INCOME cut-offs for college grants next autumn will remain largely unchanged despite pressure to increase third-level access for poorer students when details are announced by Tánaiste Mary Coughlan next week.
However, the number of students eligible for support will still rise sharply as thousands more applicants are likely to be from homes affected by job losses and wage cuts.
This may significantly increase the Department of Education’s student support bill above the €320 million due to be paid out this year, even though the amounts paid are also expected to be frozen or slightly reduced. Ms Coughlan’s predecessor as Education Minister, Batt O’Keeffe, cut payments by 5% in January despite rising third-level education costs.
As details are finalised this week between the Tánaiste’s officials and the Department of Finance to allow her department announce the income thresholds two months earlier than last year, the Irish Examiner understands there will be little or no change to the eligibility incomes. This means only those from families earning less than €22,308 will qualify for the maximum grant.
A freeze in income thresholds and grant payments may be considered a success by Ms Coughlan in the face of Department of Finance pressure to cut costs at a time of wage deflation. But student representatives and opposition parties are likely to argue the need to increase the amounts to make higher education a realistic ambition for more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Around 62,000 students qualified for student grants in the current academic year, up from just over 57,000 in 2008/’09, with payments ranging from €330 to €6,350 for those from households earning up to €56,000.
The €1,500 college registration fee is paid for students with a maximum household income of €61,295 a year.
The late publication of the grants schemes in previous years has been a major factor in delayed processing of applications by the 66 councils and Vocational Education Committees (VECs) which operate them.
The earlier availability of the income thresholds should allow those already in college to apply straight away, with those awaiting college offers having to wait until between July and September.
The Irish Examiner also understands the Tánaiste will bring changes to the Student Support Bill, which was referred to the Attorney General more than two years ago before reaching Oireachtas committee stage, to the Cabinet in the next few weeks.
When passed, it will move the handling of all grant applications to the 33 VECs and set statutory guidelines for publication dates of the grant eligibility levels each year to help reduce delays.
A simplified application form is already available for those intending to seek grant support for the next college year on the Higher Education Authority’s dedicate website: www.studentfinance.ie.
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