Food boxes for struggling students
Up to 150 struggling students at a college have been forced to accept free food boxes because they could not afford to feed themselves.
As thousands of third-level students await the delayed payment of their education grant, scores of people at Athlone Institute of Technology living on the breadline have had to rely on charity to eat.
Students' Union president John Madden said the botched processing of grants by Student Universal Support Ireland (Susi) had left people in dire straits over the last month.
"Let's just say Christmas was very bleak for many of the students here," Mr Madden said. "There may have been up to 150 coming to us, actually going out of their way to ask for food. It takes a lot for someone to forget their pride and say they need help."
The union began offering food boxes - containing canned and dried foods such as pasta - last year. "But then when we had the whole Susi debacle we said we would need to do this again, but only step it up a notch," said Mr Madden.
Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and the Dublin Institute of Technology have started similar schemes for hard-pressed students. But the numbers asking for food parcels have been more modest.
However, TCD welfare officer Aisling Ni Chonaire said she expects an influx over the coming weeks when students return from home for the new term. She said of the estimated 5,500 students still awaiting their grant payment, around 1,000 are Trinity students. She said: "I think this could explode over the next two weeks, so we are prepared to help as best we can."
The Susi system was set up to speed up the grant application process. Previously, students applied for grants through their local authority or vocational education committee, but they struggled to cope with increasing numbers of applications within the required timeframe and Susi was established.
Susi has insisted any delay in the processing and payment of grants has been a result of students themselves and their failure to provide the right documentation, such as bank details and confirmation of university or college registration.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Department of Education insisted help was available to students with serious financial struggles. "We would be very concerned to hear of students experiencing that kind of hardship," he said.