THE number of third-level students receiving grants soared by 13pc in Dublin but dropped by almost 10pc in Mayo after the introduction of the centralised grant agency, SUSI.
The huge swings, in the space of just one year, have been attributed by observers to the consistency in processing applications offered by the new system.
Previously, some 66 agencies, including county councils and VECs were involved in deciding who got grants.
Overall, the number of third-level students receiving a grant to help them through college has soared to almost 80,000. Growing demand for places combined with tightening family finances helped push grant awards to a record 79,235 in 2012/13.
It is up from 76,644 the previous year and represents a massive 45pc jump from 54,666 in 2007/08, just before the economic crash.
The numbers receiving grants have continued to rise despite a budget cut that ended grant payments to new post-graduate students from 2012.
The Government has also sought to contain the annual grants bill by reducing the level of financial support paid to students.
The grant award figures for 2012/13 have been complied |for the first time by the Irish Independent.
A striking feature is the wide variations in how different counties fared in 2012/13, when compared with 2011/12.
Dublin and other counties with a strong urban profile, such as Cork, Limerick and Galway, experienced an increase in grant awards above the national average of 3.5pc.
On the other hand, more rural counties, particularly along the west coast, have seen a fall in grant awards.
At the two ends of the scale, the numbers receiving grants in Dublin rose by over 13pc between 2011/12 and 2012/13, while those paid out in Mayo dropped by almost 10pc.
There may be a number of reasons for such variations in any one year, but the new centralised grant processing agency, SUSI, is likely to be a key factor in the trends.
Observers say that the consistency that SUSI has brought to the processing of grant applications has eliminated variations that can arise when a number of different bodies are involved.
Traditionally, grant applications have been processed by a total of 66 awarding bodies – local authorities or vocational education committees (VECs) across the 26 counties.
Although there are fixed criteria for awarding grants, individual staff may have shown greater, or lesser, degrees of discretion when considering applications.
SUSI was introduced in 2012 and while its first year was marred by controversy because of delays and errors, it ultimately awarded 40,481 grants, more than half of the total for the year.
In 2012/13, SUSI was responsible only for applications from first year students and some others, and the remaining 38,654 awarded to students in second year and beyond continued to be processed by the VECs and local authorities.
In the current year, SUSI is also responsible for processing applications for second-year students and, ultimately, will handle all applications.
A Department of Education spokesperson urged caution about drawing conclusions from the latest figures.
“Any comprehensive analysis will need to reflect the wide variety of factors which impact
on the number of student grant awards in any academic year,” the spokesperson said.
According to the department, those factors include the number of applications, the number of students directly transitioning from second level to third level, the number of mature students, the economic circumstances and developments in a particular area and the financial circumstances of individuals and their parents.
“The creation of a single grant-awarding agency and the electronic compilation of data will enable greater visibility and analysis of trends in this area,” the spokesperson added.
The recession has seen a huge rise in demand for college places, partly because of the lack of opportunity for school-leavers to go directly to work, as well as a growing appetite from mature students to acquire higher-level qualifications sought by employers.
And demand will continue to grow as the population boom that started in the late 1990s sees thousands more students working their way through primary and secondary schools and moving on to college.
Katherine Donnelly, Education Editor