Written Answers. - Third Level Education.

Olwyn Enright

Question:

10 Ms Enright asked the Minister for Education and Science when he intends to fully implement the report of the action group on access to third level education. [21723/02]

Róisín Shortall

Question:

25 Ms Shortall asked the Minister for Education and Science the recommendations made in the report of the action group on access to third level education that have been implemented; the recommendations which have still to implemented; if a timetable has been set for the implementation of the outstanding recommendations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21744/02]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 25 together.

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. 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.

Responsibility for implementation of many of these recommendations lies with my Department. Some recommendations require action on the part of other Departments. On a wider level, the recommendations call for action on the part of third level institutions, schools and community and voluntary groups.

To date a number of measures have been taken by my Department in response to some of the main recommendations in the report. The most significant spending recommendation of that group concerned the introduction of special rates of maintenance grants for disadvantaged students, commonly referred to as top-up grants. These recommendations were introduced, with retrospective effect, from the 2000-01 academic year.

Following a recent review, I increased the annual income threshold for the special rates by 32%, a significant increase. For 2002-03, I also increased the special rate of grant to €4,000 for students residing more than 15 miles from college and €1,600 for students resident within 15 miles of college. This is equivalent to a "top-up" of €1,490 and €596, respectively, for eligible students on the ordinary maintenance grant. As a result of the review, it is expected that the number of students qualifying for the "top-up" grant in 2002-03 will double to 7,000 students.

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. For 2002-03, I have increased the provision for the fund to €2 million. ADM Limited, which is continuing to administer the fund, has notified 50 area partnerships and community groups of their allocations in respect of the 2002-03 academic year.
The report of the action group on access to third level education sets out a co-ordinated framework of actions required to improve equity of access to third level. The group considered that a single co-ordinating body was essential in order to realise the framework. Accordingly, a key recommendation of the group was that a national office for equity of access to higher education be established to ensure the effective implementation of many of the recommendations in the report.
I have, within the past week, informed the House that I have given approval for the establishment of the national office for equity of access to higher education, within the Higher Education Authority. I anticipate that the national office will facilitate the aim of increasing third level access by the three target groups, in partnership with my Department, the third level institutions and other stakeholders and agencies.
Some of the action group's recommendations relate to the achievement of specific targets for access to third level education, over the period of the national development plan, by students from disadvantaged backgrounds, mature students and students with a disability.
I am committed to progressing these, and other, recommendations in the report of the action group on access to third level education and to ensuring that the issue of equity of access to third level education remains a priority during my tenure of office as Minister for Education and Science.