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.