I thank the committee for the invitation to come before it today. USI's pre-budget submission, which is a more concise document than we submitted in previous years, has been circulated. I will focus in particular on one issue which we highlight in the submission.
What the crisis and debacle about the processing last year of grants by Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, achieved was to highlight the importance of the maintenance grant to vulnerable students and families throughout the country. In the past four consecutive budgets the student maintenance grant was cut, in either range or threshold, by between 3% and 5%. In recent weeks an Irish League of Credit Union study showed the cost of college has increased to more than €1,000 per month on average for families, and 84% of such families struggle to meet the costs of third level as it currently stands. The gap between the pared-back supports and the cost of college means many families are at breaking point. In our pre-budget submission we include a quote from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the level of student grants in 2011, particularly at the standard rate, as being insufficient to meet the costs of college. Three budgets and three cuts later, this is even more the case. Our message is that any further cutbacks to the student maintenance grant will not only mean that students will struggle but will be very much an anti-family measure.
The maintenance grant at its average rate is €84 per week. This is totally unacceptable if we consider the lowest acceptable rate of jobseeker's allowance for a young person to be €100 per week. Given the saturated market, many students are unable to find part-time employment to support them in college.
Their families have little disposable income to support them, given the wider impacts of the recession. The demand on the student assistance and hardship funds has reached breaking point in many colleges.
I returned from Galway this morning, where I attended a class rep training event in my old college, the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT. I spoke about someone I knew while working there last year and who is no longer in college there. That student went through three years of a level 7 course on the highest rate of the maintenance grant, which I also received while in college in light of my socioeconomic background, and absorbed three consecutive years of cuts to the rate. Before attempting to move on to level 8 this year in the fourth year of his degree, however, he was moved from the highest threshold rate to the second highest as a result of last year's measure. Consequently, he has dropped out and moved to London in search of work that is not in his chosen field.
I have seen the impact of cuts on the ground, not only to students' finances but to their mental health and so on. While being pragmatic enough to understand the state of the country's finances, I call on the committee to make the student maintenance grant a priority in the upcoming budget.
No Union of Students in Ireland, USI, representative would appear before this committee without alluding to student charges and fees. I would be lax not to mention how the increase in the student contribution has had an adverse effect on family budgets. According to the ILCU study to which I referred, 71% of families have seen their budgets severely affected by increases. According to more recent figures, these budgets are already struggling. People are falling behind on bills and other payments. While we accept the multi-annual budgeting nature of the charges, including the increases in the student contribution charge, we call on the Government to consider committing to rowing back on this charge in line with future economic recovery. In the same way that the Haddington Road agreement deals with pay cuts for public servants, struggling and vulnerable students and families should be afforded the same treatment.
I will touch on a last issue before handing over to my colleague, Ms Harmon. We alluded to postgraduate loans in our pre-budget submission. When many students finished college a number of years ago, they had three choices - emigrate, go on the dole or proceed to postgraduate degrees - given the significant jobs crisis facing young people who left college. With the decision to remove almost all fee, maintenance and postgraduate grants, many of these students now face only two choices, emigration or the dole. At 10.8%, the interest rate of the Bank of Ireland postgraduate loan scheme, which was endorsed by the Minister after this decision, is exorbitant. Any student who previously qualified for a maintenance grant at postgraduate level is afforded the opportunity to take on €2,000 in additional debt. The most vulnerable families and students are becoming trapped in a spiral of additional debt. It is accepted across the board - by the Department of Education and Skills, Opposition spokespersons and everyone with whom I have discussed the matter - that this is an unsustainable situation in the long term and creates social inequity and a barrier to accessing postgraduate education for people who could be the highly skilled drivers of our future recovery. Therefore, I call on the Government and this committee to push for this topic to be re-examined with a view to creating a more sustainable and affordable environment for students who wish to progress to postgraduate education.
I will not address the European youth employment guarantee aspect of our pre-budget submission at length, as we will have the opportunity to address it with the committee after the budget. If the proposals required to make the guarantee work are to be rolled out effectively, funding must be made available. In members' representations in advance of the budget, they should call for the provision of adequate funding to resource the youth guarantee and match EU funding.
Ms Harmon will briefly discuss the back-to-education allowance and mature students.