College grant system faces 'meltdown' over demand
THE third-level grants system faces "meltdown" this year due to the sharp increase in the number of people applying for college, student leaders have warned.
Grant payments have been hit with serious delays in the past academic year with some students only getting their cheques as they finished their end-of-year exams in June.
Others were forced to drop out halfway through the year because their grants failed to arrive on time.
Maintenance grants are supposed to be paid in three installments, the first in September or October when a student begins their course, the second after Christmas and the third towards the end of the academic year.
However, president of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), Gary Redmond, said some students didn't receive their first cheque until March of this year, while others were waiting as long as June.
He said these delays posed knock-on problems when it came to the €1,500 student services charge. Those in receipt of grants have the charge paid by their grant awarding body -- either a county council or Vocational Education Committee (VEC) -- but when the grant fails to come through, the charge also goes unpaid.
"We had situations last year where students were locked out of facilities such as libraries because the service charge wasn't paid. The delays in paying grants put huge stress on students and there were a large number who dropped out because they couldn't afford to stay in college any longer," said Mr Redmond.
"We've seen a huge increase in the number of people going back to third level. Last year the grants system was creaking at the seams.
"This year it is going to go into meltdown," he added.
Around 60,000 students receive maintenance grants each year.
However, this figure is expected to increase due to rising unemployment and wage cuts for many parents.
Mr Redmond called for an overhaul of the current grants system, describing it as "lunacy".
"Grants are still administered by 66 bodies around the country, all the VECs and the county councils.
"But the USI has been calling for a number of years for the introduction of one centralised awarding authority and this could be done more cheaply for the Exchequer and ensure the same rules apply for everyone," he added.
Mr Redmond cited the example of twin brothers, one of whom applied for a grant to attend Letterkenny IT and was awarded it by the local VEC, the other who wanted to study at UCD and applied for a grant through the county council but was turned down.
"These students had identical financial circumstances, yet one of them got the grant and the other didn't. It doesn't make sense," he said.
The USI said it was worried that the grant, which was cut by 5pc in last year's Budget, could be hit again in December.
Fears have also been raised that the €5m Student Assistance Fund -- which has been used to tide over many students when their grants were delayed -- could be cut and the annual student service charge could be raised.
"We're very concerned looking ahead to Budget 2011," said Mr Redmond.
The USI is holding a number of grant information evenings around the country over the coming weeks to help students make their applications.