I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this issue. I acknowledge the presence of the Minister. I have spoken with her before on the issue and she is familiar with some of my views on it from my work in the education committee. While I believe that forum might be better placed to further address some of the issues I have, I would like to get ministerial approval and support in the House. Ultimately, I would like to see a comprehensive review of the third level structure that pertains to the awarding of grants.
I want to express my full confidence in SUSI. After its establishment, SUSI proved a huge source of disappointment to the Opposition and the media because it got its act together and did a tremendous job in awarding grants. Its work is universally acknowledged, in particular the extraordinary task of bringing all the separate awarding authorities under one body. I do not have an issue with SUSI and the way it does its work, given it does that work within the parameters set for it.
The issue is that the awarding system is very cut and dried. If people are €20 under the threshold, they are eligible to get a grant, maintenance and fees for their child who is going to college, but if they are €20 over the threshold, they are refused the full grant and any other help whatsoever. It is very difficult for people to stomach the fact a €20 difference in wages can mean so much. I understand there are gradients in terms of the amount awarded under the adjacent rate which is related to the distance a person lives from the college. However, if somebody is marginally over the cut-off point, which is approximately €42,000 for a typical family of three or four, there should be some flexibility in the system so that a person is entitled to get, say, 60%, 70%, 80% or 90% of a grant. In this day and age, surely the IT systems in place could manage the awarding of grants in a manner that is more proportionate to people's income and not so reliant on the very black and white cut-off thresholds we have all boxed ourselves into.
While that is being done, in tandem, I would like to see more flexibility being built into the system of appeals. My experience of current appeals is that discretion is not being allowed and officials are only concerned with whether the rules of the scheme are being adhered to. This is my bigger issue. While we need to change the structures that SUSI operates, in the meantime the appeals system should be examined
For example, a parent who works in the health sector recently attended my clinic in Clonakilty in west Cork. As part of the Haddington Road agreement in the past two years, she got a one-off payment of €600 or €700, which has meant she is ineligible for the SUSI grant. Her child has to travel a very long distance from west Cork every week while she is working. She explained to me that she is now in a vicious circle because she is trying to do overtime every minute she can get in order to make ends meet and to get her child through college and pay for his fees, accommodation and food, given she has to pay for everything. That is very difficult for her but, next year, she will be in a worse scenario as she will be further over the limit because of the overtime she has worked, so she will be punished even further and will have even less of a remote chance.
In essence, I have two requests. First, I ask for this to be raised in the education committee as I believe it might be a forum where, with the guidance and assistance of the Minister, and her presence and that of her officials, we could look comprehensively at the awards structure that is in place at present with a view to, on a gradual basis, giving 70%, 80% and 90% awards to those who are marginally over the thresholds. Second, and more important and urgently, I ask that real discretion be applied to the appeals mechanism that exists at present.