I propose to take Questions Nos. 86, 92 and 521 together.
I am very conscious of the difficulties that students, like so many others in society, face as a result of the increased costs of living. For students and their families this includes not just costs such as accommodation and food but also education-specific costs such as the student contribution.
I have monthly meetings with the USI and regular engagement with students across the country and I hear stories of how these costs affect people.
The Government as a whole is committed to addressing issues related to the cost of living.
I have already taken significant steps to support learners and their families. Effective from the start of the next academic year the rate of grant will be increased by €200 for all SUSI recipients, I have widened the thresholds to allow more people to apply for student grants and I have changed the distance thresholds to reflect the increased costs for those who live further away from their colleges.
I have also put significant additional resources into the Student Assistance Fund, including an additional €1.3 million announced last week, which brings the fund to €18.5m for the current academic year.
It is also important to say that over 65,000 students either pay no tuition fees or a significantly reduced rate of fee. These costs are covered by my Department through the SUSI scheme, and last year €190 million was allocated for this purpose.
However, the SUSI scheme clearly does not cover everybody, and there are many families who must pay out significant amounts of money each year to continue in third level education.
There are different options to address the costs of education, including lowering student contributions, but fundamentally these are decisions which must be made in the context of the annual Estimates process.
As I look towards the next budgetary cycle, I will be examining all the levers I have to address the issue in a way that has impact for students and families and that applies broadly across society.