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Third Level Education

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 30 November 2021

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Questions (64)

Pa Daly


64. Deputy Pa Daly asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans to review the criteria and income thresholds for SUSI grants to ensure that a family qualifying for the working family payment is deemed eligible for a fee and maintenance SUSI grant; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58611/21]

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

Iarradh an cheist seo cheana féin le blianta ach níor freagraíodh í fós. Cén plean atá ag an Aire chun na daoine atá in ann deontas SUSI a fháil agus atá ar an working family payment a bheith in ann cothabháil agus táillí ollscoile a fháil? Are there any plans for families in receipt of the working family payment to be eligible for the fee and the maintenance SUSI grant?

I thank the Deputy for the question and the important issue he is raising. It is important to say at the outset that the SUSI scheme does take account of the circumstances of people in receipt of the working family payment. First, as the Deputy knows, the working family payment is treated as an income disregard. This means that it is not included in the reckonable income for the student grant means test. Furthermore, unlike other social protection payments which are paid to individuals, the working family payment is a payment deemed to be paid to a family. In recognition of this, the SUSI scheme contains provisions which allow this payment to be recognised for the purposes of meeting the eligibility criteria for the special rate of grant, which is the highest maintenance grant support available. This ensures that those students most in need receive supports which are commensurate with their needs.

More widely, as the Deputy will be aware and as I have been outlining in the House this evening, as part of this year’s budget I and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, made the first substantial changes to the rates and thresholds for the SUSI scheme in a decade. We intend to do more in this regard. We will also be informed in terms of a more significant overhaul of the student grant scheme when we receive that finalised report of the student grant scheme review next month. This will be critical in informing decision-making in future Estimates processes about changes to the rates and thresholds, as well as informing policy priorities and future considerations. I will certainly ensure that any of the issues the Deputy illustrates in this House are considered in that context.

This may not affect very many families but it is very important nonetheless. I understand the exclusion of the working family payment from reckonable income and that is appropriate. The fact remains that there are families who are in receipt of this payment and in order to survive, raise their families and educate them, they do that in spite of the fact that they are denied a maintenance grant due to the income thresholds. These income thresholds exacerbate the problem because they are banded. For example, a family that I know that has seven children, four of whom were in college, is assessed to be in the same band as a family with four children. The Minister is aware of the amount of college fees and the maintenance that is required. The cost of educating and raising each additional child is not considered at all in the SUSI calculation. This affects families in Kerry particularly because they have to travel to go to college. I have heard of children who have had to leave college because of the financial pressures.

I very much take the seriousness of the point the Deputy is making.

Regardless of whether a large or small number are affected, the point is important and valid. I approached the answer to the question in that spirit.

We are slightly at risk of talking at cross purposes. Regarding the relevance of SUSI, I want to be clear again that the working family payment is an income disregard so there is no student who is not receiving the grant today because payment tipped him or her over an income level. The payment is disregarded; it is not included in the calculation of reckonable income as part of the student grant means test. While is it not included in calculating someone’s income, we do include it as an eligible payment to qualify for the special rate of grant to try to make sure the higher rate of grant is targeted at those most in need of the grant support.

I have some figures for the Deputy. SUSI has confirmed that the number of students awarded the special rate of maintenance by virtue of the working family payment in 2021 was 5,299. However, I will be happy to address the broader issue the Deputy is raiding.

Will the Minister engage with the Minister for Social Protection on this? The former Minister responsible for higher education, Deputy Bruton, promised to correct what he called this “anomaly” four years ago in response to a question by a Deputy from another party. A family in need of social protection with one assessment is denied the right to educate children with another assessment. Families I know have children who have dropped out because of the financial stress. This was presented to me a number of times. It can be sorted out with a little collaboration to correct what the Minister’s colleague described as an “anomaly”. It is denying affected families the opportunity to educate their children. I ask the Minister to deal with this.

I will indeed engage with the Minster for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, on this issue. I am pleased to say that, when it comes to the SUSI review, we specifically included the Department of Social Protection in the steering group. What we all want is to ensure no poverty traps exist regarding any State support. I am cognisant that the working family payment is not a barrier to any family receiving the SUSI grant, but I am also cognisant of the broader point Deputy Daly is making. I will certainly ensure the transcript of this discussion is shared with my colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, and considered in the context of the SUSI review.