Writes Siobhán McCallum
For many, the Covid-19 crisis has propelled some of our most pressing global issues, including the availability of healthcare, wealth inequalities and racial discrimination, to the fore of public discourse. For me, this pandemic has made the shortcomings of the grant system in Ireland abundantly clear. Undeniably, SUSI has contributed greatly to the accessibility of third level education for many disadvantaged groups in this country. In my personal experience, my three sisters and I would probably never have received the opportunity to attend college had it not been for SUSI. However, I don’t think anybody familiar with the grant process in Ireland would state that it is without flaw, and this year these issues appear even more pronounced.
As with many people’s experiences recently, this story begins with the first official lockdown of Ireland in March 2020. My sister intended to undertake a postgraduate degree at UCC for the 2020/2021 academic year, and had initially applied for an MA in Translation Studies. Without warning her plans for the following year were completely upended, and so she began to reconsider. She considered a potential career in social work, but first needed to achieve an HDip in Social Policy before going on to complete the masters in this field. After some research, she noticed that this HDip was also available online and, given the pandemic, it seemed the intelligent choice to opt for a program specifically designed for remote learning. Luckily on August 17th, after submitting a course change application to SUSI, she received confirmation that she was in receipt of a full grant which would cover her fees and provide her with monthly maintenance payments. My sister was lucky enough to have a job over the summer months when the Covid-19 cases were more under control within society, but decided to quit to focus on the academic year ahead, safe in the assurance of financial stability from SUSI.
For the next few months everything proceeded like a dream. My sister started a course that she could fully engage with and that was preparing her for a career she could envisage herself embracing. She was grateful that the professors and module coordinator were proficient at navigating the online sphere in which this course took place, allowing her to apply herself fully to her studies. On November 10th however, the worst happened. My sister received a letter from SUSI informing her that she was not eligible for funding. This news was devastating and seemed to contradict the confirmation she had received earlier in the year, so she immediately emailed the SUSI helpdesk. After some back and forth, she was informed that online learning was not covered by SUSI. This reasoning was almost amusing to her, in a year in which every student in the country was conducting their studies remotely, it turned out that SUSI didn’t cover that. Without hesitation, she appealed this decision, on the grounds that it simply defied logic to penalise online learning given the extenuating circumstances of this particular academic year. Only a week later, she was informed that this appeal was unsuccessful, leaving her crushed and downhearted. Just as she began to accept her fate, myself and other family members rallied around her and decided to meticulously examine the regulations that were denying her funding. We discovered that the regulations quoted didn’t include the term ‘online’ at all, but instead mentioned ‘full-time attendance’ as a factor that determines course eligibility. Citing this lack of clarity, she officially continued with a second appeal. We are still awaiting the results of this appeal, hoping that the delayed response is a promising sign. Whatever the outcome, my sister’s experience this year has revealed major errors in the SUSI grant system that we desperately need to address.
The first issue relates to the extremely impersonal nature of SUSI’s correspondence with my sister. In the initial letter that stated her ineligibility for funding, there was no clear explanation as to why this decision had been made and no indication as to how this mistake in assessing her application occured. Moreover, in the subsequent emails she sent for clarification, the replies were less than satisfactory. She received mostly generic replies feeding her the same information that she was already aware of. It was evident in one email for example, based on font size and type, that the respondent had even copied and pasted information that had already been provided to her. She began to feel extremely isolated by SUSI, and experienced increased frustration at the lack of compassion and understanding being shown. In addition to this, she twice received reminder letters regarding repayments for maintenance money obtained earlier in the year, even as her appeals were still under consideration. This only added to her stress and anxiety levels about her increasingly precarious financial situation. The only saving grace in these letters was the clear information provided regarding payment options available to her. It was when her first appeal came back unsuccessful, that I truly noticed a shift in my sister’s attitude towards the situation. Initially angry, confused and impassioned she now became downhearted, disillusioned and defeated. Coupled with that, she grappled with looming essay deadlines, family health complications and a bereavement. It would have been extremely welcoming to have received more support from SUSI during this difficult time for my sister and our whole family. Indeed, the only semblance of an apology for the mistake made in processing her application, is the singular appearance of the word ‘regret’ in the very first letter she received notifying her of the decision back in early November.
Some may defend these interactions by arguing that this is simply how state systems work, they must operate objectively within exacting rules. However, yet again in my sister’s case, the regulations used to deny her a grant were in no way clear or comprehensible. Notoriously, these stringent rules and regulations of state systems are not entirely accessible to the layman. She was informed that according to Section 8 of the Student Support Act 2011 and Regulation 4 of the Student Support Regulations 2020, online courses are not covered by SUSI. The only trouble with this is that nowhere, and I have read and reread these regulations several times, are the words ‘online’ or ‘in-person’ used. What the regulations do state is that attendance is required by the student on a full-time basis. Although far from explicit we came to the conclusion that the word ‘attendance’ was the issue. Regulations such as these are supposed to make the system work more efficiently, not to provide further confusion and lead to ridiculous circumstances such as the one my sister faced for not actually ‘attending’ her course. I am fully sympathetic to the need for institutions like SUSI to operate objectively and in line with government regulations, but what I don’t support is the sacrifice that certain individuals have to make when these regulations fail to provide sufficient guidelines.
This point leads me to the issue of the legitimacy of remote learning. The point of contention for SUSI in my sister’s case is in determining whether or not her ‘attendance’ counts if it’s completed online. Of course, in a year where we have all been forced into exactly this situation, I believe the answer to this is a resounding yes. Even if it was the case that attendance meant ‘in-person’ or ‘campus-based’, this would only serve to make a mockery of the hard work, study and research being conducted by every student in higher education this year. We are all now fully aware that online learners and workers should be taken as seriously as their in-person counterparts. Governments of the world are all preparing for and arguably, encouraging, the formation of an entirely different world to the one we left behind before this pandemic occurred. It is expected that remote working will benefit many different areas of social, political and economic life, and could go a long way to ameliorating some of our most pressing problems including the climate change and housing crises. I hope I am not alone in the vision that online learning for third level education will become more accessible and routine in the lives of so many, particularly those who, because of extenuating circumstances, are often left behind with little to no hope of achieving academic success. This is the moment, as my sister’s case highlights, for SUSI to embrace online learning in all its unconventional glory, to increase its support to those who need it most in whatever environment they conduct their work.
As of writing, my sister’s second appeal is not yet resolved. We are hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. My sister has even officially switched to the ‘campus-based’ version of her course as a backup plan, should this appeal fail. However, I’m somewhat grateful for what happened to my sister this year. As I’ve already stated, my sisters and I have all successfully received funding from SUSI in the past, with no issues surrounding our eligibility or the payments of our fees or grants. My sister’s struggle this year has been a necessary eye opener for me in confronting the obvious flaws of the grant system in this country. In these times, where so much change and adaptation has been made to our daily lives, I call for a major overhaul of grant funding for third level education in Ireland. We need dramatic and urgent action to assess, and hopefully, improve our grant system. Perhaps it would be worth considering an entirely new system, similar to the English and Australian models, whereby students are granted loans by the government which they only repay when their yearly salaries exceed a certain amount. However, I personally think the grant system in Ireland is salvageable, and given enough careful thought, deliberation and imaginative thinking the system could be improved to avoid technical mistakes, stringent regulations and bureaucratic tendencies, as were evident in my sister’s case this year. I am hopeful that as a society and nation that have wholeheartedly embraced the idea that education should be available to all, we can find solutions to the problems that this pandemic has exposed.