THOUSANDS of people will still be unable to afford college places because of Government cuts despite a slight relaxation of eligibility criteria for one support scheme, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) claims.
Social Protection Minister Éamon Ó Cuív has announced that social welfare recipients need only be getting support for nine rather than 12 months to qualify for the Back to Education Allowance (BTEA) for the upcoming college year, except those who have been receiving illness benefit for whom a two-year qualifying period will still apply.
The payment will also be available for the first time to those returning to a course or starting, rather than just those starting the first year of a study programme.
But USI president Gary Redmond said that while this may open up the scheme to many more students, it will still not benefit thousands who have lost their jobs since the start of the year.
The allowance replaces a student’s existing social welfare income and is supplemented by a €500 cost of education allowance, but in last year’s budget it was announced that those who receive it will not be eligible for a grant from this autumn.
Mr Redmond said this withdrawal of maintenance grant support by the Government from those who get the BTEA remains as their biggest obstacle to college entry.
“Most people on the BTEA qualify for some level of grant support up to now but they just won’t be able to afford a third-level education without it. The €500 they get with the BTEA won’t even cover the books for courses like law and many colleges have now introduced levies for student services of up to €150 which won’t be covered, so the allowance could be half gone before the year even starts,” he said.
“We will be asking Education Minister and Tánaiste Mary Coughlan again to reverse the policy on the grant eligibility,” Mr Redmond said.
A spokesperson for Mr Ó Cuív said the minister accepts there may be issues in relation to childcare costs for BTEA recipients and he is looking into this, but no further details were available about what might be under consideration to address the situation.
The Department of Social Protection expects more than 25,000 people to qualify for the BTEA in the upcoming academic year, up from more than 20,800 in the past year which was a 79% rise in participants on 2008/2009.
Mr Ó Cuív has set aside €169 million for the scheme this year but it is unclear how many extra people are expected to qualify as a result of the change.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved