Least well-off to be hit by college grant changes

RURAL people, mature students and the least well-off will be most affected by planned changes in how grant applications are assessed, according to the Union of Students in Ireland (USI).

Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe announced yesterday that changes will be made from next year to the way applications are assessed from farmers’ children, from people living in Ireland less than three out of the previous five years, mature students and some social welfare recipients.

The income means test used to determine eligibility for grants will disregard an income tax adjustment for farm stock relief, meaning a farming family’s income could be significantly increased when an application is considered.

For 2010/2011 college year grant applications, the Back to Education Allowances and some others paid by the Department of Social and Family Affairs will be included as reckonable income. The minister is also increasing the break in studies required for re-entry as an independently assessed mature student from one to three years, while all applicants will have to show they have lived in Ireland for three of the previous five years instead of the one year currently required.

“The idea of cutting the student grant bill by €70 million was raised by An Bord Snip, but if these things go ahead it’s farmers, mature students and poorer people who will have less access to college,” said USI president Peter Mannion.

Students beginning third-level next autumn are likely to be affected by a graduate loans scheme requiring them to pay later for tuition from the 2010/2011 college year forward, which Mr O’Keeffe is strongly expected to announce later this year.

But those who qualify for grants for this year will only receive the same payment as last year and the year before.

The household income thresholds which qualify students are largely unchanged, with the main exceptions of the highest grant rate of €6,690 – for which families earning less than €22,308 will qualify – and a 3.4% increase in income threshold for the next-highest grant rate.

“In our changed economic circumstances these increases in the income limits mean that students from families on low to middle incomes will continue to get financial help from the Government in covering the costs of third-level education,” Mr O’Keeffe said.

But Mr Mannion said that even families in which one or more earners have lost their jobs this year might not have their changed circumstances taken into effect because grant applications will be based on last year’s incomes. The minister has also left open the possibility of changes to the rates of payment from January under a system in place since last year meaning the grants budget is operated on a calendar year instead of the academic year.

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