SUSI grant debacle
Sligo/Leitrim TD, Deputy Marc MacSharry is calling for the Minister with responsibility for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O'Connor to state her views on the accuracy of using Google Maps and Eircodes for Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) grant measurements, despite the fact that this app is throwing up conflicting distances.
In a baffling situation, Co Leitrim student, Sarah Poole, who is attending Cavan Institute and lives in the Mohill area, has been refused a Non-adjacent Maintenance Grant despite the fact she lives in the same house as a sibling who was, only a year previously, awarded the non-adjacent grant to attend the same institution. Under the grant criteria, students must live more than 45km from their place of education.
Sarah's older sister Hannah was awarded the grant in 2016 following an appeal. However Sarah has been refused the grant to attend the same institution.
SUSI, using Google Map measures and an Eircode for Cavan Institute, calculated the distance between Sarah's home and the Institute as being 43.7km, under the 45km requirement.
This has left Sarah in a difficult situation as she now has to take on additional work to make up the grant shortfall.
Sarah appealed the decision showing that, depending on whether you used Eircodes or addresses, four measurements are produced ranging from 45.6km to 54.2km.
Sarah even drove the route to college herself and found that the shortest route is 45.6km, which still puts her over the non-adjacent threshold. Despite providing evidence of this, in an appeal to the SUSI Appeals officer and further with the SUSI Grant Appeals Board, Sarah was refused the non-adjacent grant.
She also lodged a complaint with the Office of the Ombudsman, citing the significant variation in the distances given by Good Maps. This was not upheld.
As a result, Sarah's mother, Catherine Poole, has to drive her daughter 18km to the nearest bus stop so she can travel to school.
“She can't afford to drive there and she also has to work long hours to make up the difference between the Adjacent and Non-adjacent grant,” she points out.
Catherine said the situation faced by her daughter is 'ridiculous'.
“It's not a case that we've moved our home. Our house is in the same location and yet Sarah's application for the Non-adjacent grant has been refused, when her sister was approved for the same grant the year before. It is crazy. How can they approve a grant for one child in a family and then refuse the same grant to another?”
Central to the issue she says, is SUSI's reliance on Google Maps for establishing distances in grant applications.
Catherine said that this app produces too many different distance readings and should not be relied upon, especially in cases where a SUSI appeal has been lodged based on distance.
“But even on appeal SUSI still uses Google Maps for measurements, even when it is pointed out that the original measurements were conflicting,” notes Catherine.
“Where distance is being challenged SUSI should not use Google Maps but should use maps produced by Ordnance Survey Ireland to give an accurate result,” she said.
Her daughter, Sarah, is still trying to appeal the decision to refuse her the Non-adjacent grant, but Catherine points out that this isn't an issue just impacting their family.
“This must be happening to others,” she says, “but in our case, where we have one child who got the grant and another being refused and they live in the same house, well, there's something obviously wrong with the way these decisions are being made.”
Catherine has taken the matter to a number of public representatives and Sligo/Leitrim Deputy Marc MacSharry has written to Mary Mitchell O'Connor, Minister for State for Higher Education at the Department of Education and Skills, seeking a review of Sarah Poole's case.
He has also asked the Minister to state her views on the accuracy of using Google Maps and Eircodes “as the measurement benchmark for assessing eligibility for the non-adjacent rate of the student maintenance grant,” especially where evidence of a 'clocked' drive of the distance proves the figures produced to be inaccurate.
Speaking to the Leitrim Observer, Deputy MacSharry acknowledged the school transport scheme pops up similar concerns for families each August, but said “never has a case (involving SUSI) been as clear cut as this one.”
“This is an example of an absence of common sense. The distances that the decision on the grant were based on were provided through Google Maps and they were wrong,” he said.
“We all realise there needs to be rules and there has to be a threshold for applicants for this and other grants, but here we have a scenario where one daughter in a family, living in the family home, is approved for the grant and a year later, her sister, also living in the same family home and attending the same college, is refused on the grounds she doesn't meet the distance requirements.
“It is a ridiculous situation. Here's a scenario where the criteria is being applied but in a way which is obviously wrong.”
He agreed with Catherine Poole that Ireland's Ordnance Survey map measurements should be the criteria used for gauging distance.
“The people processing these applications are opting for the easiest way out and ignoring common sense,” he said.
“It comes back to the problem of 'box ticking' an application rather than using a level of discretion to see if a person actually qualifies for a grant.
“In terms of the State's assessment of such applications, it cannot be simply a case of 'box ticking'. A higher standard has to be adhered to and you cannot rely on something like Google Maps, when a question has been raised about its accuracy in an appeal.”
Deputy MacSharry said he expects to have a response from the Minister on this issue in the coming week.