Rural students and the least well off are likely to bear the brunt of third level grant cuts and sink dozens of families deeper into the red, local politicians have warned.
Longford Westmeath TD James Bannon said the changes announced by the Government in this month's Budget would do untold damage to the wider education system and force scores of students out of third level institutions.
A €500 rise in registration charges along with drastic cuts in grants for hundreds of students in Longford who look set to lose €1,700 on average from next September was a "shameful" act by an increasingly under fire government, the Legan TD fumed.
Much anger, most of which has come from the Union of Students in Ireland, centred on the fact students will be forced onto lower grants because they live less than 45km from college.
Before the changes, they were entitled to the higher 'non adjacent' grant which applied at 24km from college.
The Fine Gael Deputy Spokesperson for Environment said Longford students who fall within the new 45 km catchment area were likely to suffer significant reductions. Mr Bannon added rising rents and general running costs associated with going to a third level college were likely to heap more financial misery on cash strapped parents.
"Parents are being forced into a catch 22 situation," he said. "If they live within 45km of colleges such as Athlone and Sligo Its, their children will lose their grant provision and if they send them to colleges outside their areas, living costs will be crippling."
Students who are currently benefiting from the maximum grant face losing over €3,000 as the Government looks to recoup €43m a year in savings.
This, according to Mr Bannon, was likely to hit low and middle income families the most when the cuts come into effect next month.
"With no university in Longford/Westmeath many students are tackling massive living costs to attend Galway, Cork or Dublin universites as it is.
Labour Councillor Mae Sexton also slammed the decision to extend the qualifying criteria for the 'non-adjacent' rate of student maintenance grant.
"This has effectively created a 90km exclusion zone around third level institutions," said Cllr Sexton.
"If it wasn't bad enough, increasing the 'student service charge' by one third, we now have a situation where according to the Department's own figures, some 25,000 families will be hit by what amounts to a 60 per cent cut in student maintenance payments.
"Now, as a result of living within 45km of their place of education, third level students and their families are to be penalised to the tune of thousands of euro every year.
"This means that there is now a major disincentive to students from the natural hinterland of a college to actually apply to study there such as those students attending at Athlone IT and will also seriously impact on those who wish to avail of back to education
"The covert and vindictive way in which this measure was buried in the small print is absolutely disgraceful and the deceptive manner in which it was introduced was a triumph of tone over substance," she added.