THE college grant system is to be overhauled in the wake of the debacle which left thousands of students waiting months for their money.
The early opening of applications for a college grant – from mid-May – and an agreement for proper systems to transfer information between the CAO, the Revenue Commissioners and the State Examination Commission (SEC) are two of the key changes, the Irish Independent understands.
The moves are to avoid a repeat of the bureaucratic nightmare marked by delays, errors and a high success rate for appeals when the centralised, online system known as Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) was introduced last June, supposedly to speed up grant payments.
With over 40pc of students relying on grants to get through college, the debacle caused widespread hardship and, in some cases, drop-outs.
SUSI is now winding up its operation for 2012/13 with 36,776 grant approvals – 53pc of applications – and a further 2,800 being processed.
Consultants are working on a formal review of the scheme, but decisions have already been taken to address some basic flaws.
Further improvement measures are expected following the completion of the review later this month.
As a first step, applications for grants for the 2013/14 academic year will open in mid-May, a month earlier than usual.
While Leaving Cert students won't even have sat their exams by then, college hopefuls are encouraged to start the process as early as possible.
SUSI is also seeking approval for three to four extra staff in its HQ.
One of the big problems with SUSI was that although it was branded as an online system, only the initial application was handled electronically.
Students had to follow through by posting, on average, 12 supporting documents, such as evidence of income and college acceptance forms which, in turn, were scanned into the system.
Now SUSI has reached agreement on electronic link-ups with a number of public bodies allowing it to receive the data necessary to support grant applications directly.
Arrangements are in place with the Revenue Commissioners for the transfer of information on income, with the CAO in relation to acceptance of a college course, and with the SEC about past exam results.
Discussions are ongoing with the Department of Social Protection about data relating to welfare payments, and with the General Register Office (GRO) about birth certificates.
Efforts to enhance the process will see a number of changes at the online stage requiring applicants to 'tick' certain boxes before they progress to the next question.
One such question will be whether there is another family member making an application, which will allow SUSI to make cross-checks
An important change will require applicants to answer 'yes' or 'no' to a question on whether there has been a sudden change in economic circumstances which would make them eligible for a grant – triggering a follow-up from SUSI.
Traditionally, applications are based on the previous year's income and, while applicants were invited to state whether there had been a recent change, it was not required.
SUSI is being phased in over a number of years, and for 2013/14, it will be accepting applications from new applicants, renewals from those who used the system this year and applications from others starting new college courses.