Adjournment Debate. - Higher Education Grants Scheme.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue. An innocent engineering student is being tragically victimised by a bureaucratic rules change in 1993 which took no heed of the hardship and educational deprivation is imposed. This student, whom the Minister knows, did the leaving certificate examination in 1992. He did not achieve the necessary two Cs, or honours, to qualify for higher education grants. He sat an entrance exam in UCG for admission to the engineering faculty and was granted a place in an engineering course which commenced in October 1992.

Because of the financial circumstances at home, he inquired from the higher education grants official of Galway County Council as to what he could do. He was advised that he could accept the place in the UCG engineering course, commence his studies there and at the same time repeat some subjects in the leaving certificate examinations in 1993. He was advised that if he obtained the required two Cs he could qualify for higher education grants for the academic year 1993-94. His father also contacted the Department of Education and received the same advice from the Minister for Education.

In her letter the Minister states:

I note that "K" intends to repeat four subjects in his leaving certificate 1993. If he secures the educational requirements in 1993 he should get in touch with Galway County Council in order that his eligibility for a grant may be examined under the 1993 scheme.

That is an extract from a letter signed by the Minister for Education, Deputy Bhreathnach, on 6 May 1993.

This student passed his first engineering examination and then sat the leaving certificate in the summer of 1993. He did four subjects achieving excellent results in his leaving certificate, one B and three Cs. He now had more than required to qualify for higher education grants. The leaving certificate results were notified to Galway County Council who paid him part of the higher education grant during the academic year 1993-94. However, he subsequently received word from the Department of Education that the grants were paid in error. The Department of Education's explanation was that although this student now complied with the terms of the higher education grants scheme as it applied up to 1992, the Minister, Deputy Bhreathnach, had altered the scheme. The terms of the new scheme precluded an award where the student "was not entering an approved course for the first time". In other words, if the student had not commenced his engineering studies in 1992, he would have qualified for full higher education grants in 1993.

This young man had made a superhuman effort. He studied into the early hours of the morning, gave up his free time and his sports pursuits to study for two difficult examinations in 1993 to qualify for these grants so that he could get the university education for which his parents could not afford to pay, bearing in mind that the fees for engineering at University College Galway are £2,300 per annum. All efforts to get the Minister to take an initiative in this case has failed so far. His parents have gone into debt to help him stay on in college. He should now be in his fourth and final year but, because of the Minister's disinterest and his parents' dire financial straits, he has had to abandon his university career and sign on for the dole.

I find the circumstances in this case quite appalling. The Minister acted in a callous, hard-hearted fashion. She is denying every precept of the socialist doctrine she publicly espouses. The Tánaiste, Deputy Spring, the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Higgins, and the Minister for Education Deputy Bhreathnach, all professing an interest in the unemployed, the disadvantaged and the poor in our society, stood idly by while this young man's education and future career withered and died because of the ill thought out, careless and callous alteration to the higher education grants scheme introduced by this Minister.

In raising this matter, I appeal to the Minister and her colleagues in Government to admit they have done this young man a grievious wrong. A retrospective alteration restoring the provisions of the 1992 scheme would enable this student to complete his studies and would not result in an avalanche of applications.

Why is it that in the so-called thorough examination of the case in the Department Galway County Council has never been contacted to inquire into the circumstances where this student was advised to commence his university studies in 1992 and to sit the leaving certificate examination in 1993? Why were the higher education grant payments made in 1993-94 but subsequently withdrawn?

Shame on any Government which would turn a deaf ear on a case such as this. The Minister should act now to ensure justice in this case.

The case to which the Deputy refers is one which has been the subject of a very thorough review by the Department of Education. The Deputy will be aware that it has been the subject of numerous representations both from public representatives and the student's parents. The case has also been the subject of a parliamentary question and a query from the Office of the Ombudsman.

The situation with regard to this student is that he sat his leaving certificate examination in 1992. However, the results obtained in that examination did not satisfy the academic attainments requirement of the 1992 higher education grants scheme.

The student accepted a place in University College Galway in 1992 and simultaneously studied for his leaving certificate which he sat in June 1993. He secured three honours in this examination——

Four honours.

——and applied to Galway County Council for a higher education grant under the 1993 higher education grants scheme. Galway County Council inadvertently awarded him a grant and paid him the first instalment of maintenance, £194. No fees were paid. Subsequently the student's father contacted Galway County Council with a view to having the fees which he had paid to UCG for the 1992-93 academic year refunded. When Galway County Council contacted the Department for permission to make this refund, it was informed that a grant should not have been awarded in this student's case as his application should have been assessed under the 1992 higher education grants scheme, the year in which he entered college.

Following numerous representations, the replies to which outlined the facts of the case, the student's father appealed the Department's decision to the Office of the Ombudsman.

The Ombudsman, in his reply of 25 October 1994, upheld the Department's decision. Since then this case has been the subject of more representations, the replies to which have reiterated the position. A parliamentary question on this case was also replied to on 4 October 1995.

With regard to the claim by the Deputy that the student in question had to abandon his successful studies, it is understood by the Department, following discussions with officials in UCG, that while this student is not attending lectures this year, he has in fact registered for the purpose of repeating his third year examinations in industrial engineering.

He is on the dole.

The Minister's letter of 6 May 1993, which is referred to in the Deputy's question merely advised that the students application might be examined under the terms of the 1993 higher education grants scheme. This could not be construed as a guarantee that a grant would be awarded, a point which was also upheld by the Ombudsman.

Shame on the Minister.