As third-level undergraduates approach their end-of-year exams in just over a month, it is believed up to half the number who have not received grants are awaiting funding from awarding bodies in Cork.
USI president Peter Mannion said the situation highlights the urgency with which new Education Minister Mary Coughlan must move to advance the Student Support Bill, which has been waiting to get to committee stage in the Dáil for almost two years.
“I know the Government is looking at using the bill to introduce a simplified online application process, which would make a big difference in speeding things up. But even if it was pushed through before the summer it is unlikely we would see the effects for the next college year,” he said.
“This is unacceptable when, as recently as last week, there were still around 1,660 students who had not yet received their maintenance grants.
“There are still a big number, possibly as many as 800 of them, in Cork,” Mr Mannion said.
More than 60,000 third-level students are expected to qualify for maintenance grants for the current academic year, up significantly on previous years, as a result of the rising numbers of families affected by unemployment or reduced wages and salaries.
The Student Support Bill, introduced by former education minister Mary Hanafin in February 2008, would hand the operation of all grants to Vocational Education Committees (VECs) which already handle around two-thirds of applications.
The proposed laws would also allow for the setting of timescales in which details of income thresholds for eligibility must be introduced each year, as well as streamlining the process with the aim of reducing delays for students.
The planned rationalisation of the 33 city and county VECs could also impinge on the smooth implementation of the new system if and when the legislation is passed.
Almost 250 delegates from more than 20 colleges on both sides of the border have gathered for the USI annual congress in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, where anger is also being expressed about mature students who receive the Back to Education Allowance (BTEA) no longer being eligible to receive maintenance grants.
“Many of those affected are students targeted for widening access to third level and it is also hitting some students moving from certain qualification levels to others,” Mr Mannion said.
The post of USI president will be decided in today’s election, contested by USI equality officer Linda Kelly from Ballyvolane in Cork, and University College Dublin Students’ Union president Gary Redmond from Arklow, Co Wicklow.