Grant system already in need of overhaul


Following the revelation that 21,000 grant applications still need to be processed, Killian Woods examines if SUSI needs an overhaul after only one year

On an annual basis, the failure of the third-level grants system makes national news. Until last year, the main grievance students would voice revolved around queuing in the Tierney Building to see if their grant cheque has arrived or bemoaning a system that is above scrutinisation by the Office of the Ombudsman.

These perennial complaints voiced by students fuelled the creation of the Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI), a system that was intent on streamlining the grant system and give students access to an online application system that is easy to use and can speed up the processing of applications.

An official statement at the start of August from SUSI claimed that they were “running well on target” and other reports from the organisation said that they are ten weeks ahead of last year with regards to processing applications.

These promising messages were a welcome surprise. In its inaugural year, SUSI had numerous teething issues that were unavoidable as such a system in this country was unprecedented, but it was expected that following a year of logging systemic problems SUSI would have some solutions.

However, in an article published in the Irish Examiner on 27th of September, it was revealed that 21,000 students are yet to receive a decision on their grants applications. This interesting revelation highlights the acceptable level of failure that appears engrained in governmental institutions is reaching new levels of embarrassment.

This insight also reveals the skewed definition that SUSI appear to attach to “running well on target” and beggars belief over their claim that the system is ten weeks ahead of last year’s targets. What would the system look like if it was only five weeks ahead of schedule?

Demanding such high standards of SUSI may be unfair when it is tasked with finding an easy solution to the delegation of grants, a somewhat unrealistic expectation. County Councils have struggled with this matter for decades, but even if streamlining such a convoluted system that always has the tendency to bottleneck doesn’t appear achievable, that surely doesn’t mean the solution is to accept failure.

There are always solutions to these sort of administration related problems, such as hiring more staff to process the applications. SUSI might argue that there is not a demand year round to have that volume of staff on the books if over 90% of their work will have been processed by late November.

However, SUSI is a service that the government should be pumping funding into because it plays such an intricate part in the lives of people who may not be afforded the opportunity of attending college because their parents can’t pay the exorbitant registration fees.

A possible respite for students looking at the chaos that they may have to deal with for the next few years is the fact that the third-level education institutions and the Student Grants Appeals Board will now fall under the remit of the Office of the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman Amendment Act 2012, which came into effect on the 1st of May this year, now allows students who have had their grant applications rejected.

The statistics emerging from the Ombudsman’s office also highlight how SUSI is failing students in third-level education. The 50 separate complaints made in relation to SUSI and the processing of grants prove that SUSI were still processing grant applications at the start of May.

This is an organisation that feels they are making progress. They feel that failing the most financially vulnerable third-level students is acceptable. And they have no apparent answer to speeding up the process.