Student Support Bill 2008: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Tá an-áthas agam an Bille seo a chur os comhair an Tí. The purpose of this legislation is to provide for the making of student grants to enable students to attend higher and further education courses. The principal objective of the Bill is to create a more coherent system for the administration of these grants, which will facilitate consistency of application and improved client accessibility. In brief, it will enable the development of an awards system that can deliver grants on time to those who need them most.

The Bill provides the basis for more streamlined administrative procedures for the management of the student grant awarding process, following through on the commitment in the last programme for Government that the payment of maintenance grants would be provided for through a unified grants payment scheme.

This Bill is essentially enabling legislation. It provides for the structures around which an efficient and customer-friendly student grants process can be built, as well as providing the general basis on which students will, in future, be eligible for a grant to attend courses of higher and further education.

The Bill is the cornerstone of a broader programme of legislative and administrative reform of student grants currently being undertaken by the Department of Education and Science. In the first major modernisation of the grant schemes in this country since the introduction of the Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Act in 1968, this Bill paves the way for more modern and efficient arrangements, ensuring that students who apply for a grant will have their applications considered within an appropriate timeframe and that those students who are deemed eligible for support will receive payment in an efficient and timely manner. The needs of students and their parents have been central to my Department's consideration in drafting this legislation.

The Bill is the foundation stone for increased clarity, certainty and accessibility for students, their parents and for educational institutions. It will support my overall objective of introducing service level improvements in the administration of the student grant schemes. These will include guaranteed timeframes for more timely payment of grants and more efficient arrangements for handling applications and making payments.

The publication of this Bill marks an important milestone in this process and will make a significant contribution to promoting greater equity of access to participation in further and higher education. The student grant schemes are a central plank of our national strategy for equity of access to further and higher education and are currently supporting more than 56,000 students who attend further and higher education. Eligible students who are attending approved full-time third level courses or approved post leaving certificate courses and who satisfy the prescribed conditions of the schemes with regard to age, residence, nationality, means and previous academic attainment are awarded grants.

Student grants represent an important strategic investment in people, enabling individuals to achieve their full potential and thereby support a socially inclusive society, which enables us to substantially increase the pool of highly skilled and qualified graduates that this country needs to maintain its competitiveness and sustain its economic success.

Major improvements have been made by the Government in both the income limits for eligibility and the actual grant levels for third level student support. This includes the introduction of the special rate of maintenance grant. For the current academic year 2007-08 the reckonable income limits for ordinary maintenance grants was increased by 3.5%. This increase exceeds the increase in the average industrial wage for the September to September reference period. The top limit for grant eligibility where there are less than four dependent children has been increased from €46,700 to €48,355, ensuring that a significantly higher number of students from households with moderate incomes will not have to pay the student service charge of €825. In addition, more than 13,300 students in receipt of the special rate of maintenance grant are benefiting from an even more substantial increase of over 14%. The higher rate of this grant is now at a record level of €6,690 for the 2007-08 academic year, compared with just over €2,000 in 1996-97.

Financial barriers have long being recognised as a major disincentive for many students who wish to access third level education. The significant increases in the ordinary rate of maintenance grant over recent years have made the third level option more affordable for a broad range of students and their families. In approving even higher increases in the special rate of maintenance grant, we continue to further target that support at those most in need to encourage access to further and higher education for everyone.

The ESF-aided student assistance fund, the fund for students with disabilities and the millennium partnership fund provide additional supports to students and have also contributed to greater levels of participation, as well as supporting retention in further and higher education. In addition, the funding provided to institutions for access through core funding and, in recent times, through the strategic innovation fund, continue to support participation, retention and completion of studies by those groups who heretofore were under-represented at third level.

The establishment of a dedicated office, the national office for equity of access to higher education, within the Higher Education Authority, HEA, was an important development in this area, giving it the profile it deserves. This office, together with the access and disability officers in the third level institutions, local partnerships, community groups and student grant-awarding authorities, plays a vital role in ensuring the widest possible participation in further and higher education.

The key objective of further and third level access programmes and initiatives is to encourage more young people and adults from disadvantaged schools and areas, mature students and students with disabilities to continue or re-engage with education. However, research has shown in recent years that there can be knowledge deficits for many students, prospective students and their families regarding the maintenance grant schemes and associated financial support programmes. My Department has undertaken a number of initiatives in recent years to raise awareness about student support. I recently launched the www.studentfinance.ie website, a comprehensive, user-friendly guide to student grants and supports in further and higher education. The website, which is funded by my Department, is an initiative of the national access office of the HEA and provides information on the full range of student supports, including maintenance grants, the fund for students with disabilities, the back to education allowance and the student assistance fund. This website, together with my plans to reform student grants, should make the financial support schemes more accessible to students and their parents.

The Government's continued commitment to supporting high rates of participation in third level education at all levels of society will ensure that Ireland continues to attract and maintain investment in high quality jobs and that the fruits of the economy can be enjoyed by all.

Recent years have seen a remarkable improvement in the widening of participation, particularly at third level. If we compare the educational profile of today's graduates to that of their grandparents, among the older generation, half of the population finished their education at primary level and two thirds had finished by intermediate certificate. Only one in three completed the leaving certificate and as few as one in ten progressed to higher education.

The introduction of free second level education by my predecessor, Deputy Donogh O'Malley, in 1967 unlocked a huge appetite for learning within the Irish population and by the 1990s, the number of leaving certificate candidates had quadrupled. This rapid expansion of second level opportunities was followed up with substantial investment in the development and expansion of higher education.

The very substantial increase in the number of places at third level in the past 20 years was one of the critical cornerstones of our overall national economic strategy. The availability and supply of substantial numbers of highly qualified graduates contributed significantly to Ireland's much improved economic circumstances. This steady expansion in higher education opportunities is clearly reflected in the improving educational profile of our population over recent decades. Full-time enrolments have grown from under 41,000 in 1980 to almost 140,000 today. The entry rate to higher education has grown from 20% of 17 to 18 year olds in 1980 to a current rate of approximately 55%.

The national development plan acknowledges that student grants are a major factor in encouraging these record levels of participation in higher education and, on that basis, encourages the development of a quality, user-friendly application and payment service for student grants.

In planning the development of this important programme of legislative and administrative reform, my Department engaged in extensive consultations with key stakeholders. These included the Union of Students in Ireland, the National Parents Council, the Irish Vocational Education Association, the County and City Managers Association, various social partners and Departments. These consultations provided a basis for the development of the most logical and effective arrangements for the future structure and administration of the student grant schemes.

The existing arrangements for administration of the grant schemes reflect the incremental and sector-based growth of higher and further education in Ireland. Provision for local council-based scholarships goes back to the Irish Universities Act 1908, while the VEC-based schemes reflect the subsequent evolution of the technological and post-leaving certificate sectors.

The case has been made for reform of the student grants system over a number of years. In 2003, my Department published Supporting Equity of Access to Higher Education, which argued that the system needed to be overhauled because, due to the multiplicity of agents involved, it had become administratively inefficient and open to abuse. It concluded that the system led to customer confusion and inconsistency of application, resulting regularly in the late payment of grants.

The Bill provides a single statutory basis for all student grants, facilitating the development of a unified system of student support that will consolidate the four schemes for students attending both higher education and post leaving certificate courses into one simplified scheme. The Bill gives effect to my decision to give sole responsibility for the administration of student grants to the VEC sector by designating the 33 VECs as the awarding authorities. This will have the effect of halving the number of grant awarding authorities from 66 to 33. The unification of the existing four schemes and the consolidation of the administration within the VEC sector will significantly simplify the range of different grants and awarding authorities with which students must negotiate to apply for a grant. At the same time, it will maintain a county-based approach through the network of VEC offices at local level.

Experience has shown that students and parents benefit significantly from one-to-one assistance, particularly where they have difficulty completing application forms and securing the necessary supporting documentation. While we aim to move progressively towards an on-line applications facility, the accessibility and support provided by staff in local VEC offices will continue to underpin equity of access to higher education.

Given the need for efficiency of service and for consistency of delivery across all 33 VECs, I am pleased to say that the sector is actively engaging with my Department in developing corporate responses to particular areas of service provision, including computer systems development. The VEC sector brings with it a distinct and rich educational tradition and a valuable experience in administering three of the four existing student grant schemes. I am confident that the Bill will provide a sound basis on which it can ensure the efficient delivery of a fair and equitable grants system.

The local authority sector, which has played a critical role over the years in giving thousands of young people the opportunity to pursue higher education through the higher education grants scheme, will continue to play an essential part during a transition period for those students in receipt of grants under the scheme. While section 7 of the Bill will repeal the Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Acts, it provides for the continuation of grants awarded under the existing schemes until the grant holders have completed their current courses of study.

The Bill provides for the funding of awarding authorities and sets out the functions of the VECs in this regard. The Bill also provides the VECs with the necessary legislative framework to enable them to carry out their functions in an effective manner and to ensure that the appropriate mechanisms are in place to ensure that student grants go to those who need them, as well as providing for a robustness in the system to guard against fraudulent claims.

The Bill provides for periodic audits and inspections of awarding authorities to ensure that they are carrying out their functions effectively. It also provides the power to transfer the functions of an awarding authority in circumstances where a VEC is not performing its duties in an effective and appropriate manner. The Bill provides for the making of regulations in respect of applications, which will include requirements to give notice of decisions within a prescribed period. This will increase clarity, accessibility and certainty for students and support measurable service level improvements in the administration of the grants. This will enable guaranteed timeframes for the earlier payment of grants and more efficient arrangements for handling applications and making payments.

To protect the taxpayer and students whose need is genuine and who qualify for the grant, the Bill proposes a strengthening of the process whereby fraudulent claims can now be vigorously pursued by awarding authorities. It will give them a specific power of inquiry that provides a firm basis to pursue those who have provided false or incomplete information to qualify for a grant. It also provides for substantial offences and penalties and enables the recovery of debt in such circumstances.

Given the important data protection issues inherent in a system that requires means testing of applicants, the Bill provides for the sharing of personal information on a specific basis to verify details supplied as part of the application process and related matters. The Bill also sets out certain responsibilities for students and their parents or spouses. It requires applications to be made within specified timeframes. It provides that the awarding authority may require applicants to produce evidence and information in a form acceptable to the awarding authority in order to enable it to make a decision on a grant. The Bill imposes a duty on applicants to notify an awarding authority of a change in circumstances and provides the awarding authority with the power to seek such information as it considers appropriate for the purposes of establishing whether a student remains eligible for a grant.

My Department is actively engaged with the VEC sector through a number of technical working groups with a view to streamlining the application process. The aim is to make the process more user friendly and easier to understand, enabling applicants to meet their obligations to facilitate prompt processing of their grant applications.

Section 8 sets out a number of educational institutions that are deemed to be approved institutions for the purposes of the grant scheme. It deems publicly funded institutions outside the State, but within the EU, to be approved institutions. It allows the Minister to prescribe higher education institutions within the State to be approved institutions and sets out a number of matters the Minister will have regard to in making such a determination, including the availability of resources. The Bill empowers the Minister, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, to prescribe additional third level institutions in the State, subject to principles and policies set down in the Bill. While these principles and policies do not necessarily preclude consideration of private commercial colleges, it is not envisaged at this point that the schemes will be extended to such institutions.

Section 9 provides that, for a course to be deemed an approved course, it must be full-time and take place in an approved institution. The Bill sets out the matters to which the Minister shall have regard for the purposes of prescribing a course, including the nature and level of the qualification to be awarded to the student on completion of the course, the educational institution that provides the course and whether it leads to a higher education and training award or a further education and training award. Included in the factors that can be considered in making a decision to approve a course is whether it is recognised through the national framework of qualifications. This will support the principle of progression and encourage institutions to have adequate recognition procedures in place.

While the Bill limits the approval of postgraduate courses to courses within the State, it enables me to maintain the existing supports for postgraduate students studying in Northern Ireland where I am satisfied that this is necessary and has regard to the relevant purposes set out in the Bill.

In setting out the general residence requirement for a maintenance grant, the Bill will provide for a more demanding residence requirement within the State of three out of the past five years. The current residence requirement is one year. This significant increase is designed to ensure that those applying for a maintenance grant will have a more established linkage with and integration into the State, a concept recognised in EU law. The increase in the residence requirement is also designed to obviate the risk of "grant tourism". Ireland's current one-year residence requirement is one of the most liberal in Europe. University courses provided in English are particularly attractive and our near neighbours in England, Scotland and the North impose a three-year residence requirement.

In addition, the residence requirement will now need to be met by students in all cases. Currently in the case of dependent students, only the parents are required to meet the residence requirement. This requirement provides a reasonable approach, requiring the student to demonstrate a genuine link or degree of integration into Irish society in order to qualify for assistance for maintenance costs. However, the requirement for three of the past five years takes cognisance of students who may wish to take time out to travel or work outside the State. These students can still meet the residency requirement if they have not been outside the State for more than two years, allowing a reasonable degree of flexibility. The Bill provides for temporary absences for the purposes of study or postgraduate research in the EU in certain circumstances.

The new arrangements will simplify matters for students who change addresses within the State. Deputies will be aware that the requirement for prior residence in the administrative area of an awarding authority has given rise to much confusion. It has resulted in a cumbersome process of transferring application forms between awarding authorities, losing valuable processing time. This situation will be alleviated in the new arrangement.

The Bill also sets out the nationality requirements that students must meet in order to qualify for a grant. It sets out certain categories of persons who are entitled to benefit from student grants, subject to the other terms and conditions of the schemes. It provides the Minister with the power to prescribe other categories of non-nationals that will be eligible for student support.

The Bill provides for the establishment of a scheme of grants that will be set out by the Minister by way of regulation, with the consent of the Minister for Finance. The regulations for the scheme will govern the classes of grants, the categories of applicants and a range of eligibility criteria, including income.

The Bill provides for the making of regulations for different categories of student, enabling the continuation of the recognition currently given to mature students. It also provides for the making of regulations in relation to independent students. This will enable me to address in regulations, if resources permit and if there are compelling reasons for doing so, the current situation whereby all students who are under 23 years of age must be assessed with reference to their parents' income, although they may have been living independently, have their own spouse or families and have been self-supporting for a number of years.

Deputies will be aware that a significant number of third level students move out of their homes to go to college and continue to be supported by their parents. The purpose of the student grant schemes is to provide additional assistance where parental income is below a certain threshold or, in the case of independent mature students, where the level of income of the student and his or her spouse warrants additional assistance by way of a grant.

Therefore, any extension of the provision of assessment as an independent student will have to be carefully considered to ensure it is highly targeted to very specific circumstances where students can demonstrate that they have been genuinely self-supporting and living independently for a number of years. The Deputies will appreciate that it would be untenable to have a situation whereby all students could simply move out of their parental homes and be deemed to be independent for grants purposes. This would have very significant implications for the student grants budget and would further disadvantage those who need the grant most.

The Bill breaks new ground in providing for the introduction of an independent appeals board. This will bring greater transparency into the grant-awarding process and provide students, for the first time, with a formal and independent avenue of appeal. The Bill also provides for an internal appeal in the first instance within the VEC and sets out maximum timeframes within which appeals must be processed.

The Bill further affirms and supports the Government's policy to increase access to further and higher education for under represented groups by requiring the preparation and implementation of access plans and equality policies in approved institutions in the State, where these plans and policies are not already required under other legislation.

Given the extent and importance of the student grant schemes, it is vital to ensure that the transition to a new unified scheme and system of administration is carefully planned and executed to ensure that the receipt of over €240 million in grants by over 56,000 students is not compromised or unduly delayed. Obviously, the changes in the eligibility requirements and the new administrative arrangements will only apply to new entrants to the grant scheme following the commencement of the Act.

It is currently estimated that commencement may allow for the new scheme to come into operation for the 2009-2010 academic year. However, my primary objective is to ensure that the transition is properly effected with the minimum of disruption for students. The Department is currently developing an overall project implementation plan in consultation with the stakeholders.

In order to ensure adequate notice to potential applicants, my officials will be working with the National Office for Equity of Access to Higher Education, at national level, and with the VECs, at local level, to develop a targeted information campaign that will be rolled out with the introduction of the new scheme.

I want to ensure a smooth transition to the new arrangements and, in this regard, I intend to continue the existing arrangements for the 2008-2009 academic year. This will involve the continued co-operation of the local authorities in processing applications under the higher education grants scheme. It will also allow some time for the development of the necessary infrastructure in the VEC sector with a view to implementing a fully integrated scheme under the Act in the following year without significant disruption to students.

Although 2008 and 2009 will be a transition period in which the existing arrangements will continue to apply, I hope to be in a position very shortly to announce more immediate service level improvements by publishing the student grant schemes for the coming academic year some months ahead of their publication in previous years. I am pleased to advise that the application forms for the 2008-2009 academic year are available on the Department's website for information purposes and hard copies will be available in local authorities and VECs within the next week.

My core objective in implementing change is to enable improvements in the services provided to the 56,000 students in receipt of grants and to those potential students, currently at second level or mature students, who are considering their future options. I know the Deputies will agree with me regarding the very positive aspects of this Bill and I look forward to listening to the views of the Members of the House and debating the various provisions of the Bill.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Members on this side of the House welcome the publication of this Bill, although it is fair to say it has been a long time in the offing. By my account, 17 specific promises relating to this publication were given by the Minister in advance of the last general election and there was an expectation that, had the Bill been enacted earlier, the new measures the Minister is proposing could have applied to this academic year. She has now confirmed to the House that there is, effectively, no chance that these new arrangements will be in place until the 2009-2010 academic year, at the earliest, and this is a great pity. The real losers are students.

I am a member of the Joint Committee on Education and Science and I will ask, before we approach Committee Stage, that it take hearings from all of the interested parties the Minister has met. I appreciate the fact that she has held these consultations but I think such hearings would be useful, for the committee, to ensure we are all in agreement. This will be our only chance to get this matter right for the years ahead so it is right and proper that the views of all interested bodies, including student bodies and so on, be on the record. They should submit their views to the committee in advance of Committee Stage to let us know if deficiencies exist in the Bill and whether certain amendments will be needed. This Bill is long overdue but we have an opportunity to make it work.

The current system is shambolic because, as the Minister rightly told the House, there are four separate schemes operated by 66 different bodies, which makes a mockery of the system. I was interested to read comments made last year by Aontas asserting that 24% of the complaints it received related to adult learners trying to access information and clarity on grants. A great deal of work needs to be done to streamline this process, make it clearer for all and ensure that responsibility to deliver the new grants structure in an open and transparent way rests with the VEC sector.

Applying for a student's grant is a notorious form-filling exercise and one would need an award in solving Rubik's cubes to understand all aspects of the area. Parents and students have found the constant filling of forms to be a real issue in recent years because one would need a PhD to understand them in some cases. I understand that these schemes are income related and that there must be accuracy in this regard, but we must streamline the process and this starts with the publication of this Bill.

A big problem facing students is the late payment of the third level maintenance grant, although the Minister is not at fault in this respect. That a student can receive payment of a grant three months after applying for it with his or her local authority is completely unacceptable. Many such students are in poor financial straits and should not receive such service. I was glad to hear the Minister say she will publish service level agreements so we will know exactly where we stand and the responsibilities of the new bodies that will make these payments.

It is fair to say there has been an attitude abroad that anything will do for students — they were seen as the last part of dealing with customers in terms of a local authority. That has to change. People should not underestimate the importance of these grants, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds. These grants are the reason many of those students can go to and sustain themselves in college. It is fair to say that in recent years there has been an improvement in the total amount allocated to student participation and to student support in college. However, we must do more because our grants are very low in comparison to other EU countries and it is a matter to which students regularly allude.

I will give some examples of the difficulties students face in trying to access existing grants. In the course of her contribution, the Minister put one on the record. There is the nonsensical idea that if one is 23 years of age, one is ultimately a dependant of one's mother and father, despite the fact that one could have a child or two or be in employment. This appears absolutely ridiculous to many young parents who want to access and remain in college, yet they are viewed solely as a dependant in terms of their parents' income. I welcome what the Minister said about that today, that there is greater flexibility in the Bill to deal with that issue, because this matter needs to be addressed.

A great scandal is the case I came across in my constituency only the other evening. A young student in first year in UCD has just got a bill for €6,500 because his parents have come to Ireland but have not been granted leave to remain. That student is not an Irish citizen. While the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is attempting to resolve his status here and the status of his parents, we will not recognise the payment of tuition fees to that student and so he is being lumbered with a bill for €6,500 that he and his family will have to pay, plus the fact that he cannot obtain a third level grant through the maintenance grants structure. That issue needs to be addressed in the Bill.

If an Irish student is effectively having his or her residency determined over a long period, he or she goes through post-primary education, is here for a number of years and ends up in college. At the very least we should be able to deliver for that student the same support and fees enjoyed by everyone else. I do not blame the Department of Education and Science because the problem lies with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and its failure to rectify the situation for that particular student. Such cases are becoming a real issue. Some of the brightest young people here are going to college and finding their path to education frustrated by the failure of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to regularise their situation and that of their parents. Ultimately, the Department of Education and Science has to pick it up.

Desperate poverty traps exist within the system of top-up grants for adult learners, a situation that was brought to my attention and that of Deputy Quinn at a recent Aontas conference. A student who went back to college could not get the top-up grant because he was working in the previous year. However, had that same individual been unemployed, or left work, he would have been entitled to a top-up grant. The whole system is chaotic and riddled by the type of poverty traps many of us know from the social welfare system that need to be rectified, if not in this Bill, certainly in a codified way in terms of dealing with social welfare and the Department of Education and Science.

I welcome the fact that we are moving to the 30 or so separate bodies, the VECs, which will deliver the third level maintenance grant and the other three grants to which the Minister referred. It is crucially important that we get consistency across the VEC sector. That is why I welcome the fact that the Minister will soon publish the service level agreements. It is important there is a unified system and that it is enforced consistently across every VEC. I do not want one VEC taking a progressive position and others refusing to implement the spirit of the law. When the Act is in place, following improvements on Committee and Report Stages, it is crucial that the House and the Department are prepared to monitor performance to ensure that consistency.

The VEC sector has experience and personnel to deal with such issues. It deals with a whole range of educational issues from post-primary education to adult education, and soon primary education in the context of the Minister's new announcements in Dublin. The VECs have a range of experience which will help them. Will the Minister say whether it is the intention of the VEC to employ new staff, because these will be vastly increased units, or will existing staff from local authorities move to the VECs to take up the new positions?

That is two hopes.

Bob Hope is one of them. What is the position? The Minister needs to put that on the record because we will be asking the VECs to take up the cudgel and enforce the new grants, but will we give them the funding required to deal with delivering the letter and the spirit of the Bill?

I welcome the fact that the Minister is proposing an independent appeals board. This is a matter that can be teased out on Committee Stage. We need student involvement on those appeal boards. If there are to be local appeal boards in place and if they have to adjudicate on applications which are grey, it is crucial that students, through the Union of Students in Ireland, be part and parcel of that process because they bring a perspective and an urgency that does not exist. If the Minister is modelling the new appeals system on, say, the social welfare appeals system, I would hope there would be clear commitments within the appeal boards on the minimum period within which each individual application would have to be determined. That is really important.

One section of the Bill deals with access plans by colleges. This is one area where colleges have done very little in terms of encouraging children from disadvantaged backgrounds into college. There is no consistency in this regard. Some of the most prominent third level institutions have given scant regard to access plans as a means of encouraging and helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds into college and higher education. We should almost make it conditional for funding from the State that the third level sector and specifically colleges within that sector would have much higher regard for access plans for students in that area. That is an issue to which we need to return.

I have said on numerous occasions since I got this job that one of the great scandals is that if one is of an age where one leaves school and does not go on to higher education, but takes up particular jobs in the labour force, and one decides at some stage in the future to go to college, barriers are put in one's way. There is no policy for helping those who want to go to third level. I have long held the view that every citizen in the Republic should have at his or her disposal an opportunity to access higher level education at any time in their life, be they 20, 40 or 60. We have to get away from the notion that education is for people between five and 21 years of age. If one does not fit into that category at present, barriers are put in one's way. As I said recently at the Aontas conference, it is crucial that we are prepared to make that shift in policy to introduce, effectively, an education credit for every citizen that they can tap into and use at some point in their life if the opportunity exists.

It is also fair to say that the student support system we have in place makes a huge difference to whether people stay in college. The Minister is aware of the dropout rate that exists within colleges — I have heard her mention it on numerous occasions. One of the ways to address the issue is by having proper supports and financial packages within the system to encourage students to remain in college.

The Minister is correct when she suggests one of the key drivers of our economy in the past 15 years or so has been the increased participation rates in higher level education, in which we should all take great pride. She is also correct in stating there has been an increase in participation in all of the income groups. However, the kernel is that among lower income groups and disadvantaged sections of our society we still have not seen that modal shift in terms of providing increasing access and participation in college, a matter to which we must return. The number of people going to college is increasing exponentially, which is fantastic, but the growth rate is among middle and higher income earners, not among people from lower income backgrounds. One of the ways we can deal with this issue is through proper student support. Until we do so, we will not have reached the potential that exists for everyone in this society.

Student support is one of the ways to achieve this but the other aspect is a mentoring programme and actual help. One of the sorriest cases I dealt with in my constituency clinic involved a young lady from a very difficult part of the constituency, who told me the reason she was dropping out of college was not related to money or support or fees, but to the fact that her friends had begun to ignore her because they were not in college and she was. One of the great ways to encourage people to go to college and remain there is not just through family expectation, but through peer group expectation and a support system for students, which is often as important as the financial supports we put in place. We must proof every proposal, idea and decision we make with regard to third level education in terms of looking at it from the perspective of a young person from a disadvantaged background, and we must ask whether they have the supports they need to remain there. These are the important reasons people go to and remain in higher level education.

With those words in mind, I welcome the Bill, although I wish it had been introduced earlier. I will work with the Minister and other colleagues to ensure we improve the Bill on Committee Stage and Report Stage so the new legislation that is put in place will last for a considerable period.

I apologise to the House and the Minister for not being present when the Bill arrived a bit sooner than all of us had anticipated. I was at another meeting at the time.

While the Bill is clearly overdue, it is nonetheless very welcome and is particularly to be welcomed by the people who will be directly affected by it, the 56,000 students and their parents and families. In many cases, they have had to carry the burden of subsidising or providing bridging loans or advance cash payments because of the delay in the way the system functions.

At the outset I wish to put some matters in context. The Minister very generously, courageously and correctly recognised the wisdom and foresight of Donough O'Malley in abolishing second level fees in 1967, without reference, it should be said, to the Department of Finance, as the history now shows. She could have continued that spirit of generosity in recognising a former constituency colleague of hers, Niamh Bhreathnach, who did precisely the same for third level fees, but this time with the full support and enthusiastic encouragement of the then Minister for Finance, who happened to be myself.

The Minister may recall the measure was criticised at the time as not being equitable and one which would not improve access to universities. The Minister's figures indicate this is not the case. Equity in access to third level education probably begins at pre-school level. All the indications suggest that children getting those two or three extra years from age three to five, and then getting a supportive environment at home, where learning to read transforms itself into reading to learn and takes off from the age of 12 or so, will perform better.

This morning I attended the conference which the Minister attended this afternoon. The presentations from the National Education Welfare Board indicated that by the time many students get to transition year and have gone through the junior certificate, their path in terms of participation in third level education is pretty well determined. The consensus of the excellent and professional contributions made by a Canadian and two English contributors were that Ireland's 20% dropout rate, or rate of failure to continue to participate, is, on the scale of the PISA analysis, a reasonably acceptable one. It is not acceptable to us as we can all do better but in comparison to many other countries with a longer tradition and a stronger economy going back in history, our position is quite good.

With a 20% dropout rate occurring in second year or third year, the issue of free fees for third level students was never about access in the first instance but about equity, given that some parents could fiddle their accounts and get grants, or afford to pay fees in one way or another, or leverage their independent wealth or wealth from the family business or farm, and ensure they could afford the fees for their children to go to college and the support required after that. Secondary school fees were, by today's standards, a fraction of what they are now for those 56 schools that still have them because the Christian Brothers and the teaching orders, male and female, by and large gave us free management, time and 24-7 cover in the schools, which the Department of Finance and the Department of Education and Science never factored in. This is one of the reasons the voluntary free sector is now having difficulties in regard to its financing.

Before we move on to discuss the grants support system for third level students who qualify, it is essential from my perspective that the role of the Labour Party, in particular Niamh Bhreathnach, would be recognised in the same spirit as that of Donough O'Malley.

The Bill has been a long time coming. From reading it and listening to the Minister's exposition, it reeks of a God almighty turf war between the Department of Education and Science, the local authorities and the VECs, and a certain belt and braces approach with regard to giving herself a double-barrel shotgun if some VECs do not perform. The Bill proposes a unified grants system and elimination of the three different types of grants for various courses. It also proposes that the number of awarding bodies be halved from 66 to 33, which is still an enormous figure for a country this size. When one considers these bodies are related to counties and not divided by the population, this means there is one awarding body for the whole of County Leitrim and all its 28,000 souls. How many of them will qualify to go to third level education and how many will apply for grants, although I suppose in the old days they all would have applied for grants?

It is actually one of the highest in the country.

Yes, and there is a good historical reason as to why that is the case. I will come back to some of the points made by Deputy Brian Hayes with regard to the dropout rates among people coming from backgrounds where there is no culture of third level education. In the smallest of farms in the most barren places of the west and rural Ireland, there was a value put on and a sustained support for education because it was recognised for what it was, and people were sustained in staying in college no matter how alien it might have appeared to somebody coming from a rural area 15 or 20 years ago. Coming from the centre of Ringsend, it is much more frightening to travel the 3 km to UCD than it is to travel 65 km to Galway, Sligo or wherever else.

As I said, the number of bodies has been reduced to 33. The VECs will take over the awarding of all grants while the local authorities lose the role they hitherto had in administering the scheme. Has some section of this non-joined up Government calculated the impact of this measure in terms of the staff release to the local authorities and what will be the bonus and benefit of this measure? Effectively, the Minister is now reducing the administrative staff by 50% to administer in principle the same number of grants.

Another provision of the Bill is the quality control check. The Minister can order a review of an awarding authority's performance in terms of effectively issuing grants or implementing other parts of the Act. The Minister can also order an awarding authority to lose its power to issue grants for two years as punishment. God love the person who wrote that. If the same degree of courage is exercised by civil servants in regard to performance-related pay awards at middle management level in the Civil Service, as displayed in regard to this issue, we will never see a VEC sanctioned or punished for failure to perform. The backbenchers in Fianna Fáil or of whatever party is in office will be the first to say one cannot take these powers away from the local VEC and that they could not afford to lose it. I recall the kind of political muscle exercised by the VECs in regard to the Education Bill 1996 that became the Education Act 1998. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle might have some memories of that battle himself.

I could not possibly comment.

I welcome the fact that students must have been resident in Ireland for three of the past five years. There is a flexibility and a practicality in that regard. I question, however, why this provision has to be put into primary legislation. There is much rigidity in administrative terms in this legislation, which we will get to in some detail on Committee Stage. Perhaps the Minister can reflect on this aspect. By all means she can assert the principle in the primary legislation, because it is right to do so, and I endorse the reference made by the Minister. However, some flexibility would be welcome, such as the power to vary that with the belt and braces of having to bring the regulation before the House for it to be specifically voted upon. The Minister knows how difficult it is to get legislation to the floor of this House or to get it passed and it is perhaps unwise for her to lock herself so tightly into a statutory system in this manner.

When means testing candidates, a distinction between "independent" and "dependent" students is made in terms of assessing incomes. That is to be welcomed. I got married at 23 years of age, albeit perhaps on my third salary cheque, which was not the wisest investment at one level. There are so many people on different scales. The 23 year cut-off point is rightly being replaced with the distinction between dependent and independent.

In the context of the Good Friday or the Belfast Agreement I welcome the recognition of the Northern Irish dimension. Would that we could recognise qualified Northern Irish school teachers who come from the Unionist tradition and do not have the facility to learn honours Irish, but that is scéal fada for another day. The logic of recognising that and moving in this direction is that somebody from Banbridge, or from Dr. Paisley's home town of Ballymena from the Unionist side, could in fact aspire to, without having to learn Irish which they would find difficult, becoming a permanent and pensionable INTO teacher just like anybody else, especially somebody coming from the Irish nationalist tradition.

The Bill standardises the information required on an application form for a grant to all awarding authorities. I welcome the introduction of fines and imprisonment as penalties for falsified grant applications. The benefits of the Bill are as follows. A large reduction in the number of authorities issuing grants and a general streamlining of administration will come if the Bill is enacted in its current form. Thus, within each county division, students will experience less confusion regarding where to apply and for what grant. The creation of one grant rather than three and a standardised application form will also reduce confusion.

The establishment of an appeals process for applicants refused a grant ensures transparency and accountability for the individual student. I support the observation made by Deputy Brian Hayes in regard to engaging and involving students in this process. The demand for student representation on governing boards of universities in the heyday of the 1960s gave rise to the fear that the pillars of Earlsfort Terrace would collapse with such a radical move. Sadly, most of the student representatives who subsequently went on to the governing boards——

Became the pillars.

——were more conservative than the older people around the table. That is something which perhaps we can discuss on another day. Students are responsible people who make lifestyle decisions of one kind or another and it is a proper way to integrate people into the system who get involved in active student politics and student union representation so they can take responsibility for their own age group and peer group, some of whom if they go through this process and have gone off-side will be seen to have done so.

There are some problems with the Bill which I will outline. The Minister may consider responding to these points at the end of Second Stage or on Committee Stage as, in many cases, amendments will be tabled in regard to them.

Further streamlining of the grants system is possible. While the actual schemes for the various grants will be unified into one, the same cannot be said for the number of authorities issuing them. A reduction from 66 authorities to 33 is a rationalisation, albeit a conservative one. The Bill specifically "requires attendance by a student on a full-time basis" in section 9(1)(b). This rules out any possibility of the grant system being applied to part-time students in higher education. Why does the Minister have to bolt that door so tightly closed in primary legislation? I invite her to consider the possibility of varying her approach.

I accept the Department of Finance would probably not let the Minister change it on her own but she could leave it for a successor of hers to have the possibility of doing that with the agreement of both Houses by way of a motion brought before the House so that it has democratic scrutiny and we do not lock in a rigidity we do not need. I accept that the Minister has indicated the money is not there for the abolition of part-time fees for students.

Both the Minister and her predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, are on record as saying they would have liked to see the reintroduction of fees but they realised that their political popularity is such that it would not be possible. I do not hold my breath over the implementation of the abolition of part-time fees and the provision of grants for part-time students but another day may come and another Administration may be in office when we want or need to have that flexibility. Therefore, since we are unlikely to be around this block again for a long time, it would be sensible and prudent to provide for setting the standards that are set out in the Bill — I do not challenge them as they reflect the political reality of today — but some degree of creative flexibility with democratic safeguards for both Houses could enable a successor of the Minister's to examine the possibility of providing grants in some shape or form for students doing some part-time courses. We may very well need it in terms of labour market flexibility to encourage people to move sideways from one sector of a declining economy into a sector that is growing or developing to facilitate that movement to enable the cost of their upskilling and upgrading to be facilitated by the provision of grants on top of redundancy payments and other entitlements.

I previously referred to the more demanding residency requirement in the Bill but I accept the harmonisation that is proposed, given the cultural proximity of the four nations on these two islands. Harmonisation to avoid tourism shopping, to which the Minister referred, is something that should be examined on a continuous basis. Again, flexibility in the drafting of the legislation should be examined.

In concert with what Deputy Brian Hayes stated, the appeals procedure must produce a speedy outcome, particularly as the beginning of college for students each year is an especially costly and stressful period. Section 15(7) should include a limit on the time an awarding authority has to inform an applicant that his or her claim has been turned down. We are in some ways caught by the sequence of the sitting of the leaving certificate examination, the outcome of the results in August and then the first round of CAO offers followed by the second round of offers. Some colleges start in September and some people do not know whether they will get into college until very close to the commencement of the courses, which can give rise to cash flow problems. This problem should not be aggravated by an interminable period for decisions in the first instance followed by appeals. However, I recognise the practical constraints there. I support the system the Minister is putting in place and the possibility for the appeals board.

In terms of analysis, this Bill is a progressive reform of the grants system and for that it is to be welcomed. Yet in several respects it does not go far enough to overcome many of the problems from which the system suffers. The rationalisation of the grants system from 66 bodies to 33 is a step in the right direction but leaves several unresolved issues. The 2003 report, Supporting Equity in Higher Education stated:

The introduction of a unified scheme will require reform of the current arrangements involving administration of the existing schemes by 33 local authorities and 33 Vocational Education Committees. It is considered that administering the grants schemes through such a large number of individual agencies results in unnecessary duplication, client confusion and a greater administrative burden for the Department of Education and Science. Given the need to consolidate the schemes, to introduce more sophisticated means testing arrangements and to ensure consistency of application and client accessibility, the most appropriate delivery structure for student supports now needs to be determined.

The Student Support Bill, while addressing this issue, only does so in a half-hearted manner. Having some 33 bodies managing the grants system is fraught with danger and the Minister has recognised that in her Bill by taking out a provision to bring them into line if they go offside.

Inconsistency in the payment of grants is a major flaw in the system. Some authorities pay out quickly, while others do not. It is not essential for there to be an awarding authority in every county, but students who rely on grants to fund their education need a swift and efficient response from the bureaucracy which manages it. This should be the overwhelming priority with the Student Support Bill. Grants are first and foremost a public service, one which needs to be flexible and responsive. Due to the degree of similarity with the status quo, one wonders if the efficiency of the service will improve considerably under this Bill. That may be in part behind the delay in the drafting of this piece of legislation. Clearly it is the product of much debate in the Department.

It is pertinent to note that the Labour Party's official stance in the last general election and in our manifesto was support for complete centralisation of the grants system within the Department of Social and Family affairs. This is the best option if one takes the logic of rationalisation to its ultimate conclusion. The USI supports this proposition. This must have been debated within the Department and I would be interested on Committee Stage to hear the rationale for the decision the Minister and her Department made in this area. It has the added advantage that the Department of Social and Family Affairs is equipped with the staff and data to assess, means test and examine the identification and verification of family circumstances, etc. One wonders why we are moving to compromise by changing from 66 bodies to an uneven 33 while a good, user-friendly system is in place across the country. It has been reformed over many years by successive Ministers and by decentralisation, which has helped make the system more user-friendly and effective. One wonders why this existing, up and running, first class system of administration is being ignored while the Minister's legislation recognises some VECs are not up to the mark in efficiency of administration. We would like the Minister to examine this area. Rather than reaching this conclusion of centralisation, the Department of Education and Science is relying on the, admittedly powerful, threat of removing an awarding authority's power to issue grants as a tool to ensure greater efficiency. As I said earlier, the Bill continues to exclude part-time students from availing of the grant system. Given that the Government has already spoken about this, I wonder why the Minister is putting this into primary legislation in such a hard way.

Means testing has been debated in the past and while there must be a grant system related to household income because it is focused and targeted, there is great dissatisfaction with it in many parts of the country. Former Deputy John Ryan from North Tipperary described how PAYE workers in creameries in the county of the Minister's origin and birth watched farmers' children getting grants to go to university for which they could not qualify because they were over the so-called limit. While they were over the taxpayers' limit in terms of a verifiable PAYE income, farmers with creative accountants, to whom we have had access recently in various fora around the country, were able to manipulate and control their income so that a student qualified for a college grant. I am not saying farmers were rich. We know they were not and that the majority of them have income difficulties. However, they had the discretion to manipulate their incomes through accountants in such a way that it was never seriously challenged by the local authorities or the political infrastructure.

I do not know whether the setting of the mechanism for means testing, as distinct from the volume of the grant, is part of the Minister's remit. She will establish the threshold whereby a person in a household with a number of dependants will be deemed to qualify for a grant either in whole or in part. Not just farmers but the self-employed with small businesses and professionals had the same capacity to manipulate their household income to qualify for the grant. Now is the time to deal with that legacy from a different time. When the Minister replies to this debate she might speak about that if she is in a position to do so. Access to the grant system should be equitable. In my travels around the country I have encountered anger in small towns where lifestyles were known if not guessed at and there was a perception of inequity between one person who got a college grant and one down the road who did not. That fuels an anger and lack of social cohesion in a society which we need.

Before I move the adjournment I will refer to the Minister's reference to access and a comment I made earlier. Part of ensuring students who get grants stay in college is a welfare mentoring supportive system, which some colleges do well and others do not. There is an uneven attitude to it in the various colleges of the HEA and we have yet to examine the way the new institutes of technology under the umbrella of the HEA look after this aspect of education. It is a well-established statistical figure that many students who go to the seven universities, the institutes of technology or NCAD come from families or backgrounds where there has been an experience of third level education or their school friends go with them so they do not have the kind of example to which Deputy Hayes referred. When Professor Tom Collins was director of Dundalk Institute of Technology, he talked about the fall-out rate of students who were brilliant in the classroom but floundered socially because they were outside the support mechanism and system of a third level college where people had to be independent, think for themselves and take responsibility for their courses. It was not part of the family experience. In some cases they were the first in their families to go to a third level college and their parents did not have the experience to support it. In her reply, the Minister might look at the overall support for universities and suggest a requirement that they recognise the wider social gap and deal with it.

Debate adjourned.