THE number of students on higher education grants surged to almost 70,000 last year as families struggled to send their children to college.
The 21pc jump was caused mainly by parents losing their jobs, which resulted in family income dropping below the maximum income thresholds to qualify for a grant.
At present, a family with less than four children must have an income of below €41,110 in order for one of their children to get a full maintenance grant.
The grant is worth up to €3,250 for a student living away from home -- but official figures from the Dublin Institute of Technology put the real cost of going to college at more than twice that amount.
There is a special 'top-up' allowance for people on very low incomes -- below €22,703 -- and the numbers qualifying for this increased from 15,000 to 21,000 in just one year.
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has predicted the overall numbers qualifying for grants this year could go as high as 80,000 -- or one in every two students.
USI president Gary Redmond said the projection was based on enrolments and the continued downturn in the economy.
He said last year thousands of students had to wait months to receive their first grant payment. Some students were forced to wait until after the academic year had ended.
Despite promises of an improvement this year, so far only 16 out of the 66 awarding authorities have made their first payment even though many colleges reopened early last month.
"The current grant system as set up over 30 years ago is not capable of meeting today's demands and students and families across the country are being forced to suffer because of the lack of a modern grants system," Mr Redmond said.
The USI, along with the Higher Education Authority, have been pressing for a centralised grant agency to eliminate duplication and speed up payments. Legislation is still working its way through the Oireachtas.
"A centralised grant agency would cut red tape, improve efficiency, provide huge savings to the State and, most importantly, ensure students are not left living on the breadline waiting months for grants," Mr Redmond added.
A USI survey showed that the only authorities who have paid part of the grants this year so far are the county councils in: Carlow; Cavan; Cork; Kerry; Kilkenny; Leitrim; Mayo; Meath; Monaghan; Tipperary North Riding; Waterford City Council; and the VECs in Kerry, Mayo and Wicklow.
Grant payments are being made directly into students' accounts as part of pilot programme by Dublin City Council; Dun Laoghaire/ Rathdown; Fingal county council; South Dublin county council and the City of Dublin VEC.