Adjournment Debate. - Higher Education Grant.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this important issue on the Adjournment. Although the matter I wish to discuss is crucial to a minority of students if it is allowed to remain unaltered it will bring disappointment and frustration to a growing number of students.

Some months ago a girl working in a bank in County Cavan applied for a mature student's grant to enable her to undertake a degree course at University College, Cork. To her delight she satisfied all the criteria and was awarded a grant under the higher education grants scheme for mature students. As the bank refused her application for a career break to enable her undertake her studies she resigned her position. To her consternation, and my amazement. she was subsequently told that she would qualify for a maintenace grant at the adjacent rate of £592 per annum only rather than the full rate of £1,486 per annum. As the Minister will be aware, the adjacent rate is payable to students living within 15 miles of the educational institution which the student is attending.

Cavan is definitely not within 15 miles of Cork but in interpreting clause 8 of the regulations relating to higher education grants a county council official decided that since this young lady would not be retaining her flat in Cavan for the duration of her studies, she would cease to be a permanent resident of County Cavan and hence would transfer the permanent address to Cork. She would, therefore, be living within 15 miles of UCC and was only entitled to the lower rate. The decision of Cavan County Council has been endorsed by the Department of Education and by the Minister.

The idea of mature student grants was introduced by my constituency colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Rourke. I have no doubt that she would vehemently object to this interpretation of the regulations. Most local authorities would be opposed to this decision and many interpret the regulations in a different fashion. This goes against the spirit of the scheme and will cause untold financial difficulty for mature students. The Minister is telling the student that she must maintain and pay for an empty flat in County Cavan to qualify for the full maintenance grant. If she can afford to do this then she does not need a grant. The Minister expects her to spend a year in college on a grant of £592 or perhaps she is expecting her to cycle daily to and from Cork with her jeans tucked into her socks.

Is the Minister for Education commited to the disadvantaged and to those who want to better themselves? If she cannot understand the ridiculous situation imposed on this student by bureaucracy gone mad, she does not understand the spirit in which the scheme was introduced or the difficulties facing mature students. I hope the Minister, will take the sensible reading of the regulations and allow this girl the full grant.

The Deputy is well aware that I am not in a position to deal with individual issues, notwithstanding the coherent and laudable way he outlined the matter. I congratulate him on the vehemence of his representations but the issue cannot be resolved by raising on the Adjournment the urgent need to review the regulations concerning the payment of adjacent or non-adjacent higher education grants to mature students.

It affords me, on behalf of the Minister for Education, the opportunity to clarify the position and to reiterate the continuing commitment of the Minister for Education to facilitating wider access to third level education for all students and to the continued improvement and reform of the third level student support schemes. In the 1993-94 academic year out of a total of 85,800 third level students over 52,000, that is over 60 per cent, were in receipt of grant aid from the Department. This compares with 44 per cent of third level students in receipt of grant aid in the 1983-84 academic year. Expenditure on third level grants has increased significantly in the past number of years with over £85 million being expended on the third level student support schemes in the 1993 financial year.

Since 1992 mature students are eligible for grant-aid under the student support schemes and are subject to the terms of the schemes as published.

There are four common rates of maintenance grant payable to all categories of higher education grant holders, whether dependent mature, independent mature or otherwise, viz: (i) full maintenance at the non-adjacent rate; (ii) full maintenance at the adjacent rate; (iii) part maintenance at the non-adjacent rate; (iv) part maintenance at the adjacent rate.

There is no distinction between the rates of maintenance grant payable to mature students and other students who are holders of higher education grants.

Whether a grant holder is eligible for full maintenance or part maintenance is determined by the means assessment operated in accordance with the higher education grants scheme. Under the terms of the scheme the adjacent rate of maintenance is payable in the case of every grant holder whose normal family residence is less than 15 miles from the college attended.

Cavan to Cork?

It is also payable in the case of any grant holder whose normal family residence is 15 miles or more from the college attended who could reasonably be expected, in the light of distance and the convenience of local public transport services, to travel daily. The non-adjacent rate of maintenance grant is payable in all other cases.

Under the terms of the 1994 higher education grants scheme the residency requirement is used as a basis to determine the local authority which will process the grant application. The relevant local authority may award, adjust or withdraw a grant in accordance with changes of circumstances relating to the following: (a) reckonable income which is likely to be permanent; (b) the number of dependent children or the number of children in full-time third level education; (c) normal residence.

Change in circumstances involving the normal family residence is not confined to mature students. If the normal residence changes from over 15 miles from college to within 15 miles the grant would be similarly adjusted downwards in the case of all student grant holders, mature or otherwise. This could also involve a family, for instance, moving from one local authority area to another, notwithstanding that the body who initially processed and awarded the grant would continue to pay the higher education grant.

Where independent mature students move their permanent address to within 15 miles of the college, it would not be possible in such cases to justify a higher level of entitlement than that of a fellow independent mature student already living within 15 miles of the college attended who would be in receipt of the adjacent rate of maintenance grant.

The Minister for Education has no plans to review the criteria relating to the adjacent and non-adjacent rate of maintenance grants. The question of interpretation is a matter that should be taken up with the local authority again.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.25 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 13 October 1994.