By Saoirse Nisbett
The Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI), responsible for the provision of grants to the students of higher and further education, finds itself the topic of yet another controversy.
A number of students have been forced to appeal their application recently in regards to the non-adjacent maintenance grant. This grant awards students living 45km or more from their chosen institution a maximum of €5,915 if eligible. If ineligible the student may qualify for an adjacent grant, a maximum of €2,375, depending on their financial status and distance from the chosen institution. However, the way in which SUSI calculate these distances has recently come under fire.
SUSI currently use Google Maps to assess the distance from a student’s residential home to their respective college/institution. The problem with using this program is accuracy. Due to many of the students applying for the non-adjacent grant offered by SUSI living in rural areas where certain roads may not feature on Google Maps, inaccuracies occur. Google Maps is programmed to take the shortest route to get to the desired destination, thus not accounting for roads in rural areas that may no longer be in use or may be impassable. This is due to the program prioritising updates in more built-up areas.
Speaking to retired special education Headmaster Dr Stephen Hall, who has been working closely with students affected by the distance calculations carried out by SUSI, he shared his concerns regarding SUSI’s method of assessment: “This free American ‘app’ [Google Maps] is notoriously unreliable except for major urban centres in important countries and Ireland is not in that category.
“Google Maps issues disclaimers as to accuracy outside the USA and places listed in their small print but, as I said, these points were ignored.
“The ‘app’ is not intended to be exact to legal standards but a guide for public use.
“Ireland has the state-owned IOS and its celebrated accuracy makes it the choice of Councils, the Gardaí, defence forces, Boundary Commission and most government departments. The Department of Education and Skills is an exception.”
Many cases of failed appeals have been brought to the attention of the Office of the Ombudsman as well as certain County Councils. In the case of Sarah Poole, a student living in Mohill Co. Leitrim attending Cavan Institute, she was refused a non-adjacent maintenance grant despite her living further than 45km away from the institution.
According to SUSI’s calculations, Sarah’s home was 2.7km from qualifying for the grant. This contradicts the case of Hannah Poole, Sarah’s older sister, who lives at the same address as Sarah and had successfully applied for and received a non-adjacent grant to attend Cavan Institute the previous year.
Sarah went on to appeal the decision with the evidence she gathered from multiple distance calculations through Google Maps using both her address and her Eircode. She measured the distance to range from 45.6km to 54.2km, and after driving the route herself she could confirm the quickest possible route to be 45.6km. Both the SUSI Appeals officer and the SUSI Grant Appeals Board refused her appeal.
Sinn Féin TD, Kathleen Funchion, recognised the issue: “the current qualifying distance criteria for the non-adjacent rate of grant needs to be changed and that the SUSI grant scheme needs to be reviewed
“As it stands, it is not an efficient or fair way of assessing many students with many missing out on financial assistance due to being marginally outside the agreed boundary parameters.”
Deputy Funchion has also brought it to the attention of Minister for Education and Skills, Joe McHugh, and has asked the department to look into reviewing the SUSI grant system with special emphasis on it in the coming years budget to which Minister McHugh replied:
“The student maintenance grant is a contribution towards the living costs of a student. It is not intended to cover the full costs of attending college.
“The current qualifying distance of 45km for the higher non-adjacent rate of student grant takes into account a reasonable radius within which students may commute on a daily basis.
“There are no plans at present to change the current arrangements.”
After flagging Sarah’s case with the Leitrim County Council, who have authority in mapping issues, they claimed they had no control over the situation:
“Leitrim County Council has had no input to the mapping service delivered by Google. We have not engaged with Google Maps nor have they sought any detail on mapping at any point form us. Any inaccuracies are entirely a matter for Google Maps.”
Since the first appeal of Ms Poole’s case, made in September of 2017, Sarah has been forced to leave her course due to the financial pressure she was put under.
When approached with evidence of mishandled cases regarding their distance calculations, SUSI replied with the following statement:
“Where an applicant is eligible for a maintenance grant from SUSI, it will be payable at either the adjacent or the non-adjacent rate, depending on the distance between a student’s normal residence and the college campus where the approved course takes place.
“This is set out in Article 27(3)(a) of the Student Grant Scheme 2018 which provides that the distance criterion will be measured in line with guidelines agreed by the Minister for Education and Skills. The guidelines set out that shortest most direct route from the applicant’s normal residence to the institution where the approved course takes place applies.
“Accordingly the distance from an applicant’s home address to the college campus that they are attending is calculated using Google Maps to calculate the shortest distance, avoiding tolls. This has been enhanced in recent years with the introduction of Eircode.”
There has been no comment from the Minister for Higher Education on the matter.