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.