Grant cuts prevent unemployed returning to education

Despite repeated rhetoric from government championing education and training for the unemployed and the focus on a ‘knowledge economy’, returning to education for mature students has become more difficult, indeed impossible for some. 

Due to cuts in December’s budget, new applicants in the Back to Education Allowance (BTEA) scheme will no longer be entitled to student maintenance grants. 

These grants vary in amount depending on whether the student lives in the adjacent area  (within 24 kilometres) to their choice of third-level institution or outside that area (non-adjacent grants).

{saudioplayer}Grants for Mature Students Podcast.mp3{/saudioplayer}

New entrants to the BTEA scheme typically have annual incomes ranging from €11,000 to €19,000, obtained through various social welfare provisions including Jobseekers Allowance, Rent Allowance, Lone Parent Allowance etc.

Prior to Budget 2010 maintenance grants were €3,420 for non-adjacent students and €1,370 for adjacent students.

Under the old student maintenance grant scheme, those who had an annual income of less than €22,308 (some of which must be a form of Social Welfare payment) were entitled to a top-up grant payment of another €3,270 (non-adjacent) or €1,310 (adjacent).

However, since the cuts in Budget 2010, this is no longer the case. 

The abolishment of grants for mature students means that many potential mature students are facing a reduction in expected income of 27.1%. This percentage applies in the case of one individual whose case came to the attention of the Students Union in NUI Galway recently.

The individual in question is 30 years of age and is married with one child. His family live in Sligo town and have been unemployed for three years and had planned to begin a law degree in NUI Galway in September 2010 under BTEA.

The applicants income from various Social Welfare payments is approximately 18,000, which mainly consist of Jobseekers Benefit, Rent Allowance, and Child Benefit. Up until December he was expecting to receive a top-up maintenance grant of 3,270 in addition to a regular non-adjacent maintenance grant of 3,420. This is a total of 6,690 under the Grant scheme.

However, with the changes under Budget 2010, he is not entitled to receive either of these grants and so his expected annual income for the duration of his college degree is now down from approximately 24,690 (Social Welfare + Grant + Top-Up Grant) to just 18,000 (composed of just Social Welfare payments). This is a drop in expected income of 6,690 which, without taking into account the 5% general reduction in Social Welfare in budget 2010, represents a cut of 27.1%. 

Mature students have already been indirectly impacted by the recession due reduced household incomes and few part-time job opportunities.

Although the impact of the cuts in maintenance grants is not yet known, it is feared that many individuals who had planned to return to education will be left in the dole queues as they are unable to fund their education. 

For those who do manage to return to education despite the cuts, it will make the experience much more difficult. 

A report by UCD’s Geary Institute revealed that the psychological well-being of an average Irish student is lower than that of their peers from other countries. It was further found that there was a correlation between these mental health and the financial worries of students.

According to the report – which is based on a survey of 3,500 undergraduate and taught masters students in the country’s seven universities - one in three students run out of money regularly. 

The importance of education in reducing the number of people on the live register has been acknowledged by government in the past. 

In May 2009 for Social and Family Affairs, Mary Hanafin, said "returning to education and training in order to improve your skills will be the key to availing of the up-turn in the economy which will inevitably come. Young people should not see signing on the Live Register as their future – they should look to see what supports and opportunities are available for them throughout the country...." Young people who may have opted out of the formal education and training opportunities when the draw of high wages during the boom years was irresistible, are now more likely to remain unemployed if they are not actively upskilling and gaining new expertise."

At the Fhianna Fáil Ard-Fheis in February of last year, Taoiseach Brian Cowen said: “My government is committed to doing all we can for people who find themselves out of work...We will create more than 50,000 extra training places for newly unemployed people (and) offer 'back to education' courses to those who need them...We are investing now in creating courses in areas such as sustainable energy and the green economy to capitalize on this growing worldwide market.”

Student Unions, including those from NUI Galway and Trinity College Dublin, are calling on government to reverse the drastic cut in student supports, and have expressed fears that the cuts will only serve to leave more people long-term unemployed.

Politico spoke to a number of students affected by the cuts.