I thank the Minister for Education and Skills for coming to the House and his officials for contacting my office when this motion was originally submitted last week. I want to use this opportunity to raise a number of questions on the future of third level funding, maintenance grants and fees and I will leave it to the Minister's discretion to answer them. I tabled this matter in context of the report on funding for third level education which is due to be presented to him later this year.
Issues pertaining to the future of third level funding have come to my attention through meetings with various student organisations and other interested parties. Does the Minister accept that senior academics in Ireland receive, on average, salaries that are 35% higher than their UK counterparts and that the pay aspect of the higher education budget must be examined in order to prevent further cuts to the non-pay budget? Is it acceptable that higher education institutions have not made costed representations of their funding requirements to maintain quality while accommodating increased participation? Are these institutions operating at maximum productivity and what is the Minister's view of higher education institutions setting up limited companies to attract international students where they are used to pay staff over and above agreed pay scales?
A HEA study of the effect of the removal of tuition fees from third level education in the Twenty-six Counties found that thousands of students from lower middle class homes failed to advance to third level education, primarily because the current inadequate income thresholds for grants acted as an obstacle to students from these groups.
Does the Minister consider he should focus on tackling the outstanding problems surrounding the threshold for student grants to allow for greater participation in third level education? Given that most institutions have resumed, students are seeking reassurance that they will not lose the grant and that the eligibility criteria will not be changed to prevent their younger brothers and sisters getting the grant. There has been much hearsay about the report of the capital asset test implementation group and if its recommendations, including the revised means test, will be taken on board by the Minister in the education budget for 2013. There is a fear among farm families with small businesses and low incomes that their children will not get student grants on the basis that the value of their farmland will take them over the income threshold irrespective of whether they derive any income there it. There is a view that income should be maintained as a basis for calculating eligibility for third level grants. The mere ownership of a few fields or a small shop premises cannot guarantee the income needed to maintain the farm with a business not to mention running a household or sending a child to college. When will the capital asset test implementation group report be published and discussed by the Cabinet?
There has been much discussion about the possible reintroduction of fees. Fees in education have been shown to be a disincentive to entrants to third level education and the introduction of free third level fees during the 1990s was supposed to transform Irish education and open up the possibility of obtaining a degree for a much greater number of people. Despite that, many from working class and lower middle class backgrounds were disproportionately excluded from education but I hope that disparity can be addressed.
Does the Minster accept that students from low income families will find it increasingly difficult to access higher education courses should the recommendations of the HEA be implemented? Are the increases in the student contribution outlined to 2015 sustainable for families above the grant threshold? Is it possible that the Minister may be laying the foundation for the introduction of student loans by virtue of the increases in the student contribution which have been outlined? Does he appreciate the negative impact that a similar system had on students in the UK which showed a 17% drop in the level of participation?