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Third Level Education

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 30 November 2021

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Questions (60)

Ciaran Cannon

Question:

60. Deputy Ciarán Cannon asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the breakdown of the funding allocated under the student assistance fund in 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58567/21]

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

I am asking this question on behalf of Deputy Cannon. We must make every effort to ensure that students can remain in college, even when they are facing financial difficulty. Many of their part-time employment opportunities were removed as a result of Covid-19 and we now see the impact this is having on their personal finances. It is important that we have a clear picture of where funding is being allocated under the student assistance fund to ensure it is protecting those who need it most.

I thank Deputy Dillon for the question. I also thank him for talking about technological universities and for the work we have done together. I am delighted that the technological university for the north west now has a name. It will be the Atlantic technological university and will come into being in April. I am also delighted to see advertisements being placed to find the leadership of that technological university.

The student assistance fund is one of a suite of measures to support students participating in higher education. It is intended for students who are experiencing financial difficulties, whether those difficulties are temporary or permanent in nature. I am particularly aware of the impact of the pandemic on students. That is why this Government decided to provide the pandemic unemployment payment to students for such a lengthy period of time and why the student assistance fund has been more than doubled over two years. With that in mind, I have used Covid funding to significantly increase the student assistance fund.

The core funding amounts to €8.1 million, €1 million of which is ring-fenced core funding for the support of part-time students who are lone parents or members of the other access target groups identified in the national plan for equity of access to higher education. There is an additional €8.1 million for this year, funded through the Covid-19 return to education package for 2021.

The student assistance fund is administered by the HEA on behalf of my Department. Allocations from the fund are calculated using figures from each institution for the total student population and the number of disadvantaged students. In the previous academic year, 20,669 students benefited from the fund. That represents an increase of 6,339 students on the previous year.

With regard to Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Deputy Dillon's region, €576,587 was drawn down from the student assistance fund. Many of those living in the Deputy's region would also attend the National University of Ireland, Galway. Some €1.247 million was drawn down for this institution. I will provide a table to the Deputy as part of the answer to this question.

I thank the Minister and acknowledge the great strides he is making in ensuring that people have access to further and higher education and the options he has put in place over recent months. The recent reform of the SUSI grant and the CAO process are very welcome developments. I would appreciate some further information on the breakdown of the student assistance fund. The Minister gave us some figures. I understand it is being divided up and has a baseline core funding of €8.1 million. I see that was doubled as part of the Covid-19 response. The baseline funding was doubled and €1 million ring-fenced to support part-time students who are lone parents. Will there be any further changes to how this funding is allocated to specific institutions or is further engagement taking place in that regard? Will that be expanded in the months ahead?

I thank the Deputy for his interest in this matter. In 2015, the HEA commissioned an independent review of the student assistance fund as part of the national plan for equity of access to higher education. The main finding of that review was a confirmation that the student assistance fund continues to be highly valued as a source of support for students. Demand remains strong. What I like about the fund is the flexibility which allows it to cater for a very diverse group of students in a variety of circumstances. The SUSI scheme is legislated for and is quite prescriptive. The benefit of the student assistance fund is that it can be used for a student who meets a once-off financial difficulty, for example, a family bereavement or an unexpected bill.

It is there as an additional support for students who may fall on hard times. Those hard times may be temporary and may have been unforeseen. A full breakdown of how the fund is divided between the institution exists, and I will provide that to the Deputy.

I note there is a comprehensive list of approved institutions that can access the student assistance fund. I am seeking clarity on some of the plans progressing in the Minister’s Department. Several technological universities already exist and, as the Minister mentioned, the new Atlantic technological university, ATU, is coming on stream, driven by the Minister’s excellent work. In that regard, I wish to confirm that the tools are in place to ensure that this funding can be accessed by the students attending these institutions and that there are no unintended consequences.

In addition, it would be remiss of me not to ask if there are plans for similar funding to be put in place in respect of colleges in the education and training boards, ETBs. A range of colleges has come on stream in that sector, such as the Mayo College of Further Education and Training, MCFET, which is an amalgamation of Castlebar and Westport colleges of further education. I hope the students attending these colleges will have access to student assistance funding in a similar manner.

I thank the Deputy, and I assure him that students in the technological universities, including in the new Atlantic technological university serving Mayo, Galway, Sligo, Donegal and the north-west region, will indeed be eligible to apply.

Regarding the further education sector, I am glad the Deputy raised this matter, because we have made two significant changes to support students in further education and training. In the last budget, we abolished the post-leaving certificate, PLC, course levy. A €200 charge had been levied by the Government on people attending a PLC course and that was removed in the budget. It will now be free for people in this State to access PLC courses, so we are putting the State's money where its mouth is in respect of ensuring that people can upskill, reskill and get the training they require to get back into employment.

The second thing we have done is that we have brought in a new fund. Being truthful, we brought it in as a once-off measure in my first year in this role. It is called the mitigating educational disadvantage fund. It is a fund that did not exist before and is intended for community education, ETBs and colleges of further education to draw on. I was in a facility in Kildare yesterday, a youth development training centre, which has been able to buy laptops and to establish a sensory room. This is a sector which has done incredible work but that has been underfunded, and this new funding stream is helping significantly in that regard.

Question No. 61 replied to with Written Answers.
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