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Stipends reform criticised

The Lm180 reduction in the students' monthly stipend will have a more negative financial impact than the reduction in the annual "smart card" grant and the majority of the students, both incoming and current, would consider taking a part-time job under this new stipend scheme, according to a report by the KSU.

The New Stipend Scheme Report, commissioned by the KSU and compiled by UnicOR Ltd, was presented during a debate on campus yesterday morning.

Anthony Micallef, president of the university students' main representation body Kunsill Studenti Universitarji (KSU), told The Times that the decrease in the university students' grant for their education and the further Lm200 one-time decrease at the beginning of their course meant a "significant amount which students will need to recoup in some way, either through cost-cutting, increased dependence on parents or through part-time employment. Each of these options means that the students' quality of life will be reduced in some way".

This was in reaction to the reforms to the stipends system announced by Education Minister Louis Galea last Friday, according to which new university students will receive a Lm40 monthly grant instead of last year's Lm60. Furthermore, the one-time annual grant has also been reduced by half to Lm200.

"These students will end up dedicating time which used to be reserved to their studies into gaining extra income, meaning that academic life will become significantly harder for them," Mr Camilleri said. In a press conference last Friday, Mr Camilleri explained that since the last stipend reform in 1998, students suffered a 15 per cent inflation, the introduction of 18 per cent VAT on books and a further 22 per cent decrease in income brought about by the current stipend reforms.

"In all, at a conservative estimate, life for the class beginning in 2005 will be at least 50 per cent more expensive than for their counterparts in 1998, meaning that student expenses will have been inflating at more than five times the national rate."

"This will affect students significantly. The financial and academic aspects of student life are intrinsically linked with one another. For those lucky ones who have the financial means to absorb the changes, the sacrifice they will be giving is part of their independence. For those who are not so lucky, they will need to contain their expenses or raise additional funds," Mr Camilleri said.

Mr Camilleri said that some of the measures introduced, especially regarding Gozitan students, are long overdue.

Yesterday's report revealed that the large majority of students are favourable to the fact that Gozitans receive an extra allowance for their accommodation. "However, it does not make sense to correct one problem by creating another one," Mr Camilleri said.

With regard to special grants given to students who enrol in special courses, Mr Camilleri said that the KSU agrees with the chosen special cases and that a "tilt" in courses which lead to sought-after careers is an important concept.

However, the KSU believed other courses such as Arabic and Spanish should have also been included in the list.

Mr Camilleri said the minister should allocate a higher amount of funds for the university in the next budget, as well as give a one-time capital grant to the university and to the library to update its collections and facilities. He also suggested that a National Quality Assurance Agency be set up.

The report also stated that incoming students were stronger in insisting that the KSU must take some form of action regarding the new stipend scheme, mainly through protest or meetings with the government.

Current students, on the other hand, are indifferent to what the KSU's reaction should be.

Means test must be satisfied for supplementary grants

The reformed stipend scheme is designed in a way to remove some of the financial burden from the family and also to help those students who have financial difficulties or have additional expenses such as Gozitan students, Claude Sciberras, communications coordinator at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Employment, said.

"For the Ministry of Education it is very important that the financial situation of Maltese families does not impede students from furthering their studies at post-secondary and tertiary level," he said.

Under the new scheme, a supplementary grant is given to students with proven financial difficulties according to a means test conducted by the Students Maintenance Grants' Board, made up of representatives of the main stakeholders in the sector including the main student representatives.

The scheme also provides for Gozitan students who will receive a monthly grant of Lm50 and students who follow courses in science and technology who are eligible for a special grant.

"The Maintenance Grants' Board, as was the case in the previous years, follows a set of guidelines which the board itself has drawn up. However, the board considers each application on its own merit. The board's guidelines include considerations such as the joint income of the parents and the student, the number of dependents on the household income and any other considerations which may prove financial hardship on the student's family. With regard to the household income threshold, the board consults with the Ministry for the Family and Social Solidarity.

"In the case of the new scheme the board has been asked to make provisions so that the threshold would reflect the number of dependent students who are still in education in each family. In all cases the students are asked to provide evidence of their stated situation," Mr Sciberras said.

The government will also be making available an amount of money which the board may use to help students in very special and exceptional financial hardship situations for which the normal grants are not enough. The Contingency Fund is another support service which government is providing to make sure that nobody gives up continuing their education on the basis of financial hardship, he said.

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