New measures have been introduced specifically aimed at increasing access to third level education. There is a provision within the national development plan for a third level access fund totalling €120 million, over the period 2000 to 2006, to tackle disadvantage at third level. The provision for measures to promote access to further and higher education has increased significantly from €0.5 million in respect of 1997 to €26 million in 2002.
In line with a commitment under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, my predecessor, Deputy Woods, established the Action Group on Access to Third Level Education to advise on the development of a co-ordinated strategy to increase participation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, mature students and students with a disability at third level. The action group's report was published in July 2001. To date a number of measures have been taken in response to some of the main recommendations in the report:
Special rates of maintenance grant, usually referred to as "top-up" grants, payable to disadvantaged grant holders, have been introduced with effect from the 2000-01 academic year, with the full rate of the special grant amounting to €3,809. A review of the operation of the special grants has been undertaken by my Department, in light of the initial take-up and with a view to extending eligibility.
A new millennium partnership fund for disadvantage was introduced with effect from 2001. The fund provides assistance to partnership companies and community groups to develop their support schemes for students from disadvantaged families. Area Development Management (ADM) Limited under whose aegis the partnerships operate, accepted my Department's request that it would administer the fund for the 2001-02 academic year. The total allocation for the 2001-02 academic year was €1.2 million, with 37 partnerships and community groups receiving allocations from the Fund. Ballyfermot Partnership received €44,440 from this fund towards its support schemes for students. My Department is at present considering a report from ADM on the operation of the fund during 2001-02.
Financial support is also available to students, in approved third level institutions, through the Student Assistance-Access Fund. The objective of the fund, which is ESF-aided, is to assist students who might, due to their financial circumstances, be unable to continue their third level studies. The fund is administered on a discretionary basis by each third level institution and provides direct financial support to disadvantaged students to assist them to remain on in college. The provision for this fund has increased significantly from €2.49 million in respect of the 2000-01 academic year to €7.49 million in respect of the 2001-02 academic year.