Written Answers. - Higher Education Grants.

Gerry Reynolds

Question:

842 Mr. G. Reynolds asked the Minister for Education and Science the reason a top-up third level grant has not been awarded to a person (details supplied) in County Sligo. [26727/01]

The report of the action group on access to third level education makes detailed recommendations concerning the introduction of special rates of maintenance grants for disadvantaged students. The group considered that the target group of "those most in need" could best be defined in terms of the child dependants of claimants of long-term welfare payments, in respect of whom continued child dependant allowance is being paid, by virtue of their being in full time education, that is, child dependants in the age group 18 to 22.

The group recommended that the special rates of maintenance grant should also be available to mature students, that is students aged 23 and over. In order to qualify for the special rate of maintenance grant candidates must meet the following conditions. He, or she, must qualify for one of my Department's ordinary maintenance grants and total reckonable income, in the tax year to 5 April 2001, must not exceed £7,400. In the case of independent mature applicants, as at 1 April 2001, the applicant's spouse or partner must be in receipt of one of the specified social welfare payments and be in receipt of full-rate qualified adult allowance, or similar entitlement, in respect of the applicant, or the applicant, him or herself, must be in receipt of one of the specified social welfare payments. In the case of all other applicants, as at 1 April 2001, the applicant's parent(s) or guardian(s) must be in receipt of one of the specified social welfare payments which includes child dependant allowance in respect of the applicant or one of the designated programmes.

The eligibility requirements for the special rates of maintenance grant will be reviewed on an ongoing basis with a view to extending eligibility. A first step will be to assess the coverage and effectiveness of the implementation of the special rates in this first year of operation. The three means tested maintenance grant schemes for third level students attending approved courses in approved third level institutions funded by my Department are the higher education grants scheme, the vocational education committees' scholarship scheme, and the third level maintenance grants scheme for trainees.

The statutory framework for the higher education grants schemes is set out in the Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Acts, 1968 to 1992. It is the local authorities which, on behalf of my Department, administer the schemes, which are reviewed annually by my Department. The vocational education committees' scholarship scheme and the third level maintenance grants scheme for trainees are administered, on behalf of my Department, by the vocational education committees. All three schemes have broadly similar provisions, relating, for example, to age, residency and means, which govern the award of a grant.
It is the relevant local authority or VEC to which application for a grant must be made. Decisions on applications are taken by these bodies based on the terms of the schemes which issue from my Department. These bodies do not refer individual applications to my Department except, in exceptional cases, where, for example, advice or instruction regarding a particular clause in the relevant scheme is desired. It appears that no such advice or instruction has, to date, been sought in the case of the student, referred to by the Deputy.
If an individual applicant considers that he or she has been unjustly refused a special rate of maintenance grant, he or she may appeal to the relevant local authority or VEC. Where an individual applicant has had an appeal turned down, in writing, by the relevant local authority or VEC, and remains of the view that the body has not interpreted the schemes correctly in his or her case, a letter outlining the position may be sent to my Department. Alternatively, as already indicated, the local authority or VEC may, itself, in exceptional circumstances, seek clarification on issues from my Department. However, it is not open to me, or my Department, to depart from the terms of the maintenance grants schemes in individual cases. Until such time as an application has been decided on by the relevant local authority or VEC, all inquiries regarding an individual application should be directed to the body concerned rather than to my Department.
Apart from the maintenance grants schemes and the free fees initiative, under which my Department meets the cost of tuition fees for eligible undergraduate students in approved institutions, financial support is also available to students, in approved third level institutions, through the student assistance/access fund. The objectives of the fund, which is ESF aided, are to assist students, in a sensitive and compassionate manner, who might otherwise, due to their financial circumstances, be unable to continue their third level studies. The fund is administered on a discretionary and confidential basis by each third level institution and provides direct financial support to disadvantaged students to assist them to remain on in college. I increased significantly the fund's provision from £1.296 million in 1999 to £1.964 million in 2000.