Adjournment Matters

Student Grants

I apologise to the Minister, a Leas-Chathaoirleach and the Clerk for the delay.

I raise this matter to discuss the eligibility requirements in place for qualification for student grants, particularly the residency requirement outlined in section 14(4) of the Student Support Act 2011. This residential requirement states that an applicant must have held residency here for three out of five years immediately before the date on which their studies commence. The only listed exception to this rule is if the applicant has been pursuing an approved course of study or post graduate research in the EU.

I have been contacted by a woman who cannot apply for a student grant as she has been in Sudan volunteering on behalf of GOAL from February 2008 until June 2011. According to the Higher Education Authority an exception for overseas development workers was not provided for in the drafting of the legislation on the basis that research at the time showed that the vast majority of postings of this nature were under two years' duration.

While I understand that not all volunteers remain overseas for more than two years, there are some who do. The woman who contacted me stated that to her knowledge there are many who do so. I believe, therefore, that another exception to the residency requirement should be made so as to include those who have been volunteering overseas for a period of more than two years. As a nation that is renowned for the work of its citizens abroad in the area of humanitarian assistance and as a country that encourages people to volunteer and to be active in this area, it is important that an exemption be made for overseas volunteers within the category I have described. I do not believe the number involved would be very significant. Were such an exemption to be made it does not necessarily follow that people in that category would then qualify for the grant. I am merely saying that this particular obstacle should be removed as a matter of fairness from a public policy point of view.

People in this category should be able to apply given the great humanitarian work they have done abroad at no financial gain to themselves. I ask the Minister of State to outline why those who partake in such a gracious and positive activity which brings credit to us all cannot be given the opportunity to apply for a student grant to re-enter education on their return to Ireland and to state what plans the Government may have to ameliorate that situation. It is a public policy issue and we should place no obstacle in the way of those who do good humanitarian work abroad. I have no doubt the Minister of State sympathises with the point I am making and I look forward to his response.

I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, and thank the Senator for raising it.

The Senator refers to a change which was introduced in the 2010 student grant schemes. I understand that changes to the 2010 schemes were announced in advance when the grant schemes were published in July 2009 so that students and their families would be aware of them in good time.

The specific issue to which the Deputy refers relates to the change in the residence requirement in the student grant schemes for the 2010-11 academic year. From the start of that academic year, the residence requirement to be met by a student in order to qualify for the maintenance grant was changed from a one-year requirement to have been living in the State directly prior to attending college, to a more flexible requirement of three out of the previous five years for the student.

The main purpose of the change was to ensure that persons applying for grants would have more established links with and integration into the State. However, in many instances, this change provides greater flexibility for students who may be returning from abroad.

In regard to the new consolidated single grant scheme introduced by the Minister this year, this residence requirement is provided for in section 14 of the Student Support Act 2011. The residence requirement must be met by the student himself or herself in all cases and is no longer linked to the residence of the parent or legal guardian of the student. Save where a student has been studying abroad, there are no exceptions made for particular groups — the requirement is applied equally to all.

However, in addition to the increased flexibility introduced by allowing residence to be counted over the five years prior to entering college, a student may now also meet the residence requirement during the course of their studies in order to qualify for a grant. In the past, if a student did not meet the residence requirement on entry to a course, this could not be reassessed even if the requirement could subsequently be met during the course of the student's studies.

Now, all students are treated equally with regard to meeting the residence requirement. All students have greater flexibility in meeting the "three out of five" years requirement. Even students who fail to meet the "three out of five" years at initial registration can now reapply in the course of their studies once they have met the residence requirement.

The Senator will know that it is a matter for individual grant awarding authorities, in the first instance, to determine eligibility for student grants based on all of the terms and conditions, including the residence clause, of the student grant scheme. The decision on eligibility for a student grant is a matter for the relevant grant awarding authority.

Where a grant application is refused, the reason for the refusal is given by the grant awarding authority and a student may appeal the decision to the appeals officer in the grant awarding authority. Because of the exceptional needs in this case, the applicant may wish to appeal her case. I think there is a justifiable case for that.

Where the appeals officer decides to reject the appeal, the student may further appeal the decision to the new independent Student Grant Appeals Board, established by the Minister in September this year. The Senator may also be aware that students in exceptional financial circumstances can apply for assistance under the student assistance fund. Information on the fund is available through the access offices of individual third level colleges, which also provide general assistance and advice to students to enable them to continue with their studies.

In thanking the Minister of State for his response there is still a lack of clarity. One student applying for a grant could be eligible, having spent the last year and half sunning themselves in Florida, whereas a person who has spent the past three years working for the poorest of the poor of the world would not be in a position to apply for the grant at the beginning of their course. Whereas the Minister of State has given an indication that an appeal might be looked on favourably, some level of specificity is needed from the Government where the independent student grant appeals board would be instructed that a favourable view should be taken of students in the category I have described. I will be taking this issue further.

On that point, I advise the Senator to take up the matter directly with the Minister. Clearly, that is an exceptional point that the Deputy has brought to the attention of the Minister. Three years charitable work abroad for people in need is an extraordinary achievement and I compliment all those who do it. In this specific case, I advise the Senator to contact the Minister directly. I note the Senator's correspondence because there is an anomaly. That anomaly should be addressed and dealt with. In terms of equity and fairness it does not make sense to exclude such applicants given that there is a derogation for a five year period. I hope the Minister will look at this matter in a favourable manner.

The Seanad adjourned at 1.40 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 15 November 2011.