Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Bill, 1992: Committee Stage.

Acting Chairman

Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8 and 9 have been ruled out of order. The main purpose of this Bill is to extend eligibility to local authorities to provide higher education grants to certain mature students and the cost of these grants is ultimately borne by the Exchequer. All the amendments which have been ruled out of order seek to further extend the application of these grants by increasing Exchequer funding required for these schemes.

Sections 1 and 2 agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 3 stand part of the Bill."

Without wishing to dispute your ruling in relation to the admissibility of certain amendments may I say that this Bill is so structured that if a Member tables any kind of amendment it would have some consequences for the Exchequer? The result is that the amendments, which sought to insert some of the equity we debated on Second Stage, have been ruled out. The Bill is so restrictive that one cannot move any type of amendment. A good example of this is my amendment which sought to delete the words in section 3 "the parents of mature students who are dependent on their parents". I do not see the need for that provision. A person who is 23 years of age is an independent person in his or her own right. That person is an adult, is mature, is self-contained but is not self-maintained in this instance. It is wrong to insert this provision. Unfortunately, as has been pointed out, if this provision is removed it would have Exchequer implications. It is a provision that should not be in the Bill and I will deal with that in due course.

I tabled an amendment to section 3 which sought after the word "Minister" to insert "provided that these conditions do not discriminate against any person who already holds a primary degree". It was ruled out of order on the same grounds as the amendment submitted by Deputy J. Higgins. I was anxious that a person who already had a primary degree would not be debarred from eligibility under the scheme. Will the Minister clarify that point? As I read the section it is not clear whether a person would be debarred in that instance.

I agree with Deputy J. Higgins that somebody of 23 years of age must be deemed to be independent. By retaining this provision we are tying them to their parents apron strings for longer than is necessary. They will be ruled out from receiving a third level education when they should be given the opportunity to be independent and to get the education they need and desire. Obviously, they missed out on the first chance when they left school. Surely at 23 years of age and over we must give them the opportunity to stand on their own.

The answer to Deputy O'Shea's question is that the person would be debarred.

Several anomalies could be seen to derive from this. A practical example would be where a person who studied for a basic arts degree in subjects that have changed vastly over a long number of years and who may or may not have used these subjects, wants to return. New subjects have arrived, the curriculum has changed and such people may want to make themselves employable. This can arise in relation to a single parent and so on. It also arises in relation to other issues that may arise. I am aware of one case where, for example, a person held a degree from Maynooth's pontifical side and wanted to go on to do a degree with a view to becoming employable. I could list a great number of anomalies and, obviously, we are talking about a small number of people. It seems an unnecessary restriction to insist on not including this provision. Another person may want to study law courses to which a person could proceed after a primary degree course. Again, a person would be precluded from those courses. My suggestion would not open the floodgates but it would be more manageable rather than having all these cases arising as anomalies in the future.

I wish to refer to a somewhat different issue arising from section 3 which relates to the calculation of the means of the students. Three categories are defined in the Bill: the means of the mature student — himself or herself; the means of the parents of the mature students — that is mature students who are dependent on their parents, and the means of the spouses of mature students. There are two observations I wish to make in relation to this. First, it is ridiculous to be talking about mature students, who, by definition are people over 23 years of age, being dependent on their parents. Mature students are often people who have severed their dependence on their parents and who have gone back into the educational process. I would like some clarification from the Minister as to how means will be assessed. In the case of mature students of 23 years of age or over who have cut effectively their family ties, on whose income are means to be assessed? Are they to be assessed on the student's income or on the parental income irrespective of what relationship may exist at that time between the student and his or her parents? That is the first issue I wish to have clarified.

The second issue I wish to have clarified by the Minister relates to the question of spouse. I did attempt in the definition section to have this addressed but, a Cheann Comhairle, you ruled the amendment out of order and, of course, I accept your ruling. However, there is an issue here relating to the definition of spouse. I would like the Minister to address that. We now have two definitions of "spouse" in our legislative system. The concept of a married couple is perfectly understood by all but there is also cohabitation in respect of which there are two distinct approaches. The Revenue Commissioners are happy to ignore cohabitation so far as tax allowances are concerned but the Department of Social Welfare and now, apparently, and the Department of Education, give full recognition to the status of cohabitation in relation to the payment of benefits and insist on assessing one partner's means against those of the other.

Under this Bill a mature student could have his or her means assessed on the basis of their partner but under our tax code the partner may not claim a tax allowance for the person whom the Departments of Education and Social welfare regard as a dependant. This is clearly an anomaly which I would like the Minister to address. Unfortunately, it is impossible to address it by way of my own amendment but I would like the Minister to address it when replying.

Regarding Deputy O'Shea's question, higher education grants are not available to persons who hold a primary degree under the terms of the annual schemes. The basis for this provision is that funds for the purpose of pursuit of third level courses are limited and these limited funds must be directed to people who do not already possess a primary degree.

Regarding Deputy Gilmore's question, only if a dependant lives with and depends on their parents, will the parents' income be taken into consideration. If a person lives away from the home and is independent, the person will be assessed on his or her own income. I have already referred to the question of the spouse and for this purpose it is the same as applies under the Social Welfare legislation.

I would like the Minister to give more specific details on the guidelines that will issue to local authorities in relation to the parents of mature students who are dependent on their parents. In effect, does it mean that if one is living in the same house as one's parents and not drawing the dole or some other form of social welfare, it is automatically deemed that one is a dependant of one's parents? Is that the guideline that will issue to local authorities?

I apologise for not having full clarification on that point. As Deputies will appreciate we reached Committee Stage faster than anticipated. Students living with their parents are not automatically deemed to be dependent on their parents. Each case will be assessed on its own merits.

On that point will the local authorities administering the grant system have discretion in deciding the question of dependency? If there is a dispute about this who will decide, will the local authority decide if a person is a dependant?

The guidelines will be issued from the Department of Education to the local authority who will then act as agents for the Department.

I appreciate that guidelines will be sent but my understanding from the Minister's earlier reply was that if applicants live with or are dependent on their parents, the means of the parents will be assessed. Presumably, it follows that if students do not live with their parents, or if they do but are not dependent on them — in other words as Deputy Higgins stated, they may be in receipt of a social welfare payment or separate employment — the students' means will be assessed. Students who have jobs and live with their parents are clearly not dependent on their parents; they will have paid taxes for perhaps a number of years and contributed to their families' budgets. If they decide to return to college, whose means will be assessed, the individual's or the parents? Will the local authority have some discretion in deciding the matter?

If students have their own income they will be assessed on the basis of that income.

Assuming that a student can establish dependency on his or her parents what guidelines will be used in respect of his or her parents' income? Take a hypothetical case where parents have a gross income of £20,000, allowing for the much lauded initiative by the Minister yesterday of increasing the eligibility threshold to £19,000, in such circumstances what criteria or ratio would be used in relation to establishing the actual income of the son or daughter who would fall within the category mentioned in section 3?

We all know if dependants live with their parents, even for social welfare purposes, they are assessed on their families' income and if they are awarded a social welfare payment that is deemed to be their particular income; in this case that would be taken into consideration. In the case of a mature student the family income, if it does not include social welfare, would be taken into consideration. This applies also in the case of a person in normal circumstances attending third level education.

Will the Minister not accept that in effect he is asking mature students who may be living at home and dependent on their parents to move out of the family home, live in a flat, draw the dole, get rent and supplementary allowance from the health board to supplement their income and be a further draw on the State rather than saying to them, if they are 23 years of age or over, that they are obviously not dependants of their parents and will not be forced out of their family homes? Will the Minister clarify that?

There has been much talk today about equity. Take the example of two parents in a home with a joint income of, say, £100,000. Surely the Deputy is not suggesting that that income should not be assessed when deciding whether a student, son or daughter, would be entitled to a third level grant. I do not think any Member of this House would expect that the son or daughter — mature or otherwise — of anybody with a very large income should be entitled to a full grant.

It seems to me that it would be much simpler and fairer if the student were assessed on his or her own income. No matter how one looks at it in the case of, I was going to say immature students, but let us describe them as students who are not defined as mature students for the purposes of this Bill, whatever case might be made in those circumstances for the income of a spouse or parents to be taken into account in assessing means, it is a total nonsense in this case and will lead to all kinds of entanglements. The point has been made already about people being told they are above the income limit, for example, in the case of a family with three children whose parental income is within the limit allowable for payment of a student grant. In such a case how will one define the other children, the applicant for the grant who may be 24, and the other two who may be aged 25 and 26 respectively? Will the 25 and 26 year olds be defined as children for the purposes of this section?

Then there is the position of spouses. There has been reference to people being driven out of the family home. I can foresee circumstances arising in which people would be driven out of very good relationships in order to qualify for a student grant. It would make a great deal more sense if the means or incomes to be assessed were those of the student, albeit with some mechanism being devised to allow for some assessment to be made of the extent parents, a spouse, or whoever, contributed to that student's means. Assessing a student's means on the basis of parental or spouse's income would give rise to all kinds of anomalies and problems.

On Second Stage, I said I had grave reservations about the method of means-testing. I asked how a mature student of, say, 23, could be a dependant of his or her parents. Surely somebody of that age would be either employed or unemployed. It is reasonable to assume that if unemployed he or she would be in receipt of social welfare assistance which should be assessed as income. How could any Government body or assessors decide, merely because a student's parents were in receipt of an income of, say, £30,000, what proportion of that income may be contributed to a student's education? How does one determine what proportion of that income belongs to what is defined as a dependant mature student? It amounts to an assertion only. Any method of means-testing must be seen to be just and should not be based on any type of assumption but rather on fact. I contend that to apply the description "dependant" to a 23 year old mature adult is not rational.

It would be regrettable if the provisions of this Bill were to exclude many people we believed would be eligible for such grants. It is pointless introducing legislation which, in the small print, contains rules debarring students, for wrong reasons, from eligibility for such grants. I hope the Minister will be able to further clarify the definition of a dependant mature student.

I have already stated that if a student has an income of his or her own, or is in receipt of social welfare assistance, he or she would be assessed thereon. Beyond that, the students would be assessed in the normal way, as would any other student, on their parents' income. I made the point — and there are plenty of practical examples — that if a 23 or 24 year old applied for a higher education grant and let us suppose, there was an income of, say, £100,000 going into that home, that student would not be entitled to a higher education grant.

Question put and agreed to.

Amendment No. 3 in the name of the Minister. Amendment No. 5 is cognate. Therefore, I suggest we discuss amendments Nos. 3 and 5 together, if that is satisfactory. Agreed.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 3, line 17, before "sat" to insert "ordinarily".

As I said on Second Stage, the provisions of section 4 are not geared towards mature studentsper se but rather to cater for those students living in Border counties who attend second level schools in Northern Ireland. The grant scheme, as it stands, allows the leaving certificate only to be taken into account. Therefore the scheme has been amended mainly to allow the general certificate of education of Northern Ireland to be taken into account for the purpose of qualifying for a grant. However, it has been represented to me that the provision for an examination having to be sat outside the State is too restrictive and would not allow the Minister to take any special circumstances into account.

My amendment, proposing the insertion of the word "ordinarily", will allow such particular circumstances to be taken into account. I would suggest it also meets the concerns of Deputy Jim Higgins in his amendments Nos. 4 and 6. I might point out also that the provisions in this section will allow the Minister to prescribe which examination my be taken into account. For example, this would allow the Minister to take the terminal examination of any of our EC partners into account for grant purposes.

I know what the Minister is endeavouring to do by proposing the insertion of the word "ordinarily", but it does seem somewhat restrictive. Hopefully we are opening up a long awaited national debate on education, particularly with the publication of the Green Paper on Education some days ago which is supposed to encompass all aspects of education. Literally everything is supposed to be on the table — primary education in all its aspects, second level and there is a whole chapter, Chapter 8, on third level education. Therefore one may assume that, by the time all the submissions will have been received from the various interested groups, quite a comprehensive analysis of education in all its aspects will have been undertaken.

We must remember that times are changing. Without wishing to attack the integrity of the leaving certificate, we do have a range of other certificates which are beginning to be recognised in their own right as fully-fledged educational awards. In addition to the leaving certificates, there is the vocational leaving certificate. There is also the senior certificate and, by the time this great national debate on education will have been completed, there is the possibility of a range of other options being on the table. The Minister appears to be stipulating the leaving certificate as the sole qualification under the terms of this section which reads:

Section 2 (1) (a) of the Principal Act is hereby amended by the insertion after "Leaving Certificate Examination of the Department of Education" of "or at such other school terminal examination held and sat outside the State" and the said paragraph, as so amended, is set out in the Table to this section.

Today he is introducing an amendment which would have the section read:

Section 2 (1) (a) of the Principal Act is hereby amended by the insertion after "Leaving Certificate Examination of the Department of Education" of "or at such other school terminal examination held and ordinarily sat outside the State"...

to allow for the possibility of admission of examinations sat in other EC member states. I presume that is in the spirit of inter-partnership, interaction, mutual exchange of qualifications and so on. I should have preferred that the draftsman would have said: "or at such other school terminal examination held inside or outside the State" thereby broadening the scope of the provisions, admitting the inclusion of existing certificates beginning to gain in importance and popularity and the possibility of additional qualifications being accepted. That would have broadened the scope of the provisions of this section to allow for existing certificates, provided they pass quality control, or other certificates that might come onstream subsequent to discussion of the Green Paper on Education.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.