Explainer: How much can you work during the holidays without impacting your SUSI grant?

A harsh economic paradox is at play – a support intended for students in need of financial aid may fiscally disadvantage a student who, out of necessity, works full time to further support themselves, and thus pushes themselves over a specified income threshold

The Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) grant was established in 2012, and eleven years later it has become a mainstay in Irish student life and finances. Offering funding to students pursuing higher education ranging from PLC courses to postgraduate studies, the Student Grant Scheme has been awarded to nearly 66,000 applicants this academic year.

There is about a 75% success rate for SUSI applications, however we hear so often on campus horror stories of an applicant’s funding being denied for a mere administrative error.

However, the significance of these administrative errors is not to be undermined. During a period of noticeable activity from Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris, reforms to the thresholds and rates pertaining to SUSI must be made clear to students.

Owing to the cost of living crisis, housing crisis, and inflation, many students have had to work part-time jobs while studying full time. This part-time work almost always further increases its hours during term breaks during the Winter and Summer holidays.

This practice however may prove for some to be problematic when it comes time to apply for the upcoming 2023/24 academic year’s SUSI Grant. Eligibility for the support scheme is measured on the basis of nationality, residency, progression of education, and income.

Income thresholds are calculated based on “gross household income from the previous [calendar] year” – this takes into account the income of the applicant’s parent(s) or guardian(s) and their own.

Individual income thresholds and their corresponding grant rates vary, however one consistent throughout them all is the Holiday Earnings caveat. “A deduction of up to a maximum of €6,552 may be made for Holiday Earnings”, defined as “income earned from employment outside term time” during the calendar year.

Applying this to a student’s real life, on average Trinity students have 25 weeks off of College per calendar year. This includes both Reading Weeks, Christmas Period, and Summer Break. Dividing the maximum deduction figure by the number of weeks off in order to get a weekly income target, this works out to be €262.08 before tax. This means a minimum wage worker can work no more than 23 hours a week, every week that they are not in College, while avoiding an increase in their gross household income.

Students may also be able to deduct overtime payments, so long as they are not recurring payments. The figure of €6,552 however stands apart from the student’s gross income during term time, which is oftentimes a major factor contributing to the household gross income.

Broadly speaking, there exists five bands of SUSI that provide a student with a maintenance grant, which “helps students with their living costs and are paid directly to the student’s bank account”, as well as a fee grant, targeted to “students who do not qualify for the Free Fees Scheme” but also pays the student contribution “and the cost of essential field trips”.

There are a further three bands which provide varying levels of support solely for the cost of third-level fees. The income thresholds of course vary according to the band, with the income threshold of Band 4 being nearly double that of the special rate. This takes into account payments from the Department of Social Protection, such as the One-Parent Family Payment (OFP), Disability Allowance (DA), Jobseeker’s Allowance, amongst others.

Income thresholds vary depending on the number of dependents in a household, with three separate categories for 1. Less than four dependents, 2. Between four and seven, and 3. More than eight. Moreover, there are two separate rates per each band depending on the applicant’s distance from their academic institution. The adjacent rate applies for those living within 30km of their place of study and the non-adjacent rate for those over 30km away.

Despite all the clearly defined parameters surrounding SUSI, there exists an underlying problem for many students. They feel that they risk being punished if they work an amount of hours that will eventually push their household income over a specific band’s threshold.

This creates an economic paradox, through financially supporting themselves, students who face the most economic hardship may inevitably have their state support withdrawn. Of course, this is no different from every other state allowance, benefit, or subsidy – income thresholds must be enforced so as to ensure that those on the lowest of incomes may be supported the most.

However, gross household income is a very basic figure, and when the student’s own income is included in it, the reality is further whitewashed. SUSI does not suffer from a lack of empathy, but instead a lack of exactitude. As students nearly always earn the lowest of wages in society, SUSI fails to recognise that students who earn more per annum than their peers are often not more socio-economically privileged, but simply work more hours than them.

Therefore, to include a student’s income in the SUSI application process not only disincentives them to work more hours (so as to maintain their access to needed grants) and thus lose valuable income, but also ignores the fact that socio-economic inequality on a College campus is rarely, if ever, caused by the students themselves.