Grants debacle spells failure

A better service for students was pledged but the new grants system is worse than the one it replaced, says education correspondent Niall Murray

AN EXCELLENT example of public sector reform that will ensure better customer service for all students who rely on grants.

That was how Ruairí Quinn proudly announced the opening of applications through Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) on Jun 11. The move brought an end to more than a decade of planning for a single agency to handle student grants, first mooted in the Jun 2002 Programme for Government agreed by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats.

Early last year, the necessary legislation was passed and City of Dublin Vocational Education committee (CDVEC) was chosen to operate the scheme over 18 months ago. After years of complaints about students waiting until the second or final term to have grants issued, this system was supposed to end the hassle for parents and put all applicants on a level playing field.

For years, ministers and Department of Education officials were bombarded with questions from TDs about delays by this council or that VEC, but all that was to come to an end.

At the Oireachtas education committee yesterday, it was clear that the transformation and the customer service improvements promised by Mr Quinn have not been delivered. If anything, it could be that CDVEC’s new grants agency is performing worse than many of the 66 bodies that will hand over grant renewals to it in the next few years.

SUSI is a sub-unit of CDVEC and is clearly having problems coping with the level of work involved in its first year, handling applications from first-time grant applicants. Part of the problem appears to be the systems for checking the paperwork that applicants and their families must send in when the initial online submission has been checked.

For all the expertise of CDVEC — itself one of the organisations with a long history of handling student grants — and of many surrounding councils, the decision was taken to give the job of verifying and checking applicants’ documents to a private company.

The Abtran firm in Cork also operates SUSI’s helpdesk and the telephone support service that TDs and senators complained about leaves callers waiting up to half an hour, with a recorded message being as much as some get to hear at the end of it.

From the evidence supplied to the committee yesterday, and from numerous complaints to the Irish Examiner in recent weeks, financial records and other important information is either not being received or is not being properly recorded.

SUSI unit manager Tom Prizeman explained the process to the committee, whereby document packs are scanned into a computer by Abtran staff and merged with the earlier online application data.

“We have investigated some calls coming into Abtran to say documents were lost. It turns out that documents were there. They might have been scanned but they weren’t there in the system.”

This appears to explain why so many families may be getting requests for documents that have already been supplied, but it also raises questions about why SUSI and CDVEC keep insisting that it is not losing records and that student omissions are largely to blame for delays.

The claim that 40% of applications come in incomplete should be verified to establish if this is actually the case, or if this is partially the result of system errors where scanned documents are not being aligned with the corresponding applications.

The staffing for SUSI has been substantially increased, as flagged by the Irish Examiner over a fortnight ago, with 40 additional people over and above the 39 initially in place on support desk and reviewing documents. From 55 people assessing completed applications, SUSI now has 96, and another 10 people are due to begin working next week.

Questions also need to be answered about the information being given to applicants by the SUSI support service.

Take, for example, the case of students like one highlighted by Sinn Féin TD Jonathan O’Brien. She is studying 150km from home but when she got paid her grant, she was only given the amount for someone at college within 24km of home.

In cases like this, the committee was told, a formal appeal is not necessary and the error can be notified directly to SUSI. But queries to the SUSI helpline on behalf of this student and those in similar circumstances resulted in instructions to must submit an appeal, something which could take weeks to be resolved.

Just over half of the 1,150 appeals have been finalised by Cork City VEC but the remaining 500 or so might be cleared much quicker if unnecessary appeals are not submitted.

CDVEC chief executive Stewart told TDs and senators that efforts to improve the entire system and reduce the amount of documentation needed are being made for future years. These could include power being given to Revenue Commissioners, Department of Social Protection, and the CAO to share personal information on applicants and their families that otherwise requires paperwork and can add time to the process.

Consideration is also being given to allow students email scanned documents instead of having to post them, while a tracking system being planned would mean students could check online what stage their application is at.

These could lead to future improvements but for now, the clearing of the backlog as quickly as possible matters most to the thousands of students struggling with rent and under pressure to register at college and access services.

But the causes of the backlog also need to be addressed, particularly the system errors that are clearly badgering the speedy processing of applications promised in June.

Just as importantly, the input or otherwise of Mr Quinn and his officials into the process deserve scrutiny. From their knowledge of the flaws in the system over the years, they should have known from the start what kind of staffing was needed, the checks and balances required and the wisdom or otherwise of giving important and highly confidential work to a private company with no experience of the grants system.

If this was supposed to be how public sector reform should look, and if this is as good as it can be delivered after so much time to plan, the public has a lot to worry about.

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