Student Support Bill 2008: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to introduce the Student Support Bill to the Seanad and to outline its main provisions. The Bill is the key element of our broader programme of legislative and administrative reform of the student grants system. It is the first major modernisation of the grant schemes in this country since the introduction of the Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Act 1968 and paves the way for more modern and efficient arrangements. It will ensure students who apply for a grant will have their applications considered within an appropriate timeframe and those students deemed eligible for support receive payment in an efficient and timely manner.

My guiding principle in this has been simple — we need an administrative system that ensures two students from different parts of the country who have applied in time and are sitting beside each other in the first week of their new course in the same institution receive the first instalment of their grant payment into their respective bank accounts on the same day that first week. The fragmented structure of our current system is such as to render this student or client-centred approach, which in the ordinary course of administration should be a simple goal, unachievable.

While the 66 grant awarding bodies currently administering the schemes have served the country well, and I am appreciative of the service they have given students and parents for many years, they have been struggling for a variety of reasons to process applications and make payments in a uniform and timely manner. Part of the reason for this is the huge surge in applications in recent years. Ten years ago, approximately 50,000 students were in receipt of grants. That number has soared to almost 70,000 currently and is expected to rise further in coming years owing to the changed economic circumstances in the country. Correspondingly, the number of applications has increased. For example, there were approximately 56,000 new applications received in the 2009-10 academic year, with almost 41,000 of these receiving some level of award. Dealing with this volume of applications is a challenge for the grant awarding authorities, especially when staffing allocations are shrinking and a range of other priorities must be dealt with within those organisations.

The late payment of grants can cause acute difficulties for students and their parents. That is why I am determined that this issue should be tackled during my tenure as Minister for Education and Skills. It was one of the first items on which I took action on my appointment to office.

First, a number of service level improvements were introduced within the operation of the current grant schemes. These included the introduction of a new and greatly simplified application form and explanatory notes. The schemes themselves were then published in May, which was two months earlier than in the previous year. Getting the schemes out early to prospective students is critical to ensure we get their applications in and processed on time. We then rolled out an online grant application facility for 11 grant-awarding authorities, an initiative I am pleased to confirm will be rolled out nationwide in the coming months. Paying grants directly to students by way of electronic funds transfer, EFT, to their bank accounts is another initiative that makes sense. Initially introduced by the Department in a limited way in 2009-10, it will be further extended this year.

Second, it was clear that the issue of cash flow for grant-awarding authorities had to be addressed. We did this and introduced an advance payment system, with most awarding authorities putting in funds in September 2010 to facilitate earlier payment to students.

Despite these robust measures taken last year, delays continue to occur in processing student grant applications. This is a matter of frustration to me and, while we witnessed some improvement, I am disappointed we did not witness a greater overall improvement in service to the student in this academic year. It is therefore clear, as it has been to many of us for some time, that a more radical approach to the administration of the schemes is necessary. That is the reason I am introducing the legislation before the House today, and I am grateful to Members for facilitating its consideration so soon after the Christmas and new year break.

In line with the principle I have set out, the purpose of the Bill is to create a more coherent system for the administration of student grants which will facilitate consistency of application and improved client accessibility. In brief, it will enable the development of an awards system that can deliver grants on time to those who need them most. The Bill contains three ground-breaking elements. These are the introduction of one unified student grant scheme which will replace the four existing grant schemes, the establishment of a single national grant awarding body, and the establishment of an independent appeals board. The Bill will provide an enabling legislative framework for these developments with the detailed terms and conditions, eligibility, assessment and means testing requirements of the new single scheme being set out in regulation subsequently.

The new arrangements, which will be fully student or client-focused, have the potential to deliver a significant service enhancement to student grant applicants. This will be achieved through streamlined processes, greater consistency in dealing with applications, faster processing due to economies of scale and a full implementation of the online applications system which commenced operation last year. The existing arrangements for administration of the grant schemes reflect the incremental and sectoral based growth of higher and further education in Ireland. Provision for local council-based scholarships dates back to the Irish Universities Act 1908 while the VEC-based schemes reflect the subsequent evolution of the technological and post-leaving certificate sectors.

The case has been made for reform of the student grants system over a number of years. In 2003, we published Supporting Equity of Access to Higher Education, which argued that the current system needed to be overhauled because, owing to the multiplicity of agents involved, it had become administratively inefficient and open to abuse. It concluded that the system led to customer confusion and inconsistencies of application, resulting regularly in the late payment of grants. This has been a feature of the current administration for some time. The unification of the existing four schemes and the consolidation of the administration within one grant-awarding authority will significantly simplify the range of different grants and awarding authorities that students must negotiate to apply for a grant.

The legislation provides that the appointed single awarding authority may be an existing vocational education committee, VEC, a local authority or any other board, authority or body established by statute and whose functions include the promotion of, participation in or support of higher or further education or the administration of schemes of payments. Provision is also made in the legislation for appropriate arrangements for the transfer of staff from existing grant-awarding authorities or other public bodies to the single agency, should this occur. The performance of the appointed authority will be underpinned by way of service level agreements.

The local authority and VEC sectors, which have played such a critical role over the years in giving thousands of young people the opportunity to pursue higher education through the various student grants schemes, will continue to play an essential part during a transition period for those students currently in receipt of grants. While section 6 will repeal the Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Act, provision is made for the continuation of grants awarded under the existing schemes until the grant holders have completed their current course of study.

The Bill provides grant-awarding authorities with the necessary legislative framework to enable them to carry out their functions in an effective manner and to ensure the appropriate mechanisms are in place in order that student grants go to those who need them, as well as providing for robustness in the system to guard against fraudulent claims. While a public body will be best positioned to exercise the statutory functions conferred in this Bill, I am acutely conscious of the need for greater efficiency, effectiveness and value for money. Therefore, provision is also made in the legislation to enable the appointed single awarding authority to outsource particular functions or aspects of the process as appropriate.

The Bill provides for the making of regulations in respect of applications, which will include requirements to give notice of decisions within a prescribed period. These are important provisions that will increase clarity, accessibility and certainty for students and support measurable service level improvements in the administration of the grants. This will enable guaranteed timeframes for the earlier payment of grants and more efficient arrangements for handling applications and making payments. To protect both the taxpayer and students who genuinely need and qualify for the grant, the Bill proposes a strengthening of the process whereby fraudulent claims can now be vigorously pursued by awarding authorities. It will give them a specific power of inquiry that provides a firm basis to pursue those who have provided false or incomplete information to qualify for a grant. It also provides for substantial offences and penalties and enables the recovery of debt in such circumstances.

Given the important data protection issues inherent in a system that requires means testing of applicants, the Bill provides for the sharing of personal information on a very specific basis to verify details supplied as part of the grant application process and related matters.

The Bill also sets out certain responsibilities for students and their parents or spouses. It requires applications to be made within specified timeframes. It provides that the awarding authority may require applicants to produce evidence and information in a form acceptable to the awarding authority to enable it to make a decision on a grant. The Bill imposes a duty on applicants to notify an awarding authority of a change in circumstances. It provides the awarding authority with the power to seek such information as it considers appropriate for the purposes of establishing whether a student remains eligible for a grant.

Section 7 sets out a number of educational institutions that are deemed to be approved institutions for the purposes of the grant scheme. It also deems publicly funded institutions outside the State but within the EU to be approved institutions. It allows the Minister to prescribe higher education institutions within the State to be approved institutions and sets out a number of matters to which the Minister will have regard when making such a determination, including the availability of resources.

The Bill empowers the Minister, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, to prescribe additional third level institutions in the State, subject to principles and policies set down in the Bill. While these principles and policies do not necessarily preclude consideration of private commercial colleges run on a for-profit basis, it is not envisaged at this point that the schemes will be extended to such institutions.

Section 8 sets out the requirements for a course to be deemed an approved course for grant purposes. The Bill sets out the matters to which the Minister shall have regard for the purposes of prescribing a course, which 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. Included in the factors that can be considered when making a decision to approve a course is whether it is recognised on the national framework of qualifications. This will support the principle of progression and encourage institutions to have adequate recognition procedures in place.

While the Bill limits the approval of postgraduate courses to courses within the State, it does enable me to maintain the existing supports for postgraduate students studying in Northern Ireland, where I am satisfied this is necessary, having regard to the relevant purposes set out in the Bill. I am also very pleased to be including in the Bill an enabling clause for the purpose of including part-time courses in the student grant schemes when resources permit. The traditional distinctions between full-time and part-time courses are becoming less relevant with the adoption by higher education institutions of modularisation and credit systems. There is also a proposal for a change in the funding model used to allocate resources to and within third level institutions to ensure all students, whether full time or part time, on campus or off campus, are supported equally, and this proposal is set out in our 20 year national strategy for higher education which I launched yesterday.

The provision of more flexible learner-centred options will be a critical element of the future of higher education as we respond to the needs of the economy and society. We must move to a model that values the part-time learner just as much as it does the full-time learner. With that in mind, I want to ensure during my tenure as Minister for Education and Skills that we make legislative provision for the future in this regard, even if the current budgetary situation may not allow for immediate implementation of the measure. I know this is a provision that will be especially welcomed by the increasing number of part-time students.

In setting out the general residence requirement for a maintenance grant, the Bill will provide for a residence requirement within the State of three out of the past five years, which is consistent with the terms and conditions of the current student grant schemes. The requirement had previously been for one year, but the current provision is designed to ensure those applying for a maintenance grant will have a more established linkage with the State, which is a concept recognised in EU law. The increased residence requirement is also designed to obviate the risk of so-called grant tourism. Ireland's previous one-year residence requirement was one of the most liberal in Europe. In addition, in line with the current grant schemes, the residence requirement must be met by students themselves in all cases. Formerly, it had been the situation that in the case of dependent students, only the parents were required to meet the residence requirement. Again, this requirement provides a reasonable approach, requiring the student to demonstrate a genuine link or degree of integration into Irish society to qualify for assistance towards the maintenance costs of their third level education. The requirement for three out of the last five years also takes cognisance of students who may wish to take time out to travel or work outside the State. These students can still meet the residency requirement if they have been outside the State for more than the last year, allowing a greater degree of flexibility than had previously existed. The Bill also provides for temporary absences for the purposes of study or postgraduate research in the EU in certain circumstances.

The new arrangements will also simplify matters for students who change address within the State. The requirement for prior residence in the administrative area of an awarding authority has given rise to a lot of confusion in the past. It has resulted in a cumbersome process of transferring application forms between awarding authorities, losing valuable processing time. This situation will be alleviated in the new arrangement. The Bill also sets out the nationality requirements that students must meet to qualify for a grant. It sets out certain categories of persons who are entitled to benefit from student grants, subject to the other terms and conditions of the schemes. It provides the Minister with the power to prescribe other categories of non-nationals that will be eligible for student support.

The Bill provides for the establishment of a scheme of grants that will be provided for by the Minister by way of regulation, with the consent of the Minister for Finance. The regulations for the scheme will govern the classes of grants, the categories of applicants and a range of eligibility criteria, including income. The Bill provides for the making of regulations for different categories of students, enabling the continuation of the recognition currently given to mature students. It also provides for the making of regulations for independent students. This will enable me to address in regulations, if resources permit and if there are compelling reasons for doing so, the current situation whereby all students who are under 23 must be assessed with reference to their parents' income, although they may have been living independently of their parents, have their own spouses or families and been self-supporting for a number of years.

A significant number of third level students move out of home to go to college and continue to be supported by their parents. The purpose of the student grant schemes is to provide additional assistance where their parents' income is below a certain threshold, or in the case of independent mature students, where the level of income of the student and his or her spouse warrants additional assistance by way of a grant. Therefore, any extension of the provision of assessment as an independent student will have to be very carefully considered to ensure it is highly targeted to very specific circumstances where students can demonstrate they have been genuinely self-supporting and living independently for a number of years. It would be untenable to have a situation whereby all students could simply move out of their parental home and be deemed to be independent for grant purposes. This would have very significant implications for the student grants budget and would further disadvantage those who need the grant most, especially at a time of scarce resources.

The Bill breaks new ground in providing for the introduction of an independent appeals board. This will bring greater transparency into the grant-awarding process and provide students, for the first time, with a formal and independent avenue of appeal. The Bill also provides for an internal appeal in the first instance within the grant awarding authority and sets out maximum timeframes within which appeals must be processed.

In the administration of the appeals process, I also intend that students appealing to the independent appeals board will be advised of the assistance that may be available to them in the making of that appeal from their local or national student representative body. The Bill further affirms and supports Government policy to increase access to further and higher education for under-represented groups by requiring the preparation and implementation of access plans and equality policies in approved institutions in the State where these plans and policies are not required under other legislation.

Given the extent and importance of the student grant schemes, it is vital to ensure the transition to a new unified scheme and a single system of administration is carefully planned and executed to ensure the receipt of more than €361 million in grants by almost 70,000 students is not compromised or unduly delayed. Assuming the enactment of the legislation in the coming weeks, it is my intention to introduce the single unified scheme for the 2011-12 academic year and work is under way in my Department to arrange for the preparation of this scheme by way of regulation.

To ensure adequate notice to potential applicants, my officials will be working with the National Office for Equity of Access to Higher Education at national level and with the existing grant awarding authorities at local level to develop targeted information that will be rolled out with the introduction of the new scheme. In addition, it is intended that the single grant awarding authority will be operational on a transitional basis for the 2012-13 academic year, as I have stated. In this regard and consistent with the legislation I am pleased to inform Senators that expressions of interest were sought from the existing grant awarding authorities and other public bodies last week and the closing date for receipt of responses is 18 February next. The expressions of interest will be evaluated by an independent selection panel appointed by my Department. The selection panel may, on the basis of the evaluation criteria, short-list several proposals for further development and detailed presentation to the panel for more in-depth examination.

Following this process, the selection panel will make a recommendation to me on the preferred proposal and will make any recommendations it considers necessary on the modification or development of the preferred proposal for implementation purposes. The final designation of the single awarding authority will be determined by me in line with statutory provisions based on the recommendations of the selection panel. The designation of functions may be reconsidered by the Minister for Education and Skills at any future time.

Following completion of the selection process, a steering group involving relevant expertise from Departments and existing awarding bodies will be established to work with the recommended awarding authority to oversee transitional arrangements and, if appropriate, to develop operational proposals in line with any recommendations made by the selection panel. The steering group will agree and oversee an implementation plan with the recommended awarding authority. It is envisaged that a formal service level agreement will be entered into by my Department with the selected authority. Initially, this will cover a five-year period and will set out agreed service level outcomes to be delivered.

The needs of students and their parents have been central to our consideration in drafting this legislation. The Bill is the foundation stone for increased clarity, certainty and accessibility for students and their parents and for educational institutions. It will support my overall objective of introducing substantial reform and improvement in the administration of the student grant schemes. Student grants represent an important strategic investment in people, enabling individuals to achieve their full potential and thereby support a socially inclusive society, which enables us to increase substantially the pool of highly skilled and qualified graduates which the country needs to maintain our competitiveness and sustain our economic success.

In planning the development of this important and historic programme of legislative and administrative reform, we engaged extensively in consultations with key stakeholders. These included the Union of Students in Ireland, the National Parents Council, the Irish Vocational Education Association, IVEA, the County and City Managers Association, various social partners and Departments. These consultations provided a basis for the development of the most logical and effective arrangements for the future structure and administration of the student grant schemes. I appreciate their contributions. I acknowledge the support and co-operation I have received from my colleagues in the Dáil as the Bill passed though the various Stages there. I am pleased to commend the Bill to the House. I look forward to listening to the views of Senators.

I welcome the Minister. I am pleased that we finally have the Student Support Bill in the Seanad. She will be aware that it was first published in February 2008. I realise she was not in the Department at that point. However, it is fair to say that next month the Bill will be three years old.

As the Minister pointed out, the main aim of the Bill is to make the student grant system more efficient and effective, which is altogether laudable. Students contact me about this all the time. While I welcome the Bill, the Government has made a meal out of it. This is not complicated legislation and it should have been here a long time ago.

When the Bill was first published in 2008 there were 57,000 students. As the Minister pointed out, now we have 70,000 students, 41,000 of whom are undergraduates qualifying under third level grant schemes. A significant proportion of our student population has been experiencing a great deal of difficulty, especially with delays. We are approaching the third anniversary of the publication of the Bill. Will the Minister confirm to the House that she will complete the Bill during this term?

If the Senator's party will facilitate it in this House.

Certainly, I will facilitate it on behalf of Fine Gael. It is important that the Minister provides such an assurance. The Minister stated she plans to introduce a single awarding authority by September 2012 or 2013. I had hoped this would take place by September 2011. Is that possible? What are the hold-ups? Originally, when the Bill was published in 2008 it was intended that the vocational education committees, VECs, would become the single grant awarding authorities. However, when the Bill returned on Committee Stage recently, several substantial amendments were made, including the provision to change the policy direction and instead provide a single grant-awarding authority to be determined by the Minister. The Minister had stated there was a possibility this could be outsourced. Will the Minister confirm on what basis she might decide that one VEC or council might not get it or that the process might have to be outsourced? Will the Minister put it out to tender? What will the Minister's criteria be for determining which way to go?

Fine Gael has long favoured a single grant awarding authority. It is unbelievable that we have lasted with 66 grant-awarding authorities and it is no wonder it was a mess. Our position is clearly laid out in our Reinventing Government public sector reform document. Fine Gael seeks greater efficiencies in the delivery of all citizen entitlement claims, including the student maintenance grant. We have long acknowledged that the current system is costly and administratively burdensome and as a result has resulted in time wasting. We have long proposed a one-stop-shop payment and entitlement service which would act as a single point of contact for citizens who wish to make a variety of claims. It would cut out the administration and reduce the waiting times for grant distribution.

We proposed several amendments to the Bill in the Dáil in respect of the creation of a one-stop-shop or single agency, the inclusion of part-time courses as and when State finances improve, as well as amendments to the appeals system. The Minister stated she would consider the provision of support for part-time students when resources allow. Given the position today, will the Minister clarify at what point she would deem that to be the case? What would the state of Exchequer health have to be before the Minister would provide maintenance grants for part-time students? Such students do not qualify for free fees at present. Many of them have families and must stay working, if they have work. One could argue that they are doubly affected and worse off to some extent. We need full-time students but it is a wonderful luxury to be a full-time student, especially as a mature student. Will the Minister clarify at what point she would deem that to be the case?

I was pleased to see an independent appeals system built in. Will the Minister clarify the timeframe in this regard? I have received several questions from students on this matter. The legislation suggests it is feasible for a student to wait up to 150 days for an answer to an appeal. The breakdown of the waiting time is 30 days, 30 days and 90 days for the administration of the payment from the awarding body. A period of 90 days is far too long, amounting to an entire semester of 12 weeks. If the new body cannot govern appeals within 45 days then it has not been set an appropriate target by the Minister. This will leave students in dire straits.

What is the purpose of the Student Support Bill? It is to enable and facilitate students to go to college without being under undue stress. Some students have been under considerable stress. My colleague in the Dáil, Deputy O'Dowd, revealed on 25 November last that 20%, or 13,000, of all student grants had not been processed by that date, representing a considerable number of people under stress. This issue ranks among the top four queries brought to my constituency office. The main point students bring to our attention is the delay. The backlog in applications with VECs and county councils sees a delay of up to four months in them being processed. When processing the application finally begins, it can take another four weeks to finalise as not all paperwork may have been submitted by the applicant. I agree that is the applicant's fault but the authorities' having to issue letters further delays proceedings. The process must be streamlined.

I am delighted a better application form has been introduced. Will it be available online? If so, will it point out to an applicant when it is not correctly filled out? For example, when purchasing an airline ticket online, if the details are not correct it will request they be changed.

That will be a beneficial improvement.

These delays have caused much stress to students and have a knock-on effect on their education and outcomes. How many times has the Joint Committee on Education and Skills requested the heads of third level institutions not to prevent students from sitting examinations or using library facilities because their grant had not come through to pay their registration fee? I am glad the Minister is tackling this issue but I regret her predecessors let it languish this far. The student support system has been in dire need of reform for years, particularly at a time when resources were much more plentiful.

The general residence requirement for a maintenance grant will be three out of the past five years and met by students in all cases. This has been problematic in the past, as parents and students had to fall into this category. I have encountered situations where parents have had to go overseas for work while their children remain in Ireland. As they are under 23 years, their eligibility must be assessed in the context of their parents' residence. If the parents are not resident, the student cannot receive a grant, despite being resident.

Yes, but this will be changed to considering the child only.

That is good. While I welcome this improvement, will the Minister see if she can introduce it for the next academic year?

The regulations for the schemes will govern the classes of grants, the categories of applicants, which may include dependent, independent and mature student criteria. Is there a possibility of a grant category for trainee teachers and health care professionals who incur extra costs during their on-field learning? For example, a student teacher in St. Angela's College, Sligo, will have five teaching practices during his or her undergraduate course. The same applies to students at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, or St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra. They will have to incur all costs associated including travel, accommodation, equipment and classroom costs. Final year nursing students are due to lose their stipend and be made to work for free. Is there any special category provided for in the Bill to cover these students' costs when training in their final year?

A person convicted of committing an offence under this legislation will be ineligible to apply for a grant for ten years. Who will police this, particularly considering when there are many VECs?

Section 24 states:

(1) Where a person, whether or not he or she is a student, has received moneys from an awarding authority that are in respect of a grant that the person is not entitled to receive, the person is liable to repay to the awarding authority on demand a sum not exceeding the amount of money received.

(2) Where the awarding authority pays moneys in respect of a grant to an approved institution, the student on whose behalf they have been paid is deemed to have received the moneys.

Is a student who did not receive the moneys but left them with the college still liable under this section? The largest drop-out rate occurs in the first three months of the academic year. Many of these are just 17 and 18 year olds who would have needed a taster period to get used to college or have made a mistake in their course choice. Many of them reapply the following year but discover because they dropped out the year before, they are ineligible for a new grant. Can their positions be recognised in this legislation?

Section 30 requires institutions to prepare draft access plans of the policies of the institution in respect of equality, including gender equality, in all activities of the institution. This may be somewhat daft in some institutions such as St. Angela's College, Sligo, for example, which would be overwhelmingly female.

The refusal of an application for being a few euro over the cut-off threshold is hard. I accept there has to be line somewhere but in these difficult economic times this has caused stress for students. I am glad an appeals process is provided for in the Bill. Shortening the time for appeals from 90 days to 45 days is critical.

Eligibility for mature students is not straightforward. Some mature students may have lived at home for the previous 12 months but now live elsewhere. They find they may be eligible for the back to education allowance but not for the grant or fees to be paid. All earnings and benefits of the student and parents are also means-tested. How will the Bill improve this?

Issues and anomalies also arise with independent students, young people who are up to 23 years of age and are completely separated from their parents. The Minister claims the legislation will allow her introduce regulation in this area. When will this happen? In the meantime, is there an option in the appeals process to allow independent students to be recognised as being eligible for maintenance grants?

I thank the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills for attending the House in person for this debate. I look forward to hearing her replies to the questions and issues I raised.

I thank the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills for introducing this important legislation. It has been long awaited by students and those bodies involved in awarding student grants. There has been much stress on the latter as more people now enter third level education. It is a positive sign when more young people plan to continue their education from second to third level rather than leaving the education system after secondary school. I welcome the wide reaching and badly needed reforms the Student Support Bill will bring to the student grants system.

There is not a September to December period which passes without us, as public representatives, obtaining an indication of the extreme upset caused by delays in processing applications or the loss of documents. Parents and those who work in public offices tend to be exposed to a much less diluted version of the type of upset to which I refer. I have spoken with many students and administrators and I am aware that there are many aspects to having one's application stuck in the processing system. Whatever the cause of the delays that occur, there is no doubt that the repercussions for students are often significant, not only in the context of their education but in terms of their physical and mental health. There can also be repercussions for their parents' physical and mental health. The Bill must be a major component in addressing the unacceptable anxiety experienced by too many young people each year.

Not all students have had a negative experience in this regard. The hard work of many of the existing grant-awarding authorities must be acknowledged. There are times when those who work for the authorities to which I refer have endured a significant level of personal abuse and felt extremely unappreciated. On Friday afternoons, I am almost scared to telephone my local council or VEC because I know that, by that stage of the week, they have probably had enough.

For the increasing number of students going through the system, grants provide a means for them to avail of further and higher education. One of the major flaws with the system which has often been brought to my attention relates to siblings in different colleges or universities. It appears that despite the technological age in which we live, it is seemingly impossible for VECs and local authorities to share information. As a result, the processing of applications submitted by those in the category to which I refer has been neither efficient nor effective. Not only have there been delays caused by one entity dealing with the relevant paperwork before transferring it to the other but in such a system, items are more likely to be lost.

One of the principal provisions in the Bill envisages the transfer of the student grants administration function from the existing 66 grant-awarding bodies to a single body. I am sure the creation of a unified grant system will give rise to a sigh of relief from many people. Such a system will be of assistance in overcoming either the technological or data protection issues which may have held centre stage heretofore. I would be interested in discovering — not only in respect of education but in the context of social welfare — the impediments with regard to data sharing. One would have thought that it would be safe to transfer people's personal information between Departments, particularly as all civil servants are obliged to ensure that all data protection criteria are met.

One is often presented with anecdotal evidence of someone's neighbour who is better off financially and whose child has obtained the grant. In other instances, one is informed about families which experience particularly difficult periods as a result of an unexpected illness, a redundancy or one parent leaving the home. It appears that the process is unable to react with requisite speed to a genuine need. I welcome the fact that the Bill makes provision for the establishment of an independent appeals board, which is hugely significant. In future, it will be possible to hold initial interviews and then external independent reviews.

It is essential that there should be consistency in how applications are dealt with, that responses to applications should be issued in a timely manner, that students should receive their payments quickly and that they should have recourse to a mechanism whereby they can, if necessary, have their applications assessed on an independent basis. When I attended the University of Ulster at Jordanstown, first year students from County Donegal used to receive the first instalment of their grant on 19 December. By that time, the Northern Irish students were approximately £3,000 in debt, but every spare can of beans, and every potato that was available in their homes in Donegal would have been stolen and brought to Jordanstown to keep the students going until they got their grant. Any outcome other than a speedy one results in hardship and frustration for students and their parents.

I do not mean to sound contradictory, but my suggestion is that within the concept of consistency there should be some level of understanding for hard cases, or at least a guide as to where a student might go in an emergency. A great deal of good work is being done by local community agencies and by those who operate student hardship funds, and so on. However, many people will be concerned that once a single, impersonal grant-awarding agency is established, the ability of staff to deal with individual cases might be undermined. It is in that context that we must be mindful that while we must treat people with consistency, people who have particular problems or if an emergency arises, should be able to be accommodated. It may seem that it might not be possible to treat everyone with consistency while making provision to deal with individual emergencies, but if enough thought is given to this matter, a solution will be found.

While moving to introduce the unified scheme this year might appear ambitious, I am heartened by the fact that preparations to facilitate this by way of regulation are already under way. I am also pleased that invitations for expressions of interest have issued in respect of the establishment of the single grant-awarding authority. This demonstrates a commitment to reform of the student grants system. That new applications only will be dealt with under the new system in 2012 will make possible the transition between the old and new systems.

It has been estimated that in 2009 approximately 170 full-time, whole-time equivalent staff across the local authority and VEC sectors were engaged in assessing applications. Some people will lose their jobs as a result of the establishment of the new authority. However, centralising matters will lead to improvements in the service to students and to savings in the Exchequer. The Croke Park agreement relates to issues of this nature, namely, streamlining systems, and so on., and making them more efficient and effective, regardless of the implications this might have in the context of redeployment.

I refer now to a matter I have raised on numerous occasions, namely, bringing forward the relevant dates in order that applications to colleges and universities might be dealt with or processed at the same time as CAO and other forms. Students should only be obliged to complete forms during a particular set period before being allowed to settle back into exam mode. While certain dates were moved back in recent years — this is an important development which may, in part, have been influenced by the number of complaints I have made — there is no doubt that further action is required.

Under the current system, there is a bottleneck at the beginning of September during which a high volume of processing takes place. Many third level colleges now begin their registration procedures in early September rather than in October. While the primary aim of the new system will be to issue decisions to applicants within a guaranteed timeframe in all cases where complete applications were admitted by the closing date, surely moving back the relevant dates so that they might coincide with those which obtain in respect of applications for college courses would ensure that a great deal of the processing work required would be done well in advance of the issuing of examination results.

It should be possible for a student applying to study music at UCC, Jordanstown or Trinity to apply for his or her grant at the same time. He or she could provide as much information as possible with his or her application. I accept that he or she might not obtain enough points to be accepted for the relevant courses or that he or she might not qualify for the grant. However, if the processing were carried out earlier, people would discover whether they had been approved for grants in a much more timely fashion and there would be much less pressure on those who administer the system.

I welcome the enabling provision which creates the possibility for certain part-time courses to be included in the student grants scheme in the future, when resources permit. The Bill sets out, clearly and unequivocally, the procedures relating to the application for and the awarding of grants, the responsibilities of students, their parents and spouses, the conditions relating to grant eligibility and the residency and nationality requirements. It also indicates how the procedures relating to dealing with fraudulent claims will be strengthened.

The new online system has highlighted the potential in the context of greatly improving and simplifying the application process. I have received extremely positive feedback in that regard. The new online system can be of assistance in ensuring that accurate applications are submitted. However, it is not only technology which ensures accuracy. I spoke to those who administer the grants system — these individuals possess a wealth of information — and they provided me with examples of how incomplete applications and incorrectly completed applications contribute to the significant delays which occur in the processing of applications.

A simple idea was put to me in this regard and it should form a core part of their career guidance systems. As part of the career guidance nights they tend to offer in December, schools should provide an idiot's guide to how to obtain a grant. Some schools are already making information of this nature available to their students. Students should be told what they need to do in January, February, March and so on. People should be aware of the need to retain their utility bills because these will be required when grant applications are being made. As Tip O'Neill once stated, "Keep it simple, stupid".

There is evidence that the applications of students who attended schools which have already taken steps in this regard are being processed much more speedily. When people know what they are supposed to have and when they are supposed to have it, their applications will be completed to a high standard and the number of errors will be minimal. There is also an argument for making the parents of first year third level students aware of the need to put some money aside, where possible, so that they might cope with the relevant costs that arise each September or October and will not be obliged to shoulder any excessive burdens.

At present, students apply for the courses they wish to pursue and are enthusiastic with regard to this aspect of the process. They then get into exam mode and have some inkling that they might need the grant. However, applying for a grant does not give rise to the same level of excitement or urgency that obtains when one awaits one's exam results. Suddenly, it is the middle of September and the person does not know whether they have got the grant because they may not have been speedy in submitting the application or it may not have been processed in time. They arrive at the college and are asked for the registration fee but they have not heard of that previously because they have not done the pre-emptive work. They have got their accommodation but then they realise they must have hundreds of euro ready for the deposit. The parents are then landed with a huge bill they had not anticipated because their focus was on the examinations.

As it is 5.30 p.m. and in keeping with the order of the House, I ask the Senator to adjourn the debate.

The time has concluded but I will have an opportunity in the future to address the many other aspects of this area, beidh lá eile, le cúnamh De. I welcome the Bill.

Debate adjourned.