Grants scheme benefits from new era of clarity
Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI), the centralised third-level grants processing body, which is gradually taking over this work from local authorities and VECs, has certainly led to a new level of what is best described as "consistency" in the awarding of grants.
New research shows a remarkable increase in the number of those from areas with a strong urban profile, such as Dublin, Limerick and Cork, qualifying for third-level grants, while a significant decline has been identified in those qualifying from rural areas.
Can we conclude that a system in the hands of 66 local authorities and VECs led to a tendency for some people to qualify on 'a nod and a wink' in areas where people were known to each other and where local politicians were hyperactive in the subtle world of clientelism?
It is also possible to conclude that local authorities may have taken a broader view of farm incomes than they did with those of PAYE workers, with the result that a lot of reasonably well-off rural families qualified for third-level grants while a lot of reasonably well-off urban families did not. The 13.7pc increase in the percentage of grants in the Dublin area and the decline of 9.5pc in Mayo would seem to illustrate this dichotomy.
In this sense, SUSI, like the Central Applications Office, which awards third-level places, would seem a more democratic operation. The operation got off to a very bad start when it seemed unprepared for the number and complexity of grant applications and many families were left waiting interminably for their grants. These glitches now appear to have been cleared up and everybody entitled to a grant got one – some belatedly, it must be said.
The number of people going to college is at its highest level ever and so is the number of grant awards, with almost 50pc of those attending college or PLC courses now grant-aided.
While we cannot reach a definitive conclusion from the figures, it seems that the introduction of SUSI has contributed clarity and consistency into a system that was, in the past, opaque at best.
AER LINGUS AND UNIONS MUST REASSURE THE TRAVELLING PUBLIC
The threat by workers at Aer Lingus to consider industrial action around the St Patrick's Day weekend is most likely already costing Aer Lingus dearly - even if the strike or industrial action never happens.
Not too long ago we went through a similar threat, also over the issue of pensions, by the ESB Group of Unions, only for the threat of work stoppages to happily evaporate and ESB workers go on to perform heroic actions in the flooding crisis.
Now it seems SIPTU is preparing for disruption in air travel which would hit the one day in the year when the eyes of the globe are focused on what has now become an international celebration of Irishness.
The difficulty once more is pensions – the pensions of workers in Aer Lingus, the Dublin Airport Authority and staff in Shannon Airport who are members of the Irish Airlines Superannuation Scheme, which has a deficit of €800m.
Of course, this is a difficult but not intractable problem and in the end a solution will have to be found. As the chief executive of Aer Lingus, Christoph Mueller, who has done much to revive the fortunes of the airline, has pointed out, it can only be solved at the negotiating table, not the airport roundabout.
As the two sides argue whether a contribution of €140m by Aer Lingus and €60m by the DAA is sufficient, Mr Mueller has also sensibly pointed out that every euro lost in an industrial dispute is another euro that won't be going into the pension fund.
People at home and abroad are still booking flights for their St Patrick's Day breaks. Many will be nervous about booking with Aer Lingus until they get reassurance that their travel plans will not be disrupted.