The number of students being deemed eligible for State SUSI grants is falling, while attendance at third-level is rising.

SUSI (Student Universal Support Ireland) data shows there has been a 6% fall in the number of students getting State grants over the past three years.

There were 80,000 students awarded SUSI grants last year, compared to 85,000 in 2015. Over the same period, there has been an 8% fall in numbers applying.

Complete data for this year is not yet available because the applications process is still open.

Figures show 108,000 students applied for a grant for the 2015/16 academic year compared to 99,000 last year. So far this year, 89,000 have applied, but that figure is likely to rise.

The number applying was rising each year prior to 2015.

The decline takes place as student numbers overall are increasing year on year. It means that a significantly lower proportion of students are now receiving SUSI support compared to just a few years ago.

The fall in applications and grant awards is likely to be due to the fact that income thresholds for grant eligibility have been static for almost a decade.

Wages have risen over the same period so a significant proportion of students who may in past recent years have been eligible for a SUSI grant, based on their parents' wages, are no longer eligible. 

While there are a number of criteria for eligibility, the main income threshold for a full grant is €39,875 gross.

This includes parental earnings from all sources, as well as any money earned by a student during the academic year.

The decline in numbers applying for a grant was mentioned at an Oireachtas committee hearing yesterday.

A SUSI official did not demur when it was suggested to him at the Education Committee hearing that the decline was due to the fact that the income threshold had not been increased.

SUSI implements but does not decide on policy matters such as income thresholds.

Separately, the Irish Refugee Council has criticised what it says amounts to new restrictions placed on asylum seekers attempting to access third level education.

Prior to the introduction of new legislation in 2015, asylum seekers who had been granted leave to remain were eligible for SUSI grants. However, that category is no longer recognised as an eligible one.

The council said it had been dealing with a number of asylum seeker students who are struggling to remain in college or have turned down offers of places because they cannot access a SUSI grant.

The Department of Education has confirmed that people granted leave to remain under the new 2015 legislation are not eligible for a grant.

"People who have been granted leave to remain here have now been excluded from the SUSI system, and therefore are being denied access to education," Charlotte Byrne, Education Officer with the Irish Refugee Council, told RTÉ News.

"It has actually become harder for them to get to college, and we're talking to students who are really struggling.

"If they can’t get an education it’s much harder for them to get a job and to contribute."