Sharp increase in student demand for financial assistance

Aonghus Ó Cochláin

 Student Affairs
  • Financial support funds depleted as early as October
  • Lower grant threshold leaving students vulnerable

There has been a significant increase in the number of students applying for some form of financial assistance from College, according to SU welfare officer, Stephen Garry. In an interview with Trinity News, Garry said that demand for financial aid in College has meant that the Student Assistance Fund as well as the additional Student Hardship Fund has been depleted as early as October, far earlier than in previous years.

The Student Assistance Fund, which is financed by the European Social Fund with support from the Department of Education, is available to all students experiencing unexpected hardship during their course of study. Allocated on a per capita basis to each higher education institution, funding available to each higher education institution has varied each year and is dependent on the level of demand for student support through the ‘top up’ grant.

College’s Student Hardship Fund, which is administrated by the Financial Assistance Committee, is a further means of assisting students undergoing financial crisis. All applications are means-tested and accompanied by supporting income-related documents. Further forms of financial assistance include course-specific bursaries given for specific circumstances.

Efforts are being made by TCDSU and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) to lobby the Higher Education Authority, the body tasked with allocating resources for financial assistance nationally. According to Garry, the USI has been instrumental in putting pressure on the government for topping up the funds available to hard-pressed students.

The effects of last year’s grant debacle, Garry said, are still felt by many students experiencing financial hardship. The centralised Student Universal Support Scheme (SUSI), which was introduced as a replacement of the old student grant system, led to a high amount of unprocessed and late grant applications. In response the Student Assistance Fund was increased €3 million in December of 2012 from €8 million to€11 million, in order to provide greater financial assistance to students suffering from grant delays.

Last year also saw student unions across the country offering a variety of forms of assistance, including food packages and donated goods, to compensate for the failure of the new system to process its backlog of grant applications.

The lowering of grant thresholds has meant students who once benefitted from financial assistance no longer qualify. According to Stephen Garry, there are many on the margin of the threshold who are reliant on financial assistance provided by College. “SUSI gives a lot but it’s sometimes not enough,” Garry commented, emphasising the need for the extra assistance provided by College.

Another contributing factor to student hardship has been the shortfall in property availability since the beginning of this academic year. With average rental prices rising by 7.5% between 2012 and 2013, many students have struggled in finding affordable accommodation. Increased difficulty in finding suitable accommodation has placed a strain on College’s Accommodation Advisory Service, which has reopened this month to deal with incoming students and those still searching for a place to live.

This week’s RAG Week events will see a portion of funds being allocated to financing the Student Hardship Fund. It is expected that the week’s events will raise €20,000 for the fund. The goal will involve the participation of many of College’s societies, although the proportion of money raised that will be given to the Student Hardship Fund is not entirely clear.

While efforts to lobby the HEA are ongoing, the SU maintains emergency interest-free loans on a short-term basis of up to ¤100 for students suffering from financial difficulty. The service has become increasingly popular in recent years.