“Another downgrading of the role of the council” was the predominant reaction from councillors to the news that the role of managing third level student grants is being transferred from county councils to a new centralised system.
From the next academic year 2012/2013, all new grant applications will be made online to a single awarding authority, SUSI (Student Universal Support Ireland ). However students who have already begun a third level course and are in receipt of a grant will continue to be assessed and paid by their local authority, ie local council or local VEC.
Reacting to the development at last week’s meeting of Westmeath County Council, Cllr Paddy Hill said that this represented “another service being taken away from the council”; “Before too long, what will be our reason for existing?” he wondered.
“Now we will have to find out about the status of applications by phoning Dublin, whereas previously people could get an answer in five minutes.”
Cllr Frankie Keena said it was “the same as [the centralisation of] the medical card”.
“The service provided by the county council and VEC is excellent and always very helpful. The local context will be lost,” he said.
Also concerned about the diminution of the powers of the county council was Cllr Aidan Davitt, who wondered whether the changes would result in a loss of staff hours of staff cutbacks.
“Last week it was handing over the salting of roads to the NRA; this week it is grants,” he commented.
Cllr Frank McDermott shared his concerns. “It is easy to ring the VEC or the county council when people encounter problems and to get a swift and direct answer. Now we will have to lift the phone and press one, then have six more options - you’d wonder what we’re doing here at all.”
“It is another asset-stripping exercise for the local authority,” added Cllr Ken Glynn.
However Cllr Mick Dollard said he had always been of the view that the administration of higher education grants should not be the remit of local authorities, and that this new system had been mooted for the last four or five years.
And Cllr Denis Leonard felt the new system could work well if it is user-friendly with a good online system.
“It is incumbent on us to increase access to third level, and it is important in the changeover that people are able to use the online system. There need to be workshops set up for those entering first year,” he suggested.
Further information will be available from May onwards on www.studentfinance.ie