I welcome this Bill. It has been a long time coming as it has been on the list of proposed legislation for the past couple of years. Deputy Quinn spoke in detail about the Bill on behalf of the Labour Party and I concur with what he said in his contribution. We would prefer to see a centralised Department deal with the issue of student support grants, but what is on the table before us today is an improvement on the current situation. We will now have 33 grant awarding bodies, which halves the current number of such bodies. VECs will now deal with the grant, as opposed to VECs, local authorities and possibly another awarding body.
We would prefer to see the Department of Social and Family Affairs assess the applications on the basis that this Department has the experience of carrying out means tests, and this is a means-tested scheme. We are all aware of stories from the past of people who managed to get a higher education grant and people who have not been able to do so, despite the disparity in their circumstances. A predecessor of mine in the Labour Party seat in Limerick East, Mr. Frank Prendergast, used to tell a story about a garage owner who got a grant while a mechanic who worked for him could not get a grant. There is a complete inequity in that situation. There are aspects to the system which allow people, particularly those who are self-employed, to organise themselves in such a way that their income is low the year before their sons or daughters are entering third level education. The PAYE worker clearly does not have any facility to move income around from one year to another. We would all like to see a fairer system. Other people have similar stories where somebody with considerable wealth is able to get a higher education grant for his or her child, which is inequitable.
I welcome any measure that improves that situation and there are aspects to this Bill which will tighten things up. There are offences that are punishable under the Bill, which is welcome. There will always be a certain amount of honesty required from people in their applications. If that sanction is there, there is more of an incentive to be honest with information given.
I also welcome the fact that there is an appeals process. Possibly every Member in the House deals with individuals who feel that they have been unfairly treated when applying for grants. It is difficult to get a second examination of applications. Some people are on the borderline of the income threshold. There are also certain specifications on social welfare qualifications for some applicants. There is a concern for some borderline cases that the person involved has not been fairly treated. I welcome the fact that there is an appeals mechanism for these cases.
I dealt with a person whose father is working in a poorly paid part-time job and the person was on social welfare for a period before he went back to university as a mature student. However, the combination of the reckonable income and the length of time he was on social welfare meant that he did not get a grant. This young man is really struggling. The family does not have much of an income, but he did not get the grant because he was not long enough on social welfare to qualify. There are other cases of people who find it extremely difficult to make ends meet. In many cases, these people come from families who do not have a tradition of higher or third-level education. They are not the kind of people who should have to struggle. Indeed, as Deputy Durkan noted, many of us met representatives of the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, this morning in Buswells Hotel. One of the issues it raised with us is the fact so many third-level students must now work. USI told us that some students must work 40-hour weeks to keep themselves in college. While it is probably good for students to do some level of work, preferably during the summer vacation period, because a bit of work experience does nobody any harm, it must be impossible for them to maintain their studies if they are working those kind of hours. Again, they tend to be the students who do not have a huge amount of money at home and must work in order to make ends meet. In many cases, it is the cost of accommodation that is the problem for them if they are living away from home, particularly in the cities where accommodation is expensive. I suppose Dublin would be the prime example of that.
A very large amount of the student body lives in Dublin and away from home. In many cases, they must work to survive. There is a need to ensure that the grant is at a level where students like this can afford to stay in third-level education. There is a high dropout rate, at least some of which is due to the fact that students work long hours and do not put the necessary time into their studies. I know there are many other factors relating to why students drop out of third-level education but that is one of them.
I pay tribute, as did my colleague, Deputy Quinn, to the former Minister for Education and Science, Niamh Breathnach, who introduced free third-level fees, and Donogh O'Malley before her, who introduced free second-level fees. I strongly believe that the message that one has free access, or at least free fees, at all education levels is a positive one in terms of not closing the gates to people's aspirations to education.
I am glad that suggestions made by the Minister's predecessor that this might change have not happened. Many statistics have been produced saying that the free fees benefited people in the upper income brackets more than those in the lower brackets. There is no doubt that the statistics, particularly those produced by Patrick Clancy over a series of years, showed that the numbers of people who would have been just outside the income threshold for a grant significantly increased in terms of participation. We are talking about middle income workers — the gardaí and teachers of this world and people working in factories with a higher level of income. We can deduce that this is due to the fact that we have free fees at third level. I would strongly support that concept. We talk a lot about a knowledge economy. The fact that there has been such a vast increase in participation in third-level education, both in universities, institutes of technology and post-leaving certificate colleges — we should not leave them out — has meant that we have a well educated workforce.
Obviously, there are very specific challenges ahead relating to issues arising from people losing their jobs and the economic problems we are beginning to see. As recently as yesterday, we heard about the loss of 250 jobs at Dell in Dublin and Limerick. Not only is it very important for us to train young people and give them educational opportunities as they go through the educational system, it is also important for us to offer opportunities to those who drop out before they ever get a chance to go to third-level education, those who perhaps left school a long time ago but who want to return to the educational system and those who are in the workplace and may have a certain level of income but whose jobs may be threatened or who cannot progress because of their level of educational attainment. We must offer second chance and upskilling opportunities to people in those categories. The proposal in one of the partnership agreements and possibly a programme for Government that part-time students should have the same opportunities as full-time students needs to be addressed.
I welcome the fact that standardised information will be the norm in terms of what is requested and required of applicants. Over the years, I have dealt with many applicants. They go to the person who deals with the grants in the local authority or VEC and are told that they must produce ESB bills to show where they lived during the relevant year, information from a landlord that they really did live there and certain information about income. They give a list of things and the poor unfortunate person goes off, gets all those things, comes back and is told "we also need this, this and this". I have met people in tears because of what they have been asked for and because they have been asked again for something else when they have returned. It does not happen in all cases but it certainly happens in some. I very much welcome the fact that there will, hopefully, be clarity in terms of what information is required of students when they apply.
Another related issue is that of whether a student is a dependant of his or her parents or is independent. I know that this is addressed in the Bill. Students are very confused about whether they are considered to be dependent on their parents or whether they are independent applicants when they are adults. There is a particular category of people who have children and are still considered to be dependent on their parents because of the rules of the applications. Again, we need to be clear on that but we also need some compassion.
Deputy O'Rourke, to whom I pay tribute for many things she did as Minister for Education, referred to the opportunities that young people now have to travel. However, in some cases, if a student has been abroad before they apply to third-level colleges as a mature student, this can sometimes mean that they do not get the grant because they have been living outside the country for a period of time and their continuous habitation status is affected by the fact that they have been abroad. They may only have been abroad for a relatively short period of time, as many young people are when they travel, but it sometimes means that they do not get a third-level grant. I hope that we can have some compassion in that area. That there is an appeals system is welcome in that regard.
I refer to non-Irish nationals living in this country, including families. In particular, I am thinking of one family I know very well. The mother came to Ireland to work as a nurse in the hospital system. She works full time, pays her taxes and subsequently brought the rest of her family over as part of the family reunification scheme. Her husband and six children now live with her. The children go to school in my constituency. Some of the children have already gone on to third-level education but had to pay the fees because they are not here for the requisite amount of time to get naturalisation. It is a real struggle for that family. In respect of situations like that where the parents are both working but are struggling because they are not in very well paid jobs and are trying to educate their children, I would like to see some acceptance of the fact that this family has settled and is paying taxes in the country. I know this may not be within the ambit of this legislation but there are genuine cases where people are really struggling and should have opportunities. They are going to pay the fees if they have to because they want their children to have this educational opportunity but it is a real struggle.
I also wish to speak briefly on the issue of access to education. I am aware the Acting Chairman is concerned about access to education for students with disabilities and students from minority groups. Access officers are in place in most third level institutions. I am not sure if such officers are in place in all the DITs, but they probably are. Good access programmes operate in most third level institutions, but if there are any gaps in that respect, I hope they will be filled. Some people, especially those with disabilities, find it a major struggle to stay in third level education. It is particularly important for them that they should have those opportunities.
I referred to institutes of technology and PLCs. The institutes of technology have given the opportunity of third level education to a cohort of students who probably otherwise would not have had that opportunity. We should salute the work they have done and support them in every way possible. However, the PLCs, in some respects, have not been brought up to the level of, to use a commonly used phrase, parity of esteem in terms of facilities. We spoke here previously about the implementation of the McIver report, which makes recommendations on PLCs. There are large PLCs located in various parts of the country doing excellent work in giving opportunities to students and they need the kinds of supports available in other colleges. Many of them are struggling even to provide proper basic facilities for students, namely, library and canteen facilities and so on. This requires the Minister's attention and I hope she will address this need.
It is important that the necessary resources are provided to implement this legislation. The delay experienced by some students in various parts of the country has caused major difficulties. In this respect, some authorities have been good, some have not been good and others have been terrible in the service they provided. Some students have had to complete their first term before receiving their grants. If the VECs are to handle the extra applications that will be submitted, they will need to have the necessary resources to process the applications in as short a timeframe as possible. I presume the Minister is making provision for that. However, I raise this issue because, while we can all have the best of intentions regarding legislation, if the people are not put in place to implement it, we will not be able to improve the system.
I welcome the fact that this legislation is before us. I hope it will improve the position for those applying for grants and that it will make matters easier for families who are struggling to put their young people through third level education and for adults who are struggling to do so themselves. We should not underestimate the difficulties experienced by people due to delays in the processing of grants. Some people are not able to come up with the money to meet their expenses while waiting for their grants to come through. Families on limited incomes who are waiting for their grants to come through have to try to pay deposits on accommodation, purchase course materials and cover the other expenses they incur. If they do not get their grants in the appropriate time, they find it difficult to cope. This legislation is welcome in so far as I sincerely hope it will speed up the processing time of third level grants for students.