Statement by Graham Doyle, Communications and Customer Service Manager, SUSI
Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection
25 February 2015
Chairperson and Committee Members.
Firstly, I would like to thank you for inviting us here today to meet the Committee. I am the Communications and Customer Service Manager for SUSI and I am accompanied today by my colleague Seamus De Faoite, the Grants Processing Manager.
The enactment of the Student Support Act in February 2011 enabled the reform and centralisation of student grant administration. It provided for the consolidation of four previous grant schemes into a single scheme and for the appointment of a single grant awarding authority in place of 66 awarding authorities.
Since 2012, the City of Dublin Education and Training Board (CDETB) has been designated by the Minister for Education and Skills as the single grant awarding authority for eligible students in approved courses of further or higher education. Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) is the administrative unit established by the CDETB for this purpose.
Before outlining SUSI’s administrative practices in relation to the subject matter of today’s meeting – the assessment of income in the context of the Student Grant Scheme – I would like to give Committee members a brief summary of the work of SUSI and the progress that has been made since its establishment.
SUSI – Designated Single Grant Awarding Authority
In developing the new service through which grant applications are assessed and awarded grants are paid, SUSI has had as principal objectives the delivery of:
cost minimisation through administrative efficiencies.
In order to deliver on these objectives, we have made many improvements to our processes and systems of operation and we are continually seeking to improve the levels of service provided to students and other stakeholders.
Continuous refinement of the online application process and the introduction of new services have made the grants system more accessible to students while improved internal procedures and flexible staffing arrangements have streamlined and speeded up the assessment process to ensure that decisions can be given as early as possible.
In particular, the introduction of direct data sharing with Government Departments and other agencies has significantly reduced the volumes of documents requested from students. Automated procedures have been implemented with colleges to confirm that students have been registered and can receive their grants quickly by electronic transfer. There are also efficiencies for more than 400 schools and colleges in dealing with SUSI as a single agency.
SUSI has an important role to play in the provision of clear information for students regarding grant eligibility and the application process. The SUSI website provides a single point of information and we are represented at many college open days and national and regional career events. Our Communications Unit works closely with stakeholder groups including student unions, parents, guidance counsellors and citizens’ information services, to name a few, to ensure that information about student grants is widely available and accessible to all.
Our online information services include a grant eligibility reckoner that is quick and easy to use and provides a useful starting point for those considering applying for a grant. In the particular context of today’s discussion, the functionality of the eligibility reckoner will be extended this year to provide an indication of eligibility based on a more detailed breakdown of income. Existing applicants can also follow the progress of their applications through a tracker in their SUSI account and awarded students can view their scheduled grant payment dates and amounts. SUSI provides a comprehensive helpdesk service by telephone, e-mail and social media and a service whereby Oireachtas members can make enquiries on behalf of grant applicants.
Assessment of Reckonable Income As reflected in its formal title – Student Universal Support Ireland - SUSI seeks to support students in gaining access to further and higher education by providing financial assistance in accordance with the provisions of the Student Grant Scheme.
The assessment of income is one of a number of eligibility criteria required to be considered under the Student Grant Scheme. Applications are also assessed on criteria of nationality, residency, previous education and progression and with regard also to the approved status of chosen courses of study and institutions.
For the purpose of considering whose income is taken into account for assessment, students are classified as either dependent applicants or independent applicants. Dependent applicants are assessed relative to their own income and the income of their parents or legal guardians while independent applicants are assessed relative to their own income and the income of their spouse, cohabitant or civil partner. Income from all sources in respect of all relevant parties to a grant application is assessed in order to determine grant eligibility.
While the rules for the determination of reckonable income are clear, their application in individual cases can sometimes be complex – in particular where there may be a combination of different income sources and where income from different sources may arise at different times within the relevant year in respect of different parties to an application.
SUSI can verify details of income under data sharing arrangements implemented with the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Protection and this has led to significant reductions in the burden of documentary evidence for students and in the numbers of requests for additional information, thus leading to a more efficient processing of applications. I am pleased to say that the collaboration with the Department of Social Protection in developing this service recently received an Ireland eGovernment Award.
The Scheme also provides that certain types of income can be disregarded or deducted to arrive at what is referred to as “reckonable income”. These include a range of social welfare payments, Revenue-approved employment-related expenses, holiday earnings, maintenance payments made, pension contributions and non-recurring overtime.
Following the application of any disregards or deductions, the assessed reckonable income is then measured against the prescribed income limits, or thresholds, set out in the Scheme to determine the appropriate grant entitlement of the applicant. These thresholds may be increased in respect of dependent children and other relevant persons in full-time education.
In addition, where the resulting assessed reckonable income may be marginally in excess of a threshold limit, SUSI requests any other relevant information from the applicant that may have a positive impact on the outcome.
Review of Eligibility All income is assessed on a preceding year basis, that is, for the calendar year prior to the year of entry to college in respect of which the grant application is made. This is known as the “reference period”. However the scheme also takes account of the possibility that a change in income may occur following the reference period and up to the end of the academic year and that this may have a significant bearing on the financial circumstances of the applicant. This is known as a “change of circumstances” and allows income to be assessed on a current year basis.
SUSI provides an internal review mechanism whereby applicants can seek to have their grant application decision re-examined for the purpose of considering any change of circumstances or in respect of the assessed distance from home to college for the purpose of a maintenance grant.
Students who are not awarded a grant or who believe that they may be entitled to a higher rate of grant may make a formal appeal to the Appeals Officer who decides whether the application should be re-assessed by SUSI. In re-assessing applications on appeal, SUSI carries out a full re-examination of the application to identify whether there are any grounds, including on the basis of new information or change of circumstances, by which the original outcome can be improved.
As I have already outlined in relation to the assessment of income, both generally and in marginal cases, our approaches in providing the opportunity for internal review and in reviewing applications on appeal reflects an ethos of inclusion rather than exclusion which is central to our practice in the administration of the Grant Scheme.
Conclusion In conclusion, we are grateful for the opportunity to provide an update to the Committee on the work of SUSI. We are currently preparing to open for our fourth year of grant application processing and in the three years to date the number of applications has increased from 70,000 in year one to an expected 115,000 applications in year four. This growth has mainly reflected the gradual take-on of grant renewal applications year on year.
In our first three years of operation, we awarded more than 170,000 grants to new and renewing students and we expect to award a further 80,000 grants in our fourth year.
Together with progressively earlier opening of our online application system in each year (we are opening in mid-April this year) and the other improvements I have outlined above, we have increased our throughput of grant applications year on year and we have met and exceeded our performance targets under a Management Framework implemented with the Department of Education and Skills.
In the context of today’s discussion I am conscious that Members may have questions in relation to how SUSI assesses income and we will be happy to answer these. Thank you.