Under the free fees initiative, my Department meets the tuition fees of eligible students who are attending full-time undergraduate courses, which must be of at least two years' duration at approved colleges. Eligible students are those who are first-time undergraduates, hold EU nationality or official refugee status or have been ordinarily resident in an EU member state for at least three of the five years preceding their entry to an approved course. My Department funds four maintenance grant schemes for third level and further education students. These are the higher education grants scheme, the vocational education committees' scholarships scheme, the third level maintenance grants scheme for trainees and the maintenance grants scheme for students attending post-leaving certificate courses.
The higher education grant scheme is administered by local authorities under the aegis of my Department. The other three schemes are administered by the vocational education committees. Generally speaking, students who are entering approved courses for the first time are eligible for grants where they satisfy the relevant conditions as to age, residence, means, nationality and previous academic attainment. An approved course for the purpose of the higher education grants scheme means a full-time undergraduate course of not less than two years duration and a full-time postgraduate course of not less than one years duration pursued in an approved institution. The condition relating to residency requires, in the case of a candidate under 23, the candidate's parents or guardians to have been resident in the administrative area of a local authority from 1 October of the previous year. In the case of an independent mature candidate, the candidate must have been resident in the administrative area of a local authority from 1 October of the previous year. Local authorities have discretion to waive this requirement in exceptional circumstances.
The National Development Plan 2000-2006, with assistance from the European Social Fund, provides for a third level access fund aimed at tackling under-representation by disadvantaged students in third-level education. The fund includes the following initiatives: the special rates of maintenance grant; the fund for students with disabilities; the student assistance fund and the millennium partnership fund. Eligibility for the special rates of maintenance grant is determined by reference to an income threshold and receipt of an approved long-term social welfare payment. To be eligible, applicants must first qualify for the ordinary maintenance grant. The fund for students with disabilities aims to assist students with disabilities in third-level institutions and PLC colleges to participate in further and higher education. The purpose of the fund is to provide students with serious physical and-or sensory disabilities with grant assistance towards the cost of special equipment, special materials and technological aids, targeted transport services, personal assistants and sign language interpreters. The fund operates on a discretionary basis. Applications for funding should be made by the disability or access officer in the institution, or by the principal in a PLC college. Students should discuss their particular disability and the equipment or services required with their institution or PLC college.
In publicly funded third level institutions there is a student assistance fund, or SAF. The objective of the SAF is to assist students in a sensitive and compassionate manner who might otherwise due to financial reasons suffer severe hardship or be unable to continue their third level studies. Applications for funding should be made by the individual student to the access officer in his or her institution. The SAF is administered on a confidential and discretionary basis. The final initiative under the third level access fund is the millennium partnership fund for disadvantage. The objective of the fund is to support students from disadvantaged areas on retention and participation in further or higher education courses. Partnership companies and community groups manage the fund locally. Area Development Management, ADM, manages the fund for the Department of Education and Science. Under the fund, eligible actions may include the following but will be dependent on the individual partnership or community group: financial supports to meet student participation costs; provision of information, for example, guidance and mentoring; and study supports including tuition and study skills. Students may contact their local partnership or community group for assistance. A list of the partnerships and community groups is available from the student support unit, Department of Education and Science, Tullamore.