Written Answers. - Higher Education Grants.

Noel Ahern

Ceist:

1044 Mr. N. Ahern asked the Minister for Education and Science the policy and commitment to raising income eligibility levels for third level maintenance fees; if the findings of various reports are not being implemented; the reason this issue has slipped in priority terms since free fees were introduced; and if he will make a one off improvement in the maintenance income limits in order to make these available to more families. [20039/00]

The statutory framework for the main tenance grants scheme, as set out in the Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Acts, 1968 to 1992, provides for means-tested higher education grants in order to assist students to attend full-time third level education.

The practice in recent years has been to increase, annually, third level maintenance grants in line with inflation and to increase the reckonable income limits in line with movements in the average industrial wage. In line with this policy, I announced increases of 5% in the maintenance grant and of 5% in the income limits to qualify for a grant, for the 2000/01 academic year.

The reckonable income limit for a full maintenance grant under the student support schemes for the 2000/2001 academic year is £20,200. Candidates who do not qualify for a full maintenance grant may qualify for a part-maintenance grant (50%) in respect of which the income limit is £21,400. Where two or more children or the candidate's parent are attending full-time approved third level courses the above income limits may be increased by £2,270 where there are two such children, by £4,540 for three such children and so on, by increments of £2,270.

Some 40% of third level students qualify for maintenance grants. The question of further raising the reckonable income limits could only be considered having regard to overall resource constraints and other competing demands in the education sector. In this respect, the need for a special enhanced level of maintenance grant for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, well targeted at those most in need has been highlighted in a number of reports, most recently in the Osborne Report on "Evaluation of the Targeted Initiative on Widening Access for Young People from Socio-Economically Disadvantaged Backgrounds," published by the Higher Education Authority on 21 September 2000.

The need to target resources at those most in need is well recognised and underpins this Government's approach to tackling disadvantage. In this regard, there is provision within the National Development Plan for a third level access fund totalling £95 million over the period of the plan. This fund will provide for additional financial support for disadvantaged students on top of the existing maintenance grants schemes. The objective of this measure is to facilitate and improve access to the labour market for the beneficiaries whilst improving their long-term employability through enhancing their educational qualifications.

I recently announced the setting up of an action group on access to third level education, in line with a commitment in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, with the aim of tackling under-representation of disadvantaged students in third level education. This action group will advise me on the development of a co-ordinated framework to promote participation at third level by students in three disadvantaged groups – students with disabilities, students from disadvantaged backgrounds and mature ‘second chance' students.
As an indication of the Government's support in promoting equity in access, and as a purely initial step pending the findings of the action group, I announced on 14 September 2000 the introduction of a special maintenance grant payable to disadvantaged grant holders, targeted at those most in need. The full rate of maintenance grant will increase from £1,775 to £2,000 for students residing more than 15 miles from college; and from £710 to £1,000 for students resident within 15 miles of college.
Tentative indications are that in the region of 10,000 students may benefit from this measure.
The action group will provide a report to me within three months, advising on the specific interventions we can make, which would be most effective in achieving our objectives in the area of disadvantage.