Written Answers. - Education Programmes.

Jack Wall

Question:

445 Mr. Wall asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the expected savings from the changes made to the back to education scheme in regard to potential applicants seeking to complete a master's degree, fourth year; the number of persons who received funding for such courses in each of the past three years; if her attention has been drawn to the major disappointment these changes have made to potential applicants; if her Department will reconsider the changes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [10753/03]

Jim O'Keeffe

Question:

453 Mr. J. O'Keeffe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if income earned from work during the summer months by college students will have an impact on the subsequent entitlements of those in receipt of the back to education scheme payments. [11047/03]

Jim O'Keeffe

Question:

454 Mr. J. O'Keeffe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if college students now in benefit under the back to education scheme will be able during the summer months to apply for and obtain unemployment assistance or other social welfare benefit payable prior to entering into the scheme. [11048/03]

Jim O'Keeffe

Question:

455 Mr. J. O'Keeffe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if secondary benefits available to those in receipt of payments under the back to education scheme will continue to be payable or available to them over the summer months. [11049/03]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 445 and 453 to 455, inclusive, together.

The back to education allowance scheme is a second chance educational scheme designed to assist unemployed people and other disadvantaged groups who are being held back in their search for employment by a lack of qualifications. A review of the basic purpose underlying my Department's back to education provisions was carried out recently. In the light of this and of the expenditure constraints facing us this year, the scheme has been revised.

Regarding changes in the scheme as it relates to post graduates, I am satisfied that people in possession of a third level qualification have already achieved a good level of academic attainment, which should impact positively on their employment prospects. In a time of financial constraint I want to ensure that supports are directed to those with more pressing needs. I have, however, instructed my officials to liaise with the relevant bodies to identify specific postgraduate courses, such as the Higher Diploma in Education, which add significantly to a person's employability and to which the back to education allowance should continue to apply. I expect these courses to be identified in the near future.

At present there are 639 postgraduate students participating on the back to education scheme. There were 544 in the 2001-02 academic year and 524 in 2000-01 year. It is estimated that to exclude all persons in this category from the scheme would realise savings of between €3.5 million and €4 million annually.

In framing proposals to change elements of the BTEA scheme I was conscious of the need to ensure that payments were focused on those who most need training or qualifications to gain a foothold in the labour market. In line with this aim payments under the scheme for the summer period have been discontinued, as people who had been previously unemployed often find work opportunities either at home or abroad during the summer months. Under social welfare legislation a BTEA participant may be entitled to an unemployment payment for the summer term vacation, subject to satisfying all the usual conditions for receipt of an unemployment payment. All such BTEA participants must be capable of work, available for work and genuinely seeking work, in the same way as all other applicants for such payments. Furthermore, BTEA participants who are progressing to the next year of their course or who are moving on to another course will have their BTEA reinstated from the beginning of the new academic year, irrespective of whether they found work or claimed an unemployment payment during the summer.
People who sign on for an unemployment payment for the summer months may qualify for rent supplement on the same basis as other social welfare recipients. Additional income from part-time employment may affect the amount of supplement in payment. The rent supplement means test allows for a weekly income disregard of up to €50 in respect of additional income from part-time employment i.e. less than 30 hours per week. However, additional income in excess of €50 will reduce the amount of rent supplement payable. People who take up full-time employment i.e. 30 hours or more per week are excluded by legislation from receiving assistance under the terms of the SWA scheme.
I am satisfied that the new arrangements will ensure that the back to education scheme continues to provide support to those people who are most distant from the labour market and whose need is greatest.