Wednesday, 24 October 2012
Topical Issue Debate
Student Grant Scheme Applications
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter and for allowing me raise it. August and September are life-changing months for second level students who are moving on to third level. They get their leaving certificate results in August and get their college offers later that month or in early September. They then have to go and look for accommodation and people with whom to share it. It is a traumatic time not just for the students, but for their parents. The big issue for them at this time is the application for a grant. This has been a major issue over the years. As elected representatives, we all know there have been difficulties over the year, from the time there were 66 different bodies awarding grants. The good point with regard to so many bodies being involved was that the issue was local and personal.
I welcome and support the many innovative ideas the Minister for Education and Skills has introduced since he took up his position and am not raising this issue to knock him or anything else. The SUSI concept and the centralisation of the awarding of grants is good if it works smoothly. I welcomed it when announced and still have no problem with it. However, the concern I had and still have is that there may be issues such as those we had when the medical card application system was centralised. In other words, I am concerned about the bottlenecks that occur in the system, the way the process becomes impersonal, documents being lost and the resulting delays in dealing with applications. The Minister facilitated a briefing from SUSI earlier in the year and in its presentation the system looked wonderful and it seemed every angle was covered.
I raise this issue to be helpful rather than to knock the system, because there are teething problems. This year I have received more queries in September and October on the issue of grants than in the past number of years. These concern the delay in processing grant applications and in hearing appeals. I welcome the e-mail service provided for public representatives by SUSI. However, the problem is that the answers returned, which are delivered promptly, do not provide any information whatsoever. If they do not give us information, they do not give students information. If the system was working well, we would not be getting people raising this issue in our offices or at our clinics, but it is not working well.
Let me give an example of the response I received last week, which is what prompted me to raise this issue. The response stated: "Documents have been received in support of this application and they are currently awaiting review." This is just a one-line answer that gives no indication whether the application will be considered in the next two or three weeks or whenever.
I want to justify what I am doing by saying I received two answers this morning, within eight minutes of each other, after this was submitted. The first of them gave me an answer and the second gave me an advanced answer. Maybe the fact that I raised it helped me in some way to get those answers. I acknowledge that. Ideally, it would be better if applications were made sooner. I know of a student who was not offered a college place until the middle of September. In other words, he got it on the third award. It is impossible to submit one's application early if one does not have a college place. What is the view at a more global level of the experience to date? Will new things be put in place next year? Could a tracking system like that used in the passport service be used to allow students to track their applications without clogging up the system with queries to which they should be able to get easy answers?
I thank Deputy O'Mahony for raising this issue. I am taking this Topical Issue on behalf of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Quinn. As the Deputy said, the processing of student grants for new entrants has been centralised this year under one body - Student Universal Support Ireland, or SUSI, which was established as a unit of the City of Dublin VEC. This will replace the 66 grant-awarding bodies which were previously responsible for student grants. Local authorities and VECs are continuing to deal with renewal students until they complete their existing courses. Some 65,000 applications have been received by SUSI this year, of which approximately 35,000 are expected to succeed. SUSI is aiming to award all successful applicants before the end of December. The Deputy will recall that in the past, many students did not receive payments until much later in the academic year.
Some 65,000 applications were received this year. Approximately 5,000 late applications are awaiting initial assessment. Almost 10,000 applications have been refused, or have been cancelled by the applicants. In over 16,000 cases, no response has been received from the students to requests for supporting documentation. Text reminders have been sent to these applicants in a further effort to get the documentation submitted. Almost 20,000 sets of documents are awaiting validation. It should be noted that in 17,500 of these cases, incorrect or incomplete documentation has been submitted at least once. These documents are awaiting validation for at least the second time. The remaining applications have been assessed by SUSI. More than 4,000 have been awarded, more than 2,000 have been provisionally awarded pending submission of course acceptance forms, approximately 4,500 are being reviewed by SUSI and a further 4,000 have had additional information requested from the students involved.
It is inevitable that a late rush of applications will cause some delays in a student grant processing system. The Department is continuing to monitor the situation actively in close consultation with SUSI, which is working with the Union of Students in Ireland to encourage students to submit outstanding documentation. SUSI is constantly seeking to improve the information available online and from its helpdesk, e-mail and telephone services. SUSI has received 1,019 appeals to date. While SUSI aims to issue determinations as promptly as possible and within the specified 30-day timeframe, I am aware that a number of appeals on hand were received more than 30 days ago. The Department has been assured by SUSI that these cases are being given priority and will be dealt with in the next five days.
The main aim of putting in place a single agency was to improve substantially the grant application experience for new applicants each year. It was inevitable that there would be process challenges in its first year of operation, particularly when the new system was delivered in an extraordinarily short timeframe. In these circumstances, it is particularly important for the system to respond in a prompt and effective manner to any challenges that arise. I assure the Deputy that the Department is continuing to monitor progress closely and is actively engaged with SUSI to ensure every possible action is being taken to expedite decisions on all outstanding cases. The Minister, Deputy Quinn, contacted the CEO of City of Dublin VEC in relation to this matter this week. The CEO assured him that any delays arising in the operation of the new system are being addressed by SUSI as a matter of priority. The utmost importance is being placed on communicating with applicants to ensure all outstanding documentation is submitted so that decisions can issue to students and any appeals arising can be dealt.with expeditiously.
I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I asked whether something could be done differently. I accept in good faith the efforts that are being made to fine-tune this system. One of the letters I received referred to "the company" that is validating the documents that are submitted. Can the Minister of State let me know whether some of the processing of grant applications, or of appeals relating to grant applications, has been outsourced to an outside body? Given that almost 20,000 applications have been accompanied by incorrect information-----
-----can something be done to educate people on how to make applications? It might help to ensure SUSI does not receive applications that are half-completed or do not include the full documentation. If almost 20,000 applications are incomplete, something is wrong. I understand that appeals should take no more than 27 days. Anecdotally, I have heard about a few dozen appeals that have taken between 30 and 40 days. If there was no issue in this regard, I would not be raising this matter. I acknowledge the efforts that are being made to fine-tune the process and ensure it will be a good system. I hope that the bottlenecks in August and September of this year will not be repeated in the future and that this problem will be solved.
As it is a totally new system, it is understandable that there have been some difficulties. I know SUSI is trying to deal with them as expeditiously as possible. I accept that the number of incorrect application forms - 17,500 - seems to be quite large. It is surprising that so many people failed to give all the information or fill the forms in correctly. I understand the Union of Students in Ireland is working with students to encourage them to supply all the documentation. A helpdesk and an inquiry line are available to assist students who might be having difficulty understanding what they need to submit. I am not aware that responsibility for the validation stage has been passed to an outside body. I can get that information for the Deputy. He suggested that a tracking system similar to that used for passport applications should be used. I can pass that suggestion on to the Minister. The move from 66 bodies to a single body for these purposes is a big undertaking. Like other Deputies, I know from my experience that there were delays in the old system when one had to deal with one's local council or VEC. It is a big undertaking. Every effort is being made. SUSI has acknowledged that some appeals have gone beyond 30 days even though that should not happen. I made that point in my opening statement as well. SUSI is doing everything it can to bring it down to a minimum. We all understand it is difficult for students and families to await the making of a decision or the payment of a grant. Every effort is being made to limit the waiting times.