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Friday, December 3, 2021

Single mother so badly off with scholarship that she doesn’t eat some weeks

When Dawn Higgins landed a scholarship to pursue a PhD at Maynooth University, a whole new future opened up — just as her finances sank.

The single parent who lives with her son, Aidan (8), in Kildare is now a year into her psychology PhD, with two more to go. What was a dream has become ever more difficult as she saw her support payments fall away almost as soon as she secured the Irish Research Council (IRC) scholarship. 

She is now financially less well off to the tune of at least €111.66 a week, living on a stipend of €18,500 spread over a year, with the supports to which she was previously entitled no longer open to her.

“People who hear I’ve got an IRC scholarship say ‘oh, that’s great’, and it is prestigious and good for my career, but it just means that I don’t eat some weeks,” she says.

The scholarship covers her university fees, but Dawn discovered it is also means-tested as income for Job Seekers Transitional Payment — meaning she doesn’t qualify. If only her stipend was considered and the fees were disregarded, she would qualify; but it doesn’t work like that, so she misses out.

Dawn also tried to claim Working Family Payment, but as the scholarship is not taxable income she did not qualify for that either.

Most pressing is the falling away of other support payments to which she was previously entitled, such as the Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance or the Fuel Allowance. 

While she can still access the National Childcare Scheme, she can now no longer avail of the Community Childcare Subvention (CCS) Programme, which is designed to assist disadvantaged groups, including one-parent families.

Her case has been raised by TDs Gary Gannon and Réada Cronin. One maddening response indicated that had she secured a different scholarship — such as the 1916 Bursary Fund — she would be entitled to extra supports. What’s Dawn’s PhD about? The role that education can play in the treatment of dementia — she is currently designing an assessment to overcome the documented issue of someone without dementia, but who left school before Junior Cert, being as likely to score the same at assessment as a university-educated person who has dementia. 

She is working with the Travelling Community to help address the issue and hopes her work will eventually assist others, such as migrant groups.

She refers to the “barriers” she faces, and how they would be much worse for people with more children or less support around them from friends and family.

“We do need more single parents returning to education.”

“I am not saying I want everything handed to me. It is just really infuriating to think if I was not doing this, and sitting on Jobseekers [I’d be better off], but because I’m doing my level best to get somewhere, I am not entitled to it.”

One Family has said it highlights the difficulties faced by single parents getting back into education, a situation recently highlighted by a UN Special Rapporteur. 

Dawn still has two years of study ahead.

“It’s probably too late to do anything for me, I am stubborn enough, I have enough support and help that I’ll make it, but if I can help another single parent in a year’s time, that they can actually apply for this, I will actually have done something.

“It’s hard enough anyhow.”

Niamh Kelly, One Family’s Policy Manager said: “Lone parent participation in education has decreased by approximately 20% according to the last Census figures. The reasons for this trend can be complex and varied. But we know, through our work with families, that barriers to accessing education are significant including considerable financial barriers; with one in five lone parents in Ireland unable to access formal education for financial reasons according to research by SVP in 2019. While only 15% of lone parents reported having a third level qualification in the last Census and 70% were educated to level 6 or less on NFQ.

“This is of particular concern as research (including the ERSI’s Growing Up In Ireland research) recognised that the educational levels of parents have direct impact on the lives of their children with the educational level of a mother in particular having a direct impact on the well-being of her child/ren. International research similarly shows that despite the complex interactions between parental social, economic and educational positions and conditions, the educational levels of both parents are a significant influence on the life expectations and outcomes of their children. Education is a gateway to more sustainable, quality employment which lifts lone parents out of poverty in the longer term.”

BFIA Admin
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