Staffing allocation blamed for delay to grants

Slow allocation of staff, poor communication, and inadequate planning were among the main causes of delay to thousands of student grants, an independent review has reported.

City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee, which operates the Student Universal Support Ireland (Susi) system, admitted yesterday that it had only 25 of the 65 staff it needed in March last year, three months before the system was launched.

The review of Susi by consultants Accenture found that resolving the resourcing issue took up a significant amount of time that should have been spent developing the system. Almost 38,000 students have received a grant or had their college fees paid but backlogs meant only 24,000 were paid or approved up to Christmas.

CDVEC chief executive Jacinta Stewart told the Irish Examiner the VEC only had five grants staff before being selected in 2011 to take over the national system, beginning with first-time grant applicants last year. Redeployment from the public service, approved by Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin, was slower than expected.

“I would regret that any student was upset or inconvenienced by any delays Susi caused them,” said Ms Stewart. “Everybody put a huge effort into getting it right, but did we get it right? Of course the answer to that is no, but did people try their best? Yes.”

Sinn Féin education spokesman Jonathan O’Brien said the revelation about staffing delays was a surprise, as CDVEC had said staffing issues were adequate. He said the key issue in the report was that there were not enough managers in place to identify and address problems as they emerged, and it was vital that a recommendation to rectify this is adopted.

The perceived loss or misplacement of students’ documents was identified in the report as a cause of huge student frustration. It found the impression was created by poor information by Susi helpline staff, when posted documents were not logged or matched up to students’ applications for up to a week, prompting requests for income and other documents that had already been submitted.

Under data-sharing arrangements with the Central Applications Office, Department of Social Protection, Department of Education, Revenue Commissioners and General Registration Office, most documents used to assess applications may not now need to be sent in by this year’s applicants. As around two thirds of last year’s applicants get social welfare payments, and similar numbers have parents in the PAYE system, Susi estimates that more than half of students will only need to submit declaration forms this year.

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn said that the new centralised grants system would make the process quicker and easier for students when it launched last summer, but had to apologise over the backlog of applications in November. Last night, the department said he will monitor how Susi responds as new applications start to arrive next week.

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