Up to 50,000 students in the dark over their grants
MORE than 50,000 third-level students are still waiting to see if they will get a grant because a new online system is in chaos.
The system was designed to speed up the process but instead only one in 16 grant applications has been approved.
Even though the new academic term started last month, tens of thousands of students don't even know if they will receive a grant this year.
It now appears that some may be waiting until next year for the money.
Of the 65,335 applications made since June, only 4,159 have been awarded and less than 1,700 students have received a payment.
The uncertainty and delay are certain to place stress and worry on students and their families at a critical time in their academic year.
The centralised body that awards the grants, known as SUSI, said the main reason for the delay was students failing to submit the necessary documentation to support their application.
But Union of Students in Ireland (USI) president John Logue said applicants were missing the guidance of staff in local agencies, such as county councils.
He said much of the problem arose from a lack of staff in SUSI. While the USI supported the centralised system, he said there "is a need for more hands on the pump".
SUSI was introduced to streamline the applications and payment process and end the days of students often having to wait until after Christmas to get their grants. But so far only 6pc have been approved.
While placing much of the blame for delays on applicants, SUSI has also admitted it is pursuing a number of measures to improve the process.
About 10,000 applications were refused or cancelled in the initial assessment process.
And more than 50,000 application packs were returned to students seeking full and proper documentation, such as a copy of the long version of their birth certificate.
Fianna Fail education spokesman Charlie McConalogue said it was clear the new system was riddled with problems.
He said that when SUSI was launched, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn had promised that the process would be quick and easy and would end the possibility of students facing undue hardship over delays.
"Instead, we have a situation where tens of thousands of students across the country are still in the dark," he said.
Independent TD Denis Naughten also said that it was clear SUSI was unable to cope with the volume of work and he called on Mr Quinn to take immediate action to have the backlog cleared.
Jacinta Stewart, CEO of City of Dublin VEC, which operates SUSI, said they expected that about 35,000 students would have been awarded grants by December.
She said that since returning 50,000 applications seeking further documentation, the packs being returned had improved but about 40pc were still coming back incomplete.
"We simply cannot emphasise enough how important it is that students supply all of the requested documentation to avoid delay in awards and payments," she said.
In this, its first year, the use of SUSI for grant applications was confined to new students or those changing course.
For next year, SUSI has reached an agreement with the CAO to allow the option for students, when completing their CAO application, to tick a box to transfer course details to SUSI.
The authority has also begun discussions with the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Protection on ways to speed up data collection from them.
But in the short term, SUSI has been forced to take action to deal with the clamour over the delays.
It has stepped up its communications with students through an email campaign and by putting a moderator in place to address threads on the social media chatroom, boards.ie.
SUSI has also published tips on how to avoid delays in getting grants, based on the top 10 reasons for application packs.
Fine Gael TD for Mayo John O'Mahony said it was inevitable that there would be teething issues when new systems such as SUSI were launched.
But he added that it begged the question as to whether something needed be done to educate people on how to complete the applications properly.
"Incomplete applications create big delays in an already under-pressure system, and result in students getting their grants late, so any methods of mitigating this problem need to be looked at seriously," he said.