Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris hinted last month as to what he hopes to see in the upcoming Budget 2024, and as would be expected he focused particularly on student economic welfare. He cemented his stance on this broad topic later by claiming that there is a grossly underwhelming number of applicants for state benefits in regard to college-fee support. He further said that we would like to see significant reforms to the Rent Tax Credit, targeted at students and families.
The Minister stated that three in four students eligible for a state-sponsored €500 reduction in their college fees are still yet to even apply for this measure. This aid was introduced to the public in last year’s fiscal budget, and applies to households earning between €62,000 and €100,000 per annum. Speaking of the Rent Tax Credit, introduced last year into law by the Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil/Green Party coalition government, Minister Harris opined that the gross maximum figure of €500 to be claimed should be doubled, and that its parameters of eligibility should be widened. As it currently stands, parents may claim this tax credit themselves if they pay rent on behalf of a third-level-student child, however students alone are eligible to do so in the case that they are renting in digs. “I’d like to see this changed to be parents and students as well”, said the Minister of this matter.
The public generally welcomes Fine Gael’s staple ‘cash-back-in-pockets’ fiscal policies, however as we near a looming General Election, which is rumoured to be the most consequential in the history of the State, the government perhaps runs the risk of oversaturating this stance. Perhaps people are growing tired of these actions, or perhaps there is so much attempted economic intervention from the government (whether or not this is actually successful is another story) that the public is no longer aware of what is available to them.
Below you will find an extensive profile and explanation of the most common fiscal supports designed for third-level students from the State, ranging from staples in Irish university life to vaguely obscure bursaries, aiming to aid you in your spendings and savings during this term, and a time of renewed economic hardship.
1. The SUSI Grant.
The Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) Grant may need no introduction, as it has been operating long before any current student first walked through the front gate, 11 years to be exact. It is also by far the most sweeping of government grants, awarding funding to over 60,000 students state-wide in the last academic year alone. Students are able to obtain grants for both self-maintenance and fee payments, thus going further than any other support on this list. There is no set criteria for the money allotted to be spent on, although it is accepted and understood that it is to aid students through their time at third level. This all does come, however, with an air of complexity that many students find daunting, if not totally confusing. In fact, SUSI is consistently under-applied to, as seen in the aforementioned €500 fee reduction only enjoying a 25% application rate. Nonetheless, the application process for a SUSI grant is easily broken down. Firstly, the golden figure in terms of the SUSI grant is one’s household income – this is a conglomerate of both your’s and your parent(s) or guardian(s) annual income. Necessary deductions may be made for extra hours a student has worked outside of term time, however nonetheless the student’s income is accounted for when assessing eligibility. Next one must assess their home’s physical proximity to College, for there exists two separate rates, one for people living within a 30 kilometres commute of their institution, and a separate one for those who live more than 30 kilometres away. Varying levels of fiscal support are divvied out on the basis of income brackets, the number of dependent children in the household, and physical distance to college. The corresponding maintenance grant rates range from nearly €7,000 (awarded to those with a household income of less than €25,000 living more than 30km away from College) to just over €556 (given to those with a household income of less than €46,790 living within 30km). Furthermore, there are grants to be spent directly on the student contribution charge, for which there are just as strict and clearly outlined parameters. The SUSI website hosts a welcomed and interactive ‘eligibility indicator’, which gives an accurate description of what may or may not be available to you.
2. The Rent Tax Credit.
The Rent Tax Credit was introduced into Irish law through last year’s Budget 2023, and aims to provide relief to, but not limited to, students and their families who rent accommodation during university term time. As previously stated, the maximum figure that an individual, or someone on behalf of an individual, may claim is €500, however this may increase in the upcoming Budget 2024. This figure can be claimed by a student, or parent(s) who pay rent on behalf of their child attending third level education, however “the child must be under 23 years of age at the start of the tax year (the same as the calendar year) in which he or she first commenced an approved course for the rent tax credit to apply”. Plainly put, mature students need not apply. Furthermore, this is only applied to parents paying rent for children in official student accommodation and private dwellings, only the student may apply for this deduction in the case they are renting digs. It should be noted, however, that it is only necessary to live here during term time, i.e. Summer and Winter breaks, Reading Weeks, and even weekends are not essential. The deductible amount will be taken from the necessary income tax to be paid, however anyone claiming a housing benefit of any nature is not entitled to this provision. “Rent”, as defined by the Revenue Commission, does not include utilities, board, or any extra services that may be associated with living in renting accommodation – only the price of the accommodation itself is able to be taken into account. It remains unclear at worst, and mathematically difficult at best, to accurately calculate the ‘pure rent’ when utilities are included in the price. Furthermore, any given applicant may not be related in any manner to the landlord from which they rent, and moreover the accommodation must be in the Republic of Ireland. This tax deduction may be easily applied for online, through Revenue’s MyAccount section, particularly through the ‘PAYE Services’ – ‘Manage Your Tax 2023’ – ‘Add new credits’ – and finally, ‘You and your family’ route.
3. The Student Assistance Fund.
The Student Assistance Fund (SAF) is a governmental support scheme managed by the Higher Education Authority on behalf of the Department of Further and Higher Education. It began delivering financial aid to students in 2021, and its running is mandated until four years time, however there is currently no public plan to continue or disband the service. It is available to “full or part-time students who are experiencing financial difficulty while attending higher education”, with eligibility ranging from students in level 6 courses (a two year course resulting in an Advanced or Higher Certificate, one step lower than a PLC) to level 10 (a PhD) on the National Framework of Qualifications. Specifically targeted groups who may avail of this support fund include Irish Travellers and Roma, people with physical, intellectual, or mental disabilities, and ‘socioeconomic disadvantaged’ applicants. According to the 2022 National Access Plan, this last group includes, but is not limited to: people on a low income or social welfare, from a disadvantaged area, with experience in the criminal justice system or the care system, mature students, homeless people, migrants, refugees, and people from ethnic minority groups. Funding may be sought for books, class supplies, rent, bills, food, essential travel, and more, however it may not cover tuition or registration fees, and student loan repayments. The Senior Tutor’s office says applications are “opening shortly” but that they “are taking urgent requests on an individual basis”. They further stress the necessity to “upload all your supporting documents” to ease the application as much as is possible. The decision of whether or not funds will be supplied to an applicant from the SAF, and the issue of how much money, is up to the discretion of the individual college board dealing with such cases, typically “a small committee, including the access officer and student welfare officer”. Specifically to Trinity, Welfare Officer Aoife Bennett does not personally deal with these cases. As a rare example of a decentralised state support, i.e. the funds come from, but are not distributed by the State, there is actually less bureaucracy than is often expected for such endeavours.
4. The 1916 Bursary.
The 1916 Bursary was established by former Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton in 2017, with the aim of “encouraging participation and success by students from sections of society that are significantly underrepresented in higher education”. Indeed, the target groups of the 1916 Bursary are nearly identical to those of the Student Assistance Fund, therefore there is no doubt that a large overlap of potential applicants exists between these two supports. The similarities do not end here, however, as students should enquire with their educational institution directly for application to the 1916 Bursary, in the same fashion as the SAF. Moreover, students are welcomed to apply to both schemes. To draw distinctions, the 1916 Bursary is intended purely for incoming first year students with household incomes of less than €24,500. There exists three bands, the first being the most generous of a €5,000 bursary per annum, and the second being €2,000. The final band’s funds stem from the remaining amount after the first and second tiers have been completed. The sorting of applications into the various tiers is done on a needs basis. College’s Senior Tutor Services is yet to update their web page regarding precise details of this 2023/24 academic year, however last year applications opened in mid-September and closed in lateOctober. The Senior Tutor’s office said in a statement that they “are awaiting official word” and quoted the 1916 Bursary’s website asking students to “please check this website later for more details”.
While the above information is not exhaustive, it is extensive. Indeed it lists the major economic aids available in the Republic, however there exists, still, more financial assistance available to third level students, and these may take the form of individual bursaries or scholarships, dependent on academic or sporting performance. The above list, however, aims to provide the necessary information for the broadest sectors of the population. It cannot be understated, the importance of spreading the word of not just the existence of the above schemes, but also their limitations and eligibility. As a public service that aims to build the country’s youth from the ground up, and diminish the barriers to education that so forcibly exist, it remains an anomaly that we seem to only learn of their existence after a government minister has complained of the lack of awareness surrounding them. Although, against a backdrop of complaints regarding too-restrictive eligibility from the electorate and wanted reforms by the opposition parties, perhaps the marketing of these schemes is the least of their concerns.