Adjournment Matters. - Higher Education Grants.

This relates to the case of a man who approached me some time ago with a problem. I hoped I might be able to do something. This Minister is a humane and decent person who is prepared to be flexible. Previously, I dealt with an analogous case of a blind student who was accepted to do a PhD in Trinity College. He secured a grant but the blind pension was subtracted from the grant – it might have been the other way around – which made it impossible for the unfortunate person to take up the opportunity offered.

The case before the House tonight involves a gifted student. I have a copy of his work with me. It is a beautiful production, part of the thesis he wrote for his diploma in fine art called "Social Interaction Among The Ascendancy And Its Influence In The Development Of Their Estates In Eighteenth Century Ireland With Special Reference To Newberry Hall And Carton House Demesnes In County Kildare". It is a wonderfully illustrated and literate production, the facts well marshalled. That is surprising in a sense when one considers that although he is intellectually gifted, this man suffers from dyslexia. It is a serious difficulty.

He also has a problem with a personal situation which I will outline as delicately as possible. He contracted a marriage with a member of the well known building family, the Gallaghers. He found himself enmeshed in the difficult financial problems surrounding the collapse of Mr. Pat Gallagher's business interests and his personal financial circumstances were greatly complicated. Nevertheless, he continued his studies in Trinity College and he is now anxious to do a PhD. In order to do that, however, he had to take out further loans.

He was already embarrassed by the difficulties in his personal circumstances. He took out a loan from the Ulster Bank which was guaranteed by his elderly parents. There has been considerable pressure in this regard and there is severe correspondence from the bank. At one stage it indicated that it proposed to call in the parents' guarantees. This is a nasty way for a bank to behave, particularly in these circumstances.

As a result of this pressure the person's entire life is in difficulty. It also causes difficulty for me because I had hoped to receive a detailed briefing from him. I had requested that he send me bullet points for the debate, although I believe I have covered most of them anyway. However, due to his circumstances, contacting him has become problematic. He usually calls fairly regularly to see what is happening and he suggested it would be a good idea to raise this matter on the Adjournment. He has been out of contact, I am sure through no fault of his own, and I have not got the bullet points. His mobile telephone is ringing out. I have presented the case as well as I can but I feel a little bit like a barrister who does not get the final briefing from the desperate client or the full instructions from the solicitor. This person is surrounded by complex difficulties which are manifested dramatically by my inability to get hold of him. My secretary has been trying all week to get hold of him. I tried Trinity all day and the man in charge of fine arts is off on a sabbatical and does not want to hear anything about troublesome issues such as students. The Department is marking exams and I could get hold of no one throughout the day to get further information on the case.

This is the case of a gifted person, a mature student, someone who suffers from dyslexia and who has had family difficulties. Despite the financial difficulties surrounding his life, he has managed to produce good work and wishes to go on doing so, although I am sure there may be difficulties. I am not suggesting all the problem lies at the feet of the granting authority. However, in these special circumstances, perhaps some flexibility, some human approach, some contact initiated by the authorities to this person, would mean the talent of someone who could contribute a great deal to our understanding of the cultural history of this country, in particular eighteenth century architecture and the surrounding social phenomenon, would not be lost. If we could throw a lifeline to a man of these years in this situation, who has been brave, is a very charming and decent man who now finds himself on his own – as far as I recall his marriage has run into difficulties – and indicate that discussion and negotiation could be part of the scene, we would have done a good day's work.

We might also send a little rebuke to the banks. I conclude by relaying a story which was told to me by someone the day before yesterday. This relates to someone whose daughter wanted to buy a motor car. Despite the fact that she has a reasonably good income, she was £750 short of the price of the motor car. She was a bit upset and her father rang the bank and said, "If you can write off £1 million for a former Taoiseach, the least you can do is give £750 to my daughter who will pay it back." She obtained the money within an hour. Perhaps that is a little lesson for banks. I think it is a particularly malignant practice to try to call in guarantees of elderly parents. In fact, elderly parents should be warned against signing these guarantees if they can avoid it. Therefore, I hope the Minister can do something in this case.

I congratulate Senator Norris on doing such an excellent job without having any of the facts. Fortunately, I was able to obtain some of the facts from the limited information he gave me. I congratulate him on the work he was doing for another constituent in relation to the banks and advise him that that is the story of my life, which I had better not go into. There is no doubt this type of thing occurs often. People are often in a very weak position and, consequently, if they are given some advice and help, it is surprising how one can find a better balance. That is not entirely unusual and perhaps it is part of the work on the ground, so to speak.

The higher education grants scheme operates under the Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Acts, 1968 to 1992. The scheme, which is administered by the local authorities under the aegis of my department, offers means tested financial assistance to eligible students attending approved third level courses. An approved course for the purpose of the higher education grants scheme means a full-time undergraduate course of not less than two years duration or a full-time postgraduate course of not less than one year duration pursued in an approved institution. I assure the Senator that Trinity is an approved institution. That relates to the point made about the possibility of doing postgraduate work.

I understand that the candidate to whom Senator Norris refers pursued the diploma in history of European painting at Trinity College in the academic year 1999-2000. This is a one year part-time undergraduate course and as such is not approved for the purposes of the higher education maintenance grant scheme. Unfortunately, it must be a minimum two year full-time course.

I also understand from Kildare County Council that the student in question applied for a maintenance grant under the terms of the 1000 higher education grant scheme in respect of this course. His application for grant assistance was turned down by the county council on 29 October 1999 on the basis that he was pursuing a part-time course and, as such, he did not qualify under the terms of the scheme.

Any consideration of the possible extension of the scope of the third level student support schemes to students pursuing part-time courses must have regard to the availability of financial resources and to the competing needs in the education sector. Priority must be given to areas of greatest need. In this context, the profile of part-time students was considered in the report of the steering committee on the future development of higher education published in 1995. This report found that almost 90% of part-time students were in employment. These are the facts in the report.

I am committed to ongoing improvements in the third level student support schemes, including increasing the value of maintenance grants and increasing the income limits as resources permit. I recently announced increases of 5% in the rate of maintenance grant to apply for the 2000-01 academic year. I also announced an increase of 5%, both in the qualifying income limits for grant purposes and in the allowance by which the income limits may be increased where two or more children are in further or third level education.

Within the overall resource constraints, the need to target resources at those most in need is well recognised and underpins the Government's approach to tackling disadvantage. There is provision within the national development plan for a third level access fund totalling £95 million over the period of the plan. Building on the existing arrangements, the development of third level access is necessary to promote the participation of students with disabilities, students from disadvantaged backgrounds and mature "second chance" students. The objective of this measure is to facilitate and improve access to the labour market for the beneficiaries, while improving their long-term employability through enhancing their educational qualifications. Considerations are ongoing on the allocation for initiatives under this fund and I am not yet in a position to convey details about the measures to be taken. I hope soon to be in a position to do so.

It is the right approach to target available resources at those most in need. I am also committed to ensuring that all measures operated by my Department are applied objectively and in accordance with the terms and conditions in force. In the specific case raised by Senator Norris, I regret that the student in question did not qualify for a grant under the relevant scheme of support and, consequently, the local authority was correct in its decision. However, I appreciate the point made by the Senator which must be given attention. I am considering the situation of part-time students because I believe it is an area which needs attention. Many people are trying to work and advance their education. A substantial number of young people argue that they are paying taxes and supporting their brothers and sisters who are full-time students. I am also examining the question of mature students.

I regret that I am not in a position to help the student of whom Senator Norris has spoken but I thank him for raising this matter. I hope to keep cases such as this in mind when developing policy.

I thank the Minister for his detailed and humane reply which is more or less what I expected. I encourage him to look at the question of part-time students. In this case the term part-time conceals much, such as the facts of his dyslexia and his overhanging debt. This man is really working full-time on his studies. I welcome what the Minister has said about part-time and mature students.

Perhaps part-time students who are working and earning a substantial amount of money might be treated in a different category from those who are part-time but are earning little or nothing or suffering from an overhanging debt. I am grateful to the Minister for his humane treatment of the issue.