to ensure a decision on their grant applications before they accept a college place or return to college.
Since our online application system opened, following the publication of the 2019 grants scheme in April, we have received 90,000 of an expected 96,500 grant applications for the forthcoming 2019-20 academic year. A total of 81% of all expected applications were received before the priority processing dates in June and July. To date, we have finalised 74,000 of these applications. Of the remaining applications, 9,500 are awaiting receipt of documents requested from students, while SUSI has 6,500 applications in hand for processing. Average turnaround times for submitted applications and documents are running at less than two weeks. SUSI is processing more than 5,000 applications a week. A total of 63,000 grants have been awarded to date this year. Subject to confirmation by colleges in the coming weeks that students are registered and attending their courses, we expect to commence payment of 50,000 grants by the end of this month. This represents 69% of the expected total number of grants to be paid this year, a figure which will rise to 91% by the end of October and 98% by the end of November as students enter or return to college. SUSI will also be making payments on a weekly basis from September to December to ensure students receive their first monthly grant payment as soon as possible after their registration is confirmed.
While SUSI does not have an advisory or policy-making role on student grants, we will be happy to answer members' questions about the operational arrangements in place to make the grants scheme accessible to students and ensure grant applications and payments will continue to be processed fairly, uniformly and efficiently.
I thank Mr. Connolly. It is important to stress the point that SUSI does not have a policy-making role and that its representatives are here to discuss its operations. Having said that, I have no doubt that there will be plenty of questions from members.
I thank all of the representatives for their presentations. I will focus on Mr. Connolly. I agree with everything included in his submission. I am sure other committee members will pick up on what is included in the other presentations.
I heard what Mr. Connolly had to say about operations, but in a sense it is about policies because to improve operations we might need to improve the policies attached to them.
From Mr. Connolly's experience of rolling out the system, what knowledge has he gathered in the time he has spent in his position about the barriers to people accessing SUSI? According to documentation, SUSI is refusing affidavits as a form of proof of parents being estranged. Why is that so? What kind of documentation does SUSI suggest a child or young person should provide to show that he or she has lived with a grandparent for 20 years because of a volatile situation with his or her parents? I will cite an example that I only received yesterday, although the girl in question is not the only person to have experienced this. She supplied an affidavit, a birth certificate with no father named on it, provided an overview of her situation and showed proof of her having lived with her grandmother. SUSI's response was that she needed to get a letter from her mother as proof, a mother to whom she had not spoken in a long time. I wonder about SUSI's training around and understanding of some of the predicaments that young people can be put in just to have their applications processed. Women get affidavit forms signed in order to acquire passports for children who are estranged from their fathers, yet an affidavit, which is a legal document, is being refused by SUSI. What is the policy behind that?
In Mr. Connolly's experience of applications and working with his team, who else should be viewed as a class of people in terms of independence or dependence? Should social determinants be taken into account when, for example, someone exceeds the financial threshold slightly but is the first person in his or her family to go to college? There are other social determinants. A mother might be a hairdresser and a father might work in construction, bringing them slightly over the threshold, but they have no educational background themselves. Since SUSI's establishment, should other classes have been recognised when making refusals? I am not asking Mr. Connolly to comment on policy, but on his wealth of experience of trends among the people applying.
Should family sizes be taken into account? Should we switch from income to outgoings? An income can look one way, but with high rents, mortgages and costs of living, someone could still be in the red and above SUSI's threshold regardless of his or her income. In light of Mr. Connolly's experience of the types of people being refused, should the threshold be tweaked?
I am not asking Mr. Connolly for his personal opinion, but in terms of the grant following the person rather than the institution, do many people fall through the cracks because of their socio-economic backgrounds? They are not in a position to get the points they need, so they are forced into private colleges that they cannot afford. I understand the arguments for not funding private colleges, but should the grant follow particular classes of people instead of institutions?
I hope that all of my questions were clear.
I thank the witnesses for attending and presenting. The financial pressure on students is extraordinary. We could deal with each question and each aspect of the SUSI programme individually, but that would fundamentally be to miss the bigger picture, that being, underinvestment in the core funding of third level institutions by the Government. We should not ignore that in our discussions today - it is the elephant in the room. We have the second highest student fees in the EU. If the UK leaves, we will be promoted to the No. 1 spot. That is the Government unfairly placing the burden on students. It must change.
The Government has chosen to cast a blind eye on the country's crumbling third level institutions.
In 2008, State spending on third level education was just under €9,000 per student and it is less than €5,000 per student 11 years later. That does not make sense. It is no wonder we saw reports yesterday that Trinity College Dublin has dropped more than 40 places in the international university ranking. It used to be in the top 100 universities. Core funding is linked to everything we are discussing today and that has been ignored by the Government. Despite every member of this committee seeking to have the concerns raised in the Cassells report addressed, they have been ignored by the Government. Do the student witnesses feel that if core funding were addressed, it would relieve the current pressure on students?
The non-adjacent rate criteria have increased the distance from home to study location from 24 km to 45 km. I have met representatives from the USI a few times. In its pre-budget submission, the USI refers to Birr, County Offaly, which is 40 km from the nearest third level institution, namely, Athlone Institute of Technology. However, the earliest a student from Birr can arrive at Athlone Institute of Technology if using a bus service is 1.25 p.m. That is of no use to students as they will have missed half a day. The USI also mentions that Killarney is 36 km from the Institute of Technology, Tralee, but the cost of commuting to the town is only €1.50 less per week by bus or 10 cent less per week by train than the cost of student accommodation.
The non-adjacent rate criteria must be reviewed. I appreciate that as the criteria apply generally, they may be seen as fair, but the methods of calculation seem to make little or no sense. They do not take into account glaring issues as outlined in the case studies I mention. We have appalling public transport in this country, especially in the more rural parts outside Dublin where students face greater dilemmas when the 45 km criterion applies. We must ensure the calculations are done in a more effective way. I understand the transparency involved in using Google maps but it does not take into account realities for students as outlined in the two case studies I mentioned.
Has there been any engagement with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, specifically with respect to the provision of public transport to third level institutions? Does SUSI envisage a framework that would address some of the issues outlined in the Athlone and Kerry cases I have brought to the attention of the committee thanks to the work of the USI?
We cannot ignore the core funding aspect in discussing these matters but we also cannot ignore equality of access to education. If we are discussing barriers to people accessing SUSI, we must consider barriers to people simply trying to access education. This brings into play the matter of direct provision. Asylum seekers are currently considered international students when applying for higher education, meaning they must pay somewhere between €10,000 and €20,000 in fees. What sort of country are we? This indicates to asylum seekers that they can only go to second level. That is the message we are giving these people who are most vulnerable and who we should try to support and protect. We are meant to ensure they can get a fair shot in our country but we are saying "No". It is a policy matter but one we must address. A number of measures have been taken, including a pilot support scheme, but that has been in place since 2015. How long should something remain a pilot scheme before real and long-lasting measures are implemented? We are four years on.
Could the criterion of proving residency for three of the past five years in order to be eligible for SUSI services be reviewed? Those who are seeking asylum do not get to choose how long they will be living in our country so how will they meet that criterion? They are seeking refuge and also a fair shot. Education is the greatest equaliser of all but only if we make it equal.
That is a conversation that needs to be had. The criterion regarding residency for three of the last five years must be reviewed.
Ms Fanning outlined the dependency criterion in great detail. I do not understand why all students up to the age of 23 years are classed as dependants, regardless of their living status, whether they are homeless or are not living with their families because they had decided not to or had been forced from their home. We are not considering these cases. Will someone explain the logic of this, as it is not the reality of many students today? I anticipate that it relates to how mature students are classified as such from the age of 23 but that does not relate to dependency. Many people are totally independent from the age of 18, 19 or 20. Does SUSI or the USI have information on how many students fall into this category of being independent under the SUSI criteria were it not for the age restriction?
I thank all those who presented to the committee. I will follow on from the point made by Deputy Catherine Martin on the Cassells report. We discussed this in private session. That it has been referred to the European Union means a further delay. It needs to be addressed and this committee wishes to move forward on it.
The other major issue, which Ms Fitzpatrick mentioned, is the cost of accommodation for students, which has vastly increased in recent years. This puts great pressure on students regardless of whether they access SUSI. That is one reason I wished to concentrate on the adjacent rate versus the non-adjacent rate. I understand that Mr. Connolly is not here to discuss policy but can he speak on the use of measuring the shortest distance rather than the indicated journey duration, which is the terminology used in the regulations? We all know of situations where the shortest distance is not the route one can take for whatever reason, whether one takes public transport or not. In many cases, people are forced to drive, which also adds to pollution, etc. Can all the witnesses indicate whether this arises as one of the big issues preventing young people from accessing the full SUSI grant, whereby they cannot live at home but still are unable to access the full grant?
My constituency office receives many cases relating to appeals, as no doubt do others. The appeals system beyond SUSI has some more flexibility. Do Mr. Connolly and the SUSI office find it frustrating that SUSI is unable to show the same flexibility? We have experience of several cases that eventually were overturned and where the grant was given but the regulations under SUSI are very specific. Presumably it is not possible to veer from them. I do not know whether Mr. Connolly can answer that question but it seems that more flexibility in the highly rigid SUSI system might address many of these issues.
The regulations regarding holiday earnings are also very rigid. Both Ms Fanning and Ms Fitzpatrick made the point that a deterrent to students working does not make sense. The holiday period in the summer is just June, July and August, it does not even go into September. There is an argument for more flexibility. The system has been in place since 2012, the legislation having been passed in 2011. It is time to review the lack of flexibility.
I have another question specifically for Mr. Connolly. My constituency office dealt with a case where a family received an inheritance.
That seems to have been taken into account in determining whether the son or daughter of that particular family could get a SUSI grant, even though it was only a once-off payment, not a yearly income. That is totally wrong given it is a once-off amount that accrued because an older family member died and left money to the family.
Others have covered, and will cover again, the issue of dependency. Students could be married with kids and in a partnership at the age of 23 and have no financial dependence on their parents whatsoever and yet still be considered a dependant and have their parents' incomes taken into account when considering their eligibility for a grant. That needs to be reviewed.
I have one more question for Mr. Connolly. Once defined, an applicant's class continues to apply for the duration of their studies at that level and an applicant is, thus, only reclassified on progressing from further education to higher education. It also seems very unfair that, even if circumstances change, one cannot make a change during those studies. Is that correct? That also needs to be reviewed.
We are talking, to a large extent, about how SUSI applies, its criteria and eligibility. It is worth remarking upon that and I invite comments from ISSU and the USI on this matter because SUSI is constrained. SUSI does not go far enough most of the time. The Minister for Education and Skills is advising people to use the SUSI grant for accommodation, which is not what it is for, and even if it was, it would not go anywhere near far enough, particularly in the large, urban centres. We need to address how this applies and ensure that everyone who is entitled gets a grant but we must acknowledge the fact that, very often, the grant does not go anywhere near far enough to ensure that people have the right to third level education such as they should and as was intended. I invite comments on that.
I have a question for Mr. Connolly, which is similar to that put by Deputy O'Sullivan. SUSI is rules-based. I am, in general, a fan of rules-based systems. For example, 95% of the social welfare system is rules-based but 5% is still discretionary. We experience the value of that in our constituency offices. There is no way that a set of rules can always take into account every set of circumstances; it is impossible. I believe that discretion is of value in the social welfare system. Is there any element of discretion in the SUSI grant process? Do our guests think it would benefit from discretion? Do they think there are circumstances in which discretion could be applied? I imagine there are and discretion exists in many other areas of public provision.
I have also come across the issue of how SUSI deals with evaluating income in instances where overtime is a significant consideration. Could our guests clarify that? I have come across cases of people on a 12-month contract with Apple, or a company such as that, and something big happens in the plant that results in three months of fantastic overtime and, at the end of it, they return to a very modest income. People can sometimes find themselves in difficulty because, on paper and for a period, it looks as if their income is much higher than it is over a longer period and they are under a lot more financial pressure than their overtime-inflated income suggests.
The issue of dependency has been, rightly, commented on a few times. I will give two examples of cases I have come across, one involving a person aged under 23 and the other concerning a person over 23. The first case involves a man who was just out of school and who had a difficult relationship with his parents. He was couch-surfing and his parents would not give him so much as the money for a cup of coffee; no support was being given at all. The young man could not afford to find accommodation of his own and was couch-surfing in the homes of friends and other relatives. He found it very difficult to establish that he was not dependent on his parents. My recollection of the case is that SUSI deemed him not to be independent but the case went through an independent appeals process and he was found to be independent.
It still took a very long time and it was very difficult for him in those circumstances.
I also found one case of someone who was over 23. The automatic assumption concerning those under 23 is difficult but again I refer to discretion. We are in a housing crisis. People find themselves in situations they do not expect. I came across a nursing student who was entering her second year. She supported herself through her first year and the cost of doing so meant she had to return to her parents' home. She was welcome there but she was married with three kids. She moved back to her parents' house because of the accommodation situation. She was a mature student. She discovered SUSI in her second year and sought to apply for the grant to ease the pressure on her income. She was married with three kids but was not treated as an independent student. Surely that cannot be right. It may be within the rules but it indicates the need for discretion.
I was previously a spokesperson on children. People dealing with children leaving care and people in aftercare indicated to me that they found the SUSI system to be very rigid. There is a need for additional flexibility for those who are in aftercare or are leaving care. People might leave a care situation, apply for a third level course, find it is not for them and drop out. Suddenly, that door is closed to them and there is not enough flexibility. Perhaps these people should not be obliged to defer for so long or perhaps they should have the option to defer without losing their entitlements. Like those in direct provision, they are a particular category and supporting them through their education requires a specific approach.
A rules-based system is important. While I agree that SUSI is rigid, the rules must be changed on this side of the desk and I am not sure whether Mr. Connolly has a role in that. Does he advise the Government on the statutory scheme that is published every year? Can Mr. Connolly comment on the reduction in the SUSI budget this year? Is that having an impact? The Estimate provided for SUSI by the Department of Education and Skills was down by €2 million from last year. Does Mr. Connolly expect that to get worse or better during the year? Can he outline the number of postgraduates who have received grants since that was restored as a result of the confidence and supply agreement? If there has been already a reduction this year and more postgraduates are coming into the system without a change in income thresholds etc., does SUSI expect a reduction in the overall number receiving grants?
I agree with a lot of the points that have been made. I encountered one case that I thought was very unfair. We all have cases like this. A parent got a bonus last year. Crazily, it was taken into account this year although it was a once-off bonus and it put this person over the threshold. I thought provisions for a change of circumstances would apply in that regard. It is having a profound effect. I also had a case concerning an inheritance. It could not be recorded as zero but it was a field which could not be sold. It was not accepted that it was of zero value and it put someone over the limit. I am sure someone would have taken it but it certainly was of no use to the family.
Moreover, in breach of the general data protection regulation, GDPR, legislation, SUSI requires Deputies - and presumably Senators - to provide consents for constituents. Under the GDPR legislation, SUSI can assume that we have the consent if we have the information and as such, we do not need to call punters to get forms. That is a mistake on SUSI's part. It is not required by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I am pushing back against a State body in this regard. If someone comes to us, SUSI is entitled to assume that we have his or her consent to make a representation.
I welcome Ms Fanning, Ms Fitzpatrick and Mr. Connolly and thank them for their presentation. I am conscious that all the guns seem to be pointed in Mr. Connolly's direction this morning and the two ladies are getting an easy ride. To be fair, it is important to acknowledge that for all its faults, a lot of families would not have experienced third level education without SUSI.
As other speakers have already alluded to, there are serious problems with it.
What seems to be in vogue is a policy of the door being either shut or open. It is the inflexibility of SUSI that frustrates people and numerous examples of that have been given here this morning. I appreciate that Mr. Connolly is just doing his job and implementing the guidelines and criteria given to him. It is important that we acknowledge that as well. What I would like to see, based on the contributions of witnesses and members here today, is for a review of the refusals to be done on an annual basis, in order to learn what policies should be changed or tweaks made so that more people would avail of the grant. Our key goal here is for there to be no barrier to any child wanting to go on to further education, and that is the backdrop to why we are all here today.
For a certain cohort of people there is no help or financial assistance given to them whatsoever for sending their children to college. If one is living in rural Ireland, or does not live close to the cities of Dublin, Cork, or Galway, then the cost of accommodation is a major issue, and it is increasing year on year. It is putting some families under severe financial pressure, so much so that they are having to make do with very little in order for their children to go to college. For that cohort of people whose gross income may be over the threshold, there is absolutely no help available, and that is something that needs to be looked at. The lack of flexibility in the current system is hurting those people more than most. We can all give numerous examples of different people who have come to our constituency offices. A husband and wife came into mine who had 11 children. Their gross income was over the limit, but one can only imagine the costs of having 11 children and having to rear 11 children in a household. Yet no consideration is given for that within the current system. I know another family whose income is over the limit, but what generates their income is loans they have taken out over the years, and the interest on those loans which they are struggling to pay back. Those payments might include mortgage payments on family dwellings, or for people coming from farming backgrounds, they might relate to a farm they have bought for which they are making repayments to the bank. In most cases those repayments are suffocating those people, yet that is not taken into consideration either when it comes to the grant application.
It is important that there are as few barriers as possible put in place for any child wishing to go to college, and some families are suffering seriously in order to make sure that their child goes to college. As I said earlier, I would like to see more flexibility in the system. A number of speakers referred to how the social welfare system adjudicates over an applicant and how there is flexibility given to individual circumstances. There is zero flexibility, from what I can see, within SUSI. It is either lights off or lights on, and there is no halfway house. I would like to see more flexibility there. I would also like to see a review done on an annual basis of those who are refused admission to college, and for us to learn from that review in order to tweak the system to try to cater to as many people who wish to access third level education as possible.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. As has been said already, core funding is the issue here. Too many working families in particular are still excluded from many supports for their children to go to third level. That is the major problem and I appreciate that it is not something that can be addressed by the witnesses who are before the committee today. I am not going to repeat everything as I agree with almost everything that has been said here this morning. I accept everything that the USI says and support all its recommendations apart from the issue of grants to the nine private institutions. I do not buy into that particular idea, but everything else needs to be supported.
The representative from ISSU made a good point in relation to PLC courses. I have come across families who have suffered because of that. What enrages us most about applications in our office in Limerick is the way parents are treated as dependants, which has been mentioned already.
I appreciate that Mr. Connolly cannot deal with matters of policy. I just want to put on record that this is extremely frustrating. It is also particularly discriminatory against women. Government needs to look at it. It does not make any sense, as we all know. It needs fundamental change. We have heard about the holiday earnings restrictions, which make no sense in today's environment. Students have to work more than those core weeks just to survive, get through college and pay the rent. A common-sense approach and more flexibility are required. I want to echo a point about direct provision, particularly after the happenings in the west yesterday evening. It is just outrageous and so offensive that people in direct provision are effectively excluded from third level education. I do not believe anyone on this panel would support that exclusion. There is great frustration that nothing is done about it. I welcome the fact the ISSU is supporting the call to end direct provision. I thank the witnesses for their really important presentations and for their time.
I am not going to delay proceedings. My colleagues asked very pertinent questions and made very pertinent comments. We have had three really good presentations. In response to Ms Fitzpatrick, I support the recommendations that have been made and I support the nine private institutions that are receiving SUSI fees. When we had the Wake-up SUSI hearings here, we discovered that when a student is filling in a CAO form, those third level institutions are not marked as fee paying or private. Many students ended up going to them, not realising they were fee paying, which caused a lot of problems down the line. They felt they were disadvantaged. USI made an interesting point that gaining a previous degree within the previous five years should not preclude a student from qualifying for SUSI. Deputy Thomas Byrne has referred to this. We must bear in mind that €2 million has been taken out of the funding this year, which hopefully will not be repeated. If there is a pot and a balance has to be struck, I believe it should be in favour of those accessing college for the first time. That begs another question for Mr. Connolly in terms of the pot SUSI has. Does SUSI ensure that successful applications get 100% of that money? When the funding goes down by €2 million, as it has this year, do the students get less money or is there money left afterwards? Does SUSI then look at other applications that have not been successful but, because there was some extra money there, may be next in line?
Ms Fanning was saying that the current maintenance grant amount does not reflect the reality of the cost of living, which I completely agree with. Does the ISSU have a proposed framework to calculate a more appropriate maintenance amount? Ms Fanning was also talking about the cost of accommodation, which is horrific. The son of a colleague is going to college and received the SUSI grant; however, his accommodation on campus has to be paid for upfront, which costs €8,000. I know the SUSI grant is not to pay accommodation but the fact is that parents who are under the income threshold for a SUSI grant for their son or daughter are expected to pay €8,000 straight up for accommodation.
That causes a crisis within the family. We have seen by how much the cost of accommodation has increased. It is unacceptable that third level accommodation has not been included in the rent pressure zones. A Bill was introduced to provide for such a measure, but that has not happened. I am making a comment rather than asking a question. This is different from what we have been talking about. It is unacceptable that people who got tax breaks to build student accommodation are allowed to increase the fees being charged for that accommodation. They are getting two bites at the same cherry. The Government needs to look at this.
I thank Mr. Connolly for his overview of the work of SUSI. It is a good system. It has been improved. Mr. Connolly has outlined some of the improvements that have been made. Obviously, things need to go further. The flexibility about which everybody has spoken is very important for people in direct provision and for families who find themselves in difficult situations for various reasons. I have dealt with a family whose means exceeded the threshold by €111. Health issues within the family were not being accounted for. As one of 11 children - Senator Gallagher mentioned a similar family - I believe consideration should be given to the number of children in a family. The manner in which the notification of SUSI grants is communicated to third level colleges is very important. Obviously, it needs to be done on a timely basis.
I would like to ask again about the degree of flexibility that exists. Some of my colleagues have mentioned the direct route as opposed to the public transport route. We cannot underestimate that because it is very important. Are there any common mistakes that people make when they are submitting their applications? It is important for any such mistakes to be flagged because they may be of benefit or of help. I appreciate that most of the questions that have been asked have been directed at Mr. Connolly. I will ask Ms Fanning and Ms Fitzpatrick to respond before I bring Mr. Connolly back in.
Ms Ciara Fanning:
I am happy to respond. It is nice for us to see that so many members of the committee have raised the issue of direct provision. The ISSU is working intensively on this matter. We have taken massive issue with the significant barriers that are being encountered by students in direct provision when they seek to access third level education. If people in direct provision centres or in emergency accommodation have to pay international fees, it can be impossible for them to provide for the unbelievable rates involved, which have been skyrocketing in recent times. I remind the committee that students in direct provision sit the same leaving certificate examinations as Irish students. They do the same work. It is unbelievable that a student in direct provision who gets 625 points might not have an access route to college. It is a massive oversight on the part of the system. When we consider this issue, we must come back to the direct provision system itself. In addition to the massive barriers that are encountered when students in direct provision seek to access third level education, there are issues with the education of people in the direct provision system at second level. Many direct provision centres do not provide proper levels of nutrition. There can be a failure to provide a safe environment for learning and education. When I was studying for my leaving certificate, my mother had the dinner ready when I came home from school and I was able to study at the corner of the kitchen table until 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. Such an environment is not available to people in direct provision. This aspect of the matter needs to be reflected on. We are happy that people are taking notice of this issue.
It is great that members of the joint committee have raised the issue of dependency. We have come across many cases of ISSU members who are not living with their parents for various reasons. Many young people are homeless and might not have access to the documentation needed to prove to SUSI that they are estranged from their parents. They might not want to go into the personal reasons for their estrangement from their parents. They might not have a stream of communication with their parents or grandparents, or they might be completely isolated from their families, but they can be classed as dependent candidates nonetheless.
Whether they have been in the care system, living with their parents or providing for themselves, their income has no influence on whether they can attend third level. There needs to be an intensive review in that regard.
In the context of earning money over the summer period, this is a major restriction on second-level students. We live in an environment where the cost of living is sky high and many students are forced into part-time employment while in education. That can also be a class issue. Many students work part-time in corner shops in order that they might buy clothes, etc., in Penneys or elsewhere; that could be dispensable income. However, we also live in an environment where students from large families are forced to work in order to provide for themselves and ease the financial pressure on their parents or those with whom they are living. That comes back to the issue of private education at second level, grinds schools and the increased competitiveness when it comes to the leaving certificate system in that these students could be working to pay for grinds that will help them get the courses they want. Their parents may be forking out €10,000 a year to send them to grinds schools and they are working to pay for their food and accommodation. That is a major issue in terms of elitism in our education system but also because these students are being forced into work It is not always an option for them to give up their weekend part-time jobs. Unfortunately, people were forced to do that recently in order to ensure that they qualified for the SUSI grant because their part-time employment put them over the top in terms of the eligibility criteria.
I return to Deputy Ó Laoghaire's point that SUSI does not go far enough. The cost of living and accommodation for students has increased exponentially. While we do not have a proposed framework in place, we would be happy to follow up with an email on that. We can also do some work on it and get back to the committee.
Reference was made to the nine private institutions. This is a major issue in that private colleges often require lower points than many other third-level institutions. If students want to do medicine, business, law or whatever, the points race forces them to put these nine private institutions on their CAO applications but it is not stated in the CAO booklet whether the institution is fee-paying or private. Students are being forced to do that if they want to do particular courses. That might be their only option if they cannot afford grinds or to go to the Institute of Education, or if they live in areas where the schools do not have great teachers and were not in a position to get 500 or 600 points in the leaving certificate as a result. Those private colleges are an option for them. We believe this should be covered by SUSI because it is often the case that the points system is forcing people to choose those institutions.
I am grateful that Senator Gavan mentioned PLC courses. It is important that we respect such courses. The degrees awarded for the completion of PLCs might be seen as being at a lower level than level 8 degrees. However, these courses might be an option for people who want to go into more practical employment and a one-year or two-year course may be the most practical way for them to do that. There is a fee charged to take up a PLC. It might not be as costly as taking up a level 8 course but it could still place an enormous financial burden on families. That issue should be examined. If there is to be a review of SUSI, PLCs should be included in that and some monetary help should be offered to people who wish to pursue them.
We have covered all the issues addressed in the questions. We would be more than happy to elaborate on some of the answers we have given in a follow-up email. I am conscious that there are many other questions to get through.
I thank Ms Fanning. To follow up on what she said about the private colleges, students attending them receive the same Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, qualifications as those awarded by the other universities. The principle is that the money should follow the student, not the college. I call Ms Fitzpatrick.
Ms Lorna Fitzpatrick:
Of course. Core funding is a major issue. Time and again we have called for increased supports in terms of funding for the system.
The system is underfunded, as has been seen day in and day out. It can be heard from everyone, including students, academic staff, non-academic staff, professional support staff and everybody in between. We can all agree that underfunding is an important issue in the higher education system but we also need to address, on their own merits, the financial supports available to students.
On the system of direct provision, I echo comments made previously and thank members for the comments they have made in that regard. A number of students are able to access third-level education through universities and institutions-of-sanctuary programmes, which are positive but limited. That is why we have asked in our submission for students who are refugees and living in direct provision to be omitted completely from the residency regulations for the SUSI procedures in order that they have access to higher level education and can contribute back to the society in which they live.
The adjacency rate has a significant impact on students. I refer members to our pre-budget submission. In 2011, under the 24 km criterion, 77% of those being paid the maintenance grant were eligible for the non-adjacent rate, which is the higher rate that can support them by enabling them to live closer to their colleges or to commute. In 2018, under the 45 km criterion, the proportion who are eligible dropped to 52%. The situation has not changed for the families in question, that is, the distance they live from colleges has not changed but the support they are offered has. This has a considerable impact on students and their families. The intention of the non-adjacent rate is to provide students with additional support to be able to attend and commute to college or to live closer to the college at which they study. Unfortunately, however, due to the changes made, the rate is no longer sufficient and does not support students with what they need to be able to progress through college.
To respond to comments made by Deputy Ó Laoghaire, SUSI definitely does not go far enough. The current non-adjacent rate, which is a 100% support rate without a special rate, works out at €3,025 per annum in maintenance support, but accommodation alone can cost more than €6,000 before any additional fees, such as for books, transport or bills, are taken into consideration. It does not come close, therefore, to covering the cost of accommodation, not to mention any of the other costs associated with attending education.
The class of applicants is of great concern, as has been highlighted repeatedly during the meeting. It affects a large percentage of students who are under the age of 23 but are forced to be classed as dependants if they cannot prove estrangement, which was referred to earlier. The difficulty of being able to prove estrangement in order to access support is a matter students' unions deal with day in, day out. Many such cases are overturned when they are appealed and come before the SUSI appeals board but it has left students in a very difficult position for an extended period in respect of financial support and the ability to access education. It is important to note there are students under the age of 23 who are parents themselves and who are classed as dependants under their own parents' income because of the inflexibility of the situation and the SUSI regulations.
On the nine institutions, I echo the comments made earlier. It is very much about following the student rather than the institution and providing the student with the education he or she requires. On the unfortunate circumstances that exist, the points race and so on, I echo the comments made by Senator Ruane and others.
On the point about re-entering education if one has obtained a qualification within the past five years, we are in a changing world of work. There is a statistic, although I cannot recall the figure off the top of my head, to the effect that a large percentage of the jobs that will exist in five years have not yet even been created or that we have not yet even considered them. People being able to access and re-enter education is essential to ensure there is the knowledge economy we discuss so often, with a well-educated workforce, and that students will have access to the courses which will support them in the years ahead. While they may already have gained a qualification, it may not be able to support them in their future because of the changing nature of the world of work.
I will be glad to follow up on any other comments with individuals later.
Mr. Philip Connolly:
I will answer the questions in the order they were asked, beginning with those posed by Senator Ruane. Family size does dictate whether someone gets a grant or a higher rate of grant, the income thresholds increase the more children there are in a family. If there are more children going to third level or further education, the thresholds also increase.
As to other class and who else should qualify, I cannot comment too much on that but the most common reason for refusal of an application is income and we review that every year. It is important to note that we have a special high-quality team that deals with the estrangement and affidavit issues. It is not a question of whether we accept particular types of documents we do consider the whole case and try to work with the students to give them the support if we can. We do consider inclusion and try if we can to give the grant to the student and we work with the student to do that. I cannot deal with the individual case to which reference was made because I am not aware of it. However, I will state that do not accept certain types of documents because we do consider the entire case.
The question of the grant following the person into private colleges, rather than following the institution, has come up several times. Each year all the courses and institutions are prescribed by the Minister and we work on that basis. In terms of applying for a SUSI grant, we have worked with the CAO over the past couple of years to make clear what courses will not qualify. This is so that people do not select courses thinking they might be able to apply for support. We have tried to work with the CAO to flag those who will not be eligible on the back of the Wake Up SUSI campaign.
In respect of documentation that is or is not accepted some people cannot even appeal because SUSI says it does not know what documentation to request for proof of estrangement. That needs to be cleared up because people who are starting the college year are in limbo. If SUSI has reduced funding, do our guests have a target for refusals that they must reach?
Mr. Philip Connolly:
In such cases, there is a mechanism whereby they can state that they cannot provide anything more. We will then consider the particular case and if we cannot award the grant, it will be refused and they will have access to the appeals and review mechanisms.
Deputy Thomas Byrne also referred to funding. The grant scheme is demand-led in nature. We are not given a certain amount of money to spend such that if the demand goes over budget we do not have anything else for student support access. It goes up or down each year depending on the number of applications. I could answer the Deputy's question if it was about our corporate budget rather than the student support budget. The student support budget is purely demand-led; the more students apply, the more funding we receive.
Mr. Philip Connolly:
Deputy Catherine Martin inquired about adjacency and distance. This matter has come up a lot. We work from the guidelines issued by the Minister every year on how we calculate the distance and what is involved. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan raised this issue as well. The guidelines refer to the shortest most direct route. According to those guidelines, we must be transparent with the applicant. That is why Google Maps was mentioned.
Those guidelines also must be transparent to the applicant, which is why Google Maps was mentioned. We do that in order that we can display our calculation to the student. That goes out in either an award or a refusal letter and that can be challenged. It is important to note that if the calculation is in any way close to that threshold, it is given a manual review as well. Consequently, if it is in any way close, we check whether it is correct and whether we can adjust things.
Is Mr. Connolly saying that it can be challenged in respect of the shortest and most direct route? Can it be challenged when a student cannot get to college until 1.25 p.m. and will miss vital lectures? Is this a reason for challenging it?
Is there any way of reviewing it so it is not just about distance but about access to education? The reason the person is going to college is to attend lectures but what if the transport is not there or if it is there but the student misses his or her lecture? Should that not be the full point and a reason to include-----
Mr. Philip Connolly:
I apologise for repeating myself but applying the guidelines is based purely on the distance. Changing that is not a matter for SUSI. The guidelines are issued to SUSI on an annual basis and we try to be as fair as possible to the student in applying those. It is not for us to change the guidelines, however.
We therefore need the Minister to change those guidelines. We need the Department to acknowledge it might be an idea to follow the student and the access to education, rather than transport that will not get that student to college on time.
Mr. Philip Connolly:
It would not be for SUSI to make that judgment. That covers most of the Deputy's questions. The other question she asked involved the residency requirement of three out of the past five years. Again, that is what we are required to apply. The requirement in the Act is that students must be resident in Ireland or the EU for three out of the past five years and we apply that requirement as favourably as possible and work with the student if he or she is having difficulty in providing documentary evidence. We are as flexible as possible with regard to that aspect but we are obliged to put that requirement in place.
Mr. Philip Connolly:
We do not. The shortest and most direct route is what we are obliged to put in place and that is what is in the guidelines. If anything is close to that distance, we look into it in more detail. Applicants can challenge that, which is why we use Google Maps. We use it to display the distance we use and people can come back and challenge that but that is what we are obliged to do.
Mr. Philip Connolly:
I cannot comment on its practices or processes but I imagine those concerned should be working towards the scheme and the regulations that are in place.
Regarding holiday earnings, non-term time is defined as what we can reduce by up to €4,500 and that is what we do. As we give flexibility to students where different institutions have different term times, they can come back to us and challenge that as well. It is not just the standard ones that we may all think of in terms of Christmas or Easter. If there is more non-term time, we can take that off as long as a student gets a letter from the college confirming that this is the case.
As for the inheritance that was included in an application, without knowing the individual case there are certain relationships where that would not be the case. If it is between a mother and daughter, that would not be included. If it was from an uncle to the applicant, however, that would be included. There are certain relationships within the scheme that allow for inheritance not to be included in the calculation of income.
Mr. Philip Connolly:
If, unfortunately, an application is refused for the reference year in which an inheritance is received, it is possible for an applicant to come back the following year and make another application. The inheritance would not be included in that application because it would not have been received in that particular reference year.
Mr. Philip Connolly:
That just concerns whether an applicant is classed as a dependent student or a mature student. Income is reviewed each year so an applicant can come back to us at any point each year. We have covered the issues of dependants, those under 23 and whether an applicant's class can be reclassified. It is the case that if a person is going from further education to higher education or has had a break of three years or more in study, he or she can reclassify. An example is if an applicant went into year one as a dependant, followed by a break and he or she then comes back into year two some three years later. In that case, the person can be reclassified as a mature student.
The next question from Deputy Ó Laoghaire was on the issue of discretion. I have probably outlined the answer in some of my previous responses. We are working on the basis of a statutory scheme and there is very little discretion within the rules.
Regarding working with students and the issue of the documentary evidence required to verify information, we have flexibility in what we can do. We will work with students to support them if we can.
On the issue of overtime, if within the context of the scheme it is not classed as recurring, it can be taken away. I refer to the example given of a person working in Apple receiving overtime in one year but not in the next. As long as we have a letter from the employer stating that this was a once-off payment, that can be taken away from the reckonable income for that particular year.
I have covered the topic of dependency. The Deputy gave the example of an applicant couch-surfing in respect of trying to provide proof. We try to work with students to see what documentary evidence they can provide to class themselves as independent students who are not living with their parents. There is also the case of students returning to college after having left for a period. Students who come back to college in those circumstances can reclassify as an independent student if they have had a break of three years. I hope that suffices to answer the Deputy's questions.
Mr. Philip Connolly:
I have covered the reduction in the budget. I will go into more detail if the Deputy requires. It is important to state, however, that it is a demand-led scheme and it will go up and down based on the number of applications. This year the number of applications is expected to decrease again.
Turning to postgraduates, maintenance grants were reintroduced in 2017-18. Some 1,051 postgraduate students received grants in that year, and 1,184 in 2018-19. In 2019-20, to date, some 859 students are receiving grants.
Mr. Philip Connolly:
No, it does not.
Another question referred to the consent we ask elected representatives to get when they come to us with queries. We accept that elected representatives can come to us with queries on behalf of applicants. Regarding the guidance issued by the DPC, we have a more complex scheme. By responding to a query, we may not just be giving information in respect of an applicant. It is more than likely that there are two or three parties to the application and they are not covered under section 40. We have to be sure as a data controller that we have the consent of those people before we release any information.
That is the guidance in the DPC notes on exchanging information with elected representatives. That is why we ask. As regards the process, it is quite smooth in the sense that it is online. Our office contacts the student and asks him or her to consent. In 80% of cases the consent has already been given at that stage and in other cases it is given within 24 to 48 hours. Then we refer back to the Deputy or the Senator on that basis. It is to protect us because we have data not just on the applicant but also on other parties who are party to the application.
I believe those are all the questions asked by Deputy Thomas Byrne. Senator Gallagher asked about the review of refusals. We examine our refusal reasons every year in detail. We do not input into changes to the grants on that basis, but we review with regard to quality to see if there is any way we can improve our process to make it easier for students to approach us as well.
Regarding interest on loans, certain interest is allowed to be deducted within the scheme, but not on the basis of mortgage payments and the like. Again, and I am probably repeating myself, we must adhere to what is in the scheme on those issues.
I hope I have covered all the questions.
Mr. Philip Connolly:
I thank the Senator.
Chairman, you had questions as well. We can probably provide more information on the common mistakes by sending an email with some suggestions. The completeness of the application is key in terms of allowing us to get information from other Government bodies. Incomplete applications, and particularly when documents we request on that basis come back incomplete, delay the process for students. The issue is to try to have everything as clear as possible on the application form and have the documentary evidence ready to go. However, if there are issues, we allow extensions on return of documentation and the like.
I believe I answered your other questions in my replies to the questions from Deputies and Senators.
It might be useful for our deliberations. We produce a report that makes recommendations to the Minister so that would be useful.
With regard to the transport issue in terms of the distance, apparently it is the same system that is used for school transport, which has been in situsince 2011. To use Google maps alone does not take account of the topography, such as whether the route is over a mountain or the like. That might be something we could examine in the context of the recommendations as well. If there is any further information, you could send it to the clerk and he can circulate it to members.
This has been a very useful engagement and I appreciate Mr. Connolly, Ms Fanning and Ms Fitzpatrick giving up their morning to attend the meeting. It has been valuable for members of the committee to listen to their contributions and I look forward to hearing more. We will have an opportunity in the next few months to make our recommendations and, of course, we will provide our guests with copies of them at that time.
We will suspend the meeting for a few minutes to allow the witnesses to leave.