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.