I call Deputy Quinn to resume his speech. He has three minutes remaining.
Student Support Bill 2008: Second Stage (Resumed).
That is barely time to warm up. I welcome the Minister of State. My comments are almost complete. The one area that this Bill does not address is physical accommodation for third level students. Since the Short Title of the Bill is the Student Support Bill, I want to give notice of my intention to bring in a series of amendments which I hope the Minister of State will accept as admissible on Committee Stage in this area.
We probably have the lowest provision of dedicated accommodation for students attempting to get to college in northern Europe. It is a major issue for the USI. Mechanisms could be put in place to enable third level colleges, the Construction Industry Federation and the Departments of Finance and Education and Science to ease part of the pain of the current down turn in the construction sector by the provision of dedicated student accommodation. This could be on campus land surplus to educational requirements or in conjunction with local authorities in areas unsuitable for family accommodation but which are required for urban renewal. It would tap into the section 23 sentiment and culture we have had for the last 20 years.
That is all I have left to say in the time available. As I indicated to the Minister yesterday evening, the Labour Party will bring forward a series of amendments on Committee Stage. I again ask the Department to revisit the nonsense of having 33 VECs administering the same scheme and to examine the organisational efficiency of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, which is used to evaluating family income and performing means testing. This Department could provide a unilateral and similar quality of service across this Republic in a manner that a VEC, whether in Cork or Leitrim County Council, cannot do. We must bite that bullet and perhaps the Opposition can make it easier for the Government to bite it.
I welcome the Minister of State and the introduction of this Bill. It has been quite some time in gestation and it is welcome that it has made its way to the House. Those of us who have been public representatives for some time, including the Minister of State, will be aware of the ongoing debate that takes place each summer when young adults are in the process of going to college and the difficulties that the lack of this legislation causes for them. It is important that the Bill sets out a single statutory system for the operation of the grant support system to students. It is better that the scheme reside in the VEC structure rather than the current system under which it is dispersed in a number of ways through the local authority. That does not take away from the capacity of the local authorities to deal with this matter, but it is better that it resides in the context of education within the environs of the VEC.
We should pay tribute to all those people within the local authorities who worked very well to provide the public face of the grants system to students and their parents. They dealt with difficult situations as the staff were often at the coalface of delivering information to students, such as the denial of a grant or a follow up on further information. It would be opportune to recognise the work of all those people in the local authorities who will no longer be involved. I am hopeful that the practical implementation of this Bill will streamline the entire administration of the grant scheme, thereby removing some of the anomalies that currently exist.
There is little doubt there is a huge burden on parents, especially when young adults are leaving secondary school and going into third level. While the costs are rather excessive in secondary school, it can be daunting for some parents, especially when they have a number of children receiving education. The burden that puts on pressure is very significant and it often goes below the surface. There are some families that will try to give their children the benefit of an education that they did not have. They will make sacrifices to give their children such an education, but may not want to show that financial strain. Many of them do not talk about it, but the burden on them is phenomenal. Therefore, the streamlining of the administration is helpful, welcome and necessary. I hope it relieves some of the anomalies that currently exist.
We should take into account what this Bill tries to do along with the abolition of fees. I pay tribute to the former Minister for Education, Ms Niamh Bhreathnach, who was responsible for that. It was enlightened thinking by the Government of the time. It is rightly continuing under the current Administration. While there may be no fees, education is not free. We often delude ourselves in suggesting that education is free, but that is not the case as there are costs involved in its delivery and in participation by young adults. Notwithstanding that, we have a much better approach to delivering education by minimising the cost as much as possible. That has been central to the development of this economy. It has been central in assisting the IDA and other agencies in attracting the kind of foreign direct investment that has helped many of our young educated people to remain here, rather than emigrate as they did in the past. Our education system has been to the fore in doing that. Free fees and student support have helped to ensure that we are delivering the kind of graduates that provide the knowledge and the pool of education to attract these companies.
The companies come to Ireland for a variety of reasons and I talked recently to representatives of Zimmer, a large multinational medical device company that has arrived in Shannon. They are in the region because Shannon is nestled between Limerick and Galway and they believe they will have an optimal pool of graduates and highly skilled people to perform the complicated duties associated with a high-tech company. The continuing support of this and successive Governments is responsible for the education delivery which ultimately provides jobs in the regions at a later stage. The continuing investment in education allows that to happen.
We should compare this with other countries. It is incumbent on students in other countries to take out loans, putting a burden on them at a later stage in life. On entering the workforce, they are burdened with very considerable debt associated with paying their way through college. That is not to say that the level of support currently available is in any way sufficient to put a student through college, but it does make a major contribution. While students leaving college today carry some debt, it is nothing like the debt burden that students in the US and elsewhere have to contend with. The Department has dealt with this issue in a positive way.
I welcome the notion of an independent appeals mechanism in the Bill. I am hopeful that it will be possible to apply to the appeals board during the course of an academic year, especially between semesters and when the fundamentals of an applicant's means have changed. I refer to situations where the principal breadwinner in a family is deceased or has been made redundant. That fundamentally changes the funds available to the student. As the current system does not take into account a change of circumstances during the year, I am hopeful that this Bill will allow the appeals board to do that. A student whose parent loses his or her job during the year is not in a position to apply for a new means test until the following year, something which will hopefully be addressed in the Bill.
There are a few anomalies that currently exist in the grant system and I would be grateful if the Minister could look at whether they will be addressed in this Bill. We must look at the area of grants as it currently applies to those returning to college, especially mature students. The age limit of 23 has been removed and it is now more about living independently or living dependently, but there are still anomalies. There is also an anomaly about where someone has lived prior to applying for the grant and whether or not that confers an independent or dependent status on that person. In order to obtain a grant, the person must also have been living in the country for three of the past five years. That is right and proper and I welcome the fact that it is set out here. I agree with Deputy Quinn's point about querying the necessity of putting it into the primary legislation and asking whether it should be reserved for secondary legislation. It might be better if it were changed through a statutory instrument, rather than being brought back to the floor of this House.
It is important to encourage those who may not have gone to college on leaving second level education or those who may have dropped out and who would wish at a later stage to come back. Anything that can be done to simplify their return by providing them with the necessary financial help would be welcome. It is particularly welcome because people who spend a few years working out of college find that their financial requirements are greater by virtue of their standing in life. Such people would be more dependent on financial assistance than somebody leaving secondary school. We need to look at this provision in terms of the funding we give to upskill our undergraduate mature programme.
The system that currently exists can be frustrating and I have an example of this. A young constituent of mine finished school and found a job. He had left home and spent a few years living and working in Cork. He decided to go back to college and he got a place on a recognised course in a college in Limerick. He was over 23 at the time and had been living independently for five years. Under normal circumstances, he should qualify on the grounds of means and on independent grounds. Prior to taking up his place in the college in Limerick, he travelled to the United States for approximately 12 months. During this period he returned home several times to get his affairs in order and prepare for college. In his grant application he gave his parents' residence in County Clare as his contact address. Although he had lived independently for the previous five years, he did not own a property or have a contact address other than that of his parents.
The person in question intended to return to Ireland and rent accommodation close to the college in Limerick before commencing his course. He first stayed at his parents' house for about a fortnight while he found rental accommodation. However, as he had used his parents' address as a point of contact, the Department deemed that he was not living independently and was, therefore, a dependant. For his grant application to proceed, he was required to submit income details for his parents, which were not such as to allow him to secure a grant. This difficult case highlights an unfair anomaly, which I hope will be addressed either in the text or during the implementation of the legislation. It is a clear case of how it can work against a person who is living independently to use the address of his or her parents as a contact point.
In addition, as the person in question had previously lived independently in Cork, he was required to apply for a grant through the vocational education committee in Cork. I ask that provision be made to allow applications to be made to the offices of the closest or most convenient vocational educational committee, irrespective of where the applicant lives. Given that the funding for grants comes from central Government rather than a specific pool of money assigned to the VECs, it is not necessary to impose a residency-type clause in grant applications. I hope the Minister of State will address this matter and ensure grant applications are processed in a uniform manner. This would remove some of the mystery and difficulty from the application process.
It will also be necessary to examine the means test to find structured approaches that ensure applicants are fairly assessed, taking into account cases in which parents' circumstances have changed significantly since their most recent P60 was issued. As the Minister of State is aware, the means test is based on the previous year's earnings. For a student entering college in the academic year beginning in October 2008, the means test is calculated based on parents' earnings in 2007. In some cases, a parent may have passed away, lost a job or earned a lower income as a result of illness.
Furthermore, in some unfortunate cases a parent's means may be significantly exaggerated in a particular year by virtue of overtime or other factors. This creates a peak in an otherwise elongated work cycle. To address the negative effect of such peaks, the assessment of means should be done over an average of three years, rather than one year. The self-employed and those working in industry may earn much more than usual in a given year. Such unique circumstances would best be addressed by removing the current rigorous rules and introducing in the appeals process a new set of criteria which provide for a degree of latitude. We need to find an approach which facilitates those who wish to return to college by taking into account changes in financial circumstances. The objective should be to prevent undue hardship on parents and students, as occurred in the cases I described.
The certification of courses for grant purposes requires greater clarity and uniformity. The universities of Cork, Limerick and Galway offer postgraduate courses which confer on graduates the legal qualification, LLB. For grant purposes, the Department will not pay a graduate to undertake the LLB postgraduate programme at the University of Limerick, whereas it grant aids students at University College Cork and University College Galway. If three students, one at each university, were to complete the LLB postgraduate course, the outcome would be the same. However, a complication arises in the case of the University of Limerick because the LLB is also offered as an undergraduate programme. While entrance to the postgraduate stream requires a primary degree, the Department, for reasons I have failed to establish over a protracted period of discussion and correspondence, does not treat the programme as progression.
The qualification awarded on completion of all three postgraduate courses is precisely the same. However, a number of students in County Clare have failed in their efforts to secure grant aid to attend the LLB programme at the University of Limerick. If they enrolled in the same programme in either Cork or Galway they would qualify for grant aid.
Work needs to be done in the area of certification. I am aware that discussions have taken place in the Department on educational accreditation with a view to finding a common purpose on this issue.
It is disturbing that a person who decides to enrol on a course at the University of Limerick and completes the application process, having met the course lecturers, will be refused grant aid, whereas students enrolling on the same course at University College Galway will qualify for grant aid. Returning to college to complete a postgraduate programme requires significant commitment. We need to encourage those who pursue this option because advanced qualifications are beneficial in maintaining a region's skill base and ensuring it continues to attract companies to locate in it.
I welcome the Bill. While some of the points I raise may appear to be somewhat critical, that is not my intention. I have sought to highlight elements in the current structure which I would like the Minister to address in the primary legislation. I would be grateful if the Bill were amended or new provisions inserted to take account of these points. Alternatively, I would welcome secondary legislation to address the issues. I ask the Minister of State to comment.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an mBille seo. Tá mé cinnte go raibh na Teachtaí Dála go léir ag fanacht leis le fada. Tá an iomarca ama caite gan athrú a bheith curtha ar na rialacha a bhain leis an sean scéim. Mar sin, cuirim fáilte roimh an mBille agus tugaim mo thacaíocht don Aire é, agus an scéim seo, a chur tríd an Dáil chomh tapaidh agus is féidir. Everybody who has read the Bill has given it a warm welcome. Grants and student supports have not been changed since they were introduced in 1968. Many grant applications have been refused on a technicality. It is hoped this Bill will eliminate much of the red tape associated with the scheme and simplify its application.
I welcome the reduction of the number of bodies which assess and provide grants to students throughout the country from 66 to 33. While I agree somewhat with Deputy Ruairí Quinn that 33 is still too many, it is a step in the right direction towards streamlining it. Aontas, the Irish national adult learning organisation, put on record that 3,500 people who wished to continue to third level education made contact with it during the past year. It found it difficult to access information or contact the bodies that organise the provision of grants to students.
Every public representative has come across numerous hard cases where people lost out on grants. In many cases, those who made the assessment not to award a grant did so for justifiable reasons as the applicants were not within the criteria laid down under the old scheme. If this Bill provides for an effective and independent appeals mechanism it will make great progress.
Deputy Quinn stated that the Department of Social and Family Affairs has experience in assessment and should take over the administration of the grants system, but that would not be fair. We see the confusion with regard to the Department of Health and Children and the HSE when it comes to the provision of services for children with autism and other disabilities. There is great confusion with the back to education scheme and the red tape has meant many people have been denied opportunities to return to education. I hope the VEC will have complete and comprehensive authority to provide for, dispense and deliver this scheme accurately and speedily.
The most serious fault experienced in the past was the delay in delivering final sanction and approval for grants to students and the fault lay with the Department. Anybody who was a member of a vocational education committee or a local authority knows that neither body was notified until late July of the regulations and eligibility rules for the scheme for that year. This was followed by a mad rush of applications to meet a deadline, which all stacked up but could not be touched prior to final acceptance and understanding of the rules and regulations which applied in a given year. As they changed every year, this was an annual hassle. Other relevant information for an application could not be provided until October or November and that caused great hardship. There is an onus on the Department and the Minister to provide at an extremely early stage, no later than the end of May, for the new awarding bodies the rules and regulations of the scheme for the following academic year.
We have heard many hard stories with regard to assessment and people believe that there is great inequality between the PAYE and the self-employed sectors with regard to the awarding of student grants. Consideration of the net income of everyone would allow equity to prevail as it would eliminate the facility of using accountancy to its full extent. If the regulations and rules were adjusted to take into account net income, there would be greater equity in the system.
The Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, has responsibility for lifelong learning, which is relevant to those who wish to return to third level education and part-time students. This issue must be tackled. However, the Bill does not satisfy the claim that it will be easier for people to access part-time education. It is important that the Minister of State influences his senior colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, on the necessity to provide part-time students with supports to pay their fees. As long as there is inequity there will be discontent and dissatisfaction with the scheme. If it takes as long again to make this change as it did for this Bill to come on stream it will be too late for many people. The economy cannot afford to prevent so many people from improving their capacity to better themselves. It is aspirational of the Minister, without follow-up, to make change.
It is important that the suitability of courses in all institutions providing third level education is recognised and assessed in terms of providing student support. One glaring omission from this is Hibernia College, Dublin. Many of its students, who, unfortunately, are classified as part time, must pay high fees without any support from the Government to qualify as primary level teachers. So many students have availed of the courses available at the college in such a short time that it has become a tremendous success.
I am open to correction but the Bill contains no facility to recognise an institution such as Hibernia College that provides the highest quality of teacher training, parallel to that provided by the established colleges such as St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra and Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. Hibernia College is eliminated from supports for its students, albeit they are part-time. Many part-time students in other institutions have also been overlooked. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, will take personal responsibility to influence the Minister to reconsider this.
Over the years, various Ministers for Education failed to recognise the importance of a support college to one of our largest industries, tourism. Students who attended the Shannon College of Hotel Management never got recognition or support in the same way as students in other institutions. I accept they could later transfer from Shannon to complete a commerce degree at University College, Galway. The fees at the Shannon college were exorbitant but the training was second to none. It is difficult to understand why this was not a recognised institution even though it serviced one of our most important industries.
The provision for an independent appeals mechanism is to be welcomed. However, the first step in the process is an internal appeal. Considering the internal appeals mechanisms in the Departments of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and Social and Family Affairs, it cannot be independent because somebody in the Department will overrule the decision of personnel at a lower level who gave the initial decision. The appeals process outlined in the Bill could take up to 60 days. A student having to wait 60 days for a final decision on an appeal could be crucial. As Deputy Dooley stated, many parents have been forced to seek private loans through a credit union or elsewhere to tide over their children.
This has also forced many students into part-time work which they are reluctant to do due to the pressures of the examination system at third level. Part-time work does not consist of just a few hours a week so students can survive and maintain themselves in the absence of their usual grants. It can often be similar to full-time work, which, it must be remembered, is often done after a day of lectures and participating in the normal college scene. It is important that the appeals mechanism is a fast-tracked process. As the Bill does not provide for this, will the Minister consider bringing the appeals mechanism within a reasonable timescale of, perhaps, a fortnight or three weeks?
Provision of extra resources, capital and personnel for the initial transfer of awarding functions from the local authorities to the vocational education committees must be considered. If this falls at the first fence, we are in cloud cuckoo land. The Bill gives no indication as to what additional resources the Minister will provide for the transfer and provision of services necessary for the implementation and administration of the proposed scheme. Personnel in the VECs are already operating schemes for which they have responsibility. We know their offices are cramped with mountains of application forms. In 2008, a modern system for applications and quick assessment should be provided which will not happen in offices with poor facilities. Additional personnel will have to be recruited to the VECs or transferred from the local authorities to ensure a streamlined and timely decision-making process.
An inspector with an overseeing capacity will be appointed to assess the workings of these offices. I do not believe such an appointment is justified. Every VEC and local authority is audited on a regular, albeit late, basis. This audit is the necessary watchdog that will ensure the application is as intended by the Minister.
I urge the Minister to consider the position of supports for part-time students. A commitment was made in Towards in 2016 for the exemption of third level fees for part-time students. If this Bill were to do nothing else but recognise the entitlement of part-time students to fees exemption, it would be worthwhile. Nevertheless, Fine Gael welcomes the Bill and will give it full support though all Stages in the Dáil.
I wish to share time with Deputy Chris Andrews.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I congratulate the Minister on introducing this Bill. Its changes will ensure awards to our third level students will favour both students and their parents. Grant applications will be approved and paid in a more efficient and timely manner. This will reassure young people entering third level education and allow them to concentrate on their studies from the beginning of the academic year. A child heading to college can be a strange time for parents, as it is usually his or her first time away from home. It is important they have the financial security from knowing at an early stage that a third level grant will be paid.
The unification of four different grant schemes into one comprehensive scheme will ensure the whole process is more efficient and that the system can respond in a more timely fashion. This reduction in red tape will be of benefit to both administrators and students. I fully agree with the Minister on this and commend the Minister on the introduction of a one-stop shop for grants. There are VEC offices in every county town. The staff in the Sligo VEC office are very helpful, as are the staff in the county council, but there was total confusion there. People did not know where to go. Now, at least, the system will be streamlined. There will be just one office and the same people will deal with everybody.
Under this new system the VECs will oversee the administration of grants. In effect, the number of authorities responsible for awarding grants will be halved, from 66 to 33. The Bill also makes several provisions that will improve transparency, such as the ability to transfer functions away from a VEC that is not performing. It also gives the Minister the power to request a VEC to inform applicants of decisions within a certain timeframe. Furthermore, the process will be open to reviews and audits and an appeals process will be put in place. These provisions guarantee students and their families a certain degree of customer service, which is to be welcomed. The demands of college life are enough for students without the undue burden of worrying about when grant applications will be processed.
Changes to the grant system in recent times have meant that third level is now a realistic option for many more young people. There are 140,000 students in full-time third level education, which is more than three times the number in 1980. Of these, more than one third are receiving financial assistance from the State. This is a remarkable achievement. The changes to the income limits will attract more students from disadvantaged and less well off backgrounds to third level colleges. For this academic year, the income limits for maintenance grants have been extended so that students from families on a moderate wage of up to €48,355 will not have to pay the student charge of €825. The higher rate student grant, at €6,690, is now more than three times the 1997 level of €2,000.
The means test is in need of consideration. As Deputy Dooley mentioned, and as I know from experience in dealing with constituents, there are people whose incomes in the year their children start college are not the same as they were in the previous year, which is the one assessed for means testing purposes. This should be reconsidered. Incomes change, and if a person is off work due to illness, for example, in the year the student starts college, that student should certainly qualify for a grant. The programme for Government includes a commitment to establish a new system of means-tested free fees for approved part-time courses. I look forward to seeing the implementation of this commitment. It will provide an opportunity for many people who missed out on the college experience the first time around to attend a third level facility to retrain and improve their job prospects.
I recently had queries from some constituents about Open University courses. I wonder whether the Minister might consider changes in this area. There are many mature students who would like to avail of these courses, but they can be very expensive. The Department might consider some means by which these students could be facilitated, such as part-payment of the course fees.
I acknowledge the great strides that have been made in the last ten years in third level education. The provision of an extra 45,000 college places since 1997 is worth mentioning. Sligo IT, in my constituency, has benefited from this, with the student population jumping by 36% during this period. More young people than ever are receiving a third level education and these highly skilled graduates are in no small way responsible for making this country an attractive place to do business. It is only fitting that we should support them as much as we can.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Student Support Bill 2008. As the Minister of State has heard from previous speakers, this Bill is broadly welcomed. I also welcome it. It will streamline the student grant scheme by providing a statutory framework for the replacement of four different schemes operated by local authorities and VECs with one unified system. Having previously been a member of the CDVEC, which is based in Ballsbridge, I know from personal experience that the VECs are particularly efficient and professional organisations in the provision of education services. The Acting Chairman, Deputy O'Connor, was a member of County Dublin VEC from 1985 to 1991, representing the Tallaght area, and he too speaks highly of the contribution made by VECs. The VECs have been flexible in the way in which they have managed to change the courses and services they provide to young people in third level education. They have met the needs of business and society.
This Bill will reduce the number of grant-awarding authorities from 66 to 33. As somebody who becomes annoyed when I see the number of administrative bodies being increased, I am pleased to see the reverse occurring. This will leave VECs as the sole arbiter of grant allocation. The move has been welcomed by the Union of Students in Ireland and Aontas, the adult education group. In some respects, this is a housekeeping Bill that aims to tidy up the current administrative system. However, it does also make some significant changes, one of which is an independent appeals board, which will reduce the number of fraudulent claims. It also provides a new residence requirement of three years rather than one year, which will bring Ireland into line with other EU member states.
The Bill is important because it shows the Government is committed to improving and providing education. It cares about equality of access to education. Education has always been important and will become even more so in the event of a slowdown in the economy. Education and human capital have been and will continue to be the linchpin of our economy. We have experienced unprecedented economic growth over the last 15 years. This has been led by the human capital of which I speak, although of course we also had a well managed fiscal regime and an economic environment which was conducive to foreign investment. However, our well educated people have always been the cornerstone of the success of our economy. Nobody would deny that the high level of education within the Irish workforce was central to the economic boom. Not only can high-tech firms base themselves here, but we also have the requisite educational assets to support such foreign and indigenous industries.
It is vital that we continue to support and administer third level education in the best manner possible. It is all about people forming and shaping the backbone of our economy. In light of a possible slowdown in our economy people will become much more important. It is important to educate and upskill our workforce, particularly people in areas such as those represented by the Acting Chairman in Tallaght, and in Ringsend and Pearse Street in my constituency. It has been difficult to get people to move from work to education. Employment is the best social inclusion measure but to go beyond that we must ensure that people from disadvantaged areas build on the opportunity to take up education.
Deputy Quinn mentioned that it is a long way from Ringsend and Pearse Street to college. In some ways it is further from Ringsend and Pearse Street than from Sligo or Roscommon because it is difficult to break down mindsets. Community leaders work hard to break that mindset where people see education and college as a distant dream. This Bill will address and change this. The change in the income limits will assist in changing the mindset.
Society is judged by how it looks after its weakest members. No one in this country should be prohibited from attending third level education and obtaining skills and experience that are ultimately returned to society. It is a cliché to state that we are investing in our future when we educate people.
Any move towards simplifying the grants system is welcome, particularly for mature students who deserve a second chance at education. When people return to college after a few years working it can be difficult. They may have children and they may need to be supported. My wife returned to third level education when we had two very young children. It required a major effort on her behalf. Any measure that helps to attract people to upskilling and education must be applauded and the Government is to be applauded for doing so through this Bill.
A recent report by the library and research service in the Oireachtas indicated that this Bill would have a positive impact on national competitiveness: "Those students who are supported will contribute to the intellectual capital of the State, and thereby improve the national competitiveness of the country by contributing to the further development of a knowledge based economy."
There are approximately 150,000 students in third level and 57,000 are in receipt of grants. That is a high number, one I hope will continue to grow. We need to encourage and promote people from inner city areas to enter education. If we are to compete on the international stage it is vital that we ensure a vibrant third level education system. I therefore welcome this Bill which creates a single application process, improves access and promotes greater transparency.
I am delighted to speak on this Bill, which streamlines and consolidates payments of third level grants through one organisation, the VEC. The title of the Bill is important and covers support to third level students. One of the better moves we made in this country was free third level education. It was positive and opened doors to many people, whether they progressed from second level or were mature students who had not had access to third level education because of where they lived or for financial reasons. It is wonderful that we can have access at all levels.
Lifelong learning is a term that everyone understands and can relate to. It means what it says literally, that at any stage one can take up education to fulfil one's life, change workplace or upskill to facilitate moving through different levels in a career. The possibilities are there and, in terms of access, not everyone has the financial means to attain education. The various grants available are welcome and are an important principle.
Some 40 years ago there were 20,000 students in third level education, while there are 150,000 today. I am fortunate to have been involved in a VEC, like the Acting Chairman, and was on the governing body of CIT. I was also involved in post-leaving certificate colleges such as the College of Commerce, Coláiste Stiofán Naofa and St. John's Central College. It was refreshing and exciting to be involved in these colleges, as well as in UCC. The latter caters for 17,000 students and is a great employer and support to the local economy as well as an icon of education.
The post-leaving certificate colleges and CIT are flexible and can respond to the demands of the marketplace. One of the courses introduced was in child care and it was developed through various levels. This was responding to a need in the market, the need for students to gain accreditation. The certificate gave people recognition in the community and allowed them to seek employment. The courses were developed with employers and the various bodies that set regulations. They were valuable and viable. It is post-leaving certificate colleges, VECs and ITs that responded to the needs of, for example, the hospitality sector. These institutions are flexible and respond to the needs of the marketplace and employers. It works very well.
I have admiration for these sectors, particularly VECs. I have every confidence in this Bill, which streamlines the process. Under the Bill the VECs will have sole responsibility for administering third level grants. If they are given the necessary staffing levels, I have every confidence they will carry out their functions. The Union of Students in Ireland supported transferring granting authority to the Department of Social and Family Affairs and I see the value in that proposal. However, VECs are educational bodies, involved in providing education. There are arguments for and against the change but this move has been welcomed by USI.
The Minister acknowledged that there have been delays and frustrations with higher education grants. A student or potential student attempting to access support is confronted with a bureaucratic maze. It is fine for people who understand the difference between the local authority, the VEC and the Department of Education and Science but the ordinary punter wants a one-stop-shop where they can make their case, give information on their income and on their parents' income and go through a clear and understandable process. We hope that will be the case when the system is under a single body.
Deputies are aware that there are variations in the speed with which applications are processed, depending on whether the awarding body is a local authority or a VEC and on the geographical area of the applicant. Obviously, when different organisations and people are involved there will not be uniform delivery of service. The Department has set up a website and published a booklet in an effort to respond to the difficulties people encounter and to facilitate their access to support. I hope it is with the objective of ensuring that as many people as possible can access their entitlements so that lack of funding or a grant would not be an impediment to them taking up their course.
The Minister said late payments will be a thing of the past, decisions on applications will occur within three weeks of the closing date and that the grant cheque will be in post within a month of starting the course. That is most welcome. This year there was an improvement with payments. There is enough negativity and criticism about the system to show the way forward to the VEC. Perhaps it could start processing applications as soon as they are received rather than waiting for the closing date. That way, if VECs required further information they would not be waiting until after the closing date to get it. In that way the process could move forward and be accelerated. The issue is access. The country needs people to avail of third level education courses to improve their educational standards.
Members were given an extensive briefing on this Bill. There are some outstanding issues, however, relating to student costs. While the grant will never cover everything, it is certainly a help and, in many cases, it makes the difference between a student taking up a course and not doing so. However, in some courses, such as in the arts and the sciences, the student might require special goggles, clothing, equipment and so forth which means additional expenditure. These courses could be identified — the information is easy to access — and it should be acknowledged that not all courses simply involve the student listening to a lecturer or instructor. Some courses demand additional expenditure.
Child care for parents of young children can be an additional cost. A total of 22% of the student assistance fund within the institutes of technology goes towards child care. Crèche facilities are essential for the parents of small children so they can be certain they will be able to attend their courses. Institutes of technology, post-leaving certificate course providers and universities are responding in terms of providing on-site facilities and there are cost reductions in those cases. However, the cost of child care should be taken into account when assessing grant levels. It is not mentioned specifically in the Bill but it is an important issue, particularly for mature students trying to improve their skills and employment prospects. There is no need to outline to the Minister the value of additional learning.
With regard to residency, the Bill provides that if a person has not lived in Ireland for three of the last five years, they will not qualify for a grant. There appears to be good reason for this provision. In some areas of the UK fees have been introduced and we do not wish to encourage people to come to this country to claim a grant without having been resident here. I welcome the provision. I also welcome the provision relating to independent third level students who are over 23 years of age. Some students are financially independent. They might have been working for some time and wish to return to education. The Bill recognises they were previously financially independent and that their parents' income need not be taken into account. It is an important point. A Member spoke earlier about this issue. While students might have been travelling abroad and can demonstrate they were financially independent, they might not have had a full-time address. They might have been renting accommodation and using their parents' address for correspondence. I am aware of people who have been refused a grant because that is their address and they do not have current rented accommodation. I hope the appeals process under the Bill will recognise this and come to a sensible arrangement when the person can demonstrate to the appeals board that although they are using their parents' address they are financially independent, are eligible for the grant and will not be living in their former family home.
The appeals process is welcome. Under the local authority or the VEC the regulations are very restrictive. It is not fair to expect an individual with a book of rules and regulations before them to go outside their remit; they cannot do it. It is important that if somebody has made a decision about a student's application for a grant, the decision can be appealed. It is not to encourage fraud but to facilitate students and give them every opportunity to put their case in a positive light.
There is a need to support postgraduates. We have moved on from talking about post-leaving certificate courses, and PhD, fourth level and postgraduate are terms we will hear more of in future. We have pitched ourselves as a knowledge economy, one based on developing knowledge and encouraging people to take up third and fourth level education. The strategy for science, technology and innovation has a target to double the number of PhD students by 2013.
To study for a PhD can take four to four to five years, on average. That can mean students who have gone through an undergraduate programme and completed a PhD could be in their late 20s before they are ready for the employment market. Some of them will receive support during their studies and will be financially rewarded, either through the university or by industry. However, if we are serious about encouraging people to go to that level and about developing the term "fourth level" as a currency when we speak of education, then we must recognise that it costs money to reach that level.
Fine Gael, as part of its election manifesto, proposed the introduction of a package of subsidised loans for PhD students. I ask the Minister to examine that proposal and consider introducing something along those lines because it is important. We need to encourage more students in the areas of science, technology and engineering. The take up of science and technology is woeful and is actually dropping. The take up in computing has dropped by 58% since 2000. The uptake in engineering is also extremely low, particularly electrical engineering. The number of undergraduates doing science is down by 5%, while the number doing computer science is down by 19% since 2000. The take up of maths and science at a high level is declining. While maths and science are not everything, they are extremely important for this economy. We must do more to encourage students to take up those subjects.
We do not have a history of acknowledging science in this country. The Minister's title refers to education and science but I would like to see much more emphasis placed on the science aspect. It is vital for our economy. Furthermore, people become interested in the subject if they are exposed to it. Science Foundation Ireland is doing excellent work with primary school students but does not provide full science courses. We must encourage science and ensure it is part of the curriculum. We should examine the possibility of making science compulsory at second level. Approximately 13% of students who completed their junior certificate last year did not study science. Therefore, if they did not take up the subject in first year, they are never going to do so. We must increase the take up in computers, engineering, science and technology at third level. At primary level, we are not giving science the emphasis it requires. A cultural change is required to develop science in this country.
While the postgraduate and fourth level area may not relate directly to this Bill, it is an issue deserving of further debate. I broadly welcome the Bill before us. I support the VECs and for the student or potential student, the Bill gives a very clear message that there will be one authority dealing with grants. I hope the VECs will further develop the expertise they already have in communicating with students and making it easy for them to negotiate their way through the various grants available. I hope the introduction of the Bill will streamline the process for the applicants and ensure grants are paid on time and with a certain degree of reliability, for the benefit of students.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Student Support Bill. Many issues have been raised in this debate, including that of attending third level colleges right across the spectrum. Broadly, I welcome the Bill. The Government made a commitment in 2002 to introduce a unified system for the maintenance grants for higher education. Many of us, as public representatives, know of the difficulties students have had in accessing grants and funding for college. The objective of the Bill is to bring forward a more coherent administration system which should facilitate a consistency of application, improve student accessibility and ensure public confidence in an awards system which delivers grants on time and to those who are most in need.
We have prided ourselves over the past 40 years, and particularly since the introduction of free secondary education, in the amount of people who have attained a third level education. The numbers have increased dramatically over the past 30 to 40 years. However, we must try to ensure that we get the maximum number of people into third level, from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Those who are well off or come from a reasonably comfortable background are always encouraged to go into further education. Education has been one of the lifelines for poverty-stricken families across the country for the past 40 or more years. A good quality education is vital. We initially provided an excellent primary education. Now we have one of the best post-primary education systems in the world. This Bill deals with the support for further education and the unifying of the various strands of student support provision.
As with many Bills brought before the House, Deputies will welcome the general thrust of the Bill and the debate thereon but specific issues will crop up from time to time. I wish to draw the attention of the Minister, the Department and the House to the issue of postgraduate students, particularly those coming from low and middle income families. Such students are often given a stipend by the third level institution they are attending or by a corporate body to enable them to pursue a postgraduate course. Such courses can take up to four and a half years to complete, as earlier speakers mentioned.
I am aware of students who have been denied the postgraduate grant because when they went to college, they were given a stipend by the college or, in one instance, by an external company, to secure their place on a course. In one case, in order to facilitate early enrolment, a company paid the fees for a postgraduate course, even though the student in question was entitled to the postgraduate grant. The grant had not been processed and the company was concerned that the student would lose his or her place on the course. Fees were paid on the understanding that the college and student grant awarding body would adjudicate on the matter and find that the student was entitled to free fees and that the fees would be reimbursed. The fees were reimbursed, but because of the strict view of the Department and the body that was administering the student support grant, the student was denied the grant, which was very unfair. The fees were only paid to make sure that the place would be kept for the student. The grant awarding body and the Department should recognise that the student should have qualified for the grant in the first instance and it should be paid retrospectively. This is one of the anomalies in the system and we should use this debate as an opportunity to raise such anomalies so they can be ironed out.
Included in the vigorous means test for awarding the student grant is a clause on exceptional circumstances, such as a dramatic change in parents' incomes, a death in the family or any other misfortune that could befall a family. We should encourage the swifter evaluation of any circumstances that change a family's income.
The Government should encourage those who are not progressing to third level to do so. There is a large variety of excellent courses and we should ensure that the maximum number of people go on to third level education. While our economy has become knowledge based through the education system, we must continue to grow the economy and ensure it stays vibrant.
People have created and funded scholarships in memory of those who, for example, fought in the War of Independence or participated in the foundation of the State. For some time, a number of the scholarships have continued thanks to the voluntary efforts of local groups and organisations and stood the test of time. Many are geared towards postgraduate students because there is a reluctance among bright and able people who have spent four years or so in college to go on to further education. The scholarships will ensure that they can access fourth level education, an important area funded by the Government in its 2006 budget. Some of the scholarships have been awarded to people from low to medium income families, allowing them to continue to third level and postgraduate education and to do excellent research work for the State. It may be time for the State to recognise the voluntary contributions made by the community groups and organisations providing these scholarships.
A key element of the Bill gives effect to the 2006 announcement that the State's 33 VECs will be given sole responsibility for administering the student maintenance grant, thereby reducing the number of grant awarding bodies from 66 to 33 and providing for greater consistency of application, clarity and accessibility for students and institutions. This provision is contained in section 2 and addresses a shortcoming, namely, that bodies interpreted the legislation and rules issued by the Department differently. I welcome that the number has been reduced. For too long, the Government has been accused inside and outside the House of creating organisations and groups to administer the system. A Bill ensuring less bureaucracy is no harm.
Section 7 makes transitional arrangements and the Bill includes provisions on reviews and inspections. It gives the Minister the power to make regulations regarding applications, including the requirement that an awarding authority give notice of its decision to applicants within a specific period. Each application for a student grant takes a long time. The majority of students who apply know they are eligible from day one, but accessing their parents' P21 information and collecting other information poses a significant difficulty in getting a grant.
While the awarding bodies have the discretion to accept applications on the basis of when the students go to college and what courses they are taking, there is an appeals board. Such boards have been established across the public sector, including by the Departments of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and Social and Family Affairs, which was probably the first body to do so a number of years ago. The boards have been excellent because they allow someone with a grievance or who believes that he or she was unfairly treated by the administration of the scheme, in this instance the student support scheme, to engage in an appeals process. The person can sit down before an independent appeals body or person and make his or her case.
While we can point to the appeals board of the Department of Social and Family Affairs as being successful, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's appeals body has done good work. Many people have taken decisions made by the Department's officials to the board and made their cases, putting forward the human side of the situations. It is important that appeal cases be heard and that we continue to provide appeals bodies across the spectrum, not just in respect of student support.
The Bill provides for the retention of the existing definition of "spouses" as married couples and co-habiting heterosexual couples, pending the review of the Department of a social welfare scheme for compliance with the Equality Acts. The Bill makes a change in the residential requirement for eligibility for maintenance grants from the current one-year residence to three of the past five years residence in the State to ensure persons applying for grants will have more established links with and better integration in Ireland. This change in the residency requirement addresses the risk of "grant tourism", a key concern of the Department of Finance. Provision has been made for a temporary absence for study purposes in the EU on the basis that the student was ordinarily resident in the State before commencing study.
Some Deputies have referred to the issue of students, mature students in particular, studying outside the State who would ordinarily be entitled to grants. When they give the awarding bodies their home addresses for information and correspondence purposes, it is assumed that they are not living independently of their parents. A clear provision should be made in the Bill. Many of the people who will go before the appeals board in the first couple of years will bring this type of case. When the awarding body is given one's parents' address as one's home address and disqualifies one from the grant, it is important that some understanding be shown.
If we had debated the Bill's provisions ten years, 15 years or 20 years ago, the flexible provision in respect of people living outside the State for up to two years out of five years, allowing for a gap year and so forth, would not have been an issue. However, as Ireland has become wealthier, people have taken gap years to travel before returning to education. It is a sign of our prosperity that should be welcomed and a sign of the times.
The Bill outlines the designation of approved institutions; these are important elements of this proposed legislation and important issues that emerged from the original legislation. We should welcome the transition arrangements and implementation plans that have been outlined in the Bill.
Some courses are approved as level five, level six or other levels. In the agriculture sector, completed level six courses allow participation in various agricultural schemes such as those relating to installation aid, stamp duty and so on. People leave college at around 22 years of age and become eligible for these schemes between 28 years of age and 35 years of age. However, a course that was then a level six course may become a level five or level four course over time which will bar students from particular grants. A clear indication should be given that when a course is completed at level six, it should recognised as such, irrespective of subsequent changes to modules that may see the course shifted to a lower level. I know people who are experiencing difficulties in getting grants because modules or schemes were removed from courses, which led to the course being moved to a lower level. We should be clear about these little anomalies because public representatives see such things time and again and must smooth them over.
Transitional arrangements will be in place regarding this Bill for the 2008-09 academic year. I understand the Minister hopes to shortly announce the schemes for the forthcoming academic year; she will ensure service level improvement through the early provision of the schemes. Application forms for the 2008-09 academic year are available on the Department's website and for information purposes hard copies will be made available through local authorities and VECs.
To ensure adequate notice for potential applicants, officials from the Department of Education and Science will work with the national office for equity of access to higher education at national level and with the VECs at local level on an information campaign that can be rolled out when the Bill is enacted. The core objective of any change is to enable improvements in the standard of service provided to the 56,000 students around the country who are in receipt of grants. The grants help further the potential of students in higher education who are considering their futures.
There have been significant changes in this area over the years, particularly in the level of participation in third level education. Young people from well-off families are more likely to go to college. However, many people went who into employment early in their lives are now returning to education — not necessarily to college but through partnership groups across the country — and this has effected great change in their family circumstances. They have greater self-confidence and self-respect. We congratulate the Minister on introducing the Student Support Bill but we should remember those who are accessing education for the second time and encourage them in every possible way.
I commend the Bill to the House.
I seek to share time with Deputy Higgins.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
After years of a fragmented grants system that has led to late payments and utterly confused students and after long-standing, justifiable criticism of the current student grants system, I welcome the belated publication of this Student Support Bill. It should be acknowledged, however, that a considerable number of students have dropped out due to the delay in its publication. Due to the lack of something similar to this Bill, gifted young people have been unable to avail of a full education.
The Minister for Education and Science has stated that the objective of this Bill is to modernise and rationalise the student support scheme. This would, she says, give effect to the programme for Government commitment to introduce the payment of maintenance grants through a unified and flexible grant payment scheme. Many have called for this over the years and I welcome its place in the Bill.
The Bill aims to do this by replacing the existing four different grant schemes with a single unified system that sets out to streamline and simplify the process of grants applications. According to the Union of Students in Ireland, the Bill represents a substantial improvement and a major step forward for students who depend on receiving timely grant payments.
While it is a welcome improvement, there is, unfortunately, little in the Bill in its current state that will have any great impact on students. Most importantly the Bill fails to centralise the grants system at a national level. This would be the best way to maximise efficiency. One of the major issues relating to the grants system is that of late payments to students. Very often students get into debt, work too many hours and under-perform at exams or drop out because they did not get the grants they were promised within the crucial first six weeks of the term. I doubt there is a Deputy in the House who, over the years, has not encountered students who dropped out due to delays in grant payments.
The Bill seeks to transfer the administration of grants to the VECs, but whether this will solve the problem of late payments remains to be seen. It should aim to cut delays in grant payments and cut administrative errors and I hope this is the outcome. The Bill should be a stepping stone towards the full centralisation of the grants application system. It should deal with the need to increase the amounts paid out in grants, which are currently far below what a person would need to support himself or herself, taking into account accommodation, of which there is no mention in the Bill, transport and other general living expenses.
The maintenance grants scheme at present caters only for the day-to-day costs of pursuing higher education. It fails to take into consideration the often huge costs of course equipment and child care, something that too often represents a major barrier to access and participation, particularly for mature students, lower income groups and single parents. This has made it almost impossible for those in lower income groups and single parents to break free of the poverty trap. I am greatly concerned by the fact that the Bill does not address this matter.
The issue of accommodation is hugely worrying and it is disappointing that the Bill makes absolutely no reference to it. It is a matter that continues to cause massive problems, especially for students studying far from home. For instance, at UCD's Merville student residence, the current cost of accommodation stands at €3,953 for 38 weeks, from 4 September to 30 May, not including electricity or meals. I doubt whether those coming from backgrounds involving unemployment and low incomes could avail of a full education, given such costs. A person will only be able to meet such costs if he or she gets a job next to his or her place of study which he or she can marry with his or her education.
The costs are enormous. A huge amount of money is involved for any student starting out in third level education, often forcing them to take out a loan or take on a job outside college, which can damage their studies. Currently, nobody is taking responsibility for this issue. We are unclear whether it is a local government or a Department of Education and Science issue and that matter needs to be clarified.
The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, promised to establish a task force to deal with the issue of student accommodation but this has not materialised. The House deserves to know why.
The Bill makes no reference to part-time students of which there are 35,000 in the State. The Minister said they will be provided for through ministerial orders. We see no difference between full and part-time students and we do not understand why the Bill makes them distinct groups. It is an education and a facility that should be in place right across the board.
In the programme for Government, the Government promised it would introduce a new system of means tested free fees for approved part-time courses which, according to the Department of Education and Science, would be piloted in certain areas in September. Why is this not included in the Bill? That is another deficit.
The establishment of an independent appeals board is a welcome and progressive development and something which should gain support. However, the length of time a student must wait for the board to reach its decision is far too long. The 90-day period of deliberation is needless and excessive. A student simply cannot wait that long for a decision if he or she is that dependent. We see no reason that an appeal cannot be decided in three weeks or less. The Union of Students in Ireland raised this issue recently. Surely, as the main body of student representatives on this island, it should have been consulted on this major issue. If not, I ask why and call for the issue to be readdressed as soon as possible.
As I have already stated, this Bill is a welcome improvement on the system in place. However, unless the issues I have raised are taken on board, there is little in the Bill that will be of any benefit to students applying for a grant. While I welcome any efforts to address this serious problem facing students, I fear this Bill merely scratches the surface.
I, with others, welcome this Bill, for which we have waited five years since the original study on supporting equality of access to higher education was published in 2003. In welcoming the Bill, I feel there are ways in which it can be improved and fine-tuned on Committee Stage. These include, for example, responding to the representations of students on the phasing of payments, that is, paying a greater proportion of the grant at the beginning of the year when the costs and expenses are at their highest.
One needs to look at the method of transfer of payments to students through the banking system. While I do not have the time to dwell on this, I felt that in the past banks have abused their relationship with students by, for example, using the names and addresses of students to send them pre-approved loans that had not been sought. That was a disgraceful abuse of the relationship between a bank and students.
In regard to the entire bureaucracy, there will be strong support for what was and is Labour Party policy that it would have been better to have one centralised unit, perhaps through the Department of Social and Family Affairs, which could have, with efficiency, answered all the questions about income and dependency probably better and with more staff than other units. In regard to the appeals board, it is important that people from the students organisation are represented on that body. That would only be reasonable.
I want to use this opportunity to reply to some myths that I think are extraordinarily dangerous in Ireland. I read a recent economics book which suggested that the abolition of fees had not had much of an impact on reducing social inequality. This statement is factually wrong. It is also incredibly dangerous in relation to the way people think.
I was a member of the Cabinet, along with my colleague, Niamh Bhreathnach, that took the decision to abolish fees. It was an inspired decision as was the decision a long time ago of Donough O'Malley to allow access to second level education. At the time Niamh Bhreathnach was making her proposal and being opposed on it, people suggested it was not a progressive measure. The reality was that the highly literate and well-heeled who were opposing her were people who could have back to back covenants between each other, which were allowed at the time, and effectively have the equivalent of the abolition of fees in their little ingenious tax arrangements with each other. There were many people who had that arrangement. Unfortunately, the recent comments and the earlier comments about the effect of removing fees does not square with the published research.
This issue was studied in England after 2005 when the fee system was changed. It shows there has been a drop of just under 2% of people from the lower socio-economic groups participating in further education. As well as that, a more recent study, which was referred to in the BBC News on 21 June 2006, was done on 10,000 teenagers, 7,277 of whom replied. Just over a quarter, 27%, said tuition fees made it less likely that they would go university.
I was a university teacher in Ireland and, briefly, in the United States. Putting third level education on the horizon of children is incredibly important. One cannot judge the effect of removing fees in a five year period or in a particular year. The issue is whether it is on the horizon of expectation of a child. A young child will say he or she wants to be a teacher, engineer, doctor or whatever. Those people who opposed the removal of fees simply did not allow for that kind of thinking. The effect of removing fees has to be judged over a longer period. Studies have shown that the removal of fees has lifted expectations.
I turn to another group who are very important. It is time the nonsense of assuming that if one had not used one's opportunities by the age of 18 years, one had lost them for life. Commitment to life-long education is a matter of rights. I remember people coming back to education. Let me offer an interesting fact from my own experience. I was teaching for nearly 20 years. If students who came to third level got as far as Christmas in the first year, they actually made it. That is crucial period when they are making a transition either from the world of work or from second level into a new and often different and strange setting. It is at that level, in the first term of the first year, that the greatest amount of counselling and support is required.
The Minister of State shares a constituency in County Galway with me. Later I will raise another matter on the Adjournment concerning mothers in education. There are 60 mothers who are facing the closure of their scheme of funding. Since 2004, more than 200 mothers have gone through a scheme, one of whom is doing a PhD, evidence of which I heard on Saturday last. Another has finished a Masters degree and so forth. The interesting aspect is that if one allows young married mothers, young mothers under the age of 25 and poor people, to have access to education, one raises not only their expectations, their employability and their income, but also the expectations that will prevail in the family. Bad economics, poorly researched, that looks at the notion of whether the change has happened in a year or two years is nonsense.
There is a right wing view that perhaps there should be loans. In the United States, most people who leave third level carry with them a debt that is greater than the average mortgage in Ireland. If some want to suggest this is reasonable, I ask them to consider the situation in New Zealand and Australia, where many New Zealand graduates emigrate to Australia to get out of the debt they have acquired in the New Zealand system. We must accept that participation in education is no longer a luxury but a necessity for one's full development and participation in society. We must move towards trying to establish as much universal access as we can.
In the time remaining, I would like to outline a personal view. I was horrified a year or two ago to hear the heads of universities — perhaps they needed to say this to promote a pay claim — suggest they were not so much heads of universities as CEOs of corporations. On another occasion, I hope I will have an opportunity to outline what I believe is happening in the universities, in particular in the area with which I am most familiar. I believe the quality of academic work is degraded by an imposed neo-functionalism.
I went to university at 21 years of age and was the only member of my family who had that opportunity. I respect what a university is. One should not judge a staff member only by the amount of money he or she brings into a college. Staff should be assessed in terms of their ability to be a good teacher, to be able to inspire students, to get along with colleagues, to work as part of a research foundation or undertaking a piece of research that may not yield results for ten years.
It is interesting what has happened in this regard at Oxford and Cambridge. Some of the drug companies, driven by shareholder expectations, have, by requiring that a product must reach the market within a period of three or four years, caused the demolition of some of the finest research groups for the simple reason that the leaders of the research groups wanted a longer time period. I am not making a case for inefficiency with regard to academic work but that one can destroy academic work by a stupid interference.
Turning to the Bill, it is important that we eliminate as much of the bureaucracy as possible. It will be necessary to increase the numbers of staff working in VECs if they are to expeditiously deal with their new functions. In addition, it is nonsense to suggest one would have to wait 45 days for an appeal. It should be possible to do this faster.
I often think of the time Members of the Dáil and Seanad waste in writing meaningless letters about appeals processes that are long, stupid and cumbersome. I would prefer if some Department considered the cost of all this. I strongly suspect that if 10% or 15% of all the claims in all the different appeals systems were bogus, it would cost less than the bureaucracy we are operating at present. We need to make systems simple, we need to make our processes faster and we need to make the representation on the appeals board genuinely representative.
As the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Kitt, is aware, certain subjects are not treated fairly in terms of the position of postgraduates. For example, if one wanted to take a doctorate in philosophy, one would not get additional funding but if one enrolled for a higher diploma in education, one would. These are absurd contradictions. Many Deputies have referred to the cumbersome nature of the residence requirements.
I will conclude by referring to a tragic aspect of the Bill which I hope will be amended, namely, the position of migrants and refugees. I remember meeting the young representative of a group of unaccompanied minors in the charge of the former Eastern Health Board, who got the leaving certificate and immediately qualified for deportation. Even if that youngster had stayed in Ireland, he could never enter third level education because he would not have residency for three years. There is some capacity for discretion in the Bill and I hope it will be expanded on Committee Stage.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Before coming to the detail of the Bill, I ask the Acting Chairman and all Members of the Oireachtas to join me in congratulating my local club, St. Vincent's GAA club, on its magnificent victory last Sunday against Crossmaglen Rangers.
That is not related to the Bill.
I raise this issue because it is a great tribute to the young people of the northside of Dublin who are making a major contribution to sports and GAA. I congratulate St. Vincent's, who won the county final and the Leinster final before last Sunday, qualifying for the all-Ireland club final which takes place on St. Patrick's day.
The Deputy is wandering.
I congratulate them on their magnificent victory.
The Bill gives us all an opportunity to discuss in-depth student grants, the role of students in society and the issue of the modern student compared to the student of 20 years ago and to consider in detail their views and concerns, to which many of my colleagues referred. We must also consider the changing role of students and the changing nature of education, particularly at third level.
I welcome the major improvements in first, second and third level education in recent years. However, we must keep our eye on the ball to ensure that students at all levels are given a right to education and that finances do not get in the way. It is very important we do not go down the road taken by other countries where students must pay huge sums for education. Every Member of the Oireachtas must remain focused on this issue.
We recently witnessed a great day for students with disabilities when a group of adult students with intellectual disabilities graduated from Trinity College, Dublin. This is how far we have travelled in recent years and it is important to recognise we have moved in the right direction. While we need to do more, the work has begun. As an Independent Member of the Oireachtas, I will ensure the issues affecting students and education are looked after in the next couple of years.
The purpose of the Bill is to provide for a unified grant payment scheme. Such a unified scheme would replace the four existing schemes. The Bill aims to place all student support schemes on a statutory footing for the first time. It provides for awarding authorities to administer student grants in line with the provisions of the Bill and any regulations that may be issued thereunder by the Minister for Education and Science, with the agreement as necessary of the Minister for Finance. Decisions of awarding authorities are subject to a right of appeal to an appeals officer in the first instance and then to an independent appeals board, which is important. The Bill also provides for the making of grants to enable people to attend higher and further education courses. It will provide for the processing of grant applications through awarding authorities and will permit appeals against their decisions to an appeals officer and subsequently to an independent appeals board.
The most important point is that it will enable people to attend higher and further education courses. When one deals with education, one deals with the broader issues of society and tackles issues such as disadvantage and poverty. A person with an education gets a better chance in life, which we must all accept, defend and protect. This country has a long history of introducing radical changes in education, whether with regard to free education at second level, free fees at third level or Breaking the Cycle, which tackled educational disadvantage and to which Deputy Michael D. Higgins referred with respect to the period he was in power. These issues must be dealt with. Let us look at the details, particularly of section 2. The explanatory memorandum states:
Section 2 is the Interpretation clause and defines common terms used in the Bill. It defines ‘awarding authority' to be a Vocational Education Committee. In assessing a person's means, account is taken of the number of dependants they may have, and accordingly a definition of dependant is included in the Bill. The definition of the term "grant" covers maintenance and fee grants.
This is important in the legislation. It also states: "Section 3 provides for the expenses incurred by the Minister in the administration of the Act to be paid out of monies provided by the Oireachtas." That is something we must do also.
I referred previously to students with disabilities and we all have a duty to ensure they get the maximum support. The way forward is to identify and support their needs at a very young age so they can go through first level and second level, and I hope many of them will get to third level. This is important. I welcome the extra €50 million provided in the budget for disability services. This was another investment. These are issues I raised in my agreement with the Taoiseach. I especially welcome the provision of an extra €18 million for special education services, which is a major investment for people, particularly students, with special needs. I accept some of the criticism and I agree that more must be done.
Many students have health issues. When I campaigned for cystic fibrosis services I met a group of students who have cystic fibrosis and are attending third level colleges. I was struck by their dignity and courage and their ambition to get on in spite of their health problems. I welcome the fact that we are beginning to move in this direction following a long debate. I also welcome the provision of €2.5 million for Beaumont Hospital. We need to finalise the dedicated unit at St. Vincent's hospital which will provide individual rooms for cystic fibrosis patients. I have been asked to push this agenda by students with cystic fibrosis. These are important issues.
I raised the issue of students in my agreement with the Taoiseach. I welcome the fact that, as per section 7 of my agreement, we will have 4,000 extra teachers in the next five years to meet the democratic demands to reduce class sizes. We will also see significant improvements in special education and more supports will be provided to tackle educational disadvantage——
That is wishful thinking.
——and enable children with autism to benefit from a range of teaching approaches, including ABA, PECS and TEACCH, as appropriate.
On the north side of Dublin we have retained the Greendale community school for educational use and will ensure no part of it is sold. That was a big battle in which we fought hard. I commend the people directly involved in that campaign. At one stage it appeared that Greendale community school would be sold off but now it will be used as an education centre. It is now up and running and it also caters for children with autism.
In the context of student supports it is important that we deal with the issue of disadvantage. The new Government and the reappointment of Deputy Hanafin as Minister for Education and Science offer an opportunity for a renewed focus on intervention strategies to overcome educational disadvantage. The question arises as to where are the gaps in the current interventions and what more needs to be done.
I wish to put forward some key emerging needs relating to students which, I hope, will become policy areas. We need emotional supports and a mental health strategy for education in the context of socioeconomic disadvantage. We also need a ring-fenced budget for designated disadvantaged schools for in-service training for teachers in the areas of literacy, speech and language development in early primary education and conflict resolution skills at post-primary level in particular. It is also important to draw up a national strategy for out-of-school services focused on areas of social and economic disadvantage. I call for the consistent availability of school premises after school hours to make the school a focal point for community education. People often ask for ideas and I am putting ideas on the record.
We must provide an adult and community education strategy to develop future community leaders in the areas of socioeconomic disadvantage and more representatives of ethnic minority groups, including members of the Traveller community. We also need a national strategy to develop the arts in areas of disadvantage, giving recognition to the role of the arts in removing fear of failure and for the integration of drama with literacy strategies. Another area that requires attention is an investigation of how nutrition needs affect school work. We need to open up the idea to ensure we see education as a way of tackling poverty and disadvantage. I put forward these sensible proposals.
The explanatory memorandum states:
Section 4 provides for the funding of the awarding authorities. The Minister advances to awarding authorities such amounts as the Minister, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, determines for the purposes of expenditure by the awarding authorities in the performance of their functions. This section also permits the Minister to advance an amount or amounts to a person with whom the Awarding Authority has entered into an arrangement pursuant to Section 10(2) for the purpose of assisting the awarding authority in the proper discharge of his functions.
Section 8 provides for a definition of approved institution. Subsection (1) sets out a number of educational institutions in the State which are deemed to be approved institutions. It also deems publicly funded institutions outside the State, but within the EU, to be approved institutions. It allows the Minister to prescribe higher education institutions within the State to be approved institutions. The Bill sets out a number of matters the Minister is to have regard to in making such a determination.
In the context of approved institutions, we should not be afraid to acknowledge the many magnificent state-of-the-art third level colleges in this country. Many people come from abroad to go to college here. On the north side we have DCU and the Marino Institute of Education, which is an excellent teacher training college in my constituency. I commend the magnificent work of these colleges. They bring radical new ideas into education and the constituency of Dublin North-Central. This is a progressive development and is worthy of debate.
The explanatory memorandum further states:
Section 12 defines a student and sets out the nationality and residence requirements in the State that a student must meet in order to qualify for a grant. The residence requirement in the State to qualify for a maintenance grant will be three out of the last five years. In addition, the residence requirement will have to be met by the student him/herself. It also sets out certain categories of persons who are entitled to benefit from student grants, subject to the other terms and conditions of the schemes. It provides the Minister with the power to prescribe other categories of non-nationals [I have concerns about the use of that word; we should be using the term "foreign nationals"] that will be eligible for student support. It also defines a "tuition student", which enables the provision of fees grants for approved courses in the State where a person meets a residency requirement in the EU/EEA or Switzerland.
I welcome the foreign students who make a major contribution to our country and the much needed investment they bring with them. In the context of future planning for the economic development of this country we must not only ensure that education is seen as a right for every citizen but we should also focus on the potential it has to create jobs and develop in other countries. These are radical new ideas that should be examined in this technological age and in view of the changes happening here. An educated workforce is needed to keep the Celtic tiger going. We should focus on the people who are here who are willing to work and provide services.
I strongly condemn the recent murder of a young Polish man and the assault on his friend. It is a very sad day for this country when two decent young men who came here to work for their families and who made a major contribution were attacked, leading to the death of one man. I offer my sympathy to the families of these men and to the Polish community on the occasion of this terrible crime.
Sadly, people are making a connection between this crime and under age drinking. It has been said that the Polish men refused to buy drink for under age Irish people. What happened to those two young men is an absolute disgrace, particularly given that they were decent lads who were making a contribution to society. It should go on the record that all Members of the House are extremely upset and we offer our sympathy to the families of these two Polish men.
I mentioned the negative aspects of some elements of our young people, but the vast majority of our young people and students make a massive contribution to this country and they have a vision and a future. I would like to see many young people and students develop their interest in political science in third level education and see them get more involved in politics and community issues. We have a pool of talent in this country and we need to bring fresh faces and new blood into Irish politics. I urge students not to sit on the fence but to get involved through their college student unions or local clubs and community groups. These are important issues related to this legislation.
We discussed the significance of disadvantage among students. It is important we tackle disadvantage at a young age. The first way to tackle educational disadvantage is to get in at pre-school level. I commend the projects that have started but we have much work to do. If we do not tackle it between the ages of two and four, before children enter primary school, the damage has been done and by the time children reach sixth class they are beginning to consider dropping out.
In the past few days I have seen a number of reports that 80,000 students have missed over a month in their schools. That is a worrying trend. The responsibility is with families, but also with schools, to be more pro-student and proactive. Many students and schools in disadvantaged areas are making great strides to ensure their schools are inclusive. Inclusive schools make everybody welcome and teach everybody at his or her level. We must ensure and protect the quality of education in this country. It is linked to the debate on student support. The key point is that everybody here has a duty to support students.
I welcome the developments of the past few days. As a member of and activist with the INTO for many years I welcome the fact that the ASTI, the INTO and the TUI are considering forming one big union. I wish them well in their talks because if there are 60,000 teachers in one big union it will be progressive for education, students and teachers. I wish them all well with their negotiations, particularly the general secretary of the union of which I am a member, Mr. John Carr. I hope they get on well.
In the student community, when students enter third level those with a particular interest in disadvantage should be sought after in the first year, particularly those in the teaching profession. I have done some talks in the Marino Institute of Education where I have addressed 200 or 300 students and 20% are always focused on and want to work in disadvantaged schools. They should be encouraged and supported all the way because they will make a significant contribution to society. A good teacher in a disadvantaged school makes a major impact. I have seen it after working in the north inner city for 25 years. I have seen top-class, quality teachers in very difficult situations doing a great job and saving many children from ending up in Mountjoy Prison.
We must ensure these students are supported financially as well. To tackle poverty one must deal with education, housing and employment. There is a connection between those three matters. We have moved on but a section of society still has not and it is the responsibility of all Members of the Oireachtas and all those involved in politics to ensure they get a leg up, not necessarily a hand-out. The majority of people want to have their self-esteem and dignity, and the way to go about that is to ensure the education system works. When one meets third level students during visits to the Dáil and in one's constituency one sees a big pool of talent in music, arts, industry and commerce, and we must develop that.
Today we had a progressive meeting at lunch time with the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, GLEN. We need to keep an eye on gay and lesbian students because they need to be protected and defended, particularly those who are often ostracised and come under pressure. I commend GLEN on the magnificent work it has done. I commend my colleagues from all parties who attended that meeting in Leinster House. It was an interesting meeting and it was great to meet the people. There is a connection with the students. We must protect gay and lesbian students and ensure they feel very much part of our society and our education system.
I welcome the debate on the Student Support Bill 2008. It is sensible legislation. We must focus and ensure all our students are given the maximum support, particularly financial support.
I wish to share my time with Deputy Tom Hayes.
The question is not so much how to administer third level grants but rather how much should the Government provide for students in terms of financial assistance. How can the Minister for Education and Science consider third level education as free when the so-called "registration fee" stands at almost €1,000? I agree with Deputy Higgins that the registration fee should be examined. It should be removed because it is very unfair to students throughout this land. Many students pay the registration fee and do not even complete the first term of their courses. It is grossly unfair and must be addressed.
What about the hidden cost of education? Books and specialised equipment can place certain courses beyond the means of lower income students. Issues such as child care, particularly for mature students, need to be considered as does the appalling anomaly of mature students taking part-time evening degrees, which cover the same subject matter as courses for day-time students but they are not eligible for free fees or maintenance grants. This is a serious issue that needs to be resolved.
Aontas, the national adult learning organisation, received 3,485 queries in 2007 from adults wishing to access further or higher education, of which 24% were from learners looking for information on funding, showing the lack of ease of sourcing such information and the need to centralise services. Every autumn, students enrol in colleges across the country and many of them will not even be able to complete the first term up to Christmas as family circumstances make it impossible to maintain these young people in education. I know of several students, young boys and girls, throughout the country who have to take up part-time jobs in public houses late into the evening to supplement their education in college. In the time of the Celtic tiger this should not happen. As we all know, the opportunity cost of a college education is the lost salary the young person could be earning for the three or four years spent in university or a college of education. Given the current level of registration fees, combined with the low level of grant aid, the opportunity cost plus current expenditure proves to be a burden that many low-income, and better-off, families cannot sustain.
I support this Bill in so far as it seeks to unravel the complexity of the student grant application process. The streamlining and simplification this Bill will bring to the grant application process is a step in the right direction but I do not consider halving the number of grant awarding authorities from 66 to 33 to be necessarily a cause for the Government to glorify itself. Given the undeniable success of the Central Applications Office, it would have made much more sense to have taken this Bill a step further and centralised the grants process to maximise efficiency. Centralisation would lead to a perception of uniformity and fairness, speed up the payment of grants and eliminate administrative errors. However, this is only half the problem. What better time than this to look at the whole area of grant aid for third level students and perhaps an equitable system of student loans for those who do not qualify for grant aid?
The UK and Australia provide loans for students to cover their college education, payable upon commencement of employment. Surely this would be to the advantage of students and their families who are not eligible for maintenance grants. Under the current system, an unfair and inequitable penalty is brought to bear on families whose income is just over the limit for grant eligibility, especially those with a number of children in third level. The Minister should imagine how a family of three or four students living and studying away from home can possibly survive if they do not qualify for grant maintenance and she should consider the appalling pressure on their parents.
The high cost of the hidden extras of third level education, including living in cities such as Dublin where accommodation is even beyond the reach of many young people working in relatively good jobs, is a frightening prospect for many people. While it may not be sufficient in itself, a grant is some support to those who qualify. However, living in a rural area without a third level college nearby, remaining just outside the income threshold for such a grant and trying to provide the best education possible for a number of children is a nightmare for parents. This is where an interest-free loan system, something that would not be universally popular, would remove the pressure from parents and ensure that each child has access to a college education. While it is not ideal to face the future carrying such a debt, the lack of opportunity to access a good career is even harder to contemplate. Fine Gael is committed to a package of subsidised loans of up to €10,000, payable within four years of graduation, to postgraduate students. These loans would go a long way to advancing a student's employability and would remove the burden from the family.
Deputy Higgins spoke about bureaucracy and red tape in the system. There is much discrimination towards students who must wait 45 days for an appeal to be heard. That is grossly unfair and it does not help their studies. They must wait and endure hardship and bureaucracy, going back and forth to the Department to try to obtain answers. From time to time we must make representations on behalf of students so we are aware of the nightmare through which they must go. This is very frustrating for our students and the bureaucracy in our educational system leaves a very sour taste.
At this stage, I acknowledge the wonderful contribution to education made over the years by Athlone Institute of Technology. I compliment the management and the staff there, who are doing an excellent job and are very proactive in the development of the midlands. They have worked with companies and businesses that come into the area and they educate people to meet the needs of employers. Abbott set up in my county of Longford recently and provided a good number of jobs. The company was proactive in helping to set up an education for people coming into the company who needed that extra bit of experience.
Attempts are being made under the national spatial strategy to develop three cities in the midlands. There is a population of over 350,000 within a 30 mile radius of Athlone. It is time to look at a university for the midlands. It is a necessity at this stage. Students could drive to the university and they would not suffer the great cost burden of accommodation and so on. There is plenty of fine accommodation in all the towns of the midlands. A university would bring more to the midlands than a large-scale industry. It is something that should be considered. We are the only country in Europe with a midland region that does not have a university. I have no doubt Fine Gael will be in government in the next two to three years and we will strongly consider a university for the midlands. Several students and parents have approached me about this issue, so why not? Such a facility would be of huge benefit to students in the midlands.
Deputy McGrath spoke a few moments ago about students who get involved in politics. This is very welcome, but there is a great number of students involved with Fine Gael in all the educational institutions. The Fine Gael Party is the real hope for the future. It is the party of honesty, decency and integrity and I am delighted that young people are coming in their droves into our organisation. Well over 200 members have signed up and many signed up in Dublin and in Athlone Institute of Technology. This is very hopeful for the future as they will be the politicians of tomorrow. When we have a united Ireland, hopefully Fine Gael will reign for two, three or four decades. The party had among its members the founding fathers of democracy in this State and they have accounted extremely well for themselves over the years.
There is a bright future for students who sign up to Fine Gael. They will not be dictated to, they will be allowed to voice their opinions and they will be part of policy formulation within the party. They will have opinions in their own right. We do not concentrate on having too many spin doctors. We leave it to the individual to make up his or her own mind and this is something that is very welcome.
Is the party recruiting in the North?
We are recruiting all over the country. If the Minister of State wishes to rise me, I will tell him that we are aligned to the largest party in the EU, the European People's Party.
You have not answered my question.
The Deputy should use the Chair if he wishes to make a comment.
We had wonderful success in the last European elections and we are now the largest party in Europe.
We are moving away from the Bill.
What about organising up North?
We have very good, influential MEPs who are promoting education in Europe. I am delighted to see this happening and everybody can look forward to a better Ireland under the leadership of Deputy Enda Kenny. He will bring a new team, new energy and new ideas to the development of our country, which is badly needed. He would be a breath of fresh air for the country.
That was last year's speech.
The Deputy must stick to the Bill.
I welcome the Bill, but we will be putting down a number of amendments to it. There are provisions in it with which we are not happy. We should look after people who are taking part-time evening degree courses. I would like to see such people facilitated in this Bill. I am not happy with the decision to halve the number of grant-awarding authorities from 66 to 33. I oppose this decision. Over the years, the two bodies which administer grants in County Westmeath in my constituency have competed to see which of them would issue grants first. Students are the only beneficiaries of such competition.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Student Support Bill 2008, which provides for a single unified statutory grants scheme to replace the four existing schemes and places the scheme on a statutory footing. I welcome the proposal to bring unity, clarity and efficiency to the entire provision of the student grants scheme. The Bill defines and clarifies common terms, while making extensive provision for appeals to an appeals officer and independent appeals board. These provisions will act as a guarantee that transparency and fair play will prevail.
In awarding sole responsibility for grant payments to vocational education committees, the Minister has extended a vote of confidence in the capacity of VECs to deliver an efficient and effective service. As locally based statutory education authorities, I have every confidence in VECs to deliver when it matters, although I am concerned about the lead-in timeframe for introducing such a complex delivery structure.
Public funding for attendance at approved courses by means of VEC student grants is an essential support to deserving students. It is also a recognition that further and higher education courses will play a pivotal role in meeting the State's explicit objective of upskilling up to 500,000 people by at least one level on the national qualifications framework before 2020. Access to further education must be available to all on an equal basis if we, as a nation, are to deliver on equal opportunity for all. The legislation underpins in law our commitment to support all deserving students in terms of upskilling, retraining and advancing educational qualifications.
Given that educational programmes must remain relevant, I welcome the provision to keep courses under annual review. The ongoing review of the performance of the granting authorities will satisfy the need for public accountability and is a welcome element of the Bill.
Over the years, much concern has been expressed regarding the rights of students to apply for grant aid. The Bill recognises the need to clarify recognition and residency rights. Moreover, it sets out the criteria for eligibility for a grant. This detail is also welcome as it affords clarity regarding a person's rights of qualification.
I am particularly pleased at the provision placing an obligation on all parties — the applicant, awarding body and Minister — to fulfil their respective roles and obligations. I am sure the basis of any appeal will focus on these particular provisions.
While the penalties provided are harsh, this measure is necessary to ensure legal compliance with procedures and legislative provisions. As a former student, member and chairman of a vocational education committee, I have been involved in the VEC sector for many years and have every confidence in its ability to deliver grant support for students.
I compliment the Irish Vocational Education Association, IVEA, and its general secretary, Mr. Michael Moriarty, who has had extensive negotiations with departmental officials to prepare for the implementation of the legislation, once enacted. I acknowledge the great work the IVEA has done over the years and look forward to the legislation delivering a successful outcome that will result in an efficient and effective statutory scheme. I also acknowledge the important role public representatives, students and teachers have played in the administration of vocational education committees. I pay particular tribute to the key role played by parents and voluntary and statutory agencies. The Department, in transferring responsibility for the student grant scheme to the VECs, will be well served in future. I extend my good wishes to all those involved in the preparation and delivery of the Bill.