Thursday, 11 October 2012
Topical Issue Debate
Student Grant Scheme Applications
When the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, system was launched in June, it was heralded as an efficient and cost-effective means by which to process student grant applications. There is no doubt that it is better than the old system, with which 66 awarding authorities were involved and to which were attached different types of application process. I accept that there have been improvements. Unfortunately, however, the new system has proven to be problematic for a number of students. In certain instances, information has not been forthcoming. When students make contact by telephone in order to obtain additional information, the operators on the other end of the line do not have it to hand. This has created significant problems for a small number of students in the context of having their grants awarded. The latter is having a knock-on effect for such students in that they are having difficulties in accessing timetables because they have not yet been able to access the grant system. They are also encountering problems with regard to accessing facilities as a result of the fact that they are not yet registered.
I am aware of one case involving a family that is in receipt of social welfare and whose child is attending UCC for the first time. The family in question lives 40 miles from the college. As a result of difficulties with regard to registering under the grant system, it is costing the family almost €100 per week to send the student in question to and from UCC by public transport. It has not been possible for the family to purchase textbooks because the grant has not yet been approved. This is giving rise to major problems. The family in question applied for the grant and submitted all the necessary paperwork in advance of the relevant deadline. However, the paperwork was returned and additional information is being sought. When the family tried to obtain the latter from the Revenue Commissioners, they were informed that it would take a week. A further three weeks will have passed by the time this information is obtained, returned and processed. What has happened in this case has led to a huge financial burden being placed on the student in question. He now faces the possibility of being obliged to drop out of college. He applied to his local credit union to try to secure a short-term loan but, unfortunately, he was unsuccessful in this regard because he could not get a guarantor.
As a result of the flaws in the SUSI system, a small number of students have not been awarded their grants and are facing some really tough choices in the context of whether they can continue to pursue their college courses. Will the Minister of State review the position with regard to the SUSI system? The Union of Students in Ireland, USI, has highlighted a number of improvements which could be made in order to make the system more efficient and cost-effective. I ask that the Department consult the USI in respect of some of the proposals it has put forward. The USI carried out a survey in respect of all the students who use the SUSI system in order to discover whether the flaws and inefficiencies to which I refer can be ironed out prior to the next round of applications in 2013.
I thank Deputy O'Brien for raising this important matter. As he stated, a new, fully centralised online student grant application system was launched in June. This system is being operated by a central grant awarding authority, Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, which has been established as a unit of the City of Dublin VEC. Up to last year, students applied to 66 different local authorities and VECs for grant assistance and the Deputy will be aware of the difficulties these bodies had in dealing with the huge increases in the numbers applying for student grants in recent years. The new facility automates and replaces the previous manual application arrangements with a centralised, easy-to-use online system of application for all new grant applicants nationwide from the 2012-13 academic year. It has been designed in such a way as to interactively guide students through the application process. Renewal applications for students already in receipt of a grant for their current courses will continue to be dealt with by the existing 66 grant-awarding authorities.
Under the old system the majority of third level students were paid by cheque, a costly and inefficient method of making payments. Under SUSI, students will be paid on a monthly basis directly into their bank accounts. This will lead to all SUSI grant applicants in an institution receiving their payments in the same way by means of electronic funds transfer. The main aim of the project is to substantially improve the grant application experience for over 66,000 new applicants each year. A tailored list of the documentation required to support these grant applications has issued to all students concerned. A significant change to the process for this year is that only photocopies, rather than originals, of the supporting documentation are required.
The Deputy will appreciate that the completion of the award process and subsequent payment of grants depends on students' returning the required documentation to SUSI. Some 19,000 students have yet to return this documentation to enable their applications to be processed to completion. A further 20,000 have returned incorrect or incomplete documentation. I understand that SUSI is actively following up with all of these applicants - by post, e-mail and text message - to ensure that the correct supporting documentation is returned as quickly as possible in order that their applications can proceed to the final decision stage.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I fully accept that the wrong paperwork can sometimes be submitted or that additional information may be required. However, the student to whom I refer submitted the necessary paperwork two months ago and it was only this week that he received a letter indicating that additional information was required.
It is not solely down to the students. A student may be unaware that the paperwork with the application is not complete. I know of a case where the short form of a birth certificate was submitted instead of the long form. As a consequence, the decision to offer a grant was delayed. A number of issues need to be ironed out. I am aware that USI has proposed a clearer tracking system to enable students to follow the progress of their application and a more user-friendly website. I have been told by those using the website that it is not user-friendly. The Unions of Students in Ireland wants better briefing and training of the help desk workers because on many occasions the information is not readily available to callers.
I have no doubt that the SUSI system is a much better process and I welcome it wholeheartedly. However, flaws still exist and there is an opportunity between now and the next application period to deal with those flaws in the system.
I wish to impress the importance of the applicants taking a degree of personal responsibility when submitting information. I doubt if the description of the long form of the birth certificate was not available on the website and that applicants were not made aware that this was the required format. The Deputy is correct that the system was delivered in a very short time period. Any new system and in particular a system dealing with 66,000 new applicants every year, will throw up challenges and teething problems. I am aware that the SUSI processes are being reviewed. The customer help desk has dealt with 130,000 inquiries this year. This system marks a significant cultural change in the student grant awards system. As the Deputy confirms, I am confident it will prove to be a very successful changeover to a new and more efficient and more customer-friendly process of grant awarding. I agree with the Deputy that USI should be actively involved in ensuring the glitches in the process are dealt with over the next few months before the new cohort arrives early next year.