The needs-based education allowance for university students, reformed two years back to the backdrop of hot debate, has not yielded the desired fruit. As shown by first major study since introduced, it is often opted not to apply due to prejudices, and the system is deemed to be unfair.
As the reform kicked into gear, education ministry assumed that 30 percent of those enrolled in universities in 2013/2014 would be drawing the new allowance. Turns out the percentage is 15. In the new academic year now underway, the figure is not much higher.
The conclusion by Praxis, author of the study, is that broadly speaking the allowance has reached its goal: mainly, the applicants and the recipients are such who really need it.
The problem, however, lies with those who for whatever reason are not getting it. Namely: lots of students poor off financially never apply at all, thinking they’d not qualify and would not be entitled to it. As admitted by a quarter of these, the main reason was lack of information regarding initial try. Also, 48 percent thought the allowance was not easily accessible, and a whopping 61 percent guessed it would not be helpful enough anyway to make it financially as a student.
To understand the situation, let’s dissect the principle. Starting 2013/2014, the needs-based allowance is €75–€220 monthly as paid to students who comply with study requirements and whose family income per member exceeds not €329.
At that, regarding students up to 24 years of age, family will be parents, minor brothers and sisters, as well as minor half-brothers and half-sisters. That even when in population register the student’s address is different from those specified.
Applications are submitted via eesti.ee and all who meet the requirements automatically qualify as calculated by the software. A live individual only comes into play when an anomaly emerges in the data.
This is fertile ground for fraudsters and unfairness.
«It appears that the allowance goes to those whose parents draw envelope wages and intentionally misreport income. Thus, distrust is created towards the system,» said a respondent to study by Praxis.
Meanwhile, the system at times rejects such whose parents do earn a lot but do not live with the family or do not support the student-child.
These dangers the students foresaw as early as 2012 when the education minister Jaak Aaviksoo (then IRL) undertook the reform.
«The fear definitely was not unfounded. There’s plenty enough of cases where students who’d actually need the allowance failed to get it,» said Federation of Estonian Student Unions (EÜL) deputy head Katrina Koppel.
According to an author of the study, a Praxis analyst Hanna-Stella Haaristo, it is of primary importance for universities and student representations to spread the information so those in need and eligible would up and apply.
«From there, it would definitely be important to find out how large the gap between official income of the students’ families and the actual financial situation of the students. If the gap is wide, we must see how to determine the actual needs,» advised Ms Haaristo.
Lion’s share of students queried deemed the allowance insufficient. As admitted by expert Anne Kivimäe of education ministry, the automatic procedure allows no specifications and thus some may be needlessly disqualified. Meanwhile, a student may apply for needs-based allowance from own university and then additional documents may be considered.
«This year, the application conditions will not change, but in the future they will definitely need to be analysed and developed,» said Ms Kivimäe.
Karina Koppel of EÜL thinks students should cease to be regarded as dependants of parents. «On the one hand, it would surely be a solution if they’d review the default assumption that a student is of the same household as parents irrespective of the student’s age or residence,» said Ms Koppel.
Secondly, EÜL wishes that they’d review an household member’s income level from whence the entitlement applies.
«The current ceiling of €329 raises issues. Namely, it remains under relative poverty level, meaning there are students who cannot apply though in relative poverty,» explained Ms Koppel. «It would make sense to tie the sum of the allowance to minimal wage, for instance, to make sure the allowance corresponds to actual need.»