Written Answers. - Third Level Access.

Willie Penrose

Question:

127 Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Education and Science the total amount of money spent to date by his Department in implementing the recommendations made in the report of the action group on access to third level education; the recommendations implemented to date; if a timetable has been set for the implementation of the outstanding recommendations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26505/03]

Minister for Education and Science (Mr. Dempsey)

I refer the Deputy to my reply to Question No. 65 of 2 October 2003. The action group's report was published in July 2001.

Department expenditure on third level access measures since 2001 has been as follows:

2001 –€15.3 million

2002 –€23.98 million

2003 –€26 million (provision)

The most significant spending recommendation of the report of the action group on access to third level education 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 review early in 2002, I increased the annual income threshold for the special rates by 32%. For 2002-03, I also increased the special rate of grant to €4,000 for students residing more than 15 miles from college and to €1,600 for students residing within 15 miles of college. As a result of the review, it was expected that the number of students qualifying for the top-up grant in 2002-03 would double to 7,000 students. Recent figures show that this target was exceeded with approximately 8,000 students receiving the top-up grant in 2002-03.

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, administers the fund. The total allocation for the 2001-02 academic year was €1.2 million. For 2002-03, I increased the provision for the fund to €2 million. Allocations were made to 50 area partnerships and community groups in respect of the 2002-03 academic year. The provision of €2 million will continue to be made in respect of the fund for 2003.
The report of the action group on access to third level education set 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 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 given approval for the establishment of the national office for equity of access to higher education, within the Higher Education Authority. A number of senior staff have been recruited and I expect the office to be fully operational shortly. 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 achieving of targets for access to third level education over the period of the national development plan in relation to 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 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.
The Deputy will be aware of my announcement on 25 May 2003 of a new package of measures costing €42 million in a full year to further address and ameliorate the problems facing students from low to moderate income households in accessing third level education. This package combines substantial improvements in the level and coverage of the maintenance grant for those on low to moderate incomes, with increases in the level of top-up grant for those who are most disadvantaged. I believe that this substantial package of measures will provide the opportunity in an unprecedented manner for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve their full potential in education.