Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has formally apologised to students and their parents for the distress caused by delays in processing grants.

Speaking during this evening's private members debate in the Dáil on the issue, Mr Quinn said that as Minister, he accepted responsibility for the problems.

Chief executive of the City of Dublin VEC said earlier today that less than a third of student grant applications in their system have been fully processed.

Jacinta Stewart told the Oireachtas Committee on Education earlier today that 20,350 applications are complete and at the "award" stage, with 25,310 currently being processed.

She said that 56,935 grant applications were received by the closing date of the scheme on 31 August.

Ms Stewart said over 9,000 applications have been received since the closing date, which is " the rate of about 200 a week".

"We had been assessing packs at the rate of 800 per day. It moved from there to 1,300 per day and by the end of next week, we will be at a rate of 1,900 per day".

The Committee was told that the SUSI grants system expects to have 30,000 grants awarded by the end of December.

It heard that ten additional staff have been recruited and will begin work on Monday, bringing to 106 the number of people working on the applications.

Earlier, the Union of Students in Ireland said that some students are in danger of dropping out of college because of the delay in processing their third-level grant applications.

USI President John Logue said the number of additional staff promised today for SUSI will not be enough and he has been told by workers there that they are "grossly understaffed".

He said there also seems to be an issue around the training of staff at the new student grant application authority.

He said communications problems were leaving parents unable to get the advice they need from the body's helpline.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Six One Mr Logue said many students were finding it difficult to access money from banks or elsewhere.

Cat O'Driscoll, Vice-President of Academic Affairs in USI, said the fact that only 18,000 of the 66,000 who had applied for grants to the new centralised applications agency had heard back from it was causing a lot of problems for students.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, she said that some students are unable to meet their rent payments.

Others, she said, are unable to access the colleges' own emergency funds, as they were not fully registered because their grants had not come through.

"Many students are telling us that they are looking at dropping out in the next week or two,” Ms O'Driscoll said.

The USI representative disagreed with the observation of Chairperson of the Oireachtas Committee on Education Joanna Tuffy that part of the explanation for the backlog may be the result of ineligible students applying for maintenance grants.

SUSI is processing grants for first time applicants.

According to Ms Tuffy, around 80,000 students were in first year. Only around half of those were eligible for maintenance grants, and yet there had been 66,000 applications to SUSI, she said.

However, Ms O'Driscoll added that not all first-time applicants are first year students.

Ms O'Driscoll said students adding an extra year on to their studies, mature students and post-graduate students may also be first-time applicants.

Kenny defends system

Speaking in the Dáil Taoiseach Enda Kenny said delays in student grants are "unacceptable" - however, he said if all grants are processed and paid by the end of December, the new system will be an improvement on what had gone on for the last quarter of a century.

Mr Kenny said the lessons learned from this year will be used to greatly improve delivery next year.

Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams brought up the issue of SUSI and quoted a letter from one student who has quit college and is thinking of emigration because his grant has not been paid.

He said the system plainly is not working.

A Fianna Fáil Private Members' Motion on third-level grants is being debated in the Dáil tonight and tomorrow night.

The party's education spokesperson Charlie McConalogue said SUSI had not been equipped or resourced properly. He accused the minister of taking a hands-off approach after launching it in blaze of glory.

Mr McConalogue said the delay in grant payments was now a crisis for some students, which could threaten their future in college.