Minister comes under pressure over lobbying for Susi grants
Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor has been accused of "wink-and-elbow politics" after she made scores of representations on behalf of students whose Susi application was rejected.
The Fine Gael minister wants students around the country to contact her office if their application for a grant is rejected by Susi. Her spokeswoman said the office would make representations on applicants' behalf.
Ms Mitchell O'Connor last year made some 145 representations to Susi, which administers the means-tested grant system, and has already made around 70 this year in advance of the new academic year.
"If they come into the department regarding Susi, they come across her desk," her spokeswoman said. "Obviously as Minister for Higher Education everybody who is eligible or thinks they are hard done by of the system, we do a representation on it and look into it, that's her job."
However, Labour education spokesman Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said "for a minister to rely on wink-and-elbow politics to cover over policy failures is outrageous".
Fianna Fáil education spokesman Thomas Byrne said Ms Mitchell O'Connor has no power to bend the rules. "Pretending she can is utterly disingenuous."
The disclosure came after the Irish Independent sought clarity on Ms Mitchell O'Connor's comments earlier this week - that grant applicants from her own constituency can contact her office if they are rejected.
"If you are turned down by any chance you can appeal and again you know you can contact my office if you are a local constituent, but actually the Susi appeals system is very robust and they will also help you," she said. The Dún Laoghaire TD's spokeswoman has now said she intended her comments to apply to all grant applicants.
Ms Mitchell O'Connor has been under fire this week for suggesting that students use their Susi grant to cover accommodation costs. Critics pointed out the maximum grant of just under €6,000 would not cover rent in many halls.
The minister later said the grant was "never intended to cover the whole cost of college". There have been calls for Susi to be overhauled in order to address the rising cost of college. "If the system isn't working for families, then fix it," Mr Ó Ríordáin said.
In response to further queries last night, Ms Mitchell O'Connor said: "Susi offer a robust appeals process. Families at times need guidance in navigating that process. They want expert advice on the best way to approach an important application. It's an important service that TDs provide. I'm happy to provide that. And make no apologies for assisting families."