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Third Level Education

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 30 November 2021

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Questions (63)

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

63. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the progress being made on the current review of the student grant scheme; when he expects the final report and the timeframe to implement recommendations therein; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58651/21]

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

While improvements have, to some extent, been made to the SUSI grant scheme, the scale of the grant is still well out of step with the financial burden that students experience, concerning accommodation or the cost of living, for example. We are some five years on from the Cassells report. Will the Minister outline the up-to-date position regarding that review and on having a new and improved scheme of grants for students?

I thank Deputy Moynihan for his question and for his regular engagement with myself and my office on the issue of student supports and the need to do better, reform and overhaul the student grant system. I am happy to give him an update on the review of the SUSI student grant scheme. This was a very important commitment in the programme for Government, which will help shape decision-making on how we support students over the years to come. I thank the Deputy for acknowledging that there have been some changes since our three-party Government came into office, including the first increase in the SUSI grant in a decade, the first increase in thresholds in probably the same period, the first reduction in the adjacency rate, which may impact the Deputy's own constituents in terms of ensuring more students can avail of the higher rate of the grant, and the first increase in postgraduate supports. In the relatively short lifetime of this Government, four concrete measures have been put in place. There is a need to do more and the programme for Government commits to an overhaul of the student support system, not just additional measures in the current system.

Following a procurement process, the review of the SUSI student grant scheme has been undertaken by Indecon, under the guidance of a steering group which has included student and sectoral representatives and representatives from other relevant Departments. I am pleased to say there was significant public interest in the review. Approximately 280 written submissions were received. A very welcome feature of the process of engagement was that students were involved. I understand that over 9,000 survey responses were received from students across the country. This very strong element of public engagement, in addition to the economic work undertaken by Indecon, should provide a solid evidence basis for the recommendations of the review.

I am currently awaiting the final report of the review of the student grant system. I understand as recently as today that the work is at a very advanced stage, and is at the point of finalisation by Indecon and the steering committee. My expectation is that I will receive the final report before Christmas. My intention then is to submit the report to Government, and then to publish it. The Deputy will understand that implementation of the report's recommendations will be a matter for consideration by Government and these Houses.

I acknowledge the improvements that have been made in the SUSI grant. As the Minister mentioned, the non-adjacent rate is very significant for people around mid-Cork from Enniskean and Newcestown up around to Macroom and Millstreet and right across the top of the Boggeraghs as far as Millstreet, who would now be eligible for the higher rate of grant. The cost of rental accommodation for students is very much higher than what is available in the grant. Many students will be working during term time and throughout the summer as well. Only about €4,500 of that is allowed. They are ending up working against themselves with the fee on it. Is that going to be taken into account for the new review? People who are working should not be penalised for the grant.

I thank the Deputy. I am pleased to hear that the changes we made in the last budget will have such a positive impact for many of his constituents. We would like to do more and build on that in future budgets as well. I am at a slight disadvantage because I have not yet received the outcome of the review. However, the terms of reference are quite instructive in terms of what we would like to see happen as a Government. The terms of reference have asked that the review: examine the maintenance grant values and their income thresholds; look at the definition of "approved course" because we do not currently provide grants for part-time provision, which, I think, is a weakness in the system; look at the adjacent and non-adjacent rates, and we have begun to move on that; look at postgraduate grant support; and benchmark student supports in Ireland against other jurisdictions because it is important to see how we are holding. In the context of the Deputy's question, the key point is probably the last term of reference, to identify the real cost of attending further education and higher education in Ireland, and to identify the current supports in place. The real cost has changed over the ten years of the SUSI scheme.

It is very important that any new funding scheme is going to support lifelong learning and that people who want to return to study later in life and who may have previously gained a qualification would not be excluded. They are excluded under the current model where applicants have to show progression. It is very important that a lifelong learning opportunity would be available with any funding model.

If there is a change of circumstances in somebody's household, the current system makes them have to go through a whole review and then take into account an appeal. That is very difficult in a household where they have seen a sudden drop in income over the last year. There should be some way of circumventing that when someone is making an application so they can identify a change in circumstances up front and not be delayed until November or maybe even January or February to do an appeal. These matters need to be looked at in any review. I would be pleased if the Minister could clarify the situation.

I do not disagree with anything the Deputy said. The profile of a learner or student is going to change in Ireland. Not every student will be 18 straight out of school and packing the bags to go to college for four years. More and more we are going to see people in their 40s, 50s and 60s with full-time jobs, mortgages and some dependants, needing to access to education. There is a challenge for us on two fronts. One is to make the current student support scheme more flexible. That is why I have alluded to the issue of the definition of an approved course, including part-time provisions. That is in the terms of reference. Then there is the more broad point beyond the SUSI support scheme regarding lifelong learning and the model we have in place. As recently as last week I met with the head of the OECD in Paris. We have commissioned them to examine what policy levers we should pull as a Government in respect of supporting people to access lifelong learning. How do we help employers that want to upskill their staff but do not know how they can viably or economically do that? How do we help the citizen who might not qualify for a State support today to be able to access it in an affordable way? The OECD review alongside the SUSI review will answer these questions in the course of 2022.

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