I thank all those who contributed to the debate and who welcome the legislation. The co-operation evident will enable us to work closely together to improve the legislation on Committee and Report Stages. All of us recognise the need for the legislation whether that is based on our personal experience of people attending our clinics seeking advice to fill in myriad forms or wondering about their entitlements or through our dealings with the vocational education committees and local authorities. Members are conscious that many different agencies have dealt with grant schemes over the years and it has become a complex and difficult system for young people at a time when they must decide on their future subject and college choices. They are trying to get through their leaving certificate examinations and a great deal of pressure is on them at this time. For those reasons, we determined it was necessary to introduce legislation to co-ordinate the scheme.
One of the main questions to be addressed is which body would co-ordinate it and the House has generally welcomed the appointment of the VECs. When I made the announcement, it was widely accepted. It was one of the options put forward in the 2003 report, Supporting Equity of Access to Higher Education. We carefully examined this issue, sought submissions and engaged in much consultation on which body should be responsible. As the VECs are involved in delivering education throughout the State and administer one of the grant schemes, it was the logical choice and I am glad the House is appreciative of that.
However, giving this role to one body is not sufficient in itself. The legislation also provides that the body should have streamlined administrative procedures and the management of the grant should be subject to a number of criteria that must be met. If one is handing out taxpayers' money, one must ensure those who are eligible receive it while, at the same time, ensuring it is allocated within a timeframe in order that the students are recognised as the client in the process. It enables them to apply with one form rather than half a dozen, which is the case in some local authorities. Such administrative efficiency will be central to the success of this legislation. We will also demand timeframes. Members have outlined numerous examples of local authorities that are good while the neighbouring local authority is slow. The timeframes for appeals and the sending of cheques must be outlined. We all have examples of students living on porridge until Christmas before the grant came through. That is not right when people qualify for the grant. On the other hand, the local authorities and VECs have outlined examples of well educated young people who forget to sign the form, supply details or partially fill in an application form. There is a responsibility on everybody. When they fill in these forms to seek State support, we should all work with a sense of responsibility and reflect the education people have at the time they make the applications.
This will be the first major modernisation of the scheme since 1968. It will support students and their parents. Very often it is left to parents to fill in grant application forms when their son or daughter travels abroad after completing the leaving certificate. The new system will provide more clarity, certainty and accessibility. Hopefully, the completion of Second Stage will be another important milestone in the process.
A total of 56,000 students sit the leaving certificate examination every year while a similar number in higher or further education receive a grant and there are many reasons for that. The value placed on education by families for generations is crucial in this regard. Going back a few generations, it was a case of parents getting their children through primary school. The next generation wanted their children to complete second level while seven out of ten of this year's leaving certificate students will go on to higher education. That is a significant participation rate and a great success. In addition, many more young people are completing second level. The recent figures are encouraging with almost 86% of secondary students completing. Targeted supports for specific students, families and schools, particularly in disadvantaged areas, help to achieve that level of participation. One is much more likely to complete second level education in Ireland than in most other OECD countries where the average completion rate is 77% and to participate in higher or further education. This involves a major commitment but great credit is due to families, teachers and schools who encourage young people and to the young people themselves who have the confidence and optimism about their future to take all these opportunities.
The grant system is large and difficult to administer and, therefore, it is important that we get it right. However, in recent years, we have experienced change. Members raised issues relating to nationality, citizenship, residency rights and the categories assigned to people newly arrived in the State. These issues must be considered in the context of immigration legislation and in conjunction with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Both Departments are working closely on this to ensure young people who receive their primary and secondary education in the State are supported as much as possible. Meanwhile, we must warn against education tourism, where people move into a country to avail of free education and then move on. We do not want to become a magnet for that. It is a question of balance but I appreciate where Members are coming from.
We must invest in the potential of young people to enable as many as possible to lead us to an inclusive society. I watched the Taoiseach's address to the US Congress earlier. In his final words, he quoted the 1916 Proclamation and referred to equality of opportunity, speaking from one democracy to another. He referred to what a republic can stand for. Education is one way to ensure a socially inclusive society and, by facilitating as many people as possible to reach higher education, we are supporting not only those individuals but also wider society.
The implementation of this new scheme with the VECs will be important for administrative purposes, for management and for the education system, but particularly for young people themselves. I am encouraged by the manner in which the VEC sector is working with the Department towards a corporate approach on the issue. It is being recognised that the local service provision will remain an important part and Deputies sought assurances that this would be central to the Bill. We must also ensure efficiencies and co-ordination.
Deputies raised the issue of resources for the implementation of the new arrangements. The issue of additional staffing and resources which will be required to operate the unified grant scheme is currently under discussion between my Department and the IVEA through a joint steering committee. Included in the discussions is a development of a central IT system which it has been agreed will be hosted at a central location by the City of Dublin VEC. This will underpin the efficient administration of student grants across the country and ensure much greater consistency in the timely payment of grants to students, irrespective of the VEC area from which they come.
I want to ensure that with regard to the periodic reviews provided for in the Bill, the terms of the scheme are being applied equitably and efficiently throughout the system. The development by the Department of service level agreements with the VECs will be central to ensuring a continuum of high quality customer service to students and their parents. VECs are working very closely towards this aim and are anxious to facilitate it.
Besides the major local authority and VEC grant schemes, I refer Deputies to the European Social Fund scheme for funding of student assistance. Besides the importance of our European Union membership to the farming community, to industry and for investment, we should remember to give attention to the impact which our membership of Europe has had on education. Substantial funding has come into this country by way of the European Social Fund. This has helped the disadvantaged, those with disabilities and the lifelong learning and school completion programmes. We have gained substantial amounts of money which have supported very many students all over the country. The student assistance fund is one of those funds.
We still stand to gain over the next few years from the European Union by means of funding for such grants and for lifelong learning. Our students in higher education have participated fully in ERASMUS programmes. A total of 24,000 students have participated in this programme which is European-funded. It has opened up Europe to these students and they have been able to travel and gain experience. They have been able to go to some of the best universities in the world and other students have come to Ireland. We do not talk about this scheme so much in the context of Europe and yet we take it for granted as part of the education system. I hope that when people are considering our membership of Europe and are considering the Lisbon treaty they will also realise just how important it is for education. Another key aspect is working towards the mutual recognition of degrees and diplomas and the mobility of our young people which they take for granted as something that has been central to our education of young people.
Another issue that has become part of the debate and which was raised by a number of Members is the independent appeals process which many Deputies have welcomed. One of the issues raised was the concern that the time limit might be too long. I wish to reassure Deputies that those timeframes are the absolute maximum limits but we envisage that the majority of appeals would be considered in a much shorter timeframe and that the service level agreements with the VECs and the procedures to be set down for the independent appeals board will reflect this. If necessary, we can look at the wording to see if it needs to specify the maximum time. Either by means of the wording or the service level agreements, we will try to ensure it will be kept to the absolute minimum in the interests of students.
I acknowledge there will be cases where complex matters will need to be considered and consultation may be required with other parties including State agencies. It may be necessary to consult with the Departments of Social and Family Affairs, Revenue or Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, or other Departments, in order to reach a conclusion on a case. Deputies will find that much of the latitude provided is designed to allow the student more time to appeal if necessary rather than for the VEC or the independent appeals board to respond. We are trying to approach it from the perspective of the student and to give them as much time as possible.
A number of Deputies have also raised the possibility of the involvement of students on the independent appeals board. This is a matter which is already under consideration, having been raised by students with my officials at a very productive forum on the Bill which was recently convened by my Department and the Union of Students in Ireland. I also met with the USI leaders at different events and also with the students' union in UCD which had some very positive contributions to make on this Bill and I am grateful for their interest.
There are no substantive changes in Government policy about the basis on which reckonable income of applicants would be taken into account. Any such fundamental change in the approach to means testing would warrant further examination, review and consultation. This arises from the debate and whether we should be taking into consideration land holdings or property. Deputies will also appreciate how difficult this can be once one starts going down that road. I am confident that the introduction of a unified scheme and the consolidation of administration within the VEC sector, together with the development of the common IT system, will ensure the consistent application of the means testing arrangements across the country.
A number of Deputies referred to issues relating to the eligibility requirements for grants. The provision of the main eligibility requirements will be by way of regulation and these issues can be discussed in greater detail on Committee Stage. My Department, in consultation with the key stakeholders, will consider all criteria regarding eligibility for student grants as part of the ongoing work on the introduction of a single unified scheme. Any perceived anomalies identified in the current schemes or in their interaction with the schemes of other Departments will be considered in the context of this process.
I have already clarified that this new scheme will not apply to students currently preparing for the leaving certificate. They will apply in the normal way through the local authority or local VEC in the same way as students did last year.
Recognising the support students need in this regard, the Department established a dedicated office called the national office for equity of access to higher education. This office works with the access and disability officers in third level institutions, local partnerships and community groups and student grant awarding authorities which all play a vital role.
We have also increased the number of scholarships available to students going to higher education. Traditional scholarship schemes included the Gaeltacht scholarship. The 1916 scholarships consist of a scholarship in the name of each of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. These scholarships are very valuable, amounting to €6,700 a year, plus fees paid. This scholarship is awarded to a student for as long as he or she continues in higher education to do a master's degree or a doctorate. One of the nicest occasions I have attended this year was to present the Donogh O'Malley scholarships to students who are attending schools in the DEIS scheme. These are students from more disadvantaged backgrounds who have qualified under the scheme. There were 17 recipients from around the country who have received €6,700 a year. I noted the excitement of those young people who are all very bright and are pursuing very difficult courses but it was the pride of their parents which was something to see. One knew that the effect of this scholarship on those students would be much broader than they imagined because it would affect the younger children coming up behind and their whole community. It was really a wonderful event.
Deputies will be aware that from next September, there will be 100 scholarships sponsored by JP McManus. These will be targeted at young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who can be in any school in Ireland. There will be a minimum number per county. This is a very generous offer by JP McManus who does not want his name on the scholarships. He is not one of these people who wants great praise or credit and he has been doing this for many years in Limerick in Sexton Street. He has supported those young men through college. They have also been provided with mentoring and support to help them through. These will be all-Ireland scholarships because they will be available North and South. He is investing €30 million which is a lot of money in anybody's pocket. He recognises, as do we all, the importance of targeting disadvantage in education.
I recently launched a comprehensive and user-friendly website, www.studentfinance.ie, which will be valuable in helping young people access information on the various grants available for further and higher education. I ask Members to point students to this website to access such information. It is funded by my Department and is an initiative of the national access office to which I referred. As well as providing information on the grants administered by the local authorities and vocational education committees, it also offers information on the back to education allowance, student assistance fund and the special fund for students with disabilities. This vast store of information will be of great benefit to students.
It is encouraging to consider how much progress we have made. Members referred to the achievements of Donogh O'Malley, which are now commemorated via scholarships. Reference was also made to the contribution of the second level education system to our economy. We are now seeing the value of having well qualified graduates. We would not enjoy the same level of foreign direct investment without access to the European market, the economic and taxation policies we have deployed and the existence of well educated graduates throughout the State. The role played by the institutes of technologies and universities represents a significant contribution to the economy. This is recognised in the national development plan.
Reference was made to the importance of the sciences. We are actively seeking to encourage students to partake of science and technology courses, but this does not in any way diminish the role of the humanities. Nor does it take from the fact that education must focus on the individual and his or her unique skills and talents. A good third level education will provide students with a well rounded approach. I always find it encouraging to discover the hopes, ambitions and dreams of students. I enjoy talking to them and advising them that they can realise their dreams and obtain their hopes and ambitions. They can be what they want to be and do what they want to do. There is great support from many sources for young people who are experiencing difficulties, including moral support and mentoring services.
This Bill represents one aspect of the supports we seek to provide for young people in pursuing their education. I am encouraged by the support of all stakeholder for this legislation. It has been widely welcomed and those who will have the responsibility for administering it are anxious to co-operate and to ensure the provision of good quality service agreements in the interests of students. I hope to continue to work with them to maximise improvements in the level of customer service and to deliver an efficient and cost effective system of grant administration.
I am pleased that we have reached the end of Second Stage. We can now prepare for Committee Stage when we can discuss any further improvements Deputies might suggest. The one point on which everybody in this House is agreed is the value of education. Higher education should be the natural aim for everybody. I look forward to Members' support for this Bill. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis na Teachtaí a labhair ar an Bhille seo. Molaim an Bille don Teach.