I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss plans for future investment in the higher education sector. I have just come from Trinity College Dublin, where we have made an investment that I am particularly pleased we have managed to make together. I thank Deputies on all sides. I know they all work on and support this issue. We have announced that €3 million will be provided immediately to make our campuses more autistic inclusive in order to support autistic students in navigating third level education. This €3 million is being disbursed across all publicly funded higher education institutions and will cover things like: sensory rooms; student and staff awareness; pathfinder and wayfinding apps; and using technology to teach. It will make a real and substantial difference in the context of making sure that autistic students can access third level education and thrive within it. There is a second aspect to this as well. We have announced €3 million in funding each year from now out to 2026 for universities to come forward with pathways and programmes for students with intellectual disabilities. We have the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities, which is quite inspiring, and we have good work going on in many places but we want more ideas and we want people to put up their hands in universities and colleges saying they can provide programmes for students with disabilities, pointing how they can do it and drawing down from that €12 million fund that we are announcing today. It is timely, therefore, that we are having these statements today.
We have also been embarking on significant reforms in the sector through the publication in recent weeks of the Funding the Future policy document. In addition, we have made significant policy announcements on the important issue of reducing the cost of education and the cost of living for students and their families. We cannot be found wanting when it comes to addressing the question of investing in and sustainably funding higher education in the longer term. It has profound impacts for our economy, society and, most importantly, for the citizens we serve. I also believe that we need to have a system that is sustainable for students and their families. It irks me when people try to play one off against the other and suggest that it is not possible to do two things at the same time. Of course it is possible. You can sustainably fund the universities while still believing that the registration fee and needs to be reduced. In the new Funding the Future document, we have outlined €307 million in funding that must go into the universities if they are to be properly funded. This is not my figure; it was not plucked from the air. It is a figure on which we worked with the European Commission, Indecon and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and we have published a technical paper as to how we got there. It is a figure that we must put into the system over the three budgets left in the lifetime of this Government.
We have also said that alongside that we must address the cost of education. I get irked when people say it is all about the core funding. It must be about both. It must be sustainable for the universities and for students and their families.
On the same day we published Funding the Future, we also published the review of the student grant scheme. It is essential we get this right too. The cost of living, and indeed circumstances generally, have changed an awful lot over the course of the decade that has passed since the SUSI scheme was first put in place. In publishing our funding document we have ruled out the possibility of introducing student loans into the system. Instead the Exchequer - the citizens, the taxpayer - will increase public investment because education is a public good. Employer contributions will remain through the National Training Fund but we are not intending to increase them. The student contribution fee, while being retained, will be reduced over time. We have that twin-track approach now. A funding gap of €307 million is identified and there is a plan on how to fund that but we are also progressing addressing the cost of education for higher education students.
Our plan for the future revolves around an effective system performance and universal access to education. In prioritising core funding increases, we must also ensure we deliver the system we want. As Deputies may know, we have established an implementation group co-chaired by myself, Professor Tom Collins and Professor Anne Looney. It had its first meeting last week. The purpose of the group is to ask, if and when we have sustainably funded higher education, what we want this system to look like. Again, I do not think this is controversial; I think we have a shared understanding of what the system should look like right across the sector. It must mean better staff-student ratios. The European average is about 15:1. In Ireland it is about 20:1. The €307 million must get us to a better staff-student ratio and get us in line with that 15:1 figure. It must mean better pathways between further and higher education. Gone must be the days when the person who does the nursing post-leaving certificate course must then go abroad to get a nursing degree place. That is not right and it does not work.
We must also deal with the issue of access. This means access for people from a whole range of backgrounds, including those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students with disabilities and others. We must put the skills in place. Our universities are not just there to serve the economy but we must ensure they help us meet the skills needs of our country with respect to how we are going to build the homes we need, bring about the climate action we need and how we are going to prepare for the digital transformation that is well underway in our country and in our world.
The fifth pillar is we must reduce the cost of education. Hand in glove with the increase in funding there is a reform process. That is important and it will be overseen by the implementation group. I will come back to that in a moment.
The SUSI grant review was a significant piece of work because now we have an evidence base and not just anecdote for what we must do to progress student supports over the next number of years. I am sure colleagues will be interested to hear over 9,000 people participated in our consultation on the SUSI review. This perhaps gives an indication of the depth of feeling around the issue. As a result of the review we have already made some early decisions in the last budget to address some of the recommendations. For the first time in over a decade there will be significant changes to the rates of eligibility for students accessing the student grant scheme. There will be an increase to all student maintenance grant payments of €200 per year. There will be an increase in the income thresholds to qualify for the standard rate of a student grant by €1,000 and the non-adjacent rate of the grant will be available to qualifying students who live 30 km or more from college rather than 45 km, as was the case up to now. This will apply to students from September. That is quite significant, by the way. I sometimes hear people saying a €200 increase in the grant is not going to cut it but as a result of those changes, many students could see their grants increase by 25%, 30% or 33%.
I wish to be very honest with the House that we cannot shy away from the findings. They are stark and clear. We have much more we need to do. We need to start doing that in the next budget and we need to keep doing it in each subsequent budget. The report has highlighted that while Ireland has achieved high rates of attainment, other changes during this time, including student costs and inflation, have the potential to impact on some of these important gains. The research from the review also confirms that without student grant support, many would not have attended third level education. Overall, it shows a system that has worked well in targeting those most in need but one that now needs to be reformed to catch up to where we are in terms of the world and country.
Starting this year - this is an important development for the Oireachtas and not just the Government - my Department will continually assess the cost of education for people who use the system and will publish in advance of the budget an annual cost of education paper. This will be a key lever for Government and I am sure the Opposition, to consider transparently and accurately the costs involved in accessing third level across the population and bringing forward proposals and ideas such as what will happen if I increase the grant by a certain amount or if we reduce the registration fee by a certain amount. It is my honest belief student representatives have a legitimate point when they say the single most effective option to advance access to education is to address upfront costs for students. Those families who do not qualify for SUSI also need a policy response to soften the blow of the rising cost of living. I believe that very strongly. I am committed to ensuring younger generations have their voices heard and their lived experiences expressed in policy outcomes. The cost of education paper each year in advance of the budget will provide an opportunity to do that. It is crucial the Government and my Department use all the policy levers available to reduce the burden on families subject to annual budgetary decisions.
I turn to the reform agenda for higher education. Hand in glove with funding must come reform. We plan on providing more funding for universities, we have developed new technological universities in the regions and plan on bringing about new academic contracts for staff to ensure those technological universities can reach their full potential. These are a number of the reforms we will progress over the coming years. In the last week I have established the implementation group I referenced. It is there to provide guidance to my Department on the roll-out of the funding and reform framework and to focus on creating a unified system and improving pathways between further and higher education. As I have said, I co-chaired the first meeting of this group on 25 May and thank Professor Tom Collins and Professor Anne Looney for agreeing to co-chair it with me. The group membership is comprised of enterprise, student and societal voices and Government and agency representatives. I am really excited about what this group can achieve for our third level system for our younger generations like school-leavers but also for adults learning through life. At the meeting on 25 May the group agreed to divide its work stream into two core working groups with one focused on unifying the higher education system and improving quality and one driving skills, engagement and participation with and in the system, as well as addressing cost barriers to participation. These working groups will follow the fivefold approach to drive accountability and improvements in our higher education sector, as outlined in the plan I have published and taken Deputies through.
I also want the Oireachtas to know it is my clear view passing the Higher Education Authority Bill 2022, or HEA Bill, is an essential part of the reform agenda. We have worked quite constructively on this. We have had Second Stage in this House, Committee Stage at the select committee and we will shortly have Report Stage - I think this month. This will be an important system to ensure there is an appropriate governance, oversight and performance framework. We remain on track to have this legislation passed and enacted this year.
I mention also an issue I have been commenting on in recent days that is important. At the moment students have an income disregard of €4,500. He or she can earn €4,500 outside term time and not have it accounted towards their eligibility for SUSI. That figure was last set in 2016. It was €3,000 before that. It is time to increase it further because €4,500 is not the same now as it was in 2016 in the context of both inflation and the minimum wage. If a student wants to work this summer, such as by helping out the local pub, restaurant, shop, hotel or whatever business is in need of staff, we should be rewarding work rather than penalising it. It is my intention to increase that threshold so a student can earn more this summer without it impacting on their student grant when they next apply in 12 months time. I will provide the House with details of that once I have finalised my consideration of it but I hope to make an early decision on it in the coming days as well.
I should also tell the House it is my intention, when we talk about how we are going to invest in higher education, to publish a new national access plan at the end of this month or the very start of next month. This will endeavour to build on some of the progress we have made on access to third-level education. I do not mean that in a political sense but refer to the progress we have made as a country. We now see 66% of school-leavers going directly from school into higher education but that masks a reality and another headline figure, which is that transfer rate is lower in certain schools. It is lower in Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, schools. From memory it is around 40%. We are looking at what we need to do in the form of concrete actions in the national access plan to improve participation rates in socio-economically disadvantaged areas and for lone parents. It is about recognising not every student is a school-leaver. Students are now in their 40s, 50s and 60s with full-time jobs and have dependants and mortgages. They need an education system that is more flexible.
I also wish to give Deputies a preview that we intend to bring forward and include as a priority group care-leavers, that is, people who have grown up in the care system. There has been great work done across this House on highlighting them as a priority group. Also, as I have announced today, we are including for the very first time students with intellectual disabilities and students with autism. I could stand here, as could predecessors and successors, and say we are making great progress on access, and we are, but again the headline figures flatter because we have not been measuring participation rates of certain groups of people with disabilities or indeed certain groups in society. What Deputies can expect to see in the national access plan - we would be delighted to go before the committee and work with Deputies across the House on this - is new priority groups but also a new way of measuring. It is not enough just to say they got in the door of the college. It must be about how they got on in college and what happened after college with employment. We will bring that to Cabinet at the end of this month and publish it over the summer.
A range of important policies that set out a vision and direction for higher education funding are now in place. After years of debate, and, perhaps, ducking and diving, we have endeavoured to settle the question of how much sustainable funding needs to go into higher education. Deputies would be correct in telling me that how we deliver the funding in the forthcoming budget and the remaining budgets due during this Government's term of office is what we will be judged on. It is a challenge I very much accept. I look forward to working with people on all sides of the House.