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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 18 May 1993

Vol. 430 No. 8

Adjournment Debate. - Third Level Education Costs.

I am deeply disappointed. that the Minister for Education has not come into the House this evening to address the critical issue of the escalating cost of third level education. This is what the programme for Government had to say on the subject:

We anticipate that under the new Structural Fund extra resources will be made available to assist with the cost of third level education. On that basis it is the Government's intention to ensure that these additional resources are used to widen the access of all students to third level education in the interests of social justice and equity.

It goes on to say:

Steps will be taken in relation to third level grants to ensure that no student is deprived of access to third level education because of his or her financial circumstances.

Let us consider for a moment what has happened in the meantime. Less than three weeks two of the colleges, UCD and Trinity College, announced that they were seeking a fee increase of 8 per cent for new entrants to their colleages at the beginning of the next academic year. The other colleges have indicated that it is their intention to follow suit. Moreover, at the same time the National University of Ireland has announced that it will be imposing a charge of 70 per cent on students who wish to matriculate on the basis of their leaving certificate results, thereby putting another barrier to those who would aspire to enter third level education, despite the fact that when the matriculation examination was abolished it was the belief of all of us that with the abolition of the examination would go the abolition of that fee. That is what has happened to the cost of third level education.

The 8 per cent that is now being sought is 8 per cent on top of a previous 8 per cent hike on last year's fees. Consider the impact that will have on parents and students at the commencement of the next academic year. It is sometimes said that third level education is the preserve of the middle class. That is no longer true, because I know of nobody in the middle class who will now be able to afford to send their child to third level education unless something is done to arrest these escalating costs.

Parents in the PAYE sector are forced year after year to borrow large sums of money from banks to pay the fees of their third level student children. As for children who come from what is loosely called working class families, the percentage attendance of such young people at third level is a scandal and an affront to those who support social justice. All the fine sentiments in the Programme for Government about increasing access to third level education are worthless in the light of what has happened in the meantime. I call on the Minister to take all appropriate steps open to her to ensure that no fee increase will be passed on to students, whether grant-aided or otherwise, at the commencement of the next academic year. I call on her to talk to the heads of universities and the people in the Higher Education Authority in that regard. If it involves using the new Structural Funds, what better way could they be used?

I call on the Minister also to instruct the National University of Ireland to abolish the 70 per cent registration fee as it is both unjustified and unfair. It is one more barrier to the possibility of less well off students advancing to university courses. I ask the Minister of State to convey my deep disappointment to the Minister at her failure to be present tonight. Week after week she has told us here that this matter is under review and that a body is deliberating on those matters. When will it publish its decisions? How much more anxiety will be visited on students, who have less than three weeks to go the commencement of their leaving certificate examinations and have enough to worry about without having additional financial worries inflicted on them?

I thank Deputy Quill for raising this matter and giving me the opportunity to respond. The fee increases for the 1993-94 academic year are currently the subject of consultations between the committee of heads of Irish universities and the Higher Education Authority and a meeting in that regard took place today. My Department will review the position in the light of the outcome of those consultations. I assure the Deputy that the Minister is mindful of the position and it is because of her concern that meetings are taking place.

In accordance with the Programme for Government, we are committed to widening access to third level education and, as the Minister accurately quoted what is contained in the programme in that regard, I will not repeat it.

The Government's approach to ensuring greater access to third level for students from disadvantaged backgrounds will encompass a number of strategies, including increasing retention up to the end of second level through curricular initiatives and the development of support services in schools — for example student counselling and guidance services — tackling out-of-school factors, particularly, through the development of home-school liaison in disadvantaged areas; further building on links between universities and second level schools in disadvantaged areas in collaboration with the institutions; and encouraging and supporting institutions in the development of access courses for students who require special assistance in making the transfer to third level.

The third level student support schemes are currently under review as part of the process of preparing the 1993 schemes. In this review all relevant matters, including income eligibility limits and the rates of grant payable, are being examined. In addition, and in pursuance of an overriding concern to examine the fairness and equity of student support schemes, the Minister for Education has set up a special expert advisory group on third level student support with a mandate to recommend appropriate criteria for assessment of eligibility on grounds of means, with reference to equity and the financial capacity of parents and applicants to pay, and to examine and make recommendations for the most effect and efficient organisational arrangements for the administration of the scheme. The group, which has invited submissions from all interested parties, is due to report in July 1993 and the Minister has undertaken to publish the group's report at that stage.

Will she act on it?

I assure the Deputy that she will. She has given that commitment. In the current year the total third level student support for fees and maintenance is more than £83 million compared to £75 million in 1992, a 12 per cent increase. The available figures indicate that more than 56 per cent of all students currently in third level are receiving some form of grant assistance.

In the case of the higher education grants scheme alone, as a result of the very significant package of improvements introduced last year there are now some 18,477 students in receipt of grants in the current academic year. This is a marked increase of some 21.5 per cent on the comparable figure, 15,211, for the 1991-92 academic year.