I welcome the publication of the Student Support Bill and commend the Minister and her Department on finally bringing it to fruition. As we move to a transfer of grants from the county councils to the VECs, we should acknowledge the role the councils have played over many years in the distribution and management of the student grant system, particularly council officials who brought a fair degree of sense and sensitivity to that role. I wish to acknowledge that and wish them well as they move on to different responsibilities. The VEC sector has proved itself to be very successful and careful in the management of student grants. The VECs will bring the same level of sensibility and sensitivity to their new role of managing grants.
There was much discussion in last night's debate about whether the issuing of student grants should be centralised in one body. I have severe concerns regarding those proposals. We have just spent the last few hours discussing an issue that is being handled by a centralised body and that body has not come out of it particularly well. Centralisation takes away a little bit of local cop-on and local knowledge. It also takes away some of the sensibility and sensitivity to which I referred earlier. The issuing of grants is best left and managed at local VEC level.
There was also some discussion last night about student loans for students who do not qualify for grants. Some Members proposed the introduction of a student loan system, albeit a subsidised one. I agree with Deputy Higgins that this measure would be wrong. Anyone who knows students from the UK or other countries where student loan systems are in place knows the pressure to repay loans upon leaving college, a pressure that continues into the former students' mid-30s and restricts their ability to get mortgages and other loans for cars, businesses, etc. The loan system leaves a student with a millstone around his or her neck for many years. In a republic, education is a basic right. Were more money available, it would be fitting to improve our grant system, particularly at the basic level, but a student loan system is not the way to go given the example of other countries.
I congratulate the Higher Education Authority on its website, www.studentfinance.ie. For the first time, there is a single point at which people can see the myriad of available grants, their entitlements and the qualifying criteria. The HEA has done a good service in equipping, staffing and putting the website on-line. I encourage the HEA to make more use of the website in publicising the grants, perhaps by linking it with the CAO form — in the June-August period, we are all asked questions that can now be answered on-line — and to put extra resources into the website’s promotion.
During yesterday's debate, people took the chance to comment on general third level issues. While there have been significant improvements since my time in college, and I acknowledge the work done in DCU in particular, college life is not all about lectures and degrees. It is also about the level to which one gets involved in the community, be it through student unions or societies. For those of us who had the privilege and luck to get involved, many of the skills we learned are those that we remember today, not necessarily what we learned during lectures. DCU's model involves giving credits at degree level for people who get involved. If we can get students involved in voluntary and community activities at that age, albeit in a college scenario, it would be easier to sustain the level of involvement as they enter the working world and return to their communities. We are fed up discussing in the House the collapse in volunteerism. We must approach our trapped audience, as it were, and encourage its members to get involved at student level.
I congratulate the authorities of Trinity College on their recent programme for people with intellectual disabilities, the reporting of which was fantastic. Seeing people who would heretofore not have got inside the door at Trinity College being acknowledged and awarded degrees was welcome. Every other college should take this example on board and consider involving people with intellectual disabilities in a greater way. Those who do not have such disabilities would learn much more from liaising and working on a daily basis with the people in question.
Yesterday, there was a great deal of discussion on how the abuse of alcohol affects day-to-day society. Yesterday morning, independent evidence in further reports showed that we have a major problem. A related issue can be found at college level where the marketing emphasis is on going out several times per week and drinking heavily. We are diverting a number of resources into teenager alcohol programmes through secondary schools and youth clubs and funding has been provided to a number of non-alcoholic initiatives at youth level, but there is a tendency to see it as people's responsibility or fault once they turn 18 years of age and that we should not worry about them. We spend money on alcohol therapy centres for the want of spending money on marketing campaigns aimed at students and people aged 18-20 years. We must use colleges to a greater degree to educate people in this regard. We must work with the colleges on a health screening programme in respect of the damage alcohol can do. At that age, one does not consider the damage alcohol does to one's system or the effect it may have later in life, but the centres at which tens of thousands of young people study can be used to promote this message.
As a member of the Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security, colleges and student communities should be used to further the climate change agenda. The green flags programme at national school level, which we all know, is expanding to secondary school level. It is a fantastic programme and is the only matter in respect of which I agree with An Taisce, but there should be an ability to engage individual college faculties in a similar programme. The green schools programme at national school level will have addressed much of the lack of environmental responsibility by the time the current generation reaches our age. I have less faith in our age group learning to change our behaviour, but if we can start trapping those of us immediately behind us — those in college — and using their college experiences to engage them in their personal responsibilities to address climate change, it would be a worthwhile initiative. Daily, the House addresses a range of issues, but we do not utilise students in this respect or avail of the fact that they comprise a captive audience to which we could send our message or with which we could engage to hear their opinions. As we proceed, this matter should be considered.
There is ongoing discussion in respect of raising institutes of technology to university level. I acknowledge the debate and work that is occurring at Waterford Institute of Technology. In the debate on university status, it would be dangerous to undermine the role of the ITs. They provide a specific range of education that focuses on business and careers and offers a range of courses that a university might not necessarily provide. Last night, a university for the midlands was called for and received a commitment from the other side of the House. Deputy Brian Hayes was not in the Chamber when the call was made, but the idea of throwing university status around like confetti is dangerous and undermines the fantastic work being down at IT level. Before attaining university status, much work would need to be done. The IT sector has provided a significant and improved service since regional technical colleges became ITs and we should keep as many of them as ITs and in their specific roles as possible.
For many years, we have been well served by colleges and the second level that got people into college. However, we must move to meet current world demands, particularly in respect of fourth level education. In my time at college, a minority continued on to do the doctorates and masters that are now in demand internationally. We must engage students earlier to get them involved and interested in fourth level degrees. Many secondary schools have systems in place, albeit informally, to identify good students and to send them to third level. A similar system should be put in place at third level to attract students who may have something to offer at fourth level.
In terms of career and job advice, we must invest further resources at second and third levels. We must put a mechanism in place whereby we can encourage people and foster intellect, particularly to move people into the PhD area. Unless we do so, we will fall behind as a world economy and experience further job losses. I acknowledge the level of investment by the Ministers for Education and Science and Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputies Hanafin and Martin, to encourage people to undertake PhDs.
We owe third level institutions a great debt for feeding into various activities at national and international levels, which have added to Ireland's allure as a destination. Given all of the people who have passed through the third level sector in fields such as literature, sport, medicine and so on, our small country of just over 4 million people is consistently and constantly producing excellence in a varied and expanding range. Our third level sector has responded to this demand by expanding the range of courses on offer to a wider range of students. The range of courses now on offer in all third level institutions is phenomenal; many of them were not dreamed of when I attended a third level institution and that was not long ago. Every taste is now catered for.
The opportunity cost of not attending college was spoken of yesterday. The choice facing people is either to go to college, get an apprenticeship or start working. The success of our economy in recent years has meant that many people chose to go straight into full-time employment; that work has now dried up for some, for whatever reason, and such people are left without a qualification. I ask the Minister to find out how many people are in such a situation, particularly those who went into highly-paid, cash in hand construction jobs who are now without employment and without qualifications. We should target such people for third level education, whether the goal be a trade, a degree or a diploma, so that they will be qualified to join the workforce that is demanded. People who took what was the easy option at the time are now coming to our constituency offices seeking assistance. Those who go to college miss out on a few years but they are ultimately well compensated for them in terms of the salaries they can earn. We must pay particular attention to people who left the education system in recent years after the leaving certificate and are now, to an extent, abandoned.
It is unbelievable that people nowadays still leave school at junior certificate level, given that everyone knows a leaving certificate, at least, is required in the workplace. With regard to entering the job market, the bar has been raised from holding a leaving certificate to holding a third level qualification. We must add extra resources at junior certificate level to ensure nobody leaves school at that point without having a career or education path designed for him or her. This could be done on a one-to-one basis because relatively few people leave school at this point. We owe an educational path to every school-leaver to ensure he or she is not lost in the system.
The VEC sector, which is moving into a prime role in the administration of grants, is something we should pay tribute to. VECs work due to a fantastic combination of knowledge, qualifications and experience in teachers, educationalists and elected representatives. VEC schools around the country are a credit to their respective VECs, through boards of management, elected representatives, parents and teaching staff. It is a model we should protect and expand and I know it will sustain the grants system. I am concerned by suggestions that we should centralise the grants system as this would be a retrograde step that would result in the late payment of grants, the loss of local knowledge to the grant appeals system and students losing out.
I welcome the publication of the Bill, I congratulate the Minister on bringing it to this stage and I look forward to supporting it in this House.