A 60% rise in college entrants qualifying for grants in the last three years is putting huge pressure on the Department of Education to stay within its budget.
More than 42,000 students will receive a grant for the first time this year, up from just over 26,500 in the 2007/2008 academic year.
This brings the total number of grant recipients to 73,751, a 28% increase in just two years, according to figures in a briefing note to Education Minister Ruairi Quinn on the student grant scheme from his senior officials.
The biggest jump in qualifying numbers happened in 2009, when almost 41,000 new recipients qualified for supports, up 39% on the previous year.
Not only are more new undergraduates eligible, but successful applicants have also been qualifying for higher rates of support because of falling household incomes and unemployment.
The department’s student grants budget has risen 46% to €386 million from a 2008 bill of €264m.
That is despite estimated savings this year of €22m through a 4% cut to the rates payable, almost doubling the distance students must live from college to qualify for higher payments from 15 to 28 miles (24km to 45km) and ending automatic eligibility for mature students to higher grants.
But the rising numbers of recipients are among a small number of spending areas which department officials told the minister are putting particular pressure on it to keep within its 2011 budget of €8.9 billion.
They also cited increased retirements above those provided for across the education sector, because public servants can calculate their retirement lump sum up to next February based on their pay before last year’s salary cuts.
In order to reduce grant administration costs and minimise delays for students, the Student Support Act passed before February’s election will create a single grants scheme to replace the four existing ones and pass responsibility to one body instead of the 66 councils and vocational education committees (VECs) currently operating them.
An independent panel set up by the department has short-listed four public bodies which expressed interest in becoming the single awarding body to accept all new applications from next year.
They are expected to make a recommendation soon to Mr Quinn from the four organisations: City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee (VEC), Dun Laoghaire- Rathdown County Council, Pobal, and a joint application from Waterford city and county councils.
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