Student Support Bill 2008: Committee Stage

Sections 1 to 6, inclusive, agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 7 stand part of the Bill."

I asked questions earlier, using Griffith College as an example, and perhaps the Minister of State could address them. As it stands, certain colleges are regarded as outside the scope of the Bill because they are fee-paying. This is an anomaly because certain students who are disadvantaged and who attend the Law Society of Ireland or the Honourable Society of the King's Inns are covered by the scheme. This seems to place colleges such as Griffith College at an unfair and discriminatory disadvantage. I instanced Griffith College because its representatives briefed me on the issue, but I understand there are about 19 or 20 other colleges also. I would be very grateful if the Minister of State could give the House some information on this matter.

The provisions of the Bill do not preclude the recognition of private colleges for student grant purposes, as the Minister will have the power to prescribe an educational institution as being an approved institution, subject to certain conditions. The recently published landmark higher education strategy——

That is the Hunt report.

Yes. It recognises that private colleges have a role to play in higher education. This role is set in the context of higher and further education that has a responsibility to the broader social and economic needs of the country and that has a measurement of and accountability for the delivery of policy objectives. Any decision to include further colleges or courses under the student grants scheme will have to be taken in the light of overall policy objectives and the availability of resources.

The Honourable Society of King's Inns and the Law Society of Ireland operate on a non-profit basis. They are the specific bodies that govern entry to the respective professions of barrister-at-law and solicitor. While these institutions are not public institutions as such, they clearly differ in character and ethos from private commercial third level colleges. The courses approved at these institutions are postgraduate courses and the scheme enables less well-off students to enter these professions.

I am glad that Senator Norris brought up this point because it has been brought to my notice also. Colleges like Griffith College are well known and their courses are highly validated. It is a pity they are not included in the Bill. However, I can see where the Minister was coming from when she said she would consider the private colleges. These college are set up to make a profit as well. I trust the Minister will see it through. I echo the Senator's point of view, but I think the Minister's heart is in the right place on this issue.

Private colleges are not approved for the purposes of the Bill. Will there be a means by which they could become approved? In his report, Dr. Hunt wrote about mergers of colleges in the future. I felt he should have moved on this issue sooner because I wonder how sustainable it can be to have so many colleges in an island of 4 million people. Dr. Hunt referred to a 20 year vision. What would the Minister of State's advice be to private colleges, and colleges in general, given that this is likely to happen down the line?

The Bill will provide for a decision to be taken in that regard in due course. The Bill will enable private colleges to be recognised for student support if a decision is taken to do that. Any decision to include further colleges or courses under the student grant schemes will have to be taken in the light of overall policy objectives and the availability of resources. The Hunt report has just been published and people are considering it. There are many interesting aspects to the report and measures for part-time students are also included. This issue will evolve as further discussion and consultation takes place.

I am grateful to the Minister of State for his reply. The difficulty is in what he said about the question of resources being available. This almost invariably stops these progressive things. What worries me is that there is a principle of equity in all this. I have always believed the scarce resources of the State should go to those students most in need. The colleges that have not been registered or approved have a significant number of students who are not in affluent circumstances. It is not equitable not to look at the whole situation and to distribute the scarce resources of the State to the most vulnerable, which would include some students in these colleges also. The resources should be distributed to the most vulnerable because there should be a level playing field for all students in the State.

Descendants of the leaders of the 1916 Rising will be in the Visitors Gallery tomorrow, listening to us paying tribute to the vision and idealism of the people of 1916. I would like to remind the Minister of State of the following, although he knows it better than I do. Many think the Constitution contains the phrase, "cherishing all of the children of the nation equally", but it does not. The phrase is in the Proclamation to which this House will pay tribute tomorrow. It is incumbent on every Government to try as hard as it can, with the scarce resources available, to treat all the children of the nation equally. I am intrigued by the Minister of State's reference to fee-paying colleges as if they were commercial. I take it this means he is following his former leader, Deputy Bertie Ahern, into the glorious ranks of socialism.

I thoroughly agree with the Senator that we are talking about equity, equality and opportunity for vulnerable students. Given that these colleges are profit orientated, they also have a role to play and they, with the Minister, should try to figure out how best they can help students in this situation. If we do not have the resources, then they have an obligation not to milk the students who are doing their best to get into third level. Let them be duty bound to help out. It should not all be up to the Minister. This is about community orientation. Let everyone together see how best we can resolve this. Perhaps these colleges should dilute their profits a little given the times in which we are living.

I see socialism is not widespread.

I would like to take up on what Senator Norris was saying about the principle of equity and about treating all our children equally. I have championed the notion of children at risk of leaving school early owing to social disadvantage and financial vulnerability. There is another area in which it is important to treat children equally. Many children do not realise their learning potential until later in their lives. Students from all backgrounds may do a poor leaving certificate and then figure out with their parents what kind of course would work for them, which might often be in a private college. It is on that basis I would like to see social justice in education, be it in a public or private college.

Senator Ormonde has made the good point that everyone must take responsibility, but we must also be fair. Our public institutions are funded by the taxpayer. Private institutions are privately funded.

They have a role to play.

Yes. Ultimately, we must think of the student. That is my final point on that aspect of the matter, but I ask that we consider vulnerable students also.

It is always a pleasure to come into the Seanad. This is a very philosophical debate. One point I would make is that not all students are equal when it comes to electing the university Senators.

Níl sé sa Teach faoi láthair.

The institutions recognised under the Bill are generally publicly funded third level colleges offering full-time courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level. The Department of Education and Skills provides significant funding for these institutions which is used to provide a broad range of courses required by society, not just to meet the economic needs of the country. The institutions operate for the greater good of the country and act in the best interests of the development of human capital.

In general, private commercial colleges operate on a for-profit basis and the State has no say in directing their operations. By their nature, they provide courses for which there is a demand only. Their sole objective is to remain commercially viable and make as much profit as possible. If private colleges were to be approved under the student grant schemes, the Department would be liable to cover not only the cost of the maintenance grant and student service charge but also tuition fees which represent a support to the college rather than the student. This would result effectively in the State contributing towards the operating costs of a private for-profit college.

Taking all these aspects together, the Government is of the view that there are compelling reasons for not admitting for-profit colleges to the student grant schemes. It is not proposed, therefore, to depart from the policy of not extending the scope of the schemes to private colleges operated on a for-profit basis. That is the position reflected in section 7 of the Bill. Having said that, the section does not preclude the colleges from being approved, as provision is made for the Minister to prescribe an education institution as being approved, subject to certain conditions.

I intended to reiterate the point I made at the beginning, but Senator Norris came and went during my contribution.

He did, yes.

There is, therefore, no point in reiterating it.

Question put and agreed to.
Sections 8 to 19, inclusive, agreed to.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 30, subsection (10), between lines 5 and 6, to insert the following:

"(b) consultations with relevant parties, and”.

This is a short but relevant amendment. A major change is made in the Bill, which is very welcome; instead of having 66 grant-awarding authorities throughout the country, we will have a streamlined single authority. Fine Gael's proposal was reasonably similar to the Government's in terms of having a one-stop shop for all payments. However, there is a concern in some vocational education committees and, in particular, County Galway VEC has asked me to make this request. It would involve a minor change, but it could be a useful one. Where difficulties arise for students within the catchment area of the local VEC it would like there to be a process of consultation with relevant local parties, whereby in each VEC there would be a designated person appointed to give some knowledge to students in making applications. Such a facility would prove important. We are moving from a more centralised way of doing things. In the second Lisbon treaty the principle of subsidiarity was proposed whereby we would revert to doing things locally. This would be a minor change to allow each VEC to have somebody in place to provide an ear for students. I would be delighted if the Minister of State accepted the amendment to allow the change to be made.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.