I call on Deputy Connaughton who has 13 minutes, an unlucky number for some.
Student Support Bill 2008: Second Stage (Resumed).
It might be long enough.
This necessary Bill has many aspects. Every Member knows matters dealing with student grants and fees are extraordinarily important. While fees for third level education were abolished some time ago, I believe they should not be reintroduced. The abolition of third level fees has ensured we get the best possible benefit from our education programmes. Down through the years, all Governments have taken education seriously even though there are certain aspects to it with which this Government has failed miserably.
I have considerable experience of third level education both as a parent and a public representative. Many economists argue that not having third level fees does not make good economics. Unless there was a mechanism where the cut-off point for eligibility for fees exemption was extremely high, there would be fewer attending third level colleges. I accept there are no immediate plans to reintroduce third level fees, but if they were it would be a retrograde step of mammoth proportions. While family sizes may be getting smaller, for parents to put three or four children through third level college with maintenance and fees, they would need a money-making machine inside the door of the house.
They might need one outside the door too.
Yes, a Cheann Comhairle, as indeed I am sure you know.
Economists have a particular way of looking at matters. I want to ensure young boys and girls who have the ability and desire to get to third level, no matter what route they take, have the opportunity to do so. One of the great achievements of all Governments here is the remarkable link between students who may not have taken their studies too seriously or, for whatever reason, did not shine——
How seriously do they have to be taken?
The Ceann Comhairle is in a good mood today.
It must be the stimulating speech the Deputy is making.
He knows there are ten races in Cheltenham today.
The Ceann Comhairle should tread carefully.
That might be a reason for feeling differently.
I am glad to see this phenomenon is not only in my house.
The system has now reached the point at which it is possible for young people who want to go forward to go all the way to postgraduate courses at university by availing of PLC courses and so on, irrespective of where they start from. I know what I am talking about. It is a credit to everybody concerned that the possibility is there for people who are prepared to persevere.
To return to the Bill before us, I have no objection to rejigging the administrative aspects of the disbursement of third level grants. As a public representative I have dealt with the VEC in Galway and Galway County Council for many years, and I have never found them to be other than co-operative and extremely interested in what they are doing. However, there are a few aspects I am concerned about. Over the years I have not been able to understand why things could not be done differently from an administrative point of view. I hope this will change under the new system. I notice that the academic year 2008-09 will not be affected by the changes in the Bill and the county councils will still deal with the universities and the VECs with the ITs.
One of the things I cannot understand — this Minister stands indicted in this area as well as everyone else — is why the application forms cannot be posted out in the early part of the year, around March or April, to allow students to apply for grant aid. This would ensure that the administrative problems associated with the arrival of thousands of applications do not occur at a crucial point in the months of August and September, when the grants should be made available. Last year the current Minister for Education and Science gave an undertaking in the House that the applications would be out much earlier last year than any other year, but this did not happen. The ruaille buaille in the local authorities and the VECs was the same as ever when they received large volumes of applications at once, and they found it impossible to have the approvals ready by the time the colleges opened. Whatever about the new legislation, I hope this will not happen this year. I can see no administrative reason for it. I am not involved in that side of it now but I assume the computer systems can cope with earlier applications. We have so many computers talking to each other nowadays that I cannot for the life of me imagine why it cannot be done.
The means test income limit is another area of concern. I do not have time to develop this point but I could talk about it all day. I do not think that €38,675 between two parents is a sufficiently high cut-off point for full grant eligibility. We all know about the graduation that is down the line, although I do not have time to talk about that. An income of slightly more than €38,000 is very small if both parents are working, as it corresponds to €19,000 each, which is just above the social welfare limit. If there are two or three children living in a household with an income of €45,000 or €50,000 they would not get full grants but only partial grants. On an income that is only slightly higher again, all the children will receive is the amount of the registration fee. This means untold misery for many families. They are not even the new poor. At that income level, they are poor anyway. They must pay for childminding, the mortgage and so on, and then they are hit with this at a sensitive stage.
I am not talking about tricking around with 5% or similar. The figure needs to be substantially increased. If it is not, there will be two main effects. People who are academically capable of going on to higher education will be prevented from doing so and, worse than that, youngsters will be pressurised into taking jobs. When young people start to work in supermarkets and such places, they achieve a level of independence they should not have. The minute they get money in their pockets they think the world is at their feet and it is only ten years later, when they have missed their educational chance, that they see it was the wrong decision to make. They do not know this when they make the decision. This is why the income limit of €38,675 needs to be substantially increased. The full grant is €3,420 per student. One would imagine that should be increased, although I know the State does not have infinite resources. However, if more people in the category I am talking about could get the full grant it would represent substantial progress.
I understand the Bill contains provisions for an appeals mechanism. I often experienced clashes of interpretation between the local authority and the Department and have spent many an hour on the phone with Galway County Council and then with the Department attempting to clarify what is or is not accepted as income. I did not get an answer most of the time because one of these would start playing the other off. The only people to lose at the finish were the students. I always thought the VEC and the county council were just agents for the Department.
I hope the appeals mechanism in the Bill will allow a parent or mature student to argue his or her case to somebody who can make a decision on behalf of the local administering body, henceforth the VEC, and the Department. That person or persons, whoever they are, will be very busy if the appeals mechanism is what it should be.
Everything should be done for people who wish to re-enter the education system, including single mothers, people over 23 who have been employed, and so on. Whatever else we achieve through this Bill, measures to get people back into education will pay for themselves a thousand times over.
I welcome the opportunity to make my brief contribution to this important debate. I am glad to note that my colleagues across the floor are in good form, presumably because of the short holiday we are going to enjoy. I intend to spend St. Patrick's Day in Tallaght, in case anybody is looking for me. I was interested to hear from the Dominican order this morning that the next time St. Patrick's Day falls during Holy Week will be 2160. I am just trying to be helpful and hope people will mark this in their diaries.
This is very relevant.
Education has been the main theme this week and the Acting Chairman, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, was kind to me last night during Private Members' business when I spoke of a school in my area. It is important that I support educational facilities in my region and I made the point, as did my colleagues, that there is an accommodation crisis in the Holy Rosary national school, Ballycragh. The Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, is here and I am anxious to stress to him that progress must be made on this matter.
I listened carefully to many of the contributions on the Student Support Bill and I think it will be important legislation. I am happy to see colleagues from all parties welcoming it and I hope it will pass through the Dáil easily. Many of the contributions have been very positive. Most Deputies have mentioned their constituencies and some have mentioned every street in their constituencies so I feel free to mention Tallaght a few times. I may also mention Firhouse, Greenhills, Templeogue, Brittas and Bohernabreena.
The purpose of this Bill is to provide for a unified grant payment scheme to replace the four existing schemes. It aims to place all student support schemes on a statutory footing for the first time and provides for awarding authorities to administer student grants in line with the provisions of the Bill. We should support this because all of us regularly see cases that relate to this Bill's remit in the course of our political business. At the eight clinics I hold throughout my constituency every week, but particularly at certain times of year, people come to me with concerns relating to the higher education grants scheme. My colleague, Deputy Cyprian Brady, also sees many such issues in his constituency.
There is always a challenge to ensure young people get places in third level education and we must be particularly active in this regard. Every constituency faces challenges but some, including Dublin South-West and other Dublin constituencies, need hard work from Deputies to ensure people get the opportunity to attend university.
I have told the Minister and Minister of State on a number of occasions that the problems many students and parents bring to us could be dealt with easily. One issue facing young people is that of third level places that are not available in the State and that force them to go abroad, particularly the UK. The Department should examine how such courses could be provided here because many Deputies meet young people who make this point every summer.
The Department faces a difficulty in dealing with returning emigrants. We have encouraged people and families to return to Ireland for many reasons, such as employment opportunities, but often those who return and wish to access third level education experience difficulties. The Department insists that such people must spend three years in the country before making an application but I feel we should approach this in a more commonsense way. The return of emigrants was formerly an issue that only affected the west but it now happens all over the country and I have recently seen many such cases in the Dublin region. The Department should examine this matter.
I am glad this Bill is before us because it gives us the opportunity to point out that students, particularly those who wish to access grants, should have as much support as possible. We must ensure that information is easily available. I was at a function for the opening of a citizens information centre, CIC, with the former Taoiseach, Mr. Garrett FitzGerald, not in Tallaght but in Crumlin, where I am from, and he made the point that many of the queries we get relate to the fact that the system does not work. There have been many improvements in this regard. I do not wish to embarrass the Minister of State but I have often said the Department of Social and Family Affairs is particularly good at disseminating information. There has also been much progress and reform in this regard in the Department of Education and Science. We must take every opportunity to point out that systems should be easy to access and that clients should be the focus of all schemes. People should be able to get information as easily and quickly as possible.
I was on a local authority in south Dublin from 1991 and I do not remember when I had to give up that position. I lament the fact that I had to leave the local authority and, as Deputy Tom Hayes will appreciate, most of the queries I receive still relate to local authority matters. However, time moves on and I am happy to be a TD. Local authorities and vocational education committees, VECs, have done a good job. I was a member of the County Dublin VEC from 1985 to 1991. This Bill attempts to bring about a tighter focus and I feel it will be supported because there is an issue relating to the ease with which students can access information.
I am bound to mention Tallaght in a debate like this. During the election a man told me that I am not really from Tallaght and I agreed. He asked how long I have lived in the area and I told him I have been there for 40 years. He responded "that is not long, is it?". The Tallaght I moved to needed many facilities, including educational facilities. While I was on the VEC I became a member, in 1990-91, of the interim board of the institute of technology, now known as the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, ITT, Dublin. This institution has a significant reputation nationally and I am glad progress has been made in this regard over the years.
Students at ITT come from many places and we tried to ensure as many people as possible, particularly local students, could access services and courses. I am glad to note that 2,400 full-time students and 1,400 part-time students were registered there last year. The Institute of Technology, Tallaght, has become a focus of attention in my town. I often point out that Tallaght is a city in all but name, with everything one would expect in a major centre of population. The institute of technology is part of local life and provides excellent educational facilities. I am glad that many Ministers and political personalities have visited the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, in recent times. As a local Deputy I feel I should highlight the importance of this college at every opportunity. I will not enter the argument on university status, as some colleagues do, because this is a matter for the future. I am proud of ITT and feel it is important that as many local people as possible can access its services. This is a relevant point to make in light of this Bill. Third level institutions and colleges around the country also attract people from my constituency. Many students from the country, including Tipperary and Cork, attend Tallaght IT and enjoy the facilities as well as the excellent classes. There is an issue about ensuring that Dublin South-West and every other constituency has access to education. I notice that the Sunday Independent listed me recently as having a university degree. I will out myself. I did not go to university. I attended school locally at Clarendon Street, the Christian Brothers in Synge Street and in Drimnagh. Also I did many part-time evening courses in industrial relations and public relations, although that does not show.
We know now where the Deputy got it.
I always had a very strong commitment to further education but I did not quite make it to university. I have met many people recently who have found themselves in the same situation and who had an opportunity to return to education. In that regard I particularly applaud the efforts of Trinity College on its access programme, the TAP, which has taken students from many places, including the Dublin region and Tallaght, and given them the opportunity to attend courses which they would not otherwise have undertaken. Through that system, many people have accessed university courses. In case Deputy Tom Hayes is interested I have just found that there is one student in Tallaght IT from County Tipperary. I must try to find him some day.
I thank the Deputy for the information. I would not even get that information in reply to a parliamentary question.
There is also one student from County Cork. I hope more students will come from the country and that the facilities and the courses in Tallaght IT will continue to develop.
I wish to speak about access to third level education. I am not saying my constituency is any more disadvantaged than elsewhere. Over the years, the so-called County Dublin area of need has been designated as far as my county is concerned in a number of areas, in a number of places in Tallaght west and also in Clondalkin. My colleague, Deputy John Curran, would want me to make that point. Other colleagues, including Deputy Cyprian Brady who is sitting beside me, will also make that point. We must always strive to ensure in terms of social inclusion that young people from so-called disadvantaged backgrounds get as many educational opportunities as possible.
The Taoiseach used to say, and still does, that at a time when all boats are rising we must make sure the little boats keep rising. At a time when all boats are under pressure — there is a touch of that in the economy at present — we must absolutely ensure that the small boats continue to rise. There is a whole range of issues relating to social inclusion in that regard. Certainly, so far as access to education is concerned there are particular challenges.
I am very proud of all the schools in my constituency. I am glad that many of them have made particular progress during the past ten, 15 and 20 years. Last week I attended a celebration with the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, in St. MacDara's Community College, which takes students from different areas, including Crumlin, Drimnagh and many parts of Tallaght. It was amazing to walk up the corridor and see commemorations of events over recent years where students from all backgrounds and areas did well not only in the college but made progress in later life. I do not want to make too much of a social comment in this regard, but there was a time in certain areas where certain skills and certain trades were not produced. I do not wish to speak about myself but somebody told me recently that as far as he or she knows — I was reared in Crumlin — there has not been a strong stream of Dáil Deputies coming from that area. I do not say that in any flippant way. It is important that every area has a chance in that regard. It has often been said to me that we have not had any judges yet from Crumlin, Drimnagh or Tallaght. I am not sure about the position in Drumcondra. I make that point in terms of access to education. That has to be the goal. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, will agree that we are all entitled to look forward to the day when people from every region in the country, including every part of the Dublin region, will be properly educated. I am a Dubliner and as I do not have any country cousins I cannot speak too much about the country. People should be able to complete their education and attend university. People should be able to compete for all those jobs. Whether they want to be judges, politicians, film stars or whatever there should not be a bar so far as where one has come from is concerned. That is very much about educational advantage and disadvantage and the progress that should be made in that regard.
There is a whole range of issues relating to student support that needs to be emphasised. All the colleges, including Tallaght IT, take particular care to ensure that students from disadvantaged backgrounds, students with disabilities and mature students who did not have that chance previously, are more represented. While there has been progress in that regard there is, as stated a few years, "a lot done, more to do". That is certainly true.
I referred earlier to the Trinity access programme and commend it. Much progress can be made throughout the country with regard to the access programme. Tallaght IT is committed to encouraging the participation of people from local disadvantaged backgrounds but also from other areas. It is not merely about getting them into college but supporting them during their time in college. In 2007-08, 53% of first year students attending Tallaght IT were drawn from those areas where traditionally there was a low turn out. The institute has a number of programmes and support schemes in place to enhance their participation.
The theme of my contribution is that we have to continue to strive for those areas of disadvantage. There will always be areas throughout the country and in the Dublin region where people will have easy access to education. There has to be a concentration on those areas where there is still much to do, despite the progress. I can be proud of the progress in that regard in my constituency but everyone else can speak about their own areas. That is what we must continue to do. Those people are entitled to our support.
I look forward to supporting the Bill. I thank the Acting Chairman for her courtesy and wish her a happy St. Patrick's Day.
I thank the Deputy.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Student Support Bill. Our attitude to education is one thing that unifies this House. It goes back many years, with successive Ministers with responsibility for education who have made various changes to create what is an education system of which we are proud. Like anything, it needs alteration as time goes by. Varying circumstances lead to us implementing changes.
The Student Support Bill is about helping students pass through college and deal with the issues that affect them in college years. It is a major transition for anyone who is living in a protected environment in an economy that is doing well to leave home in a rural area and move to universities in the cities to take up a different life, where they are exposed to facets of modern life such as drugs and drink. These are in the world and it is important to discuss the lives of students.
We are very proud of our education system, which has helped the Celtic tiger. We refer to managing the economy and the business of running the country but the reality is that our education system played a major part in the type of graduates that emerged, particularly from UL, which was granted university status some years ago. Some of the courses offered there are much sought after in the business world in Ireland and abroad. This has attracted a major amount of industry to Ireland and I commend this.
I wish to refer to many aspects of this Bill and many issues that affect students. I feel strongly about the acquisition of computers for students. A computer is an essential part of any student's life. Irish banks offer students overdrafts and I question the wisdom of this. Why do banks encourage students to have interest-free overdrafts for a number of years? I challenge the banks to grant aid or give students a laptop. It would be a far better gesture than giving an overdraft that could be spent on parties. It must be paid back but it is given interest free. I challenge the banks to help students who are worse off and need computers. If the banks do not do it, the Department should intervene when it is allocating grants to allow for the purchase of computers.
As a representative of a rural constituency with no third level institution apart from the Tipperary Rural and Business Development Institute, TRBDI, I know there is particular pressure on the parents who must send their children to college and pay for rent or accommodation compared to those living in cities such as Dublin or Cork. It is a major cost for parents who must fork out large sums every week for student accommodation. There should be a tax break. I know people with three children in college who find it extremely difficult. They must remortgage their house, take out loans or use their savings. Having to pay for accommodation during the week, as well as providing it at home during the weekend, is grossly unfair. Of all the matters examined in education, this has not been considered. There should be a tax break for these people. I know of many instances of this in my constituency.
The grant application form should be on-line. I hope this will be realised in the Bill. Everything is on-line, including applications for passports, driving licences and car tax. Students who are so competent with computers should be given access to applications on-line.
The VECs and councils implement these grants. As public representatives we meet those on the verges, particularly the self-employed who cannot get grants. The process has been greatly streamlined and VECs and local authorities should be commended for very good work.
When people go from a safe and protected environment into the world of education, there is not enough guidance or help for students managing their finances. Many end up in debt or borrow money from other students or brothers and sisters. Some receive money from home, others receive grants and some work at weekends. At that point in their lives, a certain number of students need help and support in managing their finances. They may come from homes with little expertise at managing finances so the students have no training. There is a back-up role for student unions or universities to help students to manage their finances. We should encourage this when referring to student support. We should consider that for this Bill. It would be money wisely invested and would provide a back-up in the long term. Whether these people finish college, it would be beneficial if they were given guidance. Will the Minister of State consider the issues of finance management and computers? There is a new category of poor person in terms of those who send their children to college and I urge that everything possible be done for them. In that regard, the Bill is welcome and timely.
Last week I was involved in the decision of my parliamentary party' to support university status for Waterford Institute of Technology because, given the impact of the University of Limerick on the mid-west, it would be good for the south east. As we develop universities, Waterford Institute of Technology should have such status. I hope the Government will be able to see its way towards supporting this call.
There are many proposals before the Department regarding the Tipperary Rural and Business Development Institute, now known as the Tipperary Institute, which has a significant future and for which land is ready at Ballingarrane, just outside Clonmel. I would like the institute to be developed because not enough students attend it. Deputy O'Connor referred to the numbers attending the Institute of Technology Tallaght. We must all look after our own corner; therefore, I ask the Department to consider the Tipperary Institute. As the economy changes and we move away from dependence on the building industry, many rural businesses have the potential to be developed and have a new role, particularly given the World Trade Organisation negotiations. Considerable changes are in store for rural Ireland and, as such, County Tipperary needs bodies such as the business institutes in Thurles and Clonmel.
I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to say these few words on what is an important Bill. We are proud of developments in the education sector. Students from my locality are touring the Houses. I do not know whether they are present, but I welcome the students from Cashel community school.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss this Bill which is relatively short but, in terms of future progress, important to our localities and the country. Its purpose is to provide for the making of grants to enable students to attend higher and further education courses. Its main objective is to create a more coherent system for grant administration. Currently, there are four means-tested schemes. I compare this matter to the need for a treaty on an expanded European Union, as the education grants system has expanded significantly and our population of young people has increased dramatically during the years. Given these factors, streamlining the system is timely. The higher education grants scheme is one of the four schemes and administered by local authorities. In some cases, implementing it has proved difficult and has led to a number of issues. The remaining schemes are administrative and managed by the vocational education committees.
The Bill will enable the development of an awards system to deliver grants on time to those who need them most. As public representatives, we have all encountered particular higher education grant cases that revolved around misunderstandings on the part of officials or mistakes on the part of applicants. When the time comes to apply for grants, there are always issues. Given that grants could make the difference between an individual attending or not attending a third level or further education course, their importance cannot be underestimated. The Bill provides for the streamlining of all grants in order that the payment of maintenance grants will be provided for through a unified grants payment scheme under the umbrella of the VECs, an issue I will address shortly. It will also reduce the number of grant awarding authorities from 66 to 33, an amazing streamlining of the system, improve efficiency and consistency and ensure those who apply for grants will be considered within appropriate timeframes and those who are eligible will receive payments promptly. The granting of funds under the schemes can make the difference between a person continuing his or her education or losing out, in some cases due to administrative failures.
The Bill will introduce service level improvements, including guaranteed timeframes for more timely payment of grants and more efficient arrangements for handling applications, making it easier to apply and for grants to be paid. The Bill will make a significant contribution to promoting greater equity of access to further and higher education, as alluded to by previous speakers. The student grant schemes are central to our national strategy for equity of access and support more than 56,000 students attending further and higher education courses. Eligible students attending approved full-time third level courses or approved PLC courses who satisfy the prescribed conditions of the schemes in respect of age, residence, nationality, means and previous academic attainment are awarded grants. Given the increase in numbers in the past 15 to 20 years and the fact that so many are in a position to continue on to further education courses, we need a scheme and framework that can cater for the numbers involved and supply a service to which people are entitled to expect.
Student grants represent an important strategic investment in people. Personal wealth should not be a barrier to education. The House has often debated how people are included in or excluded from access to education. In my short time in the House I have noticed that we spend much time discussing education matters, a significant area for all Deputies. Given that we have taken considerable strides forward, some of the comments from the other side of the House amaze me because they are always negative. During this discussion the funding of education, in particular, has been raised. The majority of Deputies have gone through the education system. When I was in school, there were raffles and sales of work. These fund-raising functions were organised to raise funds for charities or specific items for the school and are not a new phenomenon. Having listened to some of the comments made, one would imagine that no progress has been made, but we should accept that considerable strides forward have been taken and move on. There will always be areas in need of further investment and in respect of which improvements can be made.
The only education providers in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were the religious orders. There was no investment in education, in either buildings or people, and this continued under successive Governments for some time. Huge strides forward then were made in respect of how education is considered and the importance of education in providing choices for people entering their early teens and young adulthood.
This links into the improvements that have been made in adult education in respect of giving people a second chance. The National College of Ireland is one of the institutions located in my constituency and it has proved to be a huge success there. As one of its philosophies, it has the concept of life long learning, that is, from birth to death one is learning continually. People should be given an opportunity to continue so doing throughout their lives.
Student grants represent an important investment in people. Such grants provide the means for individuals to achieve their full potential. This is our way of supporting a socially inclusive society that enables us to increase substantially the pool of highly skilled and qualified graduates who are needed to maintain our competitiveness and to sustain the economic progress that we have experienced. We must invest further in fourth level education to remain competitive and the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, has a particular interest in this regard.
Government Members have long realised that Ireland must continue and make progress in this regard. Those who stand still are going backwards in the competitive global economy in which we compete. Given the advances we have made in technology, pharmaceuticals and research and development in particular, further investment in fourth level education certainly will prove successful in maintaining our competitiveness and the impact that Ireland has made as a relatively small country on the periphery of Europe. During a discussion that took place last night on software and information technology industries, it was noted that as a small country we compete with the US, India and China in respect of the supply and production of software. For four or five years from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, Ireland was the world's leading producer of software, which is a great testament to the quality of the people who leave our educational institutions.
Financial barriers have long been recognised as a major disincentive for many students who wish to access third level education and I see this phenomenon day in and day out. Deputy O'Connor mentioned this in respect of Tallaght and the position is similar in the constituency of Dublin Central, particularly in its inner city areas. Financial barriers always have been an issue and have been a barrier to people moving on and making choices. This has changed and continues to change in many of Dublin's socially deprived areas. I refer to the difference in the confidence shown by young children who are leaving school at present as a direct result of the investment made in our educational system at primary, secondary and third levels. The difference such investment has made in some of the aforementioned areas is startling.
The significant increases in the ordinary rate of maintenance grant in recent years have made the third level option more affordable for a broad range of students and their families. In my constituency, such grants have enabled students from working class areas to achieve their full potential. Without such grants, these individuals would not have the financial means to engage in third level education. Some valuable programmes also have been introduced by many of the institutions and private concerns in the area I represent. One that struck me in particular is the scheme that has been under way since the establishment of the financial services centre in Dublin 1 and the docklands area. It has encouraged students to go on to third level education and several companies in the Irish Financial Services Centre have sponsored individual students. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the great work they are doing.
The increase in students attending second and third level education has been remarkable in disadvantaged areas, particularly within the constituency I represent. Grants have acted as an incentive to encourage these individuals into education. I refer to areas of the city that experienced generations of unemployment and were socially deprived over successive generations. There was a complete lack of investment in infrastructure, facilities and schools and the changes that have taken place recently have made a great difference to such districts. Two years ago in one such area, 15 young people completed their leaving certificate examinations in a school for the first time, which was a great achievement in that area. Those young people went on to a fast-track programme into apprenticeships and at present, 12 of the 15 are in full employment in various locations throughout the city. This exemplifies the change that has taken place as a direct result of some of the initiatives that have been taken.
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. 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 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.
While this might seem small in relative terms, this can make a huge difference to a family that is trying to ensure its children, whether there are two, three, four or whatever number, get the best options regarding their education. This constitutes another change that has taken place in many districts and is particularly evident in my constituency, where parents now are more aware of the value and importance of education for their children. In some cases, those parents may not have had such opportunities. They may not even have completed their junior certificate in some cases, certainly not their leaving certificates, and are not in a position to assist their children. However, many existing schemes encourage parents to become more involved, thereby becoming involved themselves in the learning process, as they try to assist their children to continue in education. This is to be greatly welcomed because in some cases, generations of families have had no access to second, let alone third, level education. The existence of such programmes, which will assist those people to move on themselves, is to be greatly welcomed.
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 present academic year, compared with just over €2,000 in 1996-97.
One must consider the manner in which Ireland's demographics and population are changing. The 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. Furthermore, the availability and supply of substantial numbers of highly qualified graduates contributed significantly to Ireland's much-improved economic circumstances. All Members have heard the phrase pertaining to our well-educated young workforce and this factor has been highly significant in attracting foreign direct investment. One should consider how the numbers have changed recently. Full-time enrolments have grown in third level from just under 41,000 in 1980 to almost 140,000 at present. The entry rate to higher education has grown from 20% of 17 to 18 year olds in 1980 to a present rate of approximately 55.5%. More than half of school leavers continue on to third level education, a dramatic change in comparison to the position ten or 15 years ago. I recall a lecture given by the Governor of Mountjoy Prison, Mr. John Lonergan, in which he described the relevance of a person's postal address to his or her chances of going to prison. The relationship between where a person comes from and the population of Mountjoy Prison was startling. I do not doubt that the investment made in recent years will improve the lot of many of the young people who grow up in these areas. As issues will continue to arise in terms of individuals slipping through the net, we have to provide supports and proper programmes to ensure we minimise the number of such individuals. We will take huge strides if we continue the progress and investments made. The Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, and the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, have a particular interest in maintaining this progress.
The main objectives in implementing change are to enable improvements to the services provided for the 56,000 students in receipt of grants and the second level and mature students considering their future options and to ensure public confidence in an award system which delivers grants on time to those who need them most. The Bill will prove successful in making the system more efficient in providing grants on time. We have all experienced cases where people missed deadlines. Colleges are not in a position to change their regulations to cater for individuals owing to the numbers with which they have to deal. By reducing the number of grant awarding bodies from 66 to 33 and giving the VECs which have played a vital role in improving education full control of the system, the Bill will ensure grants are paid on time to those who are entitled to receive them. It will also maintain an even balance for people, whether they are from marginalised or affluent areas.
It was reported in a newspaper that the Department intended to introduce new rules to allow for the assessment of persons under the age of 23 years as independent applicants, which is already the case for those over that age. I accept it will be difficult to provide for this because, for example, students from outside Dublin who attend college in the city will have to rent accommodation. How will some be defined as independent and others, dependent? Earlier this week I received an inquiry on behalf of a constituent under the age of 23 years who was independent and did not enjoy a good parental relationship. I was asked whether provision could be made for the constituent in question under the education grants scheme but that is not possible. If a person starts college this year and the new scheme is introduced while he or she is still in college, will he or she fall to be dealt with retrospectively under the new provision?
There could be injustices on the other side also. If a 40-year old loses his or her job in the construction sector and moves back in with his or her parents because he or she never managed to buy his or her own property, he or she will be assessed on his or her parents' income. Will that situation continue to obtain? In the current housing environment he or she could be 60 years old and still living with his or her parents. Where will such persons stand if the new provision is introduced? We need to move to a system under which everybody over the age of 18 years will be assessed as an independent adult rather than on parental income.
As a clerical officer in Bolton Street, I used to administer the European Social Fund moneys and had to investigate the attendance roster to make sure students attended classes before paying grants. I am sure such moneys were paid irrespective of income. Several years ago the Labour Party published a report on improving access to universities, Keeping the Gates Open, which found that the information technology sector was the first to achieve better access for people from differing socio-economic classes thanks to the introduction of ESF grants. The barrier of grants and fees meant that those on lower middle incomes, in particular, chose to work instead of attending college. That was due as much to the psychological barrier as it was to the financial one. Access to college increased for everyone after the Labour Party abolished third level fees. We need to broaden the criteria because difficulties will arise in assessing why one 18 year old is independent while another is not. There is also scope for manipulating the system. Therefore, it would be better to consider a general grants scheme to cover everybody.
It is unfair that part-time students have to pay fees for third level courses, even though they cannot apply to participate in grant schemes. Equal access to education is not relevant solely to the latest crop of school leavers, approximately 50% of whom attend third level education. Those in their 50s and 60s suffered greater inequality of access when they left school. During one period 20% of school leavers went to college, while the other 80% entered the workforce. The people in question now face discrimination if they attend third level education because they are more likely to undertake part-time studies. They will have to pay fees of several thousand euro and continue to work. It would be difficult, therefore, to take advantage of the available education opportunities part-time. Last year the USI issued a statement welcoming a commitment by the Government to abolish third level fees for part-time students. As I could never find a definite commitment in that regard, the USI statement may have been premature. However, the Government's next step should be the introduction of free fees for part-time students who take qualifying courses. Aontas also campaigned on this issue and it has been recommended in a number of reports commissioned by the Government and included in the White Paper on lifelong learning. The Labour Party was the first to make it a policy that students should have free tuition when studying part time.
As a Senator, I repeatedly raised the need to make the third level education system more flexible.
The fact that our system is so rigid is a huge barrier that prevents people from less well-off backgrounds from going to college. First, they do not have the culture of going to college, but second, they feel obliged to go out to work to contribute to the family. If we had a more flexible model of education some of those people might be more inclined to go to college at whatever stage, be it from school or later.
We should have a system where one can study part-time and then change to full-time study or where one can work and study or study part-time during the day. One should be able to go in and out of the education system. Even though modules have been introduced our education system is still very much based around one-size-fits-all approach in which a once-off chance is provided to a person when he or she finishes school or one never goes. We need a more flexible system based around the idea of lifelong learning, as referred to by Deputy Cyprian Brady. Such a system would provide people with a chance to access education and get a third level qualification no matter what are their circumstances or what lifestyle they live.
If we are to have a successful economy we need more educated people. We cannot rely on the construction sector any more. We need people to be trained in science and engineering among other areas. We would get more people from different socio-economic backgrounds back into the workforce if we had a more flexible third level education system. A more flexible model of education would not differentiate between full-time and part-time students. It should be possible to study on either basis at any time of one's life. Everybody should be provided with free tuition for the equivalent of four years in third level regardless of how they choose to study.
I glanced through a report in a newspaper recently suggesting the institutes of technology had much fewer applicants this year, especially in the science and engineering area but also in other sectors. The usual problem that we have every year is that we have thousands of vacant full-time college places that are already paid for and which are part of the system. The Department has funded the teachers, equipment etc. but the places are not filled. This is a case of money going down the drain. A more flexible system of education would allow people who had just been made redundant to avail of some of the vacant places and study part-time or whatever way suited their needs best. As it is, those places are vacant and the money spent on them is wasted. The system is not flexible enough. Even if the colleges wanted to do this they could not do so because the Department has not sanctioned such flexibility. Similarly, people drop out of college after starting courses.
I went to university. I studied English and history in Trinity College. Subsequent to that I studied legal studies part-time in the DIT. My first full-time job was as a clerical officer in DIT, Bolton Street. I have a family background in institutes of technology in that sisters and brothers attended them and my father worked in the system for a long time. That system has traditionally had the type of flexibility we should have in universities. A great deal can be learned from the IT and VEC sector in terms of their flexibility and creativity in how they organise their courses and how they adapt to people's needs and come up with new course ideas.
When I worked in Bolton Street I saw one person who started off as an apprentice, became a part-time student, then a full-time engineering student and who eventually completed a post-graduate qualification. That is the way our education system should work. If that individual had wanted to go the university route he probably would not have had a chance. When he started he was very unlikely to end up with a post-graduate qualification but achieved that by working his way through the IT system.
Universities, including Trinity College, have many access programmes but they are very much tokenistic. They are good in themselves but the university structure is still very much elitist and inflexible. Universities do not open to the same extent as ITs. Even ITs do not open as much as they should and are not as flexible as they should be but universities are particularly bad in that regard. It should be a requirement of universities that they are open all the time and that they operate in a similar manner to the ITs whereby one can move from part-time study to full-time study and vice versa, and that one can progress from a certificate to a diploma to a degree and beyond that to a post-graduate degree.
There is a need for an Irish open university system. I accept one can study many of the UK Open University courses here but they are very expensive. An eight week Open University course costs approximately €350. It is a very good system and we should have a similar one here that is modelled on the UK Open University but where the courses are more geared to Ireland. If one studies an Open University course on the criminal justice system it is very much focused on the UK criminal justice system and would not be related to our system. The same is true of nursing and other courses For that reason we need an Irish open university and we need to provide a grant scheme to help people to take up courses. Distance learning is an excellent system that allows people to access course materials on-line, at home and at one's own pace. One can build up modules as one goes along. One can start with an eight week course and then do a year-long course and gradually build up towards a degree.
Regarding the need to get more people to study science at third level, it is necessary to do more work at second level to encourage students towards science, engineering and technology. We need to convince people that it is desirable to study at third level. A recent study by the OECD found that Irish students came top of the league in terms of their awareness of the importance of the environment but they were only 15th in terms of their awareness of science. We need to tap into the interest of Irish students in the environment, especially given the importance of climate change and the need for energy conservation, the need to protect habitats and all those issues that have come much more to the fore in terms of the political agenda and public interest. Much more needs to be done to make students realise at second level that if they want to do something to protect the environment it can be done through science which is key in terms of dealing with climate change etc. Environmental science should be made more of a core part of the curriculum. Multimedia teaching materials such as DVDs are very much central to education in this area as there are many programmes about the environment. In order to promote science at third level we should tap into the interest in the environment and the practical applications of science.
As a local public representative people have raised the issue of the difficulties experienced by community groups. A great deal of work is done in my constituency by women's groups in particular which promote third level study. Very often they work in conjunction with NUI Maynooth and UCD. Women's studies and community studies are popular and they are good in themselves but much more can be done in terms of grant provision to encourage those women, and men also, to study other subjects. Much more needs to be done about community education for men because it has been difficult to get men to study on a second chance basis.
We should encourage these people to study science and engineering so they can contribute to the knowledge based economy we want to develop in the future. Many of those groups have brought to my attention the issue that they can get financing for so much, perhaps to certificate level, but when they go on to do a degree it becomes extremely expensive and many of them drop out.
The Bill is welcome. I worked in the administration of grants and it is good that there is just one system streamlined into the VECs instead of involving both councils and VECs. However the Government must address equality for part-time students. They should get the same entitlement to free tuition all the way to degree level. The Government must also address a more flexible model of education and the need to encourage as many people as possible, particularly returning and mature students, to study science and technology.
Deputy Michael Kennedy has 20 minutes.
Beidh mé ag labhairt ar feadh deich nóiméid agus beidh an Teachta Áine Ní Bhrádaigh ag labhairt ar feadh deich nóiméid. Tá athás mór orm labhairt ar an mBille seo. Ba mhaith liom tacú le na Teachtaí ar fad a chur fáilte roimh an mBille seo le déanaí.
I am sure the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, and the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, share my belief that there has been much open, transparent and constructive discussion on this Bill in recent weeks since it was announced. Before anybody criticises the existing grant distribution system it is worth pointing out that the student population in the State has grown from approximately 21,000 people to more than 137,000 in the space of 40 years. What seems an inappropriate system now had operated relatively efficiently until quite recently. In pointing this out I am not attempting to blame anybody in the system but to welcome the proposed changes provided for in the Bill. However, there are many reasons for making the changes suggested in the Bill.
The Union of Students in Ireland, USI, which has its finger on the pulse of discussing the needs of students, describes the system as a financial support maze. From the queries I have received over the years I agree with that statement. The system has too many authorities, separate assessment criteria, forms and different application processes. When one combines those together it spells the need to change the system. Until now there has been far too much bureaucracy in the system. Nobody can deny the proposals to streamline the grant system are welcome or that they will greatly improve the system of distributing grant aid to students. This does not detract from the sterling work done at local level by the local authorities and the VECs. This contribution needs to be acknowledged, and from the debate I have heard most Deputies on all sides agree both those bodies have done fantastic work over the years.
In replacing the existing system the Minister and her Department do not seek to punish the local authorities but to relieve them of a major workload and hand it over to an agency that is possibly better equipped to administer the grant aid programme. I commend the proposals to give sole responsibility for the administration and payment of the grants to the VECs. I am aware of the argument promoted by the USI and others that perhaps the Department of Social and Family Affairs would be more appropriate but I disagree. The VECs comprise a network of specialised education committees. No Department can compete with this expertise and the knowledge it has gained over the years. Many Deputies have alluded to the fantastic local information the VECs have, which is unrivalled and unparalleled. That is a vote of confidence in the VECs and I have no doubt about their ability to carry out the proposed duties.
The new streamlined approach to be offered by the VECs will end the great variations in the processing and payment of the grant applications. The USI submission refers to the time lag from one county to the other. We all share that view and it is one of the reasons the streamlining approach is necessary. It will also bring a certain level of relief to those who apply for an educational grant. I think not only of the overwhelmed and confused young people embarking on their college careers, but older people who endeavour to return to college. I commend Deputy Haughey on his work in lifelong learning. Fantastic work is being done there and it goes right across the community. For older people the application process can be intimidating. We all hear anecdotal evidence of older people who are put off returning to university or college because they feel stupid not being able to figure out which form they should fill in or where they should apply. I do not blame them because we have all gone through bureaucratic mazes from time to time.
Aontas, the adult education agency has spoken about the number of queries it receives annually. Last year it received over 3,500 queries and over a quarter of those were concerned with the application process for the grants. The complexity of the current system must be seen for what it is, a barrier to funding and education. By giving students the opportunity to apply to just one body, the VEC, as proposed here, one of these fears is allayed. Similarly, getting information from one body will allow the applicant to ascertain, in one telephone call, which grant he or she is applying for and the criteria involved.
The new scheme gives a commitment to applicants for a decision in a short space of time, and three weeks has been mentioned. From my past queries this three week time period is very welcome. The Bill gives a commitment to provide successful applicants with their grant payments within a month. Nobody in the House will disagree that prompt payment is necessary. Not only will this relieve the immediate financial burden of families whose children are about to receive the grant, it also limits the risk of people dropping out because they cannot wait to get the money. I am relieved the thousands of older pupils about to leave my area of north Dublin will encounter a more straightforward process than the one their older siblings had to deal with.
I welcome the plans to change the eligibility criteria of applicants. I particularly welcome the changes on residency requirements. Although the number of years prior to application is greater, there is greater flexibility. Students will be required to have resided in the State for three of the past five years, meaning the years many students spend travelling the world before they seek their college degrees will no longer hinder them. I have encountered the problem where young people who have gone on their world trips to Canada or Australia encounter difficulties when they come back. The new rule will be a welcome benefit. I also welcome the establishment of the appeals body, which will directly tackle fraudulent claims as well as plans to use students' PPS numbers as a single identifier along with a new central database. That would better identify those in receipt of undeclared incomes. It also proposes to use the PPS numbers to monitor the academic progress and attendance of students in receipt of grants. This ensures the funding goes to those who deserve it. It is essential that where State money is being paid we should be able to track where it goes, who benefits from it and how.
Deputy Tuffy spoke about science degrees and it is worth remembering that Ireland is second in the list of OECD countries for science graduates per 100,000 people employed in the 25 to 34 age group. That is a tribute to the Government plans and grants that have been provided for science education at third level.
There are just 11 minutes left in this slot. The Deputy has one minute left of his own time.
You have interrupted my train of thought, so I will finish. Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh.
Well done on the use of Irish.
Go raibh maith agat. Tá tusa ag déanamh iarracht a rá cúpla focal freisin, nach bhfuil?
A little bit.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Student Support Bill 2008, and I thank Deputy Kennedy for sharing his time with me.
I support the general principle of the Bill because it will provide for a single statutory basis for all student grants and replace the four different schemes currently operated by local authorities and VECs. Coming from a constituency that is home to an expanding third level institution, namely, NUI Maynooth, it gives me great insight into the challenges that students face when applying for grants. Since getting elected last May, I have had many students approach me with different issues and concerns relating to the grant application process. It is timely that we look at the application procedures and see how best we can streamline and improve the student grant process. We need to make it more user friendly for the students, the awarding bodies and the educational institutions.
The principal objective of the Bill is to create a more coherent and streamlined system for the administration of these grants, which will facilitate consistency of application and improved client accessibility. It will enable the development of an awards system that can deliver grants on time to those who need them most. The development of a unified system of student support, consolidating the existing four schemes for students attending higher education and post-leaving certificate courses, will greatly assist those embarking on higher and further education who need financial support. This Bill marks an important milestone in that process.Given the skills, experience and knowledge of the Vocational Education Committees, it is appropriate that they are given sole responsibility for the administration of student maintenance grants. The VEC sector brings with it a distinct and rich educational tradition in administering some of the existing grant schemes.
The proposals will reduce the number of grant awarding authorities from 66 to 33. Reducing the numbers of awarding authorities to this level will bring greater focus to the overall student grant schemes. It will also ensure that the VECs will become the experts in this area and future reform can be based on the experience they gain from their new expanded role. I have had problems with the strictness of the residency clause, particularly for mature students. I am delighted to see that the clause has been altered, although it is probably still a little too strict for mature students.
The checks and balances in the Bill merit mention. The Bill includes the introduction of a new independent appeals board, which will promote greater transparency in the grant-awarding process. The Bill also provides for the strengthening of the process whereby fraudulent claims can be rigorously pursued by an awarding authority. Substantial offences and penalties are set down, providing a firm basis to pursue those who have provided false or incomplete information to obtain a grant. Provision is also being made for transitional arrangements with the local authorities to smooth the process between the existing arrangements and the new arrangements.
The core objective of any change is to enable improvements in the standard of service provided to the 56,000 students around the country in receipt of grants, and to those potential further and higher education students considering their future options. For instance, NUI Maynooth has made significant strides in ensuring that under-represented groups are able to access third level education. In particular, mature students, travellers, students with a disability and students from socio-economic disadvantaged areas are encouraged to participate and engage in the opportunities a university education provides. I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, for the work he has done in the area of life-long learning. For each of these groups, the availability and timing of State financial support makes the difference between going to university or not. The introduction of this Bill will both endorse and continue to promote such equity in access.
Around €243 million was disbursed through the schemes in 2007, benefiting more than 56,000 students in further and higher education. Our challenge for the future is to ensure that we continue to make progress, in both the income limits for eligibility, and the actual grant levels for third level student support. We must continue to work to improve the standards for our students and in particular, to reduce the financial barriers that have long been recognised as a major disincentive for many students who wish to access third level education. The significant increases in the ordinary rate of the 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 the maintenance grant, we continue to target that support at those most in need and encourage access to further education for everyone.
I wish all those involved in the transitional arrangements the very best in moving from our current procedures to the more coherent and structured approach in awarding student grants, and I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. It is important because it recognises the issue of student grants for the future of our young people. I pay tribute to the VECs and the county councils for the work they have done in making the grants available. I was a member of Monaghan County Council, which had one of the best records for fast payment of grants. We took a cross-party decision that even if we had to borrow the money, students would come first and get their money on time. In this context, teachers and others involved in secondary schools need to make sure students are properly advised and encouraged to apply on time. In the past, the county council or the VEC often did not get the requisite information on time and grants were subsequently delayed. The Minister, as the person in charge of the taxpayers' money funding these grants, should use the opportunity early on in the year to encourage principals and teachers to get students to apply on time.
The Bill is fairly simple and is not contentious. It provides for a unified grant payment scheme and for the awarding authorities to administer student grants in line with the provisions of the Bill. Although it was not one of the issues for which it lobbied, the Irish National Adult Learning Organisation recognises that by simplifying the range of different grants and awarding authorities, information will be more accessible and the whole process of obtaining funding will be much simpler.
It is clear that people generally welcome this Bill. I also note that Aontas received 3,485 queries on grants. The last speaker, Deputy Áine Brady, referred to the fact that in her short time in the Dáil she has received many queries from students. I assure the Deputy that it is one of the major issues in the Summer and Autumn that Oireachtas Members will have to deal with. We are very conscious of the need to streamline the grants system and ensure that people know their entitlements.
To be blunt, I have no personal experience of third-level education. My education was at the university of life. I had to move on to my home farm at an early stage and did not get the opportunity to attend a third level institution. However, I recognise that it is extremely important, not just for people in cities but for people in rural Ireland. The problem in the Cavan and Monaghan areas, and the Border region generally, is that all of our students must travel to third level education, with the exception of those who attend the Cavan College of Education, which has a high number of students in attendance. That college is linked with other colleges so that students can get the opportunity to be near home at the outset and then travel for their final courses. There is also Miffett College, a smaller college in Monaghan. It is important that such colleges are recognised and that the payment structures and the way they are treated is changed. I hope the Department will deal with that.
The other issue of concern is that some students must opt out of college for various reasons, for example, because of family sickness. If they are unable to finish their first year in college, they find that when they return the following year, they cannot get grant aid to begin the course again. Often such students will end up claiming social welfare benefits or taking up low-paid employment, rather than returning to college. This must be sorted out. If there is a genuine reason for a person opting out, common sense must be applied.
One of my concerns regarding this more centralised scheme is that there would be more red tape and the problems of individuals would not be taken into account. There are special cases and people with special problems. I dealt with such a special case recently. A woman became seriously ill with cancer, for the second time. She first became ill five years previously. On the first occasion, she was able to claim sickness benefit and a small benefit for her children. However, two years ago, quietly, in the Social Welfare Bill, the benefit for children was removed if the income of a spouse was over a certain limit. That was done, literally, in the dark of night and caused a major problem for this family. The family was extremely annoyed when they realised that when the woman got sick for a second time, the children were not granted even that small amount of money. The other issue was that while she was alive and on sickness benefit, grant aid for her two children, who were attending college, was not considered. One can only imagine the drain on the family's income which was caused by her serious illness. The woman passed away in early January and it transpires that her children's applications might be reconsidered. Fortunately, I had insisted that they submit their applications anyway, even though I knew they would not receive a grant at the time. I have since been able to get their application upgraded. I spoke to the person dealing with the case at local authority level who told me that she had never had as difficult a discussion as the one she had with that woman, who was dying of cancer, because she was unable to help her out in any way.
We should not have a system that prevents us from taking into account the special needs of a family like the one I have just mentioned. The structure in place ensured that the two students in question did not get their proper rights. We must have a structure that is flexible. I accept there is an appeals mechanism in place but having dealt with appeals systems in agriculture and other areas, I know it can take some time. It is not automatic and does not always deal with the situation as it should.
Another issue of concern is that where a person, especially a PAYE worker, earns even €1 over the limit, there is no grant. In a Border area most students must travel to third-level institutions, stay overnight and so forth. If a family must pay for a student to attend college in Dublin, Galway, Cork or wherever, it can be very costly but there is no tax relief on that cost. A similar family living in Dublin, Galway or Cork would not have to shoulder the costs of accommodation and so forth. This system militates against those living in rural Ireland and I ask the Minister to re-examine this issue. I have already asked the Minister for Finance to do so on a number of occasions. If fees must be paid, tax relief is available but the same is not true for accommodation.
Another problem in the Border areas concerns Northern Ireland. Until last year, colleges in Northern Ireland did not charge fees. That has now changed and is causing problems for students who aimed to undertake courses in Northern Ireland, some of which cannot be easily undertaken elsewhere. Often, with students in Border areas, members of their family have already attended university in Belfast, Coleraine or Jordanstown and elsewhere in Northern Ireland and they wish to follow in their footsteps. There are now major problems in that regard and I ask the Minister to examine the issue.
Regarding people who come from abroad to live here, I welcome the changes which have allowed for much more freedom for such people. However, there is still room for improvement. At present, people coming to live here must wait a long time for a residency permit. If they do not have such a permit, they cannot obtain third level grants. I recently wrote to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in an attempt to find out what the situation was with regard to the processing of a student's residency application. I was simply told, in a nice way, that it would be another eighteen months to two years before the case was dealt with, by which stage, the student in question would be finished college. The mother of the student is a highly-skilled doctor. She was recruited from abroad to work in the health service. Her husband had a serious accident and is no longer fit to work, but because of his wife's income, he is not receiving any social welfare payments. One can imagine the dire situation that family has found itself in because it cannot obtain a residency permit and, thus, a grant. While I acknowledge the many improvements made in this area, I urge the Minister to improve the position further.
I also welcome the improvements for children living away from home. I note that the USI refers to the fact that the Student Support Bill will pave the way for students under 23 and living away from home to be independently assessed for the purpose of grants.
Last year, I dealt with a case of a student whose relationship with her father had broken down to such an extent that they no longer communicated with one another. She also had difficulties with her mother. The student was shown no latitude when she failed to obtain information from her father on his income and, as a result, was not awarded a grant. When a student is clearly living outside the home — in the case to which I refer the young woman was living with her partner and had no contact with her parents — it is vital that he or she is given all possible support.
I recall the case of a married student aged under 23 years who could not secure a grant without providing details of her parents' income. I am grateful that these types of concerns have been listened to and hope the new provision will deliver what is necessary.
The need for lifelong learning was raised. Deputy Mansergh, like me, has been involved in Northern Ireland affairs for some time — the role of some is greater than that of others. I was involved at an early stage in establishing a cross-Border project between Emyvale and Aughnacloy to bring students together in a unique partnership. The project received international support and has resulted in the opening of a school for lifelong learning in the area. I thank the Minister and others for their assistance in this regard. Knockconan national school, which was officially opened a few months ago, is a credit to all those involved in it. The facility provides accommodation for people from both sides of the Border to enable them to work and learn together at national and adult level. It is an encouraging development which I hope will mark the dawn of a new era.
In welcoming the thrust of the Bill I hope it will not become bogged down in red tape. This week, the House discussed the need to ensure patients come first in the health system. It is vital that students' needs come first and anomalies are addressed to ensure young people are given the best possible chance to secure education and employment. The education system is a source of pride for Irish people.
Only a limited number of high quality jobs are available in Border areas, such as counties Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal, to attract graduates from the area to return home. While it is important to ensure students receive a proper education, are given opportunities and tax relief is made available to their parents, where necessary, it is also vital that the Border region, which suffered most as a result of the Troubles of the past 40 years, receives a fair share of high quality jobs. In light of the new dispensation in Northern Ireland and along the Border, I hope the Government will make a real effort to ensure highly qualified graduates have an opportunity to return home and rebuild the region's economy which badly needs a boost.
I welcome the Student Support Bill 2008. The expansion of the third level sector over the past 20 years, building on earlier progressive developments in the late 1960s and early 1970s, has been a major success story. We have moved from a relatively low rate of third level participation in higher education to a relatively high rate. In recent years, we have also begun in earnest to develop a fourth level, with the research councils working well. An issue has been how universities can compete with better funded institutions, especially in the English speaking world. The better funding for research is perhaps a good part of the answer.
With regard to student support and fees, this has been the subject of ongoing debate and some decisions over the past 15 years. The Rainbow coalition introduced free third level fees, which had previously been means tested. Fianna Fáil, though opposing the measure at the time, albeit with some divided opinions on the issue, has not reintroduced fees, despite the urgings of heads of universities, some economists and the OECD.
The current position is popular with parents and students and in my opinion not reversible. While it is true that a similar measure was reversed in Britain, the UK operates under a different electoral system and has in many respects — perhaps as a result — a more passive electorate. In the short term at least, the universities would not be better off with a reintroduction of fees, as one can be certain that the Department of Finance would claw back every cent of grant paid in lieu of fees. In a tougher budgetary climate, one can probably anticipate some renewed pressure on this front.
According to the Book of Estimates, total student support stands at €263 million, an increase of 8% on last year. This probably also reflects an increase in numbers. A significant registration fee of more than €800 has been imposed, from which poorer families are exempt. Young people and their parents should not be deterred by financial considerations from entry into third level education, particularly if we seek greater social inclusion. Young people starting out in life, by which I mean graduates, should be unencumbered with debt. I am not, therefore, enamoured of student loan schemes and the like.
One of the Minister's virtues is that, coming from the education sector, she is not a believer in change for change's sake or simply for the purpose of leaving a political imprint. What is working well and is well accepted, she prefers rightly to leave alone. She has firmly rejected the reintroduction of third level fees and has my support in that regard. When one of her predecessors flew a kite on this issue, my constituency predecessor and a former Minister for Education, Deputy Noel Davern, was the first on the Government side to state clearly the proposal was not acceptable. Third level fees are very much an issue in Tipperary, which, apart from the Tipperary Institute, sends most of its third level students outside the county. Keeping a student at college away from home, even from a maintenance point of view, is expensive in any case. Paying fees on top of this would be a punishing additional burden.
Another area where the Minister has rightly ignored siren calls from experts and some urban based opposition is the idea that special support conditions should be introduced for the sons and daughters of farmers. The suggestion is that not just income but the value of assets essential to the business should be taken into account. In most cases, farmers are not on high incomes and most of their children will have to make a living off the land. There is, therefore, every incentive for them to go to college, where possible. As matters stand, farmers often sell sites where they can to pay for their children to go to college. The Minister is right to maintain the status quo. Plenty of places are available for everyone at this stage.
I welcome the intention of the Bill to streamline responsibility for grants and give it to the vocational education committees. The Minister has resisted the temptation to create one central authority and opted instead for a local county based body solely engaged in educational management, which is accessible to students and parents for advice, consultation and discussion in case of any problems arising. There is an independent appeals mechanism. It would be welcome if grants could be paid more expeditiously and up-front but I accept that a certain proportion of students drop out at the end of the first term having decided that third level is not for them.
The level of and access to maintenance grants has improved a good deal during the years. They also apply to more courses. I agree with Deputy Crawford on the value of lifelong learning. When it can be afforded, there may be cases where maintenance grants would be justified for much older categories. The lifelong education sector is still relatively under-developed. Judging simply from constituency feedback, the current system is generally working well. I hope it can be sustained and further improved, not least through the bringing into operation of the enabling parts of the Bill, even though we are now passing through more challenging economic and financial times.
Maintenance grants arise only where one is studying away from home. Whereas in Britain there is a strong tradition of students going to colleges away from home, not least for financial reasons, here students operate where possible from a home base. In that regard, many parts of the country, including most cities, are well provided for, even if there is a short commuting distance involved. In addition, since the provision of a stock of purpose built student accommodation under the Finance Act 1998, for which I personally pushed strongly as a member of the tax strategy group at the time, the frantic search for suitable digs each autumn has eased off considerably.
In principle, like any measure for the relief of taxpayers, there is something to be said for it, but, from a financial point of view, I doubt that the tax relief proposed by Deputy Crawford for accommodation is practicable. It immediately raises equity considerations in that 40% of income earners do not pay tax. I am not sure, therefore, that it would be the best way of approaching the issue as against further improving maintenance grants if there is any money available.
There is one city, Waterford, and one region, the south east, of which Waterford is the capital, that does not have a university. The Government commissioned and has published the report, which I welcome, on the case made by Waterford Institute of Technology for designation as a university. I must declare an interest in that I am a member of the institute's foundation advisory board as a public representative and have supported the case for some years, with virtually every public representative, employer and trade union body in the south east region.
I would like to be objective about the Port report. It is cautiously supportive but with many caveats, some of them insisted upon, I suspect, by the Department of Education and Science. Dr. Port states: "We would respect and support WIT's view that it has many of the features of a university, and arguably should be considered as a candidate for university status". However, that is set against what he explicitly describes as departmental opposition against further transfers into the university sector. Dr. Port is more emphatic in his view of the economic, social and cultural benefits for the region.
I understand and appreciate the Department's concern about maintaining the integrity of the IT sector. There are two other applications, from DIT — I have a sister working there — and, since yesterday, Cork Institute of Technology. There may be strong educational arguments in both cases, but Waterford is unique in having a strong regional case. I would not exempt the north west from this, as part of that region is close to Derry, with the University of Ulster Magee campus. Cross-Border co-operation in this area and agreement on reciprocity of conditions for students studying on each side of the Border is very important.
As an adviser, I was involved to some degree in 1989 in consultations on the decision to make the national institutes of higher education in Limerick and Dublin into universities. There was a great deal of resistance at the time, both covert political, so to speak, and from some of the existing universities. The Taoiseach at the time and the Minister of State's father, the late Charles Haughey, with the Minister at the time, Deputy Mary O'Rourke, had to assert themselves, take their courage in both hands, resist the pleadings of former institutions which they had attended, alumni etc., and make the decision. Does anyone regret that decision or believe it was a mistake? They were the first two universities created in the State; Maynooth has been designated since. I suspect there is a good deal of lobbying by existing universities against the creation of a university in the south east, but as Dr. Port points out, Waterford is 100 kilometres away from a similar institution. With all due respect, it is not for UCD or UCC to decide whether there will be a university in the south east.
I draw the attention of the House, the Minister and the Department to the fact that our neighbours, but also our competitors, in Britain in the past week have published and adopted a far more positive and forward approach to this issue. Mr. John Denham, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, published a paper entitled, A New University Challenge. I will read some key passages from this document. The introduction states:
Never have universities been more important to Britain. They unlock the talents of students; promote shared values; extend opportunities to an increasingly wide range of people; drive local and national economic growth; provide a highly skilled workforce; create innovative world beating products and services; create jobs; and support communities.
(i) sets out evidence and case studies on how local higher education delivered or supported by universities unlocks the talents of people and drives economic regeneration, and identifies key success factors from past projects . . .
Universities unlock the talent of students . . .
Locally based provision is made particularly important by our goal of reaching out to adults who have missed out on higher education in the past.
There is then a reference to the development of the University of Essex in Southend. It states: "For the University of Essex, the new building represents the beginning of a vision to make Southend a vibrant university town". It further states:
Local university provision can help an area retain skills. We know that many students stay to work in their university town, which is a way of retaining their skills and talent to benefit the local area. Conversely, if people are forced to leave to study, many of them will not return afterwards, and will ultimately make their homes elsewhere.
Higher education brings wider social benefits. Graduates enjoy better health; lower levels of obesity; are more likely to vote; and are more likely to display tolerant attitudes.
The report continues:
Locally focused higher education does not only have a role in reversing economic decline. It can be a major component of strategies of population growth, ensuring that new development has access to sources of skills and innovation.
On the development of the University Campus Suffolk, it stated, "Prior to the development of University Campus Suffolk, Suffolk was the largest county with a population of over 500,000 without an Higher Education Institution."
Concerning the development of the new university in Cumbria, the report continues:
The new university development in Cumbria will not only deliver — on the doorstep — higher education in one of the most isolated and deprived areas of England but it will also provide, with partners, the skills that are essential to create the workforce that will decommission the Sellafield nuclear power plant.
The University of Cumbria was launched last year as a new kind of institution with distributed campuses designed to meet the diverse needs of learners in urban and rural locations and to serve employers and employees in both the public and private sectors throughout Cumbria and beyond.
The report's findings state:
We will make the process of gaining a university centre one that better fits our understanding of the role of universities in unlocking potential of towns and people and driving local regeneration. The Government's investment in new higher education provision to unlock the talents of people and to drive local economic regeneration, has been a success story in recent years. But we want to go further. The Government has therefore asked the Funding Council to lead a debate with a wide range of organisations to develop a transparent mechanism for communities to put together a bid for funds for a higher education centre or university campus.
As Members know, the attitude in Ireland is rather discouraging to those institutions applying for university status.
It is clear the British Government is adopting a different and more forward and up-beat approach. Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, would have no difficulty obtaining university status immediately on that basis. Waterford and the south-east region cannot be held to ransom to a too-cautious departmental policy. We must compete internationally and the south east's per capita income is languishing somewhat.
I welcome the publication of Dr. Port's report and want it debated in the House. In the case of WIT there is a compelling educational and regional policy case for university status. There is no other rival application that has the same force as WIT's. I hope the Minister for Education and Science and the Government will take a courageous decision — it would be courageous because vested interests are involved — to provide Waterford and the south east with the university everyone in the region desires. Neither the rest of the country nor the Government have the right to hold back the south east in this.
I accept there are wider policy considerations. I do not favour every institute of technology being turned into a university. Some have separate roles and provide a more limited range of courses than that normally associated with a university. WIT is a mature institute of technology.
I wish to share time with Deputy Johnny Brady.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I congratulate the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, on the job she did. We are lucky to have a Minister with a keen interest in education who loves her brief. As a former teacher, she has great practical experience in the area. It is a pleasure to work with her for the betterment of education facilities. Last Monday, the staff and students at Athlone Institute of Technology, welcomed the laying of the foundation stone for an extension to the campus by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen. The institute has done tremendous work in producing graduates of the highest standards.
The four existing means-tested maintenance grant schemes are the higher education grants scheme, which generally applies in the university sector; third level maintenance grants scheme for trainees, which applies to level 6 or level 7 courses in institutes of technology; the vocational education committees' scholarship scheme, which generally applies to level 8 courses where students have already pursued a level 7 course; the maintenance grants scheme for students attending post-leaving certificate courses.
The higher education grants scheme is a statutory scheme under the Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Acts 1968 to 1992, administered by local authorities. The other three schemes are administrative schemes managed by vocational education committees.
In accordance with the commitment in the programme for Government, the Minister for Education and Science plans to introduce a single unified scheme of maintenance grants for students in higher education. The objective is to create a more coherent administration system to facilitate consistency of application and improved client accessibility. It will also ensure public confidence in the awards system which delivers grants on time to those who need them most.
The Department of Education and Science engaged in extensive consultations with the key stakeholders such as the Irish Vocational Educational Association, the County and City Managers Association, the Union of Students of Ireland and various social partners. It also consulted Departments, such as the Department of Social and Family Affairs, and the Revenue Commissioners to map the most logical and effective arrangements for the future structure and administration of the student support schemes. Achieving consensus is the best approach to decision-making and drafting legislation. I hope other Departments will follow the example shown by the Department of Education and Science to reach consensus with relevant stakeholders in future decision-making processes.
Arising from these consultations, the Minister for Education and Science announced her decision to consolidate the administration of the planned unified grants schemes within the VEC sector. Following that announcement, the Government approved the drafting of the Bill along the lines of the general scheme presented to it. The Bill is part of a broader programme of legislative and administrative reform of student grants being undertaken by the Department of Education and Science.
The purpose of the legislation is to provide for the making of student grants to enable students to attend higher and further education courses. The Bill's principal objective is to create a more coherent system for the administration of these grants, which will facilitate consistency of application and improved client accessibility. In short, it will enable development of an awards system that can deliver grants on time to those who need them most.
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 be eligible for a grant to attend courses of higher education. It aims to place all student support schemes on a statutory footing for the first time. It gives effect to the announcement made in 2006 that the 33 VECs were to be given sole responsibility for the administration of student maintenance grants, reducing the number of grant awarding authorities from 66 to 33. This provides for greater consistency of application and increased clarity and accessibility for students and institutions alike.
I thank the county councils which administered part of the scheme up to now. I thank, in particular, Mr. Tommy McDonald, the finance officer at Longford County Council, and all his staff for their help, courtesy and efficiency in the way in which they have dealt with the scheme. I welcome the fact that the VECs will be running the scheme in the future and wish Ms Josephine O'Donnell, CEO of County Longford VEC, and all the members of the committee every success in its administration. I have no doubt they will be customer-friendly. I am also delighted that the scheme is moving from the county council to the VEC and glad to see it will be administered by the staff of a body with members who are elected to represent the people. I am a strong advocate of democracy and consider that all decisions to be taken in this country should be left in the hands of elected representatives, be they town councillors, county councillors, TDs or Ministers. That is what the people want. We want democracy. It is a well known fact that nowadays all our politicians are accessible to the public. Most politicians, county councillors and town councillors included, are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to deal with their constituents and give a very good service.
The Bill provides for transitional arrangements with local authorities, periodic inspections, reviews and audits of the performance of awarding authorities, and the transfer of functions from a VEC which is not performing its functions effectively or has failed to follow a direction of the Minister. That is not the case with Longford VEC, an excellent body which carries out its duties with responsibility and in the best interests of the public it serves.
The Bill also gives the Minister the power to make regulations regarding applications, including a requirement that an awarding authority give notice of its decisions to applicants within a specified period. It is important that people are not left hanging but are notified of decisions as soon as possible. Education is and has always been the only way forward. We need everybody to be highly educated. It is fair, right and proper. When people are educated to the highest standards, they are able to look after themselves and create a good future for themselves and their families.
The Bill obliges students to inform awarding bodies of any change in their circumstances and those of their parents or spouses that might affect their entitlement to a grant. An independent appeals board will be established in order to introduce further transparency into the grant awarding process. I welcome this, as people should have the chance to appeal. Sometimes there have been problems with grants, as students, through circumstances beyond their control, are lumped in with their parents from the point of view of income. Perhaps some time in the future we will see them being evaluated in their own right, without the incomes of their families being taken into consideration. Students who want to go on to higher level education are serious people who want to do well and are genuinely interested in furthering themselves. I welcome the establishment of an appeals board and hope those who sit on it will be understanding and sympathetic. It has come to my notice that students who are just slightly outside the income bracket sometimes end up having to work very hard at weekends and in the evenings, trying to mix work with study. Every facility should be given to those who wish to study and improve their knowledge.
The Deputy has seven minutes remaining, if he still wishes to share his time.
I am still sharing.
I mention this because Deputy Brady is here.
Deputy Brady is here and very welcome. It is good to see him. He is one of rural Ireland's most popular personalities and the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
I am doing my best here.
I thank the Acting Chairman.
The Bill gives VECs the power to carry out inquiries, which will strengthen the process of pursuing fraudulent claims, although up to now I have definitely not heard of any fraudulent claims. Provision is made for the recovery of debt and the sharing of acquired personal information to verify information supplied as part of the application process. The existing definition of "spouse" as it pertains to married couples and cohabiting heterosexual couples is retained pending the review of social welfare schemes for compliance with the Equality Acts. A change is to be made in the residency requirements in respect of eligibility for maintenance grants. In addition, all students must now meet the new requirement of having spent three out of the last five years resident in the European Union, EEA or Switzerland, rather than the previous requirement of one year in the European Union, to qualify for the fees grant. This will enable those who do not meet the residency requirement in the State but meet all other requirements for a maintenance grant to qualify on the basis of EU, EEA or Swiss residence for a fees only grant.
The Bill sets out the categories of nationalities that qualify for a grant as EU, EEA or Swiss nationals or those with official refugee status or other persons entitled to the rights and privileges specified in section 3 of the Refugee Act. It also enables the Minister to prescribe additional categories of non-EU or non-EEA nationals, subject to consideration of any or all of the matters laid down in the legislation. It further provides that the detailed conditions of the new unified scheme of student grants, regarding such matters as eligibility, means of applicants and classes of grant, may be prescribed by regulation.
The Minister has the power to prescribe different categories of student, including dependent, independent, mature and tuition students. This will enable the Minister to extend the current definition of an independent student if there are compelling reasons, as well as the resources to do so. The Minister will have the power to address by regulation the current provision, whereby all students under 23 years are assessed with reference to their parents' income, even when they have been living and continue to live independently of their parents and have been self-supporting for a number of years. The Bill will provide for drawing up a scheme of grants by way of regulation, including the power to make regulations governing the assessment of means to determine the eligibility of a student. The provisions will limit the assessment of means to income only.
The Bill gives automatic approval to institutions that come under the universities, institutes of technology and Dublin Institute of Technology legislation, are in receipt of exchequer funding for the provision of PLC courses or are institutions in the EU that are financed essentially out of public funds.
The Minister has power to prescribe other educational institutions in the State that provide higher education and training subject to principles and policies set down in the Bill, including the resources available for the provision of student support, having consulted with the Higher Education Authority and having obtained the consent of the Minister for Finance.
It requires approved institutions to draw up and implement access plans and equality policies. This underpins and supports Government policy to improve equality of access to further and higher education for under represented groups. It also provides that only full-time courses provided by approved institutions can be deemed to be approved courses.
The Bill provides the Minister with the power to prescribe approved courses and sets out the matters that the Minister shall have regard to for the purposes of prescribing a course. These include 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.
While the Bill limits the approval of postgraduate courses to courses within the State, the provisions, as currently drafted, enable the Minister to prescribe postgraduate courses in Northern Ireland as approved courses for which both maintenance and fees grants can be payable. I welcome that Irish citizens who find a course is not available here will have the opportunity to study that subject elsewhere.
Regarding transition arrangements and implementation plans, the changes in the eligibility requirements and the administrative arrangements will only apply to new entrants to the grant scheme following the commencement of the Act. It is currently envisaged that commencement will allow for the new scheme to come into operation for the 2009 — 2010 academic year. The timing of the commencement of the Act will depend on the satisfactory conclusion of discussions with the VECs on the administrative arrangements for the new scheme.
I thank the Acting Chairman, Deputy Charlie O'Connor, for his courtesy and the good job he is doing on behalf of Tallaght, which, I believe is his constituency.
I welcome the publication of this Bill as it is long overdue. Before becoming a full-time TD I was a senior lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology and I am declaring that interest.
On the role of colleges of technology in education in Ireland, the country is at a crossroads in terms of the development of third level and fourth level education. Discussion around the Lisbon treaty referred to the knowledge economy but I prefer to speak of the knowledge society as this paints a larger picture. The knowledge society consists not only of people who study for economic reasons but also those who study to contribute to society.
The history of third level education in Ireland shows a university sector that has, traditionally, been well-endowed and centred in the main cities. Then there are the colleges of technology and anyone who examines the history of Irish economic development will acknowledge they have played a key role in giving people access to third level education and apprenticeships within a reasonable distance of their homes. This is the case in developing areas of greater Dublin, such as the Acting Chairman's constituency of Tallaght and my constituency of Blanchardstown, and, more particularly, in areas along the west coast, including Sligo, Galway and Mayo and in the south and south west. There are very successful colleges of technology in Tralee, Cork, Waterford, Carlow and Athlone.
It is important to this debate that we acknowledge that we used regional funds in the early days of the European Union to grant-aid, through European social fund, ESF, programmes, access to education for a whole cohort of students at all levels. In many cases this education was provided closer to students' homes and this meant the cost to families of young people participating at third level was lessened. Ireland places a huge value on education and the opportunity it provides to every child to progress and, as an adult, find gainful employment or, in more recent times, start a business. Education means young people need not necessarily emigrate or even migrate but can stay at home and build a professional life, even in remote areas of the west, south west and south east of Ireland.
It is important that in the debate on third and fourth level education we acknowledge the strength of the history of education in Ireland and the opportunities it has given people who otherwise might not have participated at third level. The Minister is currently examining various reports by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, including the report by Dr. Jim Port on Waterford and its status as a college of technology. We must have a debate in the Dáil on promoting the greatest possible amount of participation in third level education in Ireland and the Minister for Education and Science must give it much consideration. We must give people who missed out the first time round an opportunity to participate in third level education; some 20% have missed the opportunity to complete second level education.
Figures released last week show that an extra 10,000 people became unemployed last month, about four fifths of whom were men. Many of these people lost employment in the construction industry. It is important that we talk about educational pathways of opportunity, not just FÁS courses, which train people in a narrow, technical way for upskilling relating to a limited range of jobs. A broad approach is needed that will allow people get back into education and have the opportunity to progress to third level and compete for the types of jobs international investment brings to Ireland. There are serious concerns among employers that they cannot recruit the type of engineers, IT specialists, people with management skills and mathematical skills needed for the jobs on offer. This has been pointed out in a number of reports on skills in Ireland and it is critical to the future of third level education.
The original institute of technology structure was financed effectively by our use of EU regional funds. The overwhelming majority of the students who went to colleges of technology were financed out of the regional Structural Funds. It was a very good use by Ireland of EU Structural Funds.
We are here debating the Student Support Bill. Student support is moving inexorably into the university sector or into the institutes of technology which award degrees at primary and higher level. The key issue is whether we are offering the same range of opportunity for student support to students attending colleges of technology, institutes of technology and universities as were available 20 or 30 years ago when we used European funds. The answer is we are not. What is happening is that the current student support system is tilted quite unfavourably against people in the PAYE sector. I think it is tilted, and probably sensibly so, very favourably towards people who are farming or have self-employed backgrounds. When one comes to filling in the student application it must include the parents' means. A parent may be in the PAYE sector, such as a civil servant in a decentralised location, or a bus driver in the Dublin area. If in the year before their child goes to college they have overtime or bonus payments and are paid a trade union rate in terms of wages, they are unlikely to find that their child will qualify for either a full or a partial third level grant. This is our biggest problem.
We are saying to people who are largely coming from rural areas, farming and small business backgrounds that they will qualify because of the way in which the means test is structured but it is unlikely that many sons or daughters of people in the PAYE sector will qualify. I have had this debate with the Minister on numerous occasions and I have said to her that the college grant system needs an overhaul. We can go back to the de Buitléir report, published 15 years ago, which suggested the means test should be comprehensive and administered by a Department such as the Department of Social and Family Affairs to ensure fairness across the country. That recommendation was never followed up, partly because it was politically controversial. There was a perception that some of the people with, say, the largest farms and large businesses would end up not getting college grants. Given that we want, according to all the skills surveys, more than 60% of students from secondary school going into third level, it is important that we hold to the objective of people from rural backgrounds going to college. I think we are doing well with that objective. However, we have to ensure that people who come from urban and PAYE backgrounds have the same access if we are to continue increasing the numbers. I think the Minister has ducked that issue.
It was the Labour Party, rather controversially in terms of the left and the right, which introduced the right to free undergraduate tuition at third level. I was one of those in the Labour Party who strongly supported the then Minister for Education, Niamh Bhreathnach, in bringing in that initiative. It is fashionable on the ultra right and the ultra left to condemn free fees because it is seen rather like universal child benefit as giving Mr. and Mrs. Millionaire's children an advantage, as well as helping everybody else.
The issue of universal access to third level education is like the argument for universal access to primary and secondary education, that as a society we have to encourage as much educational qualification and achievement as possible for the economy and the jobs and society we wish to promote.
The opening of third level education to people in urban areas, which was the particular consequence of the Bhreathnach initiative, has been fantastic for society. It has produced the cohort of young people with high levels of skills who could stay at home in Ireland and work for multinationals coming into Ireland and also establish their own businesses. They are the Celtic tiger graduates and young people. This is not about an urban-rural divide. It is about encouraging as many people as possible to get into third level education and to get appropriate levels of qualifications and skills. I do not think the Minister has grasped that issue.
We have a serious deficiency in the teaching of maths and science. I do not know the detailed qualifications of the Cabinet and Ministers of State. It seems an awful lot of them are lawyers and solicitors. Few parties have engineers or scientists. I am happily joined by one of the few esteemed scientists in the Dáil, Dr. Mary Upton. She is unusual in most of the political parties, whether on the Government or Opposition benches. That is indicative of how as a society we look at and promote science in education.
People who write good books are interviewed on the "Late Late Show". People who make millions of euro, as business people, and people who have ideas in areas such as taxation, as I do occasionally, are interviewed on programmes. One seldom sees Gerry Ryan, Pat Kenny or others rushing to interview the latest maths star, even though Pat Kenny was originally a distinguished engineer, or the latest person who has done really interesting work in one of our senior colleges.
Large numbers of young men are becoming unemployed from the construction industry. Many of them either have only limited second level qualifications, having completed their leaving certificate, or have only completed the junior certificate. I know many of these young men. They have worked hard in construction for the past ten years. They have an amount of skills, entrepreneurial flair and talent. As a country we would be crazy to say to those young men coming out of the construction industry, given the downturn, that they should become unemployed, go on the dole and should not be ambitious about their education.
We could use those young people as a critical resource in terms of further education. That is one of the issues that needs to be addressed. In that respect this Bill is important. How will those people access third level education? In the current grant structure they will not necessarily easily qualify unless they face into long periods of required unemployment which we do not want them to do.