I am delighted this Topical Issue is being taken. There is an inherent unfairness in the operation of the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, higher education grant scheme in respect of certain citizens, and I ask that it be put right. Irish citizens who have been resident in this jurisdiction but leave to work as volunteers overseas, doing charitable development work for a number of years in some of the world’s least developed and poorest countries, who then wish to continue their education in Ireland, may be considered ineligible for a student grant solely because they do not meet the residency conditions under SUSI, which require them to have been resident in the State for at least three years out of the five-year period ending on the day before they start their approved course of study. I refer to cases in which these erstwhile volunteers do not have the financial means and cannot afford to pay for fees and maintenance at third level. Interestingly, had they stayed at home and been in receipt of social welfare for the three years, they would have qualified for a SUSI grant.
To volunteer in this manner is a response to a noble call. While the experience is uplifting, personal sacrifice is required from the volunteers, as they give their time, knowledge and skills to empower and improve the lives of others and help in a practical way to counter some of the inequalities and hardships experienced by others just because of where on this planet they were born. These individuals should be supported by the State, not disenfranchised. The work of these volunteers, including emergency humanitarian action, is crucial to ensure the delivery of the Irish aid programme in various parts of the developing world. Delivering change for the better is one of the central priorities of Ireland’s foreign policy, and their work contributes to it. The 2016 budget has confirmed a commitment of €640 million for official development assistance, such is our commitment to overseas development.
In 2013, the Government, as part of its commitment to volunteering, launched the Irish Aid volunteering initiative, which recognised the major contribution Irish volunteers have long made. The aim of the initiative is to strengthen support for overseas volunteering from the time when a person first considers going to when he or she returns home. The SUSI criteria which can see these volunteers deemed ineligible for higher education grants offends all the recognition and support that Government foreign policy strives to provide for them. Previously, an exemption from the residency clause had applied to overseas aid workers, which allowed them to qualify once they had passed the means test. This must be provided again. In September, the Minister, responding to an unfair discrimination which particularly affected youngsters in direct provision accommodation, extended the SUSI grant scheme to allow them to go to college.
I ask the Minister of State, Deputy English, to work with the Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Trade and Education and Skills to extend fair play to our overseas volunteers immediately. Although they are very few, it is unfair that after they have spent many years abroad doing voluntary service without making money by any standard, they find themselves disqualified on account of the fact that they have not been resident in recent years, especially given that we are telling them to go abroad. Something needs to be done.