Press Release - Restructuring the Administration of Student Grants
The Comptroller and Auditor General has prepared a special report on an examination of the restructuring of the administration of student grants. The report has been presented to the Houses of the Oireachtas today, 15 April 2015.
The report reviews the move from a decentralised system involving 66 grant awarding authorities to a single national awarding authority for student grants, called Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI). It explores the extent to which serious operational issues in the academic year 2012/13 were consequences of the planning process for this project. The funding and administration costs of SUSI are also reviewed.
City of Dublin Education and Training Board (CDETB) – then City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee – was appointed in May 2012 as the sole awarding authority for new student grant applicants with effect from the 2012/13 academic year. SUSI received nearly 70,000 student grant applications in 2012/13, and paid out €147 million in student grants. The Department of Education and Skills funds student grants.
Significant operational issues emerged in 2012/13, and the payment of grants was delayed. This caused serious difficulties for many students and their families. The delay in making grant payments was due to significant delays by SUSI in provisional and final assessments of applications. No arrangements were in place for 2012/13 to obtain direct access to relevant data held by State agencies which could have reduced processing delays.
The performance by SUSI in processing grant applications was much improved in 2013/14.
Certain elements of the centralisation project were not well planned. As a result,
- Key risks to the project were not identified in advance.
- Key assumptions used in planning the project were not tested.
- There was no formal monitoring of delivery of project milestones.
- There were no formal escalation procedures in the event of adverse project outcomes.
- There was insufficient end-to-end testing of the processing system.
SUSI was expected to result in greater efficiency and a reduction in staff administering student grants. However, the extent to which these expected benefits were achieved cannot be measured, because the cost and operational performance of the previous system were not established.
Redeployment is a central feature of public sector reform. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform sanctioned the project on condition that the required staffing would be found through redeployment, but it took 17 months for an adequate level of redeployment to happen. Unavailability of staff delayed the assessment of applications, and additional services were purchased from service providers to process applications.
A formal service level agreement incorporating key performance indicators was not in place between the Department of Education and Skills and CDETB when SUSI was launched.
CDETB selected an outsourced service provider in December 2011 but in doing so, it departed from good practice in a number of areas.
- The contract with the service provider was not signed until February 2013, despite service provision commencing in January 2012 i.e. 13 months earlier.
- The service provider did not face any penalties for failure to provide the contracted level of service.
There was an appeal rate of over 11% of initial grant decisions, with a 74% rate of turnover on appeal. This raises issues about the quality of assessment and the level of quality control.
Notes for Editors
CDETB was proposed as the single awarding authority for student support in April 2011, and formally appointed as such in May 2012. It set up an internal unit – Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) – to administer the scheme.
The Comptroller and Auditor General is an independent constitutional officer with responsibility for the audit of public funds. He reports to Dáil Éireann.