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Third Level Costs

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 30 November 2021

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Questions (55)

Rose Conway-Walsh


55. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the increase in expenditure in the current academic year on SUSI, the student assistance fund and mental health supports; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [59094/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Further and Higher Education)

Students, like many others in the State, are struggling to get by due to the cost of living. Between fees, rent and transport, students are finding it very hard to make ends meet. Many of them have been in contact with my office after hearing announcements or reading headlines stating that more funding is being made available. Can the Minister clearly set out the increases in expenditure from the last academic year to this one in the areas of Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, the student assistance fund and mental health supports?

I thank the Deputy for the question. Obviously, the support and well-being of students are a major priority for me and my Department. They are a major priority for all Members of the House and we have endeavoured to reflect that in the significant steps to increase funding for this purpose.

Like the Deputy, I am very conscious of the pressures on students, including those arising from the pandemic as well as from increased costs of living. As I will outline, I have secured significant funding to support the student population this year, for students in financial difficulty as well as for students who require mental health supports, disability supports or assistance for items such as laptops. In fact, my Department will spend over €400 million on student supports in 2021, including the student grant scheme which assists approximately 74,000 students annually to access third level education. This includes the implementation of measures I introduced in last year's budget to provide greater support to postgraduates in the SUSI scheme from the current academic year onwards.

I have also secured a comprehensive package of financial supports for the higher education and further education and training sectors to mitigate the impact of Covid in the current academic year. Funding of €3 million to underpin well-being and mental health and student services in our higher education institutions was secured. This was in addition to the €2 million that had been allocated in the budget. An additional €20 million was provided for the SUSI student grant scheme to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 through increased levels of demand. I have doubled the student assistance fund over the last two years to ensure students have support if they fall on hard times. This will provide €17.2 million for financial assistance to students experiencing financial difficulties while attending higher education. That figure was €8 million when I took office less than two years ago. A specific provision has also been made in the student assistance fund for part-time students who are lone parents or members of other priority access groups under the national plan for equity of access to higher education.

The student assistance fund is available to assist students who are unable to meet costs associated with day-to-day participation in higher education, including books, class materials, food, essential travel, childcare costs, medical costs and family difficulties such as bereavements. I believe these critical measures will assist many students.

The Minister has been Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science for two budgets. In October 2020 he announced an additional €20 million for SUSI which was very welcome. The Department spent the same amount on SUSI in 2020 as it had in 2019. We are on track for a slight increase in 2021, but nowhere near the €20 million announced in his first budget. Last month, he announced an additional €35 million for SUSI but only in response to my question did he clarify that this would in fact be an increase of €15 million next year because it would not kick in until September. I urge him to bring forward the measures he announced for SUSI to take immediate effect, particularly increases to the SUSI maintenance grant. Expecting students to wait until next September does nothing to address the cost-of-living issues they are facing now.

As the Deputy will know, the SUSI scheme is demand led. I can set the criteria and I can improve the criteria, but ultimately it is a demand-led scheme. Money can only be drawn down from that scheme where applicants qualify for that scheme. As of 21 November, just a few days ago, SUSI had received almost 97,000 applications. Almost 94,000 of them have been assessed of which 74,600 have been assessed as eligible for support for this year. This is SUSI's tenth year in operation. I share the Deputy's view that the SUSI scheme needs an overhaul. I expect to receive the report of the SUSI review group probably by Christmas. That group contains student representatives, Department of Social Protection representatives, and representatives of the universities and institutions.

I notice the Deputy's reference to headlines. This is real money. Some 17,000 additional laptops were provided free of charge to students in higher education. There is extra badly needed funding for mental health services with a doubling of the student assistance fund now in place. It was €8 million when I took office and is over €17 million this year.

I welcome the review of SUSI and I am glad to hear that it will be on his desk by Christmas. It is important that it is published immediately so that things can come into effect for next year. The Minister can see how people get lost in the millions and millions, double counting of figures and all that. People feel they are left behind in all of the millions. In July, as part of the package for the safe return to campus, the Minister announced an extra €10 million in financial supports for students and €3 million for mental health services on campus. A similar announcement was made in the same week as the budget last month. I welcomed these commitments at the time because I know the difficulty many students are facing. It now seems that instead of the €10 million extra that was announced there will be €1 million less than last year in the student assistance fund for this year. Instead of the €3 million in additional funding on mental health services, there will be no increase at all. Six colleges, Technical University Dublin, Munster Technical University, Waterford Institute of Technology, Dundalk Institute of Technology, Letterkenny Institute of Technology and Institute of Technology Carlow, will receive less this year for mental health services than last year. Students need clarity on this.

The Deputy said students need clarity on it; I believe students have clarity on it. Tomorrow I will meet all student union presidents throughout the country in a meeting convened by the Union of Students in Ireland, USI. We regularly and I personally engage with student unions. I take the point about the millions. It is peculiar for the Deputy to suggest that because we are providing such a large amount of funding, it is difficult to navigate. I am saying to student unions on the ground and to college presidents that when we allocate money here in Dublin it is important that a conversation about how that is spent on the college campus involves students. Taking the mental health funding as an example, we have allocated an additional €3 million. This is real hard-earned taxpayers' money announced in the budget.

We are asking the college presidents to engage with the students' union to decide how best to spend that money in their college campus because that will vary from college to college. While I do not suggest there is not more that we need to do, by any fair metric more than €400 million being spent this year on student supports is a very large sum of money and represents a significant increase. Since this new Department has been established, students have been able to draw down from many more funding streams. I look forward to the SUSI review which will be instrumental in addressing the reforms required.