Vast difference in costs for processing student grants
THE cost to the taxpayer of processing student grants varies wildly from one local authority to another, new figures reveal.
The difference in the cost of processing each higher education grant application is up to €200 -- from as low as €64.59 in Co Westmeath to a massive €270.57 in South Tipperary.
The figures indicate that it cost taxpayers more than €5m last year to process applications to the 66 local authorities and VECs involved in handling grants.
Despite this spending, many students did not get grants until well into the academic year.
They also reveal that there was an 18pc rise in the number of students applying for grants between 2008 and 2009. A surge in applications is expected again this year as more families experience unemployment.
The figures were obtained from eight local authorities under Freedom of Information legislation by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). The data give a breakdown of the total number of applicants received by each local authority, the number of successful applications and the cost of processing them.
The figures suggest some authorities are more efficient in dealing with applications than others, but sources pointed out that some authorities are much more demanding in terms of seeking back-up information from applicants to ensure they are within the threshold limits to qualify for a grant.
USI president Gary Redmond said the average cost of processing a form came down from €177.31 in 2008 to €150.20 last year, but there were still disparities. "Even though Westmeath and Mayo process almost exactly the same number of applications (769 and 753 respectively), Westmeath is over €101 cheaper than Mayo," he said. Last year, 81pc of all applicants were successful in securing grants, compared with 74pc the previous year. The highest success rate was in Westmeath at 87pc, while the lowest was in Mayo at 69pc.
"These figures back USI's calls for a centralised grant authority as they prove that the more applications a unit processes the cheaper it becomes. This can be seen from the fact that even though Mayo received a 43pc increase in applications, the cost of processing each form reduced by almost €124," said Mr Redmond.
The Higher Education Authority also favours a single authority. Chief executive Tom Boland said it did not make sense to have more than 60 local councils and VECs trying to administer a scheme and expressed his dismay at "the inability of a significant number of local bodies in the past year to make grant decisions and awards in a timely manner, leading to stress for students and costs for higher education institutions".
The Government has promised a centralised authority but the promised legislation has still not been enacted. A spokesman for Education Minister Mary Coughlan said a number of amendments to the Student Support Bill were being advanced.