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Postgraduate SUSI applicant? Let’s hope you were never hardworking or homeless

I worked full-time during my full-time undergraduate degree; in 2007 my mother and I became homeless. Yet I am not deemed eligible for a full postgraduate grant.

Niamh Cullen

FINALLY, THE MOMENT has arrived. It’s spelled out on a screen, and all of a sudden my face is wet with hot tears. “Congratulations”. I’ve been accepted into my dream master’s.

Like many applications, it was a systematic labour of love. With a full-time job to cater to, I had to find time to squeeze in opportunities to transition to the dream career of journalism. Streams of SEO articles kept the ball rolling while I took my hand to switching my writing style from literary and academic to report and opinion.

I pursued an online diploma in Radio Journalism. I interviewed notable figures and felt my love of all things current affairs become a reality. My efforts vindicated when I saw that word across my computer screen.

But my tears of joy soon became tears of pain, and anger. The issue that had inhibited the application for so long sprung to mind: money.

I’ve always been careful with money 

I have always been pretty great with money. My mum used to have me search the couches in the hopes of gathering coins for bread and milk. In her desperate bid to educate me on the importance of money in life, I became as frugal as could be. When we became homeless in 2007, such economic blessings came in handy. When I worked full-time during a full-time undergraduate degree, I felt privileged to see my education grow as a result of my earned wages.

Now, that’s all changed.

Here’s my situation.

I earned €17,000 in the year ending 2014, working an average of 38.5 hours a week. My mother is a single parent who receives a jobseeker’s allowance a week of €188 and is on an emergency housing scheme as she was homeless during the time January -June 2014 (longer than that, but preceding these dates do not apply when going through SUSI’s process).

I’ve lived independently since 2009 and I’m 23 next month. I moved to a cheaper part of the country in 2013 when I graduated, partially due to my partner’s presence there, but more specifically because of the significant savings I could make by paying a whopping 66% less on rent and bills and living costs.

My education dream

I spent one year saving and could not afford to apply for a master’s.

I spent another year saving and still could not afford to apply for a master’s.

I talked to SUSI for a good hour on the phone, after sending them a multitude of back-and-forth emails. To my surprise, I discovered that I do not qualify for anything – perhaps €2,000 out of my €8,210 fees if the incredibly confusing prerequisites are fulfilled. Why?

Because I am 22, and am therefore considered a dependent. My modest wage, coupled with my mother’s meagre allowance combined throws me out of the bracket to get full fees covered. Oh, and because my mother was homeless for the first six months of 2014, she was legally not entitled to jobseeker’s as she had no legal address – hence because neither she nor myself were on the register for a whole year, I do not apply to ANY fee contribution. Period.

I decided to look into a student loan. The maximum loan I can take out is around €7,500, and so will in no way close cover my living expenses during my duration in college, even with decent part-time work hours, which I expect to work.

Working full-time during a master’s degree would be counterproductive

I’m left pondering. I spent four years in college studying full-time hours, sitting in a lecture hall in a McDonald’s uniform so I could leave ten minutes early to earn a wage, five days a week, to pay my way through my undergraduate years to sustain myself and my family, on top of an undergraduate maintenance allowance. I currently work two full-time jobs and study a diploma in radio journalism. I know that if I were to repeat the habit of full-time work after college hours, there is not a hope I would pass my master’s course. Even if I did, I wouldn’t be given the opportunity to pursue my degree to the best of my abilities.

I have learned a few things. If I had acquired 391 days of the dole, I’d be entitled a grant  to cover fees. If I wait until 2017, and reject the course I’ve been offered, I’ve a slightly higher chance of acquiring tuition cover… but may not again be accepted to this dream opportunity.

What I’ve learned about the system

So, even if you’re on the breadline of a full-time job earning just above minimum wage for two years, you’ll be lucky to afford anything. If you and your parent(s) have stayed on the dole, you’ll get something. If you’ve waited until the age of three years after you graduated , and you’ve stayed on minimum wage full-time, you’ll get something.

But if you’ve just graduated, moved elsewhere to save money, spent almost two years working full-time on a basic wage to try and jump back into the education zone to keep that career dream alive, then no can do.

I have until Sunday to accept my course. I wonder how much time Ireland’s youth have to prosper in education given the current circumstances they face?

Niamh Cullen is a freelance journalist. Visit her website here to read more of her work or follow her on Twitter @niavc

Are we devaluing degrees?

I had to leave home and become independent at 18 – but SUSI won’t recognise that

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Niamh Cullen

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