Written Answers. - Fee Paying Schools.

Seán Ryan

Question:

48 Mr. S. Ryan asked the Minister for Education and Science his views on a number of recent surveys showing that students who attend fee paying secondary schools are more likely to go to university than those from other schools; the steps he intends to take to ensure more equal access to universities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21738/02]

I am aware of the recent surveys, which highlighted that students who attend fee paying secondary schools are more likely to go to university than those from other schools. It is not surprising that the surveys would confirm this trend.

One of the outcomes of the free fees initiative appears to be the notable increase in the popularity of fee paying secondary schools, with well off parents now diverting disposable income from an investment in their children's third level education to investment in a more privileged second level education.

However, the challenge I face as Minister for Education and Science is to encourage and support an increased uptake of third level courses by students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who might otherwise not consider such options.

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.

To date a number of measures have been taken in response to some of the main recommendations in the report, including special rates of maintenance grant, usually referred to as top-up grants, payable to disadvantaged grant holders, were introduced with 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. 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. The total allocation for the 2001-2002 academic year was €1.2 million. For 2002-03, I have increased the provision for the fund to €2 million.
Financial support is also available to students, in approved third level institutions, through the student assistance-access fund. The objective of the fund is to assist students who might, due to their financial circumstances, be unable to continue their third level studies.
A key recommendation of the Action Group on Access to Third Level Education 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 now given approval for the establishment of this national office, 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.