THE debacle over non-payment of student maintenance grants has very publicly highlighted a trend that has been developing since around 2008: the victimisation of Ireland's young people and the curtailing of opportunities that were promised to previous generations.
As the Government threatens to increase college fees to €3,000 – the second highest rate in the EU – and students drop out of college due to a new and woefully inept grant awarding system, young people could be forgiven for thinking that the Government is not only breaking its pre-election promises but actively heaping punishment on them.
Public finances are in a dire state, yes, but our young people had no hand in that development and they will lift us from the economic mire. Yet the punishment continues.
Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) was set up earlier this year by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn. An ambitious project, SUSI would replace the local councils as a centralised grant-awarding agency.
USI and students' unions around the country were assured that students would be far better off with SUSI; that it would be cost-effective, efficient and adequately resourced. Indeed, the online application system seemed to mark a progression in the way grant applications are processed.
The results, however, have been catastrophic for many students and families.
Yesterday we heard that of the 66,000 applications made to SUSI only 3,010 have been approved and paid. A further 7,785 have been approved but remain pending, while 9,555 applications have been rejected. This means that just over 5pc of applications have been fully dealt with.
As students and their parents scrape money together for €2,250 college fees and up to €7,500 for rent and additional expenses, this situa-tion is pushing them to the brink.
USI is calling on Mr Quinn to urgently put more resources and staff into SUSI. More staff is the only way that the system will process the backlog of applications before Christmas.
After Christmas, as colleges start to demand full payment of fees, we could see a very real spike in the dropout rate. SUSI staff also need to be better trained and must provide adequate supervision for applicants who are unfamiliar with the documentation required for a complete grant application.
The crisis with SUSI isn't the first to hit grant-reliant families in recent years. Since Budget 2010, the grant has been cut by 12pc despite greater demand than ever. Moreover, many students who previously qualified for the non-adjacent grant rate are now left with the adjacent rate, which barely covers fees, not to men-tion accommodation or living costs.
Last year, Mr Quinn scrapped the postgraduate grant entirely and so far this year he hasn't given sufficient assurances that he won't cut the maintenance grant again.
Students are calling on Mr Quinn to acknowledge the financial stress that families are under. He must not cut the grant this year and he must publicly state that he has no intent-ion of doing so. SUSI has left many parents without the money to see their children through college, they do not deserve to have yet more support taken away.
These demands are not indicative of students who feel entitled. We are aware of the situation our country is in. We know that we'll have to work more and earn less. All we're asking is that we be given the opportunity to pursue our education to its high-est level. College fees of €3,000 and more maintenance-grant cuts only serve to victimise young people who only want to better themselves so that they might make a substantial contribution to this country.
Young people are not looking for a handout. We just need a hand up.
John Logue is President of the Union of Students in Ireland