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.