Adjournment Debate. - Third Level Student Grants.

County Kildare vocational education committee have been running the VTOS for the long term unemployed for the past two years. During that period a lot of time and effort has been spent in promoting the belief that adult and second chance education offered a real choice for many unemployed adults. This intervention has been recognised widely as one of the most creative and significant educational initiatives of recent years. Currently County Kildare have 72 people on the programme, a solid testimony to the attractiveness and integrity of the programme among unemployed people.

Of the initial group of 15 who have finished up this September three have obtained places in third level colleges. The academic progress of these three individuals has been phenomenal and they now have a unique opportunity of obtaining a qualification which in time will enable them to seek new jobs and make a new life for themselves. As things stand at present they will only receive their social welfare entitlements and their core tuition fees will be paid via the third level grants scheme. They will be expected to meet all other costs e.g. travel, books, field trips from their dole money.

In essence none of the individuals can take up the offers unless further financial support is forthcoming. Take, for example, the travel costs involved in attending college. All three are living over 24 miles from the relevant college and there is no direct public transport service linking home and college. The following will illustrate the financial consequences of attending.

Allowances

Cost of travel per week

Case 1.

£158 (2 adults and 3 children)

£25

Case 2.

£49.50 (single)

£25

Case 3.

£49.50 (single)

£25

If you add all the other ancillary costs such as books, which amount to a minimum of £100, then you will realise that attending college for these people is simply not on. To demonstrate the commitment of the individuals concerned, two of them who live in Kilcullen leave home at 7.35 each morning and return at 7.10 each evening.

The initiative to allow people drawing social welfare to attend college has been welcomed on all sides. However people living in urban centres close to colleges have a distinct advantage over people living in more rural and provincial areas where access is much more costly and difficult. To continue this scheme without some financial support for travel and other ancillary costs will effectively put the opportunity beyond the reach of most unemployed people. In the last two years we have encouraged these people to improve their educational standards and qualifications in order to improve their job prospects but the Minister is effectively saying to them "so far and no further". In effect, the principle of equal access does not apply in their case. An ironic aspect of the situation is the fact that travel costs are paid to attend the VTOS locally, but not when they have to travel further. At the beginning of the year there were strong indications that a strong supportive package would be forthcoming to enable people to go on to third level education. A number of submissions was made pointing out that the cost involved would be minimal and that it would be very easy to administer. We were also led to believe that money was available to cover these costs. Given our optimism, we encouraged students who were academically capable to achieve standards to gain entry to third level institutions.

There is now a deep sense of disappointment and frustration because the proposed supportive package has disappeared. This was only conveyed to me on Wednesday, 21 October. The Minister has betrayed these people and the vocational education committee authorities who run the schemes. Furthermore, for future students coming through the VTOS the possibility of attending third level education is no longer a realistic option.

At a time when there are high levels of unemployment, every effort should be made to smooth the educational path of those who are able and committed to doing something about their situation. Instead, we put barriers in their way, which would cost very little to remove. It is as if we opened the door, showed them what the future might hold and then slammed the door in their face. The present urgent crisis for the three individuals concerned is that they will have no option but to leave college by Wednesday, 28 October — the final date for late registration. The sadness and heartache created by this is unbelievable. Therefore, I urge the Minister to pay the travel costs involved, which are very small, but which will rescue these three individuals under the VTOS scheme or through the vocational education committee.

My Department do not operate a vocational education opportunity scheme for third level students. The vocational training opportunity scheme is a particular scheme operated by my Department in conjunction with the Department of Social Welfare under which long term unemployed persons may attend full time second level education and training courses without losing their social welfare entitlements. Participants in the scheme are removed from the live register and receive allowances from the Department of Education in lieu of their social welfare payments. They receive additional assistance in respect of travel, meals, examination fees, etc.

The scheme was started in 1989 after a pilot phase in Limerick and Tallaght. There were 260 places available on the scheme then. The number of places now is 2,060 which includes an additional 1,000 places this year. A further substantial expansion of the scheme is under consideration.

The scheme has proved itself to be a great success. It meets in a flexible and effective way the needs of people who are unemployed. Those who are involved in the scheme — and here I must pay tribute to the vocational education committees through whom the scheme is operated — consider it as one of the most important educational initiatives in recent years. The reaction of the participants is also very positive.

The VTOS does not currently extend to those following third level courses. The position in relation to long term unemployed and third level education is that the Department of Social Welfare have separate arrangements which allows long term unemployed people to attend approved third level courses while retaining their social welfare entitlements. In order to be eligible one must be 23 years and over, long term unemployed and in receipt of unemployment assistance. Priority is given to those with little or no means and those who have successfully completed a course under the VTOS. There were some 200 places available under this scheme in the 1991-92 academic year and an additional 100 places have been approved for the current year.

Assistance from my Department to students pursuing third level education is channelled through the higher education grants scheme and analogous schemes. Among the substantial changes made recently to these schemes were ones specifically aimed at mature students. These changes not alone provided for a substantial increase in the income eligibility limits but also allowed for the assessment of mature students, who are independent of their parents, on their own incomes and that of their spouses. If accepted for an approved third level course they will be deemed to have satisfied the academic requirements for the higher education grant scheme. This brings greater equity and fairness into the system of meanstesting for student support and in the allocation of resources for mature students. These grants cover course fees and the maintenance element is intended to provide help towards the cost of general expenses, including books, travel, etc.

Aspects of the interlinking of these grants schemes with the Department of Social Welfare scheme for long term unemployed are being considered in conjunction with the Department of Social Welfare.