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Further and Higher Education

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 30 November 2021

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Questions (65)

Éamon Ó Cuív


65. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the increases or decreases that have been made to the rates of grant under the SUSI grant scheme for undergraduate and postgraduate students since 2008; the years they were made; if he plans to increase these grants for the 2022–23 academic year; the provision made in the Estimates of his Department for same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58580/21]

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Oral answers (30 contributions) (Question to Further and Higher Education)

People think in terms of what is really available for real money, taking inflation into account. I am seeking to know the increases or decreases in the rates of grants under the SUSI grant scheme for undergraduates and postgraduates since 2008, the years the changes were made, and if the Minister intends to increase the grants for the 2022–23 academic year. Has he made provision in the Estimates to do that?

I thank the Deputy for the important question on SUSI grant schemes and their real value. I suggest that I provide him with some of the information in tabular form to assist with the discussion this evening.

As part of budget 2022, a budget of the three-party Government, we announced the first major changes to the student grant scheme rates and eligibility. These include an increase to the standard and special rates of maintenance, which have not increased in over a decade. These changes will take effect in the 2022–23 academic year. This has allowed us to make what I believe is early progress in addressing what we expect will be some of the themes emerging from the review of the student grant scheme due next month. This includes trying to ensure that the scheme keeps pace with changes in the economy, people’s earnings and changes in the cost of living.

The package we announced is provided for in the budget. It will include an additional €15 million for expenditure next year and around €33 million in full-year costs to enhance the financial supports under the student grant scheme. For the academic year 2022–23, this will mean an increase in all student grant maintenance payments, including the special rate of grant, of €200 per year. This will benefit approximately 62,000 students.

Importantly, the income threshold to qualify for the standard rate of student grant has been increased by €1,000. This is important because income thresholds have not been touched in a decade. The qualifying distance criterion for students to qualify for the non-adjacency rate of grant, which affects the Deputy’s constituents, has been reduced from 45 km to 30 km, effective from the start of the 2022–23 academic year. We have prioritised these changes for the 2022–23 academic year and they will benefit thousands of students, building on the improvements we made last year in respect of the postgraduate student supports. In this regard, we increased the postgraduate fee grant from €2,000 to €3,500 and the income threshold for postgraduate students from €31,500 to €54,240. We had not increased the rates before that. If I were to read out the rates, we would note they were static for a decade until we made these changes.

May I correct the Minister?

I am sorry. They were reduced and were then static.

They were reduced.

They were, indeed. Yes.

As well as that, the figure concerning the adjacency rate changed, so all the Minister has done is gone back to where we were.

We are not even there yet.

As well as that, the Minister absolutely butchered the postgraduate rates. There has been a dramatic regression since 2008 but the Minister very cleverly glossed over all that. This is despite my having asked a very specific question as to where we were in 2008 and where we are today, even allowing for the miserly increases that were given in the budget for 2022–23. We have gone back again to the great ploy that has been employed for ten years: the review. This means the poor students in college in 2021–22 get nothing. Under the current Government, students in 2022–23 will see a little bit of redressing, back to the rates of 2008. If the Minister checks the cost of going to college, he will see there was a significant difference between 2008 and today. Can he outline for me in detail the regression since 2008, as I asked for?

I do not need a history lesson, and neither does the Deputy, in respect of some of the very difficult economic decisions this country made after the troika period and, indeed, during that period, when many difficult public expenditure decisions had to be made. We are not going to debate on the floor of the Dáil why they were made, I am quite sure. When our two parties came together along with the Green Party in this Government, we made a commitment, in the programme for Government, to improve student grants. Consider what occurred after I was appointed by the Taoiseach to my Department. In the first budget we delivered as a Government — ours is a Government of three parties — we increased student grants for postgraduates in addition to income thresholds and rates. In the second budget of this Government, we increased income thresholds and made increases in respect of the adjacency and non-adjacency rates. We also increased the overall rate. Have we reached the destination? No. Does everybody from the Taoiseach down in this Government intend to do more? Yes. Were student grants reduced, as the Deputy wishes me to say on the record of the House? Yes, they absolutely were. Why were they reduced? The Deputy is well aware of the reason, as am I. However, we are making progress, not just to get back to where we were but also to go further.

The great announcement of €200 per annum means a very small increase to the income threshold at a time when, because of inflation, incomes are rising. We are a country mile away from where we were in 2008. The Minister might tell me what was available for postgraduate students in 2008 by comparison with what is available under his fantastic package for 2022–23.

Which the Deputy voted for.

It is your package.

I am a member of a Government party but I do not have to agree with everything members of the Government do. That is just a fact. It is one of the unfortunate parts of coalition. What were the rates in 2008, and what are the rates now? I believe third level education is incredibly important, as is making it accessible to those on low and medium incomes. The Minister might tell me the year in which he expects to get the big money to at least get us back to the rates of 2008, not to mind making all the other improvements he is promising.

The Minister of State in my Department, Deputy Niall Collins, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, and I — and, as I believed, every member of the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green parliamentary parties — are determined to increase the student supports. I have here some of the decisions the Deputy made on student supports during his time in government in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

There was an economic crisis-----

We are all aware of the economic crisis, Deputy

But the economic crisis is long gone, according to yourself.

Could we hear the reply through the Chair?

My apologies.

I am very much aware of the situation we saw during Deputy Ó Cuív's time in the last Fianna Fáil Government, and indeed during the time of the Fine Gael-Labour Government, when very difficult decisions on registration fees and student grants had to be made. I will provide to the Deputy, as an appendix to this answer, information in tabular form for each of those years on postgraduate grants, maintenance grants and registration fees. That is all here for the Deputy to see, from 2008 to 2021.

Will the Minister publish that?

It will be published on the record of the House.

I know that, but I would make sure it is well published.

The Deputy does not need to do that. The replies are published. That is how parliamentary questions are published. The Deputy has been in the House long enough to know that.

Has the Government published that information in places where people will read it?

That is exactly what we will do. In budget 2022 we have brought about a significant increase as a statement of intent. Nobody is suggesting it is the final destination, but we will also settle the question of a sustainable funding model for higher education.

That is not much joy to the students in college now.

The Deputy did not do much for them himself.

I did an awful lot.

Questions Nos. 66 and 67 replied to with Written Answers.