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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 20 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 4

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Higher Education Grants

Rose Conway-Walsh


75. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if students who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic will be pushed out of SUSI for accepting the pandemic unemployment payment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27377/21]

I want to ask the Minister about students who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and who now believe they will be pushed out of SUSI for accepting the pandemic unemployment payment. Will the Minister please clear this up because it is causing huge concern?

I am very proud that we live in a country where we have provided such significant income support to all people who lost jobs, including students. Some of the commentary, certainly not from Deputy Conway-Walsh but from some elements in recent weeks and months, suggesting it was inappropriate and that students should not be claiming the pandemic unemployment payment shows a huge lack of understanding of the impact this pandemic has had on young people and people of all ages.

As Deputy Conway-Walsh is aware, the student support scheme was established in 2012. It is a vital support for people accessing third level. Almost 101,000 applications were received by SUSI for grant support in the 2020 to 2021 academic year with just over 79,000 applications being assessed as eligible for grant support. The projected total cost for this year is €370 million. Applications for the 2021 to 2022 academic year are now open and to date we have received 46,000 applications. I am pleased to say that 28,500 of these applications have now been assessed and 26,500 have been approved for support. This is an early indication of the very high success rate of people applying and being deemed eligible.

With regard specifically to the pandemic unemployment payment, this has been treated as reckonable income since it was introduced in March 2020. This is not a new development. Income from the Covid-19 payment has the same standing and is treated in a similar fashion to other Department of Social Protection payments, such as jobseeker's benefit or jobseeker's allowance. It is very important there is a consistency of approach for all students. We cannot decide one student getting one social welfare payment is more or less important or entitled than somebody else. A student or family on jobseeker's benefit, for example, or on jobseeker's allowance or the one-parent family benefit, must be treated the same as a student for family on the pandemic unemployment payment. However, I want to say we have a change of circumstance mechanism for students or families who had been receiving the pandemic unemployment payment, and who will not be in future as the economy reopens, to tell the SUSI system there has been a change of circumstance. I will expand on this later.

I thank the Minister. I know he agrees it is unacceptable that students would be pushed out and denied SUSI grants because they accepted the pandemic unemployment payment. I would treat it as an exceptional needs payment. Nobody should be penalised for accepting the pandemic unemployment payment, particularly not working students who lost their jobs because of the pandemic. This is where equality comes into it. If these students were working as normal or under the employment wage subsidy scheme they would be entitled to deduct holiday earnings of €4,500 when applying to SUSI. At the very least, this deduction should be applied to the pandemic unemployment payment for students. At a committee meeting, I highlighted to the Minister that I thought it was strange the demand for SUSI this year was in line with 2019 despite the State being in lockdown for much of the year and so many people being out of work. This only adds up if many other students will be pushed out of qualifying for SUSI because of accepting the pandemic unemployment payment when they lost their employment.

So far, what we are seeing is a significant number of applicants being granted the SUSI grants. We are monitoring this on a weekly basis and we will continue to monitor it. I will reflect on the point the Deputy has made on the holiday earnings disregard. There may be something in it should the need arise as we see the system develop. We have to have a consistency of approach in terms of one social welfare payment with another. Otherwise, there would be a gross unfairness to students who receive other social welfare benefits.

We have the change of circumstances mechanism. More than 10,000 applicants declared a change of circumstance in the past year. Of these, 40% related to Covid-19. The scheme has shown flexibility in addressing these issues. For the next academic year, applications will be assessed on the gross income from all sources for January to December. However, and this is crucial, if applicants or family members experienced a change in circumstances during 2021 they can apply for the SUSI application to be assessed or reassessed under the change of circumstances mechanism. Such a change in circumstances would include perhaps no longer being in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment because a part-time job has come back as the hospitality, retail and other sectors open. Such a change in circumstance would have to continue for the duration of the course or the foreseeable future. We are monitoring this on a weekly basis and I will reflect on the Deputy's points.

Would the situation of this mother be considered a change of circumstances? She has three boys on the pandemic unemployment payment who are still in college and living at home. They are in Maynooth, Dublin and Sligo. If the pandemic unemployment payment is not disregarded it will push her over the threshold and she will not be able to take out a loan for €30,000 to pay for their fees and accommodation. We must also remember that an awful lot of students have lost money due to accommodation. Will this be taken into consideration when applying to SUSI? I spoke to a mother yesterday who paid €4,500 for absolutely nothing with regard to accommodation. Will there be flexibility? If the Minister were to give flexibility to SUSI to be able to respond to these cases, we would be able to ensure the barriers preventing access to further education were removed.

I am satisfied, without getting into the individual case as I do not have all of the details, that the legislation and regulations allow for a change of circumstance where students or families were receiving, to use the Deputy's phrase, an exceptional payment for a period of time during the pandemic and, due to work resuming or changes, they are no longer receiving that payment. They need to be able to tell SUSI and SUSI needs to be able to take it into consideration. I want the Deputy to know we monitor on a weekly basis how the SUSI scheme is going for the year. We will continue to do this. I am willing to act if an anomaly or difficulty arises. So far, what I am seeing is that many of the people applying are being granted a payment and there is a change of circumstances mechanism in place.

Higher Education Grants

Gerald Nash


76. Deputy Ged Nash asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he plans to amend the earnings disregard for qualification for a SUSI grant to include support received by students who have received pandemic unemployment payment support as a consequence of the loss of a job during the Covid-19 pandemic; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26777/21]

This is on the same topic. It is on amending the earnings disregard for qualification for a SUSI grant to include support received by students in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment. It will give the Minister an opportunity to expand on what he has already said.

I thank Deputies Ó Ríordáin and Nash for the question. As Deputy Ó Ríordáin said, it gives me an opportunity to expand further on the previous question. There is a holiday earnings disregard under SUSI of €4,500 in respect of income earned by students outside of term time, for example, the summer period and the Christmas season. Importantly, this remains available to all SUSI applicants in respect of such earnings. Students and others may decide to avail of work over the summer period and the income disregard remains in place.

A core principle that underpins the SUSI means assessment process is that there has to be a consistency of approach and equitable treatment of students and their families to ensure fair use of the financial resources available.

This includes the treatment of similar social protection payments for students and families.

In being conscious of making sure that we continue to support our students and that we recognise we have lived through extraordinary times, I need to make sure that we are consistent and fair to all students regardless of which social welfare support they may have received over the past year. The pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, is a social protection payment for employees and self-employed people who lost their employment on or after 13 March 2020 due to Covid-19 public health emergencies. Students who lost their employment due to Covid-19 are eligible for the payment. I am pleased that that is the case. The PUP payment has been treated as reckonable income for the SUSI means assessment process since it was introduced in March 2020. This is not new. It has always been reckonable income. This means that income from the Covid-19 payment has the same standing and is treated in a similar fashion to other Department of Social Protection benefits. We need to be fair. We need to be equitable, including in how we apply the terms of the holiday income disregard.

We have received over 46,000 applications. We have assessed over 28,500. The number of people who have been assessed as eligible for support is 26,500 - a very high rate. We are keeping this under close review.

Most students are assessed based on the family income - the income coming into the house. Most families and most households in this country have seen their income go down and not up over the course of the pandemic. I am not yet convinced that this will be a major factor but I will monitor it closely.

It may not be a major factor in every case but for the individual cases in which it may be a factor, it could be life-changing. This is the issue. My understanding is that there is a €4,500 income disregard applied to any income earned during the period for the SUSI grant applications and students are being advised that income from the PUP payment is not included in the income disregard. I am asking the Minister that the PUP be automatically included in the income disregard for applicants of the SUSI grant scheme because, as the Minister has repeated, there does not appear to be a huge problem. However, the Minister must concede that even if it is in one case, it will be life-changing for that individual student. Given the circumstances that we have all lived through for the past year, it is not worth it for this anomaly to continue to stand over a system that should be more flexible considering the type of industries that students normally work in, such as the hospitality sector and retail.

First, we should not say we are standing over a system that we are not yet sure is as the Deputy describes. I agree that this is about every individual student and I do not intend to be in any way dismissive in relation to that. However, I also need to be conscious of anything that I do being legal, equitable and consistent with that approach of equity of access. For example, if I was to include a PUP payment as an income disregard, why would the Deputy not wish me to include a lone parent's payment as an income disregard, a jobseeker's benefit which is the same principle, or a jobseeker's allowance? I need to make sure that I do not do anything that is not legal in the first instance and I also need to make sure that I do not do anything that is not equitable. My approach to this - I say this in a constructive fashion - is to see if the change-of-circumstances mechanism can be flexible and comprehensive and show enough commonsense to work through the individual cases. If that turns out not to be the case, I will look and see if there is some bespoke solution that can be arrived at.

At what point will the Minister be satisfied that the system that he is overseeing will meet all the requirements that he hopes it will meet?

That is a fair question. At present, we are monitoring it on a weekly basis. The figure I gave the House of 28,500 applications having been assessed and 26,000 being deemed eligible is a very high rate of eligibility for SUSI so far which reflects the reality we will see this year that most households' incomes are gone down and not up. This idea - the Deputy is not putting it forward - that families will ultimately end up being better off overall because of being on social welfare for the year will not turn out to be the case. That is my gut feeling. It seems to be what the evidence is showing me so far. We monitor on a weekly basis. I remain willing at any point to engage further with Government colleagues if there is a need for additional resources to provide additional supports to students but my engagement with SUSI and my officials seems to suggest to me that the change-of-circumstance mechanism is the route we should try first. I will continue to watch this and I will keep in close contact with the Deputy and the House on it.

Third Level Admissions

Rose Conway-Walsh


77. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans to address the barriers facing students accessing graduate-entry medicine; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27378/21]

I am asking the Minister to address the barriers facing students accessing graduate-entry medicine. Only approximately half of the places in medicine in the State go to students from Ireland. There has been essentially no increase in the quota of 708 Irish and other EU students who can study medicine here. In the same period, approximately 100 new places were added for more lucrative international students. I ask the Minister to fix this to allow our students to access medicine.

I am grateful to the Deputy for bringing this up because it is an issue I have been engaging on quite a bit. I have met a number of students, either studying medicine as graduate entrants or considering doing that. I am concerned because the argument they would put forward to me is that there is benefit both to the health service and to them as future doctors in having undertaken a degree, perhaps, in the first instance, that is not in medicine. For example, I met a young man recently who decided to do a science degree and then go into medicine by that route but there is a much increased financial cost should he choose to go that way. Let me share some of my thoughts on this.

My Department is committed to the provision of graduates for the health service through undergraduate and postgraduate provision. Progression is a key tenet of the SUSI scheme and section 2 of the Student Support Act 2011 defines "progression" as "the process by which learners may transfer from one course to another course where the award that may be made on the successful completion of the second mentioned course is of a higher level." That is the challenge we encounter at present, that somebody entering graduate-entry medicine is entering at the same level as perhaps another undergraduate degree that he or she did. The student accessing graduate-entry medicine will, as a matter of course, hold a level 8 qualification prior to the entry and completion of a graduate-entry medicine degree confers a further level 8 qualification on that individual. At present, that is where we are legislatively stuck.

Students pursuing a second degree course are not eligible for free-fees funding or for student grants and, therefore, graduate-entry medicine students have not qualified for these programmes since the introduction of the courses. However, to widen access to graduate-entry medicine programmes and to assist the students pursuing these programmes, the fees of EU students enrolled in graduate-entry medicine are partly subsidised by the State via the Higher Education Authority, HEA. As of the 2020 academic year, the State contribution is €11,524 per graduate-entry student per year and the balance of fees is payable by students.

I will come back on this in a moment to look at some of the mechanisms.

Every year gets more competitive for the Irish student to study medicine and, as the Minister stated, other students begin with another degree and then try to get back in and study medicine. This graduate-entry medicine route is even more dominated by the more lucrative international students. If it is possible to imagine, this is even more difficult to get into than directly from the leaving certificate. Fees are approximately €15,000 a year. That is €60,000 over four years.

There are no Government supports to help students who do not come from wealthy families and the only option is the loan from the Bank of Ireland. However, I have been contacted by a young man from Limerick who tried to get this bank loan and was told that he needed a guarantor to sign the loan and that the guarantor had to earn at least €50,000 a year. The young man in question comes from a single-parent household and his mother does not earn more than €50,000 a year. Indeed, most people in this country do not earn more than €50,000 a year.

As a former Minister for Health, I think diversity in terms of the backgrounds of our healthcare professionals, particularly our medical professionals, is a good thing and would assist in the delivery of health services as well.

What are we doing in relation to this? The first thing I said to the Deputy is we are already providing a direct subsidy of fees for graduate-entry medicine in a way that we are not for many other areas. The second area is that at present they cannot apply for SUSI. This is a big ask of theirs, as Deputy Conway-Walsh will be aware because she and I have been engaged on this. There is a review of SUSI that is due to be concluded over the summer months and finally concluded in the autumn. This is one area that can be looked at as part of that review. The third area is just to point out to any student that the student assistance fund is available for a student even if he or she is accessing a degree on the same level as already funded. That might provide some short-term assistance. I should also point out tax relief at the standard rate of tax may also be available in respect of any fees paid for approved courses at approved colleges of higher education. Of course, detailed information is available from the Revenue Commissioners. I intend to pursue this further and look at it in the context of the Estimates discussions.

I thank the Minister for that. That needs to be done sooner rather than later because becoming a doctor, the Minister will agree, should not be the reserve of one class in our society.

Can the Minister also provide details on the arrangement Bank of Ireland has with the universities for giving loans to graduate-entry medicine and what action will he take to allow more people to address that? We cannot have a situation where Bank of Ireland is asking that a student's guarantor needs to earn more than €50,000.

It is just not acceptable in this day and age. I ask the Minister to challenge that and to clear that up with the banks. There are so many parishes in Ireland that need doctors, not least in Kiltimagh my county, Mayo, which is desperate for doctors. We have the makings of wonderful doctors here that we need to invest in for the long term.

I cannot speak in regard to the banks, but I take the point the Deputy makes. It could well be a barrier for many people in accessing financial assistance. I can examine how we can provide greater financial assistance. I have already pointed out that the student assistance fund is a more immediate-term mechanism. The first of two other areas I want to examine is SUSI, in the context of the review, and whether there is something we can do there to help. Second, we are already providing a degree of subsidised fees to the tune of over €11,000 per student per year who goes into graduate entry medicine. Can we do more in that regard? They are the two practical areas that people in this House can reasonably ask me to examine. I am very happy to do that.

From my point of view, as the Minister with responsibility for higher education and skills in this country I can see a lot of merit in the idea that a young student leaving school might wish to do a degree that could benefit him or her later when studying medicine. In a number of European and other countries across the world it is often the case that the doctor one sees at one's bedside is a fully qualified medical doctor but also has a background in another area. For example, occupational therapists and scientists in this country have gone on to be doctors. The pandemic has shown that there is benefit in broadening that base of diversity in learning. I do not want medicine to be the preserve of any one group of people in our society.

Question No. 78 replied to with Written Answers.

Third Level Fees

Joan Collins


79. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if counselling psychologists will be treated with equality to clinical psychologists (details supplied); and when the national psychology placement office will be set up. [27376/21]

The Psychological Society of Ireland and USI recently campaigned on equality of funding for those studying for doctorates in counselling and psychologists in training. They are not funded, nor do they receive a salary during training unlike those completing doctorates in clinical psychology who receive a salary, a 60% fee reduction and sponsorship from the HSE. I ask the Minister to treat counselling psychologists with equality. When will the national psychology placement office be established?

I thank Deputy Collins for the question. My Department is strongly committed to supporting the mental health of the population through the provision of graduates with the key competencies and skills to be effective in the health workforce and to support a range of clinical teams in our health services. My Department understands there is a long-standing arrangement in place under which the HSE and former health boards recruit trainee clinical psychologists and sponsor their training in order to encourage employment by the HSE of suitably qualified professionals. This arrangement is made by the HSE and is not the responsibility of my Department. It is a specific arrangement the HSE has in place to try to get suitably qualified professionals to work in the health service.

The question of whether similar arrangements should be put in place for other psychological specialties in order to meet their workforce needs is a matter for consideration by the appropriate recruiting bodies. Furthermore, my Department also understands that on the basis of the recommendations of the 2017 report of the psychology review implementation group, the HSE introduced revised eligibility criteria for recruitment to HSE psychologist positions involving a combination of the consideration of qualifications and placements for supervised work experience when determining a person's eligibility for employment.

My Department does not have a role in placement arrangements in organisations such as the National Educational Psychological Service or the HSE for students enrolled on these programmes. Issues arising from sponsorship and employment eligibility regarding psychologists and more generally are matters for relevant employers rather than the responsibility of my Department. In an effort to be helpful to the Deputy, I will certainly pursue this matter on her behalf with the HSE and the Department of Health, as I am sure she also will, which might be able to help further. I am more than happy to pursue the matter further.

I thank the Minister. That would be good because he is in government and should be working in tandem regarding what is needed. In recent years, counselling psychology training moved from a masters to a doctoral level. In the time since that change has happened, there have been approximately 444 psychologists in counselling training on courses. Collectively, they have paid approximately €2.8 million in fees and, more specifically, counselling psychologists in training have contributed approximately 65,000 direct contact hours during their training. All of this work with children, adults, families and communities was delivered free with no wage funding or reduced fees.

There has to be a link between the Minister's Department and the HSE because we know 2,500 children and adolescents are on waiting lists for CAMHS. There are 3,300 adults on waiting lists for counselling appointments. Some 200 psychologist posts in the HSE remain unfilled, which is a serious issue, in particular when we know what is coming down the road regarding the effect the pandemic has had on communities all over the country.

I agree 100% with the Deputy. I was answering her specific question on how one matter she raised does not fall under the remit of my Department. That is not in any way shirking the broader issue.

I want to assure the Deputy that one of the roles my Department is playing is engaging with the workforce planning sections of other relevant Departments. For example, we are in discussions with the Department of Health about whether we can provide more training places for nurses and doctors, what it needs to do regarding placements and what we need to do regarding college places. In the area of disability, the Minister of State, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, is carrying out a disability capacity review. One of the big findings of that will concern whether we are serious about reducing waiting lists. It is not just about money, although that is a part of it; it is also about making sure we have and are training enough professionals.

My Department is available as a resource to any Department, agency or sector of our society in terms of what we can do to help to make sure we have enough graduates coming out of college. One other example is the work we are with doing the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, to make sure we have more social workers for Tusla and the like. We are providing that function. I will take the matter up with the Department of Health.

That will be an important aspect into the future because we know we need more nurses, doctors, psychologists and services for those who are autistic and all of that type of thing. We have to map that out and decide what needs have to be met, and how we reflect that in our courses in universities and so on.

There was a fee increase in TCD for counselling psychologists. The college has saved a massive amount this year through significantly lower electricity and heating bills and no travel expenses for guest lecturers. One trainee has spent 21 to 35 hours a week on online lectures since October 2020. Just two of her lectures have been delivered in person. Nonetheless, her fees for next year will increase by €435 to €14,924. She asked how this can be justified. That is a direct question for the Minister from these students. They have received no feedback on their fees.

I thank the Deputy. When she said that we need to map it out, she could not be more correct. If we want to implement things like Sláintecare or any Government strategy to improve public services, a major part of that conversation has to involve how many young and not so young people need to be trained to work in these areas. I agree with Deputy on that and there is a lot of work going on in that regard.

I note the campaign being run by the Psychological Society of Ireland and USI regarding the matter she has raised. I am due to meet the USI very shortly. I will pursue the matter the Deputy has raised on the floor of the Dáil with it and engage directly with the higher education institution involved. I am not passing the buck, but it has an ability to set its fees. The Deputy made a fair point and I will pursue it directly with the institution concerned.