By Una Kelly
The student support bill finally reached the second stage of its passing into law when it was debated in the Seanad on Wednesday 12th January.
The bill is part of Fianna Fáil’s legislative and administrative reform of the student grants system and will streamline the process of a student applying for and receiving their grant in a timely manner.
The late payments of grants cause severe difficulties for both students and their parents. In some cases students who had been told they had received a grant did not have payment until as late in the academic year as May – far too late to pay rent and cover basic living expenses.
A number of reasons explain the inefficiency of the current system. First, the fragmented structure: there are 66 bodies awarding third level grants in a country as small as Ireland, creating a process hindered with much more paperwork than would be necessary if all the information were consolidated into one main entity. Secondly, the huge surge in applications in recent years has proved to be a challenge for the grant awarding authorities. Around 70, 000 students are in receipt of grants compared to 50, 000 ten years ago, and that number is set to rise due to the changing economic situation.
The bill which aims to solve these problems through a number of measures, including the creation of a single grant awarding body, was first published nearly three years ago in February 2008. It was subject to many delays due to various Cabinet reshuffles; there have been two changes of Education and Skills Minister in the intervening period. In order for a bill to be passed it must go through three stages: first the relevant committee, then the Seanad, followed by the Daíl. The Student Support Bill finally came up before the Education and Skills committee just before last Christmas.
It was at this point TCDSU stepped up a campaign to ensure the bill’s passing. “We were very conscious of the impending general election, and were very worried not about people supporting the bill, but about politicians using it as a political tool to further stick the nail into the Fianna Fáil coffin,” says Rachel Barry, Assistant Campaigns Officer. “The problem being of course, that if it didn’t go through before the general election we would be back at square one.”
Consequently all members of the SU’s executive committee were asked to contact the Education and Skills committee members to set out their campaign position. This resulted in the bill being passed through the committee.
Barry describes her involvement at this point: “I went to the faculty assemblies in the arts block to inform reps to contact me, or get their class to contact me, if they were interested in lobbying TDs, the thinking being that it would have more impact if there was someone from their constituency lobbying them. I think I had a pretty good response.”
Undoubtedly it has; the Student Support Bill reached the second stage when it was debated in the Seanad on Wednesday 12th January and is another step closer to becoming law.