THE FIRST lady Mrs Andri Anastasiades on Monday announced the establishment of the Independent Agency for Social Support that would offer financial assistance to university students who, “because of unforeseen social circumstances or other exceptional incidents, have been directly affected with regard to the continuation of their education.” For instance a student whose parents could not afford to pay the tuition fees would be able to apply to the Fund for financial assistance.
All applicants would be means-tested and there would be strict criteria in place, Mrs Anastasiades explained, noting that the institution would be run in a “transparent, meritocratic and regulated way.” The Agency would be run by an administrative committee that had already drafted the criteria and the treasurer would be the Accountant-General Rea Georgiou. Annual accounts would be published and submitted to the Auditor-General.
The emphasis given to transparency, criteria and the annual audit was considered an imperative given how former president Demetris Christofias had used a ‘solidarity fund’ at his disposal. He would give money from this fund to whomever he personally considered deserving of assistance and there was always a suspicion that AKEL supporters were favoured. He had acted as a one-man welfare service with other people’s money, something that the new agency, quite rightly wants to avoid.
While the Support Agency had been set up through private donations, on Monday a bill was taken to the House finance committee that envisaged the funding of the Agency from state funds. Several deputies expressed objections to this and they had a point. If the government believes that students whose parents cannot afford to pay for their university education should be supported then it should do so through the state welfare services, rather than channel the funds to an independent agency. If it does not consider such a support scheme by the state necessary, then it should not fund a private agency to provide such support.
As things are in Cyprus at present there are people much more in need of financial assistance from the state than university students, which is why funding the agency cannot be justified. Commendable as Mrs Anastasiades’ initiative is, it should be funded by private donations and not by the taxpayer. To their credit, the president, House president, Attorney-General, a couple of ministers and a deputy have pledged their pensions to the Agency, which is a start. But Mrs Anastasiades would have to organise a big fund-raising drive for the Agency if it is to be a success rather than depend on the taxpayer.