Date Uploaded: 11/10/2016
Students are being helped more with transport costs from college hardship funds in a trend being linked to greater difficulties finding affordable accommodation.
The €1.3m spent by the Government’s Student Assistance Fund (SAF) in 2014/15 on transport accounted for nearly a fifth of the total €6.6m provided to 14,909 third-level students.
Rent remains the biggest category for which students were helped under the SAF, managed by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and administered locally by each college from their set budgets. However, a recent review of the fund’s operation shows the annual outlay to help with rent costs fell from half of the total spend in the 2009/10 college year to 39% two years ago.
“This drop in the percentage spent on rent coincides with an increase in expenditure under the transport heading and may be an indicator that more students are choosing to live at home and travel rather than rent,” said the report.
The review for the HEA by consultants Crowe Horwath suggests further analysis might be needed but figures from the HEA show that transport costs only accounted for 9% in 2009/10, when €456,000 was provided to needy students out of a total €5m spend.
More than €43m was spent helping 77,255 students in the six years covered by the review, and average payments of almost €450 were made in 2014/15.
The second-highest category of expense for which students received assistance two years ago was heating, lighting and food at a cost of €1.6m to the fund or double the amount provided five years earlier. The review suggests the increase from 15% to 25% of total SAF spending on this category reflects a 30% increase between 2009 and 2014 in the average price of electricity, gas and other fuels.
“With these price increases it is easy to envisage a scenario where students may have struggled to meet the cost and require the assistance of the SAF,” said the report.
Further assistance in 2014/15 was for childcare costs of €655,206 (10%), books and materials of €304,660 (5%), medical expenses of €57,953 (0.9%), and €153,032 (2%) on other living expenses.
The rents faced by students have risen rapidly in recent years, and have almost reached 2007 peaks after increases in the past year of 6% nationally and 10% in Dublin, according to this year’s Dublin Institute of Technology cost-of-living guide.
The SAF had to be increased by the Department of Education by €3m during the 2012/13 college year because of the hardship caused to thousands of students whose grant applications and payments were delayed in the start-up problems experienced by Student Universal Support Ireland.
Many colleges assist students who fall just outside income limits to get a grant. Only around one in three colleges operate a points system to determine who is helped, or to what extent, with the kind of information considered including distance from home to college, rent costs, medical card status and exceptional circumstances.
As the administration of the SAF budget is left to each of the 30 colleges, decision-making processes vary widely. Only eight accept applications throughout the year, the rest either award funding in the first term only or in different application windows for the entire academic year.
Journalist: Niall Murray