Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Ceisteanna (104, 108)

Charlie McConalogue

Ceist:

104. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills the number of grants awarded or paid to students by Student Universal Support Ireland; if he will give a guarantee that all student grant applications will be processed and those students who qualify will be paid by Christmas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51420/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Jonathan O'Brien

Ceist:

108. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will outline in detail the process of outsourcing the scanning of grant application documents to a third party in County Cork; if a cost-benefit analysis was conducted prior to the awarding of the contract to the company; if the contract was put out to public tender; and the cost differential of outsourcing this element of the grant application process of Student Universal Support Ireland to delivering it in-house. [51342/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (12 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Education)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 104 and 108 together.

The situation in relation to the 66,000 applications to Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, is as follows. Some 22,000 are complete, with some 12,000 either awarded or provisionally awarded and some 10,000 refused. Once awarded, payment is dependent on the verification of attendance by the institution and the submission of bank details by the student. Some 4,420 students have now been paid and SUSI is continuing to make payments on a weekly basis to ensure students can be paid as expeditiously as possible once they have been awarded a grant.

Some 21,000 applications are with SUSI for processing as we speak. The remaining 23,000 applications are awaiting submission of documentation by the students concerned. More than 50% of students in this category have made no response at all to requests by SUSI for the required supporting documentation so it must be assumed that many of these are not planning to pursue their applications any further.

SUSI is aiming to achieve a target of 33,000 awards in total by the end of the year and I expect that target to be met. SUSI is staffed to the level that has been requested and all the necessary resources should be in place to enable it to process applications to completion, subject to all the necessary documentation being in order to enable it to make a decision in each case. This week, a further 50 additional temporary staff have been approved to ensure that all targets are met from this point of view.

SUSI will endeavour to ensure that students who are awarded a maintenance grant will be paid before the end of the year. Some students may not receive their grant until the beginning of January due to the requirements in respect of bank details and verification of attendance, together with the banking restrictions over the holiday period. However, every effort will be made by SUSI to ensure that all successful grant applicants are paid by December.

The Student Support Act 2011 made provision for the appointed awarding authority to outsource particular functions or aspects of the student grant application process where it considered it appropriate to do so, subject to the general superintendence and control of the appointed awarding authority. As part of its overall implementation plan, SUSI went to tender for the document management service. The tender was published in the Official Journal of the European Union using the competitive dialogue process. The preferred bidder was selected on the basis of the marks awarded by the evaluation committee. While a cost-benefit analysis was not specifically carried out prior to the award of the contract, it was considered that outsourcing was an appropriate solution for the document management process. This was on the basis of the cyclical nature of the administration of the student grants, the volume of applications and the associated requirements for documentary evidence within a tight timeframe.

This scalable outsourcing solution is more cost effective as it is resourced by contract staff to deal with particular peaks and troughs in inbound communications over the course of the year. In addition, it provides the necessary IT infrastructure and costly scanning equipment that is required for an operation of this nature. The cost of providing this service in-house would have involved significant investment, including the upgrading of equipment on an ongoing basis and would have had significant staffing and accommodation implications.

I thank the Minister for his response and for the updated figures. Once again I acknowledge the approach he took last week in that he took responsibility for this issue, which is very important and welcome. I said at the time that I felt the Minister also needed to take responsibility to ensure students would be paid before Christmas and I asked that he meet SUSI and tease out exactly where things were. In his response, he might outline what meetings he has had with SUSI in the past week and if he had any meetings in the preceding weeks.

I see from the Minister's updated figures that 22,000 applications have been decided on. Last week, it was 20,000 and approximately two weeks ago, it was 18,000. In the past week, the number of applications decided on increased by 2,000. Last week, SUSI outlined and, indeed, the Minister said in the Dáil, that decisions would be running at a rate of 800 per day up to maybe 1,300. That is obviously not happening. Unless that happens quickly, there is no way the number the Minister outlined today of 33,000 awards will be made by the end of the year.

Staff in county councils and VECs throughout the country, who are trained in this, have now finished processing the grant applications of continuing students. Has the Minister considered engaging them to assist?

At a rate of 2,000 per week with six weeks to Christmas, only an additional 12,000 applications will be decided by Christmas. One would expect the staff working on this to be at maximum level, so unless further action is taken, many students who are in exceptionally precarious financial circumstances will continue to suffer.

The Deputy asked a number of questions and I will try to reply to them seriatim. I have been in contact with SUSI. I have not had physical meetings but the Department's officials have had such meetings. I have spoken to the chief executive of the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee, CDVEC. Ten minutes ago I checked with the principal officer in the Department by telephone to confirm that all the facts I have put on the record of the House are accurate and in accordance with the facts as he knows them.

The Deputy's calculations are right. In processing over 2,000 per week we would not meet the target I have been assured will be met before Christmas. The reason for the officials' certainty that they will meet it is that the number of staff has been increased quite considerably so capacity will accelerate over the next few weeks. I intend to monitor the situation closely. If there is any change in any of the targets that have been formally communicated to the House, I will communicate it to the Deputies.

The Deputy asked about payment. As he will understand, it is a two-way exchange. Where all the details are available and we are still in working time without the disruption of the Christmas break and the holidays - Christmas Day this year is immediately after a weekend so there will be a prolonged closedown or limited service, even possibly affecting some of the IT activities - they might be processed but students might not get their lodgement until late in December or early in the new year.

With regard to the company in Cork which got the contract, the Minister said no cost benefit analysis was carried out. Unfortunately, however, there is a cost and it is being borne by the students. Nearly every Deputy has received probably in excess of 300 e-mails from students, many of whom are complaining that documentation which they previously sent in is now being requested again. This is still occurring right up to today. In respect of the targets that have been set, the Minister said it was their certainty rather than his that the targets would be met. In fairness, the Minister said that every staffing resource which has been requested has been allocated. That will give some comfort to people. However, there is a responsibility on the Minister not to rely on their certainty but to be certain himself that the targets will be met. There is also an onus on him to look at the procedures they are implementing to try to achieve their targets. If he is not happy with them, he should not wait for SUSI to request more resources. I have no confidence in SUSI or the CDVEC. It is clear that the targets they set initially have not been met and the targets they outlined to the committee last week are not being met, so the onus is on the Minister to look at the procedures and to allocate additional resources. He should not wait for those bodies to refer back to him on that because they might not do so.

The Deputy might not have heard me or I might not have articulated it well enough, but while a cost benefit analysis was not specifically carried out prior to the award of the contract, it was considered that outsourcing was an appropriate solution for the document management process. That is the activity that is taking place. The reason was the peak nature of this once-in-a-year event for new applicants. Obviously, students in second, third and fourth year are dealing with the 66 local authorities and VECs. There was general consensus, and nobody disputed it, that one management body operating the system of administration was preferable to the 66 existing bodies.

We had many complaints about delays in paying grants but the Department had no responsibility in the area. This is our first time having responsibility to administer it. Lessons must be learned. I have said to staff in my Department and in the City of Dublin VEC that we must get the grants processed and the money into the bank accounts as quickly as possible and, when that is done, we will do an analysis of how it worked, how we can make it work better and how we can speed it up. Perhaps we can do some pre-application work and work on related matters so that it flows more freely. That is my intention. I will keep a constant eye on it between now and Christmas. The aim is to get 33,000 applications cleared by Christmas. Although the money may not come into the accounts, the aim is to get the applications cleared. If there is any variation, I will personally notify both Deputies.

With regard to the 21,000 applications in hand for processing, a dent has not been made in it in the past week or so. The 21,000 applications and packages have not been checked to ensure all documentation is there. The expected return rate, where applications are incomplete, is up to 40%. Given the major challenge, and when many applications have not been opened or double checked, how will we reach the target of 33,000 awarded by the end of the year? Many of them will have to be returned. The total number of grant awards expected to be made through SUSI is 35,000 and 33,000 represents a high proportion of them. Some 21,000 remain to be checked and perhaps the Minister for Education and Skills can explain how they will be processed.

What measures is SUSI taking to ensure it gets the bank account details of students so that, once it decides to make an award, there is no further delay? That is a practical step that could be taken.

I will give the Minister two examples of the frustration that occurs. On 5 November, I e-mailed SUSI on behalf of a constituent. Some 14 days later, I received a response from the SUSI helpdesk about the e-mail, which I sent from my Oireachtas e-mail account to the e-mail address we were given. The response, 14 days after I first e-mailed, was that SUSI was unable to discuss the application for data protection reasons. I am sure the Minister for Education and Skills thinks this is unacceptable and that the system is not working. If it is not working for us as public representatives making representations on behalf of students, it is certainly not working for the students.

I received an e-mail from another student who applied in July. On 18 October, she received a letter stating her application was successful and to log onto the SUSI account profile to input her details. When she tried, she was unable to do so. The indication was that the application had not been processed. Since 18 October, she has spent over €30 of credit telephoning SUSI but has been unable to get through because she is put on hold. She sent three e-mails and each got the response that she would be contacted within one working day. Today, she received an e-mail requesting her PPS number, her SUSI application number, her phone number and her e-mail address, despite the fact that SUSI had just e-mailed her. That is the response students and elected representatives are getting from the SUSI helpdesk. It is simply unacceptable.

In response to Deputy McConalogue's question, Abtran has 79 staff and is taking on 50 extra staff. Abtran assures me it is satisfied that will be sufficient to process the applications. I will be constantly monitoring the volume of processing taking place. Should more staff be necessary, I will ensure Abtran takes on extra staff to do the task for which it has been contracted.

The story Deputy O'Brien put on the record of the House is unacceptable to any Deputy. If he gives my office the details of the case I will pursue it. There is, however, a data protection issue in asking someone for their bank account details. This is not confined to the operation of SUSI.

The e-mail I sent inquired about the status of a particular application. I received a reply 14 days later to say SUSI could not discuss the application. It had nothing to do with bank account details.

In some cases, even when the third party is a public representative who has been asked by the citizen in question to make an inquiry, the interpretation by the Data Protection Commissioner, who gives instructions to the relevant bodies, can frequently be that without express permission conveyed by the constituent a service agency cannot share information with a third party. It is unsatisfactory. I have encountered it myself. It is something we need to deal with, on a wider scale. If an Oireachtas committee were to discuss this matter it would be useful for all of us.

The Minister outlined how when a student is awarded a grant there can then be a delay because the student must go back to the college to get confirmation of registration and must also get bank account details. Could we not ensure that bank account details are available in advance so that, at least, that element of the delay could be avoided?

I will inquire about the details of that. There may be a problem in providing bank details in advance. I will, however, make the inquiry and get back to the Deputy.