MORE than 15,000 first-year college students expecting a maintenance grant this year have still not received their first payment.
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) claims students were suffering serious hardship and that food boxes will be organised for needy cases next week as the new term gets under way.
The new centralised grant processing system, known as SUSI, was supposed to speed things up, but has been bogged down in delays since it started.
About 33,000 applicants are expected to qualify for grants this year, but, by last Friday, only 15,922 had received payment.
A further 1,500 students will be paid this week, and in 3,300 other approved cases, SUSI is awaiting bank details or college registration confirmation, which is delaying payments.
Overall, SUSI has received about 67,000 applications, of which, to date, 16,212 have been refused while a further 11,000 have not followed up their application.
About 13,000 applications are still being processed, and in most of those SUSI is awaiting further documents. In other cases, students are awarded a fees-only grant, paid directly to the college.
The USI claimed yesterday that thousands of students are still awaiting their grants.
It added that students' unions would be providing food boxes to needy students from next week. The canteen at Athlone Institute of Technology is already giving free lunchtime soup and rolls to those who have not received their grants.
USI said "the chronic delay" was also stretching the patience of landlords, who were putting students under pressure to come up with overdue rent.
USI president John Logue said that while some students' unions could provide basic assistance with food and modest welfare loans, they could not pay rents or fees
SUSI has been hit with many logjams since it started last year, blamed on lack of staff, bureaucratic errors and an absence of face-to-face contact between applicants and those processing their claims.
The more streamlined system is being phased over a number of years to replace the practice of applying to one of 66 local authorities or Vocational Education Committees (VECs).
SUSI is administered by City of Dublin VEC (CDVEC), the chief executive of which, Jacinta Stewart, said they would look at everything: "Every new process needs to be examined once it's completed to ensure you can improve delivery."
Fianna Fail education spokesperson Charlie McConalogue said the review would not affect the thousands of students hit by the "maladministration" this year. He said none of them had any independent means of appealing SUSI's decisions.
He called on Education Minister Ruairi Quinn to establish an independent appeals and complaints mechanism to cover the period until SUSI comes under the Ombudsman's remit this summer.