Student Support Bill 2008: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the publication of the Student Support Bill and commend the Minister and her Department on finally bringing it to fruition. As we move to a transfer of grants from the county councils to the VECs, we should acknowledge the role the councils have played over many years in the distribution and management of the student grant system, particularly council officials who brought a fair degree of sense and sensitivity to that role. I wish to acknowledge that and wish them well as they move on to different responsibilities. The VEC sector has proved itself to be very successful and careful in the management of student grants. The VECs will bring the same level of sensibility and sensitivity to their new role of managing grants.

There was much discussion in last night's debate about whether the issuing of student grants should be centralised in one body. I have severe concerns regarding those proposals. We have just spent the last few hours discussing an issue that is being handled by a centralised body and that body has not come out of it particularly well. Centralisation takes away a little bit of local cop-on and local knowledge. It also takes away some of the sensibility and sensitivity to which I referred earlier. The issuing of grants is best left and managed at local VEC level.

There was also some discussion last night about student loans for students who do not qualify for grants. Some Members proposed the introduction of a student loan system, albeit a subsidised one. I agree with Deputy Higgins that this measure would be wrong. Anyone who knows students from the UK or other countries where student loan systems are in place knows the pressure to repay loans upon leaving college, a pressure that continues into the former students' mid-30s and restricts their ability to get mortgages and other loans for cars, businesses, etc. The loan system leaves a student with a millstone around his or her neck for many years. In a republic, education is a basic right. Were more money available, it would be fitting to improve our grant system, particularly at the basic level, but a student loan system is not the way to go given the example of other countries.

I congratulate the Higher Education Authority on its website, www.studentfinance.ie. For the first time, there is a single point at which people can see the myriad of available grants, their entitlements and the qualifying criteria. The HEA has done a good service in equipping, staffing and putting the website on-line. I encourage the HEA to make more use of the website in publicising the grants, perhaps by linking it with the CAO form — in the June-August period, we are all asked questions that can now be answered on-line — and to put extra resources into the website’s promotion.

During yesterday's debate, people took the chance to comment on general third level issues. While there have been significant improvements since my time in college, and I acknowledge the work done in DCU in particular, college life is not all about lectures and degrees. It is also about the level to which one gets involved in the community, be it through student unions or societies. For those of us who had the privilege and luck to get involved, many of the skills we learned are those that we remember today, not necessarily what we learned during lectures. DCU's model involves giving credits at degree level for people who get involved. If we can get students involved in voluntary and community activities at that age, albeit in a college scenario, it would be easier to sustain the level of involvement as they enter the working world and return to their communities. We are fed up discussing in the House the collapse in volunteerism. We must approach our trapped audience, as it were, and encourage its members to get involved at student level.

I congratulate the authorities of Trinity College on their recent programme for people with intellectual disabilities, the reporting of which was fantastic. Seeing people who would heretofore not have got inside the door at Trinity College being acknowledged and awarded degrees was welcome. Every other college should take this example on board and consider involving people with intellectual disabilities in a greater way. Those who do not have such disabilities would learn much more from liaising and working on a daily basis with the people in question.

Yesterday, there was a great deal of discussion on how the abuse of alcohol affects day-to-day society. Yesterday morning, independent evidence in further reports showed that we have a major problem. A related issue can be found at college level where the marketing emphasis is on going out several times per week and drinking heavily. We are diverting a number of resources into teenager alcohol programmes through secondary schools and youth clubs and funding has been provided to a number of non-alcoholic initiatives at youth level, but there is a tendency to see it as people's responsibility or fault once they turn 18 years of age and that we should not worry about them. We spend money on alcohol therapy centres for the want of spending money on marketing campaigns aimed at students and people aged 18-20 years. We must use colleges to a greater degree to educate people in this regard. We must work with the colleges on a health screening programme in respect of the damage alcohol can do. At that age, one does not consider the damage alcohol does to one's system or the effect it may have later in life, but the centres at which tens of thousands of young people study can be used to promote this message.

As a member of the Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security, colleges and student communities should be used to further the climate change agenda. The green flags programme at national school level, which we all know, is expanding to secondary school level. It is a fantastic programme and is the only matter in respect of which I agree with An Taisce, but there should be an ability to engage individual college faculties in a similar programme. The green schools programme at national school level will have addressed much of the lack of environmental responsibility by the time the current generation reaches our age. I have less faith in our age group learning to change our behaviour, but if we can start trapping those of us immediately behind us — those in college — and using their college experiences to engage them in their personal responsibilities to address climate change, it would be a worthwhile initiative. Daily, the House addresses a range of issues, but we do not utilise students in this respect or avail of the fact that they comprise a captive audience to which we could send our message or with which we could engage to hear their opinions. As we proceed, this matter should be considered.

There is ongoing discussion in respect of raising institutes of technology to university level. I acknowledge the debate and work that is occurring at Waterford Institute of Technology. In the debate on university status, it would be dangerous to undermine the role of the ITs. They provide a specific range of education that focuses on business and careers and offers a range of courses that a university might not necessarily provide. Last night, a university for the midlands was called for and received a commitment from the other side of the House. Deputy Brian Hayes was not in the Chamber when the call was made, but the idea of throwing university status around like confetti is dangerous and undermines the fantastic work being down at IT level. Before attaining university status, much work would need to be done. The IT sector has provided a significant and improved service since regional technical colleges became ITs and we should keep as many of them as ITs and in their specific roles as possible.

For many years, we have been well served by colleges and the second level that got people into college. However, we must move to meet current world demands, particularly in respect of fourth level education. In my time at college, a minority continued on to do the doctorates and masters that are now in demand internationally. We must engage students earlier to get them involved and interested in fourth level degrees. Many secondary schools have systems in place, albeit informally, to identify good students and to send them to third level. A similar system should be put in place at third level to attract students who may have something to offer at fourth level.

In terms of career and job advice, we must invest further resources at second and third levels. We must put a mechanism in place whereby we can encourage people and foster intellect, particularly to move people into the PhD area. Unless we do so, we will fall behind as a world economy and experience further job losses. I acknowledge the level of investment by the Ministers for Education and Science and Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputies Hanafin and Martin, to encourage people to undertake PhDs.

We owe third level institutions a great debt for feeding into various activities at national and international levels, which have added to Ireland's allure as a destination. Given all of the people who have passed through the third level sector in fields such as literature, sport, medicine and so on, our small country of just over 4 million people is consistently and constantly producing excellence in a varied and expanding range. Our third level sector has responded to this demand by expanding the range of courses on offer to a wider range of students. The range of courses now on offer in all third level institutions is phenomenal; many of them were not dreamed of when I attended a third level institution and that was not long ago. Every taste is now catered for.

The opportunity cost of not attending college was spoken of yesterday. The choice facing people is either to go to college, get an apprenticeship or start working. The success of our economy in recent years has meant that many people chose to go straight into full-time employment; that work has now dried up for some, for whatever reason, and such people are left without a qualification. I ask the Minister to find out how many people are in such a situation, particularly those who went into highly-paid, cash in hand construction jobs who are now without employment and without qualifications. We should target such people for third level education, whether the goal be a trade, a degree or a diploma, so that they will be qualified to join the workforce that is demanded. People who took what was the easy option at the time are now coming to our constituency offices seeking assistance. Those who go to college miss out on a few years but they are ultimately well compensated for them in terms of the salaries they can earn. We must pay particular attention to people who left the education system in recent years after the leaving certificate and are now, to an extent, abandoned.

It is unbelievable that people nowadays still leave school at junior certificate level, given that everyone knows a leaving certificate, at least, is required in the workplace. With regard to entering the job market, the bar has been raised from holding a leaving certificate to holding a third level qualification. We must add extra resources at junior certificate level to ensure nobody leaves school at that point without having a career or education path designed for him or her. This could be done on a one-to-one basis because relatively few people leave school at this point. We owe an educational path to every school-leaver to ensure he or she is not lost in the system.

The VEC sector, which is moving into a prime role in the administration of grants, is something we should pay tribute to. VECs work due to a fantastic combination of knowledge, qualifications and experience in teachers, educationalists and elected representatives. VEC schools around the country are a credit to their respective VECs, through boards of management, elected representatives, parents and teaching staff. It is a model we should protect and expand and I know it will sustain the grants system. I am concerned by suggestions that we should centralise the grants system as this would be a retrograde step that would result in the late payment of grants, the loss of local knowledge to the grant appeals system and students losing out.

I welcome the publication of the Bill, I congratulate the Minister on bringing it to this stage and I look forward to supporting it in this House.

I am pleased to contribute to the debate on this Bill. I note the Government promised in June 2002 that "we will introduce a payment of maintenance grants through a unified and flexible grant payment system" and I welcome the late arrival of the Bill. Many of us have called for this legislation for some time and I hope it will progress through the Houses of the Oireachtas quickly and, more importantly, that it is put into practice quickly. It is important that we see the benefits of this legislation as soon as possible.

I agree with the previous speaker that education is vital to our society and economy and one could say that investment in education in the 1960s marked a turning point. As a previous speaker said, the advent of the institutes of technology made a huge difference to the State. Support from the European Union at the time, which ploughed a lot of money into the sector, meant we had graduates available when they were needed. In my area of the country there are many pharmaceutical companies and the like and the availability of top-level graduates from our third level institutions is one of the main reasons they set up in Ireland.

In this time of increased competition we must ensure we continue to invest in education at all levels and see that no student is forced to drop out of the education system for financial reasons. We must also ensure that students in school and college are not under stress due to a lack of finance. Ultimately, our investment in education is paid back to the economy many times when graduates gain employment.

I am worried that we have not kept up with the schools building programme at second level and primary level. Deputies table questions every day asking when certain schools will get an extension and, as a former teacher, I know the learning environment is very important. The primary school curriculum is exciting and imaginative and I congratulate those who devised it and develop it all the time but children must have space in which to move around and learn. If children are in cramped and overcrowded prefabs they will be restricted and will lose out in their education. In the long term we will all lose out as a result because one inculcates a love of learning in children at the earliest age.

The Minister of State, Deputy Máire Hoctor, was in an Oireachtas committee meeting with me some years ago where we spoke of the issue of science at primary level and secondary level. This matter must be pushed to the fore because I know of second level students who have never seen a science experiment. If our economy is dependent on technology and science I cannot understand why we do not support our teachers more in the classroom by providing laboratory technicians. This would mean the technician could set up experiments in the classroom and the teacher could arrive from another class to teach the lesson; the students would then experience hands-on education.

It is crucially important that students experience the magic and thrill of science but in many of our schools that does not happen. I know students who will not take a science subject for the leaving certificate and one of the main reasons for this is they have never experienced hands-on science. This is not the fault of teachers, students or parents but it is the fault of the Minister for Education and Science, who refuses to make resources available to employ laboratory technicians. I am told the cost of such an initiative would be €8 million per year and this would be a fantastic investment. Schools and science teachers are crying out for this and I am sure the Minister will address the issue. Can she explain how young people are supposed to love science without seeing, experiencing and partaking in science experiments? This is what is required from the earliest age and throughout the education process. If anyone other than the Minister is listening to this I hope they take note.

I welcome this Bill as it is crucially important that we support students and I congratulate the body that created the website www.studentfinance.ie, which is also most welcome. It is important that information be freely available.

I only recently found out that an appeals system existed for those refused grants. I did not know they could appeal further to the Department of Education and Science. As far as I know they are not told that when they get a refusal letter. I ask the Minister to ensure in the interim that is done. It should be clear there are two steps of appeal already in place. The Minister talked about an appeals system, but nobody was told it is in place. It appears to be some State secret. When the legislation is enacted, students should be clearly told if they get a letter of refusal that they have a right to appeal, where to go and how to go about it. That should also be made clear if there is a second right of appeal. That is crucially important.

Much has been said about the 33 awarding bodies and some Members have questioned it. I understand one of the VECs will be asked to take responsibility for the overall IT set-up. That is crucially important for paying out the money. There are great strengths in having local bodies. I am aware a Green Paper on local authorities will be published soon and that VECs are linked to local authorities and mirror that structure. If there are changes in local authorities how will that impact on VECs? It is important to keep an eye on this because if there are fewer local authorities or if there are amalgamations there will be fewer VECs. At this stage, none of us knows whether that will happen.

The VECs have a great deal of strength. In 1997, Fine Gael proposed local education boards, but the Government that took office afterwards ridiculed that proposal and said it would not work. Now it is beginning to see that the VECs are almost becoming local education boards. They have been given more responsibility and are expanding their role, and rightly so. They have the expertise, personnel, knowledge and tradition. VECs should be further supported in their role. I understand they are being given responsibility for youth services. The Youth Work Act 2001 is still in the doldrums and I am not sure if anybody is responsible for keeping an eye on it at this stage. Again, the VECs were going to be asked to implement that Act.

It is important that VECs are properly resourced to carry out all the functions they have been asked to do and that the staff are not under pressure because the Bill provides for time limits, which is only right. I note that the Minister said the student grant application form for 2008-09 is available online. I downloaded a copy earlier. The closing date is 29 August 2008. In Scotland, for example, there is an online application facility and I do not see why we cannot have such a facility. I do not think we can download these forms at present. The copy I have here is for information purposes only and one has to get the hard copy. I do not know why we cannot download these forms but I hope it will be possible. If the motor taxation office can do it, we should be able to do so. The Minister can get her car taxed through the motor taxation office. Why is it not possible to apply online? I hope we are aiming towards that.

I note that in Scotland, application for other allowances can be made online and that students can apply as early as April, before the end of the academic year preceding third level. This means that students will have a decision on their grant application before they enter college. This is real progress. It would be of huge benefit to many students if they could apply for and get a decision on grant applications before they begin college. I have said for a number of years that should be possible. The tax year ends in December and the P60s are available in early February. There is no reason students should not have that information as early as possible. I call on the Minister to ensure this is brought forward.

I also note that Scotland has an online tracking facility and an online calculator. This means a student can go online, insert all his or her details and see whether he or she is eligible for the grant. I tried this the other night and it works. One can track one's grant application through the system. We cannot even download the forms here, as far as I know. Where are we going? I appreciate this Bill was promised in 2002, almost six years ago, but we have a long way to go to catch up with our colleagues in other jurisdictions. Many students and their families in Scotland would know almost immediately if they were eligible for a grant and, if so, what level they would receive. That is what we should aim for.

The Bill refers to full-time courses and so on but we need to look at part-time students. There are people who are working hard on low incomes and who want to go back to college to better themselves and improve their status. Once somebody does that we all benefit. Will the Minister clarify how part-time students are provided for? He or she may be working part time in a low paid job and may want to attend college at night. Can such a person apply through this new super duper Bill the Minister has introduced or will the Minister consider making that possible? Those people with initiative — some may have children — should be supported. We must help such people if at all possible. If they prove they need it we should help them. My motto is that we should help people to help themselves.

There is a provision in the Bill for the inclusion of private colleges at some stage. I am informed there are courses available in private college that are not available in other colleges. For that reason we need to look at the issue.

There is an issue with the whole area of dependency. I have come across cases where students have become estranged from parents at 19 years of age and yet the parents' income is taken into account. The student is living on his or her own and wants to go to college but is often asked for the father's P60, the mother's income or the family income. I know the Minister said in her speech we cannot have a situation where people will leave home to get the grant, but where there is a genuine case we should support them if possible.

I wish to raise an issue that may have been resolved. Bodies such as Science Foundation Ireland award scholarships. It appears that if somebody gets such a scholarship they are not eligible for the maintenance grant, even though their income is very low. That problem needs to be addressed. I know of one case, in particular, where that happened. The person was awarded the scholarship and was told he or she was not eligible for the maintenance grant because one cannot get two payments. That the person should be worse off by being awarded a scholarship is wrong. The Department is working hard to resolve the issue but I do not have the up-to-date information. Perhaps it has been resolved but, if not, I ask the Minister to look into it. If Science Foundation Ireland awards scholarships we should not penalise a person for reaching that level of attainment.

It is important we have appeals procedures. The time allowed for appeals is very long but consideration should be given to reducing it. A student could have to wait four and a half months if he or she goes through all the appeals before getting a decision. It should not take that long.

There are appeals officers who are appointed from VECs and some VECs are very small. If appeals officers are appointed from within the VEC that may cause a problem for the VEC. Perhaps the appeals officers should be appointed from outside the VEC, from another awarding body. That would help, particularly with a very small VEC, and would be important even on a rotational basis.

I welcome the establishment of the appeals board. It is important that students are represented on this board because it is they who are at the coalface. I ask the Minister to take this into account.

Despite checking the Bill, I did not find a reference to whether the adjacent rate and non-adjacent rate will still apply. These rates were introduced long ago and I am not sure they are still relevant in this day and age. What difference would it make if everyone received the non-adjacent rate? There are all kinds of anomalies in this regard. While it may be anecdotal, I have heard of a case of a man who moved the gate of his house so his car clocked up a little more distance. That is daft. Either the rate should be graduated or everyone should get the one rate. This scheme was introduced at a time when people were walking and travelling by bicycle or horse and trap. We should not be sending staff out to measure distances and clock cars and work out that if one travels a different route, the distance will be different. This should be scrapped, if it has not already been scrapped. Everyone should get the non-adjacent rate, unless there is another rationale for this measure which I cannot understand.

I referred earlier to the number of hours a student is required to spend attending a course, which is part of the conditions of an approved course. The position of part-time students needs to be addressed as a major issue.

As I noted earlier, there is a crisis with regard to school places. In my town of Midleton, both of the second level schools are full. The two principals tell me that next September they will be turning students away. One of the issues with the Department is that the information Deputies receive by way of response to parliamentary questions is very poor. The Minister should examine this issue to ascertain whether she could improve this in any way. We do not do this for political reasons. Deputies are simply representing the people but they get the barest amount of information. If a parent comes to us to find out whether a school will get an extension, and a Deputy is told the school is listed on band X, that means nothing to the parent. Will the Department give us the full information and tell us, for example, it has received and is considering the information and will probably be able to make a decision on a certain date? This would be helpful for parents. However, the information we get from the Department is dire. Perhaps the Department's staff are overworked and underpaid. The Minister should examine this issue and make a decision on it.

I welcome this important Bill. I want it implemented as quickly as possible and look forward to its progress through the House.

I wish to share time with Deputies Mattie McGrath and Bobby Aylward.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the introduction of the Bill, which is timely, if not long overdue considering it was a commitment in the previous programme for Government. It is important to note the positive contribution made by Deputy Stanton, who indicates a strong measure of support for and agreement with the principles of the Bill. In the light of statements by his party spokesperson on other issues in education, perhaps when the Bill comes for eventual decision he might consider supporting it in the House. The reality is that he probably will not do so because he is operating under the system we on this side also operate under.

That is not the case. The Deputy should look at my record.

We will see what happens when the time comes. Nonetheless, I agree wholeheartedly with many of Deputy Stanton's points on the Bill.

As was said, this is a long overdue proposal to modernise and rationalise the student support schemes. It must be remembered that fees for those attending third level are a thing of the past. This, more than anything else, has ensured greater access generally for people within the education system. However, we still need the student support schemes to ensure that those who are in the most disadvantaged circumstances get all the help they require to ensure they also have access to third level. I welcome that the Minister in these proposals and in her statements on the Bill has emphasised that much thought and effort will go towards ensuring that the supports available are targeted particularly at those who are most marginalised and disadvantaged in our communities. A number of welcome initiatives in this regard have been enacted by the Minister in recent years.

I am indebted to the Oireachtas Library and Research Service for a very informative debate pack, which I understand is a new service to Members of the Houses, that provides background information on the Bills coming through the House and enables new Deputies such as myself to undertake focused research with regard to a Bill, how it came about and the work that has been done to support it. Among the items in the pack for this Bill is a statement of the objectives of the scheme, which, while they have already been stated by Members, are worth reiterating.

The objective is to modernise and rationalise the existing scheme. The proposed single unified scheme will provide a more coherent administration system which will facilitate consistency of application and improve client accessibility. It will provide a system for the making of grants to enable young people to attend higher and further education in certain institutions. There is also a welcome change with regard to the residency requirement, so that three years residence in the previous five years will be required. This will allow young people, who these days often like to take a year out before they attend third level, to access the grants scheme if they have been resident for three of the previous five years. This is a wise and welcome development.

Like Deputy Stanton, I am not clear whether there was an independent appeals board in the past but this Bill allows for one. I have sympathy for the Deputy's view that if an independent person is adjudicating on appeals, it would be wise if that person was part of the existing decision-making body. This would make sense and I am sure is an issue the Minister will consider when the time comes. The clarity provided is also welcome with regard to eligibility criteria. The launch of the www.studentfinance.ie website also aids the issue of clarifying the information available.

As one who has served on both a town and a county VEC in Bray and County Wicklow, I welcome the wise decision to nominate VECs throughout the country as the bodies which will administer this scheme. As noted by other Members, some of whom may have served on VECs, the VECs have local democratic accountability, local knowledge and are rooted in the community, and they will ensure people have someone to whom they can address their concerns and difficulties with regard to filling out an application.

I agree with Deputy Stanton's point on the expected future possibility of downloading the application and applying on-line. This is becoming the most predominant way to apply in the CAO system and the grant scheme should also incorporate this facility.

Stakeholders' comments on the Bill have to date been universally welcoming. Statements have been issued by several stakeholders, including the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, the National Adult Learning Organisation, Aontas, and not surprisingly, by Michael Moriarty, general secretary of the Irish Vocational Education Association, IVEA. It is clear that all of these stakeholders agree with the provisions of the Bill and support it. As we heard from at least one Opposition speaker today, there is support on the Opposition side of the House for the Bill also. We look forward to seeing that support translated into real action when the time comes to make the decisions.

Deputy Behan has doubts too.

I compliment the Minister and her officials on the introduction of the Bill. I preface my remarks by paying a warm tribute to county council officials throughout the country who operated the education grants for many years. The area of student grants was badly in need of reform. Education is for life. It is a lifelong experience, from the cradle to the grave.

I am pleased the Department of Education and Science consulted widely with all stakeholders. I welcome the Bill in the context of those consultations. Most of the parties involved warmly and eagerly support the Bill.

The purpose of the Bill is to make provision for student grants and to enable students to attend higher and further education courses. Such education is vital as young people are our finest asset. I welcome the many students who are present in the Gallery and I wish them well in the future in their education and careers. 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. This is paramount. In the past it has been traumatic for students and their families who had to wait unduly for grants to be paid. A fair appeal system was not in place and much stress and trauma was involved.

The Bill provides for the structures around which an efficient and customer-friendly student grant process can be built, as well as providing the general basis on which students will, in future, be eligible for a grant to attend a course of higher or further education. I thank the VEC, Department officials and council staff. I am delighted that it has been decided to put the scheme under the remit of the VEC. Having served on a VEC for almost 20 years and on its adult education board I am conscious that it is well placed to deal with all matters of education, especially further and continuing education.

I welcome the new appeals system. It is important to have an independent appeals system. Fairness and transparency are vital to this process. Reference has been made by other speakers to the importance of these grants to the underprivileged and low income families. However, self-employed people who have a reasonable standard of living can experience difficulties in business or health. I almost dare not refer to the dreaded tax clearance certificate but problems can occur when accounts are not prepared in time. It is important to have a fair appeals system and proper recognition of the difficulties that can be experienced by small family businesses. I propose that assessment of income should be based on net income rather than gross income as capital allowances for small businesses are not taken into account.

I compliment the Minister on the introduction of the Bill. I welcome the residence changes. It is important to streamline this area as it has been a cause of concern in the past. In some cases young people of 19 or 20 years no longer live at home and they have a right to be assessed independently of their parents. I welcome the fact that this will be the case. I accept that transparency is necessary in this regard. The appeals process will ensure this is the case. Fairness to all sides is important.

Like previous speakers, I hope the final version of the Bill will be warmly supported. I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank my two colleagues for sharing time and giving me an opportunity to speak on this Bill. I am very pleased that the Student Support Bill 2008 is being moved through this House and I am delighted to endorse the provisions of the Bill as being largely supportive of students applying for higher education grants.

The Bill generally provides for making grants available to all those who wish to pursue further and higher education courses and who, owing to their financial circumstances, might not otherwise be in a position to afford these courses of study. The principle of promoting further educational opportunities has long been cherished in this country and providing broad and easy access to those opportunities is critical to ensure equity of access for all who want to advance their knowledge, skills and employability in the future. Good education is one of our proudest resources and we have a bounden obligation to facilitate access to further education. This is a sound philosophy which we all endorse and I am delighted to be associated with the Bill and its very practical measures.

This legislation is constructive and progressive. It represents a timely response to criticisms which have been levied over the years about the seemingly fragmented, often unco-ordinated and frequently frustrating manner in which the various grants schemes have operated. There appeared to be various flaws inherent in that system and, from my experience of the schemes, they certainly did not appear to be user friendly. Currently, four schemes are available in this country. They are the higher education grants scheme, the VECs' scholarship scheme, the third level maintenance grants scheme for trainees and the maintenance grants scheme for students attending post-leaving certificate courses. I understand there are 57,000 students availing of these schemes at present. It is pragmatic and reasonable to integrate our system of grants and it is entirely appropriate that applicants be facilitated in their applications in terms of access to information and ease of process.

The primary purpose of this Bill is to streamline the existing process. This will give us a single statutory basis for processing applications and disbursing all student grants. It will replace the four different schemes currently operated by the VECs and the local authorities, which is a very positive measure. It is envisaged the VECs will be given sole responsibility for the administration of the student maintenance grants and this will halve the current number of awarding authorities to 33. This is eminently sensible. It finally introduces a note of wisdom into the current arrangements by seeking to rationalise and streamline the whole procedure for student applicants. This unified approach will undoubtedly bring greater cohesion and greater clarity to the procedures. Anything which lends increased efficiency and timeliness of response is to be welcomed wholeheartedly. A streamlined system will improve the overall service to students in terms of accessibility, facilitate a greater consistency in the method of application for these grants and ensure the timely delivery of grant payments to students who are usually strapped for cash.

I am also very pleased to note the Bill sets out explicit timeframes for payment of the grants and it enables far better efficiency in terms of the internal arrangements for processing the numerous applications. The proposal to simplify the range of different grants available and the awarding authorities to which one must apply will certainly lend itself to greater clarity, less confusion, increased efficiencies and improved accessibility for intending applicants. The overhaul of the current complicated system has been welcomed with enthusiasm by all interested parties, including the Union of Students in Ireland and Aontas. I am glad to welcome the new procedures as sensitive, positive and hugely helpful to all those students who avail of the grant award schemes every year.

The intention contained in the Bill to establish an independent appeals board is a noteworthy and very constructive measure. The existence of an independent statutory body will certainly promote far greater transparency and public confidence in the entire grants awarding process. The Bill is also powerful in that it contains teeth. It gives greater strength and vigour to enable the issue of fraud to be pursued successfully by the awarding authority. It sets out significant offences and penalties which definitely provide a solid basis to actively pursue those applicants who may have provided false, misleading or incomplete information for the purpose of securing a grant. The awarding authority will have the necessary force of law to ensure no irregularities occur in the system as a result of fraud. This provision is essential.

The Bill is enlightened and progressive as it promotes improved equity of access to further and higher education for groups which are under-represented in society. It requires the institutions which are involved to formulate and to actively implement clear access plans and policies on equality. Equality and access are extremely important in the overall context of education and I am delighted the Student Support Bill underpins those core objectives and values within the system.

It is anticipated this legislation will be ready to come into effect for new applicants for the academic year 2009-10 and I am pleased the necessary transitional arrangements are in place to effect the change. It is vital to minimise disruption to students and it is critical the VECs be allocated sufficient time to develop their infrastructure and resources so this fully-integrated scheme can be applied effectively. I look forward to the Bill being implemented.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill. One wonders how the current structures existed for so long. We have four schemes, the higher education grants, third level maintenance grants, VEC scholarship scheme and PLC maintenance grant scheme. There are 66 awarding authorities. If one set out to create a more complex and bureaucratic scheme, one could not do much worse. This chaotic, complex scheme is a maze for any student and parent to get through. The delays and disparities between the various awarding authorities and the complexity of the various schemes arise year after year. Every autumn there is a chaotic situation whereby students await their grants which the various authorities provide at different times. Students have no money when their courses begin and may wait for months before they receive their money. That is no way to conduct business.

I commend the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, for introducing this Bill to improve the chaotic situation to some degree. The Minister was right to provide a single, unified grant scheme to replace the four existing grant schemes. Putting one, simplified scheme in place is the way to go. I cannot say the same about the other side of the coin. The Minister had reduced the 66 awarding authorities to 33. A 50% reduction is to be welcomed, but 33 awarding authorities is still mind-boggling. I say that as somebody who has served on a VEC. I was chairman of the City of Dublin VEC for seven years and served on the local authority and I know the system that operates in all cases and the fantastic work done by the VECs. They constitute the most progressive section of the education system in this country. They do fantastic work and have responded brilliantly to the changing needs of society. They have been the finest in that respect.

Nevertheless, many VEC committees are very small. There are town and county committees. Some run only one or two schools. It is a top-heavy approach to have them provide a separate secretarial, operational and administrative service for the awarding of tuition and maintenance grants. I do not see why it is necessary. I do not understand the purpose. It remains a decentralisation of the process, but the ideal would be to have a single, unified awarding system in line with the single, unified grant system.

Could the Minister examine putting it on a regional basis? For example Sligo could award grants in the north west, Galway in the south west, Limerick in half of Munster, Cork in the other half and the City of Dublin VEC in Dublin. The Minister could reduce it to six without too much trouble. We know there will be in-fighting and it is impossible to keep everybody happy all the time. If one was starting from scratch, one would never have 33 awarding bodies, never mind 66. Could the Minister address that in her response? Could the system be reviewed after a couple of years to see how the legislation works and whether it would be appropriate to restrict the number of awarding authorities? When the IVA comes together and discusses this legislation it might examine this aspect. The VECs can still carry out all their good educational work including teaching and services to the community, but this is an administrative, bureaucratic type of work they need not necessarily do because it is not directly teaching, tuition or education.

My second point is on something I welcome, but which the Minister has hidden away under the heading "Miscellaneous" at the very end of the Bill.

There is nothing new with that.

For all that I am sure it does not mean the Minister does not consider it should be up front because the Bill is about student support and not about other issues. However, the Minister has hidden an extremely important issue in section 25. I will read the explanatory memorandum:

Section 25 requires specified institutions to prepare draft access plans in respect of access to the institution by economically or socially disadvantaged people, by people who have a disability and by people from sections of society that are significantly under-represented in the student body and in respect of equality, including gender equality, in all activities of the institution. Once the access plan is approved by the governing authority, the institution in question is bound to implement the policies set out therein.

That is a fantastic statement for any educational institution and I compliment the Minister 100% on putting it on the Bill, although I would like to see it moved up higher. When that is put on a statutory basis it will provide the means for giving greater access to sectors of our community that have traditionally lacked that access. In my constituency, Dublin Central, the third level access rate is lower than in other parts of the city and country. That is because it has traditionally been a very disadvantaged area. There is great difficulty in getting adequate services at primary and secondary level, making it a difficult transition into third level, and this is often due to parental background, financial resources and basic education and tuition. Much work has been done by the VECs in trying to bridge that gap. They have provided a wide range of courses and the primary and secondary schools are providing a more holistic approach to the education of young people than they did in the past. Larkin community college on Sean McDermott Street provides a wide range of incentives to young people to allow them stay on in school. That is happening for the first time ever in the history of the State. The NCI is also providing a wide range of courses that give a whole new group an opportunity to access third level education.

All third level institutions should have mission statements of this nature. They should look at their catchment area. There are national catchment areas, but there are regional and local catchment areas as well. The institutions should specify the mechanisms used to maximise access by a particular community, be it a disability community, a gender community, a disadvantaged community, or whatever. I do not think such a mechanism has ever been specified in legislation. I hope the mission statement requirement in section 25 will be part of an annual approach drawn up by each institution, and that the Department of Education and Science will carefully monitor the quality of the statement regarding access. If all this can be put in place, the Student Support Bill 2008 will go beyond the narrow remit of providing a more streamlined support mechanism for operating student grants.

The appeals mechanism is very welcome, but it will be diluted considerably unless it is a speedy mechanism. The purpose of the single agency and the reduction in the number of awarding authorities is to ensure that every student receives his or her grant within a month of making an application. If an appeals mechanism doubles, trebles or even quadruples that time, then the purpose of the Bill will be defeated. Those students initially refused will find themselves in limbo for a long time. They could start their course in September but may not have the appeal mechanism exhausted until well after Christmas. That could deter somebody from going to college. No appeals mechanism should be longer than the initial period of time for the grant delivery. I suggest that no appeal should take longer than 21 days, as three weeks should be sufficient. We are talking about a relatively small number of appeals, so why should we not curtail the period of time for them?

The grants do not cover part-time students, but these students must also pay fees and maintenance. This is an element of access to education. The theory both here and in the EU is that education should be more flexible. It should be continuing and should be delivered in a manner that suits students. Many students find that part-time or night-time education is more appropriate. There are many courses that take that into consideration. It is also an essential part of further education, because many people will be employed at that time. It would be more desirable to extend education to more vulnerable categories in society, on the basis of disadvantage, disability and gender. This could happen if there was greater flexibility for part-time students. We should look at it to a greater extent than provided for in this Bill.

I welcome the fact the bar has been lowered from 23 years of age. Students under 23 could hitherto only be assessed on their parents' income, which was an unnecessarily rigid bar. Students living away from home should be assessed independently in their own right, but the assessment at 23 years for students living at home is still very rigid. I accept the proposal is a significant move from the current situation, but it could be examined again. In recent years, property prices have gone through the roof and there are very few people who can buy their own home or rent their own accommodation to any great degree. More people are remaining at home with their parents. Nobody should be pressurised into the property market to access a grant. Until that settles down, it will be a bar to the involvement of many in third level education.

For some reason, the Department does not see itself as having any major role to play in student accommodation. A great part of student grants go on accommodation. While the bottom has slipped out of the construction industry, the rental industry is going through the roof and the cost of rented accommodation has never been higher. It is ironic that while the property market has collapsed, rents have increased. This is proving increasingly tough for students.

Although certain incentives were made available to provide student accommodation, the Department should consider assuming a role in this area. With Grangegorman about to become the headquarters for the Dublin Institute of Technology, the decision on whether to provide student accommodation on the campus has been left exclusively to the DIT. The Government effectively handed over a new campus and left it up to the DIT to decide which educational facilities it wishes to provide. As a result, the provision of on-campus student accommodation will depend on the contents of the master plan. This is not the correct approach as it does not reflect integrated planning, a concept that should have formed an essential part of the legislation establishing the Grangegorman Development Agency. The Minister's representatives on the board of DIT should insist that the institution provide a sizeable amount of student accommodation on the site. This would help alleviate some of the problems likely to arise from establishing an institution for 20,000 to 25,000 students in the heart of Dublin. For example, a large volume of traffic will enter Dublin to access the facility.

Despite having an enormous land bank, only a limited number of students live on the campus of University College Dublin. More students live on the tiny land bank in Trinity College Dublin than on the UCD site. If student accommodation is available cheek by jowl with educational facilities, access to classes improves considerably and the stability of the campus is improved by the creation of a living culture and environment, without which campuses die at night time, apart from its pubs or the odd society meeting. Many steps could be taken to make improvements.

One frequently hears that application forms for grants are complex and difficult. An earlier speaker stated that much greater use should be made of the Internet. It should be possible to download all relevant documents, including explanatory memorandums indicating how and when application forms should be filled out, explaining how the appeal mechanism works and providing information on other issues. This will be even more important when 33 awarding bodies are in place. If the information I describe is available on a single, good website at the click of a mouse, it will have significantly simplified the process.

In reducing by half the number of awarding authorities, the legislation substantially increases the workload of the awarding authorities. It will not be acceptable, at the stroke of a pen, to streamline the process and make a commitment that every student will receive his or her grant within a specified period if the Department does not provide sufficient resources to enable the VECs to perform this additional work. We would be back to square one.

I welcome this worthwhile legislation and hope it will improve the operation of the grant system. I ask the Minister to consider reviewing the legislation after three to five years, with a view to further streamlining it.

Tá áthas orm labhairt ar an mBille um Thacaíocht do Mhic Léinn 2008. Is fíor a rá go bhfuil a lán dul chun cinn déanta ag an Rialtas i rith na mblianta chun cabhair agus deontais a thabhairt do mic léinn triú leibhéal. Chuir an Rialtas €243 milliúin ar fáil tríd na ceithre scéim éagsúla i 2007. Bhain 56,000 mic léinn triú leibhéal — agus ceathrú leibhéal ó am go ham — sochar as na deontais sin. Tá na teorainneacha cáilithe ardaithe faoi 3.5% sa bhliain acadúil 2007-08 agus tá an deontas imithe in airde freisin. Is méadú suntasach é sin.

I welcome the Bill. As a Deputy and in my previous role, I have received many queries on student support issues. Based on my experience, it is clear the process of applying for grants and appealing decisions made by county councils and VECs is characterised by considerable confusion. A dearth of information is available to students, particularly mature students and those returning from abroad. The problem is primarily one of a lack of information rather than a shortage of money.

Deputy Costello raised a number of the points I intended to make. The vocational educational committees are eminently capable of performing the function of providing student support. My local VEC in County Meath will prove itself a model in delivering the services required of it under the Bill and I am sure its members look forward to performing this function.

I ask the Minister to explain the purpose of having a separate appeals officer in the VECs. While there may be good reason for establishing this statutory post, it appears slightly odd that decisions by the awarding bodies should be appealed to a member of their staff, particularly as the chief executive may make the decision in the first instance. This provision appears to create duplication of work.

Deputy Costello referred to the role of students in the appeals mechanism. Perhaps it is not necessary to have such an intermediate appeals process. Having appealed a number of decisions on student grant awards on behalf of constituents, the problem I encountered was finding information on how to pursue an appeal.

On the option to extend the 30-day period for appeals, perhaps the Minister is aware of cases where such an extension was justified. Deputy Costello made a fair point regarding the difficulty it creates for students. However, it also creates difficulties for the VECs, which may come under intense pressure, including from elected representatives, to extend deadlines when it may not be necessary to do so. The old adage of "give an inch, take a mile" may be relevant in such cases. I am not criticising the Bill but making some observations on it. It is good legislation that finally places the student support process on a statutory footing.

It is important to establish an independent appeals body. In the cases I have dealt with, the decision of the VEC would be notified to the applicant by the chief executive. If the decision was appealed, the appellant would invariably receive a further letter from the chief executive notifying him or her that the original decision stood. The current procedure is not fair if the same person effectively decides on the application and any appeals arising therefrom. The Bill changes this but is the intermediate appeal necessary? The appeals process should be streamlined more and I question its necessity. How likely is it that a staff member of a VEC such as County Meath VEC, which is a small but effective institution, will make changes or perform a worthwhile function?

As I mention County Meath VEC, the Minister is aware of a number of significant projects in which it is engaged at present, particularly with regard to Coláiste na hInse in my area, which is going through the planning process and which will open in September. It has almost 100 pupils for first year and a professional job is being done of opening the school. This is evident in the community and it gives me great confidence that County Meath VEC will be willing to take on these extra responsibilities which will be bestowed by the Oireachtas. I know the Minister does not intend to launch a pilot programme to implement the changes included in this Bill but if she did I would recommend County Meath VEC.

With regard to previous difficulties, in Trinity College a notice board showed the local authorities and VECs, such as Drogheda VEC, County Louth VEC, County Meath VEC, City of Dublin VEC and County Dublin VEC, from which grants had arrived. It was alleged the grants became available when the Government supplied the money and perhaps this was the case. It proved difficult for many people who depended on the money to pay deposits for rental accommodation and to get started in college. Students should be encouraged to work as much as they can during the summer holidays and contribute to their education. They should not be entirely dependent on the State. The State has only a certain role to play. As a student, I worked during college and this is no harm so long as it does not interfere with studies.

From reading the Bill, I understand the awarding authorities, namely the VECs, will have the power to create application forms. Should the Minister do this through regulation or append it to the legislation? Will it lead to a divergence of practice? Should the design of the form and deciding the information requested be a central function? I am not sure what discretion is required and it seems discretion is being offered.

When we think about third level grants we think of the main universities and institutes of technology with which we deal all the time. A wide range of third level education is available in the State. Under section 8, the Minister is allowed define approved institutions whose students can benefit from grant assistance. A number of them are automatically deemed to be approved institutions, such as publicly funded institutions. Private institutions also exist and section 8 also sets out the criteria to which the Minister must have regard when deciding what is an approved institution.

Is the Minister minded to add in a section as to the institutions' commitment to the Irish language? I know not all institutions teach Irish but perhaps the Minister could take it into account. It might encourage newer institutions to take a more active role in promoting the Irish language, particularly in business courses.

The Bill includes the definition of an approved course. The Minister can approve a course under the Bill, which contains a long list of criteria to which the Minister must have regard. Some might argue the Oireachtas should decide on what is an approved course and not give the discretion to the Government. In this case it is necessary because courses change and new courses are brought into being. The Minister knows what to do and the Oireachtas has given her guidance on it.

Under section 10, the awarding authorities are obliged to assess and review the resources required by them for the purpose of performing their functions. An increase of resources will be required. The Minister should select a couple of extremely good VECs and ask them to come up with systems that would work. Very good people work in the VEC sector throughout the country. I will not name names but the Minister knows who they are. I would love if they were heavily involved in this because they would take it on with gusto. What do they need to run this system? They are already doing it to an extent and will be only too delighted to expand their role. The county councils will be fairly happy not to be involved.

Should we publish the list of recipients of grants? I do not see it provided for in the Bill. It would certainly discourage fraud and those who on paper are entitled to grants but in reality may not be. Examples of this exist throughout society. The focus today is on pharmacists. The money doctors get under the GMS scheme, the money solicitors and barristers get under the legal aid scheme and TDs' salaries are published. It does not tell the full story but it is published. It is public money and the public is entitled to know. Perhaps publishing the information on grants is a good idea but requires further thought.

Under section 11, the Minister can transfer the functions of an awarding authority to another body when he or she thinks the body is not doing the job it is supposed to do. Section 11(1)(a) is particularly relevant as it allows for the transfer from one VEC to another. Perhaps a number of VECs will come together and ask the Minister to transfer functions from one or two to three or one to two. It may not always be the case that the Minister is not happy. Perhaps the VECs may feel they could do the work better jointly, particularly the smaller VECs.

Provision is made for nationality and residence requirements and I know this is major issue for the Department of Finance. Is the habitual residence clause in social welfare law relevant? Where an Irish child of parents who were required to work abroad wants to study in Ireland one might suggest he or she wants to avail of our low fees or free fees as compared to his or her home country. However, perhaps they want to settle in Ireland which is where they really belong. I have been in correspondence with the Minister on a number of cases of students living abroad who want to study in Ireland with regard to fees in particular but also to grants. Rather than looking back with regard to residence can we look forward as we do in social welfare, although the residency requirement clause causes controversy. Will the Minister examine this because people do lose out?

Section 14 allows the Minister, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, to make regulations for such matters of procedure and administration as appear to the Minister to be necessary or expedient in respect of applications by students for grants. Will this allow the Minister to specify a form? Section 15 states an applicant shall apply to an awarding authority for a grant. An applicant cannot apply to receive more than one grant at one time. Perhaps this is self-evident. However, in other areas of society, particularly with regard to council housing, people are on lists with various local authorities. Section 15(3) states "An applicant shall furnish to the awarding authority the information specified in subsection (4) and such other information as the authority may request". While I accept an element of discretion is required for people to prove their income to qualify for a maintenance grant, this gives too much to the awarding authority. It could be seeking documents that local authorities never sought. Clear guidelines should be given as to what information should be required.

Section 16 deals with change of circumstances and gives tremendous power to the awarding authority in the case where a student's circumstances change for the better and a grant may not be required. What about when circumstances change for the worse? There are many examples such as mature students or a student's parents no longer supporting them after a row. I have encountered many such cases but there seems to be inflexibility in the system.

There should be a provision to allow a student apply for a grant during the academic year if his or her circumstances change. Students attending advanced courses from the Law Society of Ireland in April this year will be assessed on income in 2006. Fees for these courses are relatively high and many students attending them from the country must live in Dublin temporarily. They will, however, be assessed for a period when they could have been working as apprentices and will not qualify for the grant. My local authority treats a person starting a course in April as starting in September of the previous year and makes no allowance. This inflexibility should be addressed.

I welcome the provision for a proper appeals system on a statutory basis. It may be necessary to introduce time limits to give clarity to the process. The appeal rules in the current system were often difficult to understand and deal with.

Deputy Costello referred to section 25 which deals with access plans and equality programmes. While it exempts established universities and institutes of technology to avoid replicating existing laws, it provides for access to private approved institutions by economically or socially disadvantaged people, by people who have a disability and by people from sections of society significantly underrepresented in the student body. These institutions will have to report regularly on their access programmes and prove they are implementing the policies. This is a welcome provision for the smaller and new colleges, highlighting they are not just businesses.

I thank the Minister for introducing this welcome legislation. While students always give out — I did so myself when in college — it has been welcomed by the Union of Students in Ireland. The sooner it is enacted the better. If there is an opportunity to operate the Bill's provisions in pilot programmes this year, will the Minister consider County Meath VEC?

If the Deputy was giving out about everything in college, he has since joined a very good profession.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. Student supports is an area with which all public representatives have first-hand knowledge and dealings. I could spend the rest of the day outlining to the Minister genuine anomalies in the current supports system. However, the most important aspect of the Bill is that the appeals process can advise the Minister of such anomalies and have them addressed.

The rigid structure of the current system does not facilitate the easy processing of student maintenance grants. Every speaker has stated the current system's structure with 66 different bodies is shambolic. The fundamental problem with the system is the late payment of maintenance grants, leading to much hardship for students. It is caused by the Minister of the day dragging his or her heels in announcing the income limit thresholds for third level grants. In turn, applications for grants cannot be circulated until the Minister makes that decision. This delays the whole process and leads to financial hardship.

Further delays in processing grants occur with the different local authorities. It is not necessarily the local authorities with the largest workload that are the last to issue payment. Students end up having to take out personal loans from banks until their third level grant comes through. Such delays cause additional worry for leaving certificate students waiting for their results and subsequent CAO offer.

The new website, referred to by Deputy Stanton, www.studentfinance.ie, will help allay some of those concerns. The Minister, the Department and the Higher Education Authority are to be commended for this development. Hopefully, we will see more utilisation of technology in this area.

Section 9 states an approved course must be a full-time course. Over the years, all Members will have come across cases of part-time students and courses that are not covered by the higher education grant. A constituent of mine is in receipt of the one-parent family payment and wants to participate in a distance-learning teacher training course run by Hibernia College, a course approved by HETAC and qualifying for the higher education grant. While the Department of Social and Family Affairs would approve her back to education allowance if she were attending a full-time course in a recognised college, it will not approve a distance-learning course, even though it is Government policy to assist parents on the one-parent family payment. The current policy needs to be reviewed.

With four young children it is not possible for my constituent to move her family to Dublin to participate in the course. Her difficulty is compounded by the fact she is ineligible for the higher education grant. This leaves her with course fees of €8,000 per annum. More co-ordination between the Departments of Social and Family Affairs and Education and Science is needed. If someone meets the requirements for the back to education allowance he or she should be deemed eligible for the higher education grant. I know we cannot open it up to every single person in the country who is doing a part-time course and I fully accept that. However, if people meet the criteria for the back to education allowance, surely we should try to facilitate them and encourage them to get out of the cycle of poverty.

The Minister also said in her contribution that the Bill would provide for more demanding general residency requirements for maintenance grants. How does that affect a cohort of people whose situation we have highlighted on numerous occasions, namely the illegal Irish in the USA who are now being forced to come home? Some of these have no formal third-level education, while some left school with only their junior certificates or their group certificates before they went to the USA. These people are denied access to social welfare or any other entitlements. This condition will also now deny them access to education.

The Bill also sets out nationality requirements for students from outside the European Union. This is an extremely interesting area and one on which I want to focus.

Debate adjourned.