Financial Difficulties Facing Access Students: Discussion

I welcome the delegates. Regarding the privilege enjoyed by people appearing before a committee, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of evidence given to committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence.

That basically means that if you say something that might be defamatory but it was in error, you are covered. However, if you call someone every name under the sun and are asked to desist but continue, you could be liable. You are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and you are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, you should not criticise or make charges against a person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

While that is quite long-winded, I am required to put it record. Perhaps it should be handed to people in advance in the form of a note.

As I have just been informed that this is done at present, for future reference I do not intend to read the warning out because it is completely pointless. Members want to hear what the delegates have to say.

Basically, it means that members can abuse each other but the witnesses cannot abuse members.

Apparently, under this new ruling the witnesses will be able to do this. They now will be able to say that politicians are a crowd of wasters who have not done anything for Access students. However, the phrase is "within reason". After the presentation is made, the delegates will be asked questions by members of the joint committee. Thereafter, they should feel free to give vent to their own opinions as much as they like. That said, I invite the delegates to begin the presentation on difficulties.

Ms Michelle Mitchell

We have created a document that briefly outlines the Access programme, the restrictive funding available to students and the financial implications thereof. As a result, we wish to present our proposal of the educational supplement for mature students who do not qualify for the back to education allowance, BTEA, or the student maintenance grant.

The Access programme is designed specifically for people who may not have had the conventional educational requirements to enter third level education or who come from socio-economic backgrounds that are under-represented at third level or both. The course enables the students to acquire the skills, knowledge and confidence to compete on an equal footing with those students who enter university or institute of technology through the conventional entry channels. The Access course aims to provide mature students with the opportunity to prepare personally and academically for an undergraduate course of full-time study of at least three years' duration at a third level institution.

The criteria that must be met to be accepted on to the Access course include being from a socio-economic disadvantaged background, being the first in the family to access third level education or being in one of the targeted groups, namely, the long-term unemployed, the disabled, minority groups and Travellers. There are between 800 and 1,000 Access students entering third level education in Ireland each year.

I refer to the financial implications of the budget. Before the 2010 budget, the BTEA and the student maintenance grant were available to all mature students. The BTEA is the equivalent of a person's social welfare payment of €196 per week, which is a living allowance. The current grant level for an adjacent rate, that is, for students who live less than 24 km from their university or institute of technology is €2,545, while the higher rate of €6,355 applies for those who live more than 24 km away. After the 2010 budget, students are no longer entitled to receive both the BTEA and the student maintenance grant, which has made a huge impact on their lives. In April 2010, the then Department of Education and Science confirmed that people in receipt of illness, disability or lone parent payments are permitted to attend a course of study, subject to the conditions of the scheme, without transferring to the back to education allowance. Unfortunately, this does not include those in receipt of long-term unemployment benefits, who would be obliged to take up the back to education scheme.

Therefore, as can be seen, a student who is in receipt of disability or lone parent payment can apply and, subject to meeting the criteria, will receive the grant in addition to his or her social welfare payment. However, any students who are not in receipt of the aforementioned three payments must transfer to BTEA, which at €196 per week is the same amount as their social welfare payment. Such students also can apply for a €500 book allowance each year. As for other funding, the millennium partnership fund has been decommissioned and the only other option open to such students is the student assistance fund that provides financial assistance for students experiencing financial difficulties. These can include food, travel, child care, expenses related to family breakdown, bereavement and accidents. As for the long-term advantages of financial assistance for mature Access students, it would mean removing between 800 and 1,000 people from the live register every year. Moreover, when the economic upswing occurs, graduates will be ready to take their place and will be able to pay taxes. In addition, social inclusion for students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds creates a redemption and lift focus within Ireland.

We have created a proposal, a copy of which has been provided to each member, that we have called an educational supplement for mature students. It constitutes an alternative to the maintenance grants for students in receipt of the back to education allowance. All the figures in the proposal are legitimate and have been sourced from the Central Statistics Office and other Departments. It is important to remember that although education is a huge issue for most people, this is especially the case for mature students going back to college or for those who never had the opportunities to go to college. It is difficult enough, when one comes from a background in which one never thought one could do this or lacked the financial wherewithal to do it, to participate in an Access programme. We have already received our places because we have completed the Access programme and know that we will get into universities and so on. Going there without financial assistance is not only difficult for most, but almost impossible. If there is time, we would like the committee to hear about our various case studies.

Our guests will have a chance to go through them. Do members want to hear about a case study or two or to ask questions?

I would be interested in hearing the case studies.

Ms Michelle Mitchell

I have three case studies of students on the NUI Galway Access programme. The first is a lady living in Rosmuc. She must travel 80 km per day and has five children. That she has children does not mean she cannot return to university, but attending university will be impossible for her without financial assistance.

The second case is that of a young man with three children. He has a round trip of 20 km. Travel costs are a factor for both students and accessing university without financial assistance is difficult. Child care is a significant cost for families. If one only receives €196 per week, there is no way one can afford child care or additional travel costs. How can one take money from one's family to travel to university when that family must manage with only €196 per week?

The third case is that of a single man, but he needs some financial assistance in light of prior commitments. He used to have a job, but he still has a mortgage and other commitments, which means he cannot do his course.

Each of these students has worked hard to be approved. Every student on the Access programme has met every criterion and passed every exam. It would be terrible if they were not given the opportunity to attend university.

I welcome the NUI Galway Access students to the meeting. Given the correspondence we have all received from their colleagues and the representations concerning the difficulty that has arisen for many, it is loud and clear that a large number of people who have embarked on the Access course or the first year of a third level course in university or an institute of technology have been hit by this withdrawal of support. That it occurred in this fashion is unbelievable. Many people have embarked on the Access course. Some might have been the first members of their families to attend third level and the standards they achieved in their Access courses were tremendous. They had a bright future, but they were stopped in their tracks.

Has the delegation submitted its alternative grant support mechanism to the Department or to the Minister? Has it received any support for its proposal? How many people in County Galway's third level institutions highlighted their difficulties in continuing? The total of 800 to 1,000 people is a potential, but how many people are participating nationally as opposed to within individual institutions? Other than the delegation before us, has a national lobby group been organised?

Mr. Naoise McDonagh

We do not have national figures, only those for our area in County Galway. We have asked each of the 200 people doing the Access course in NUI Galway whether he or she could continue without the money. Some 50% replied, "No". They depended on the extra money for everything. The other 50% believed they could do it, but the severe financial stress they are under is affecting their focus. Half way through the course, we found out the money was gone. Straight away, people lost their focus and drive because they were worried. That 50% will try, but the stress is affecting people's determination to continue. The Galway figure of 50% is indicative of the national figure.

With the Chairman's permission, the committee should support the delegates' call to the Minister and the Department by way of letter.

Does the Deputy want to make a proposal at the end of the meeting?

I thank the delegation for its presentation and the related clarification. I want to ensure I understand the delegation's proposal correctly before raising a couple of questions. Based on labour market data, the delegates are assuming that a person without a third level qualification is likely to be on the unemployment list for six years longer than a graduate. Is this based on specific data and how did the delegates arrive at this conclusion?

Ms Michelle Mitchell

We submitted a parliamentary question but have not yet received the answer. Our data were sourced from speaking with various social welfare officers. Many people did not want to commit to a figure, as no one wanted to put his or her head on a block. The approximate average was six years, but no one was prepared to write that on a letter. We used this figure because it was the consensus.

Even if the figure was three years, the scale of the potential saving to the Department of Social Protection is considerable.

Ms Michelle Mitchell

Yes.

A net saving of €115,161,270 was mentioned in the submission. Even if the net saving was €50 million, it would still be a no-brainer. I will try to explain the difficulty before we explore how to go about persuading the Department. Of the 15 Ministers, each gets a separate budget. A saving in one person's budget does not necessarily transfer horizontally to education.

Ms Michelle Mitchell

That is right.

It goes back to the Department of Finance. The same could be said about the cost of a prisoner in jail, which is a multiple of the cost of a special needs assistant or additional assistant in a school when that person was a youngster. Specifically because the delegation is from County Galway, the thing to do would seem to be to meet the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, who was recently given responsibility for the Department of Social Protection.

Ms Michelle Mitchell

We have met him.

What was his response?

Ms Michelle Mitchell

He responded that he would work on each case as it came in. This may help those with specific needs, but it will obviously not help across the board. We are discussing Access students, but the matter relates to all mature students.

What is the logic in the restriction? People in receipt of illness, disability and lone parent payments are allowed to continue, but the unemployed are not. Has anyone in the Department of Social Protection explained the rationale behind this? In absolute terms, the cost is the same, whether a person is a lone parent or out sick, as distinct from being unemployed.

Ms Michelle Mitchell

That is the information which has been forwarded to us in documentation. The Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, wrote a letter which included this information. No one has explained why only lone parents, the disabled and those on illness benefit are so entitled.

Perhaps we could explore the possibility of arranging a meeting with officials of the Department of Social Protection.

The clerk has pointed out that a number of committee members attended the meeting last week of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs which examined this matter. It was agreed a letter would be sent to the Ministers involved, Deputies Ó Cuív and Coughlan. With the agreement of the committee, we can request a copy of the response received from the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs. The clerk works with both committees.

I thank the delegation for coming. A number of students in my area are taking part in the Access programme, on which they have excelled. As well as the Departments of Social Protection and Education and Skills, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation is also involved. We should embrace all three. The mantra is that the better qualified one is, the better the chance one has of gaining employment. The more disadvantaged one is, the less chance one has. Therefore, the package needs to be tied closely together. I do not accept that once there was a threat to the BTEA allowance and the maintenance allowance, everyone's head dropped, but perhaps the delegates can tell me if I am wrong. Anyone in receipt of both allowances will be okay, as the decision only applies to new entrants. There is no reason anyone in the system should be upset. However, when a change is made, everyone wonders what its effect will be. It is important students understand, therefore, that once they are in the system, the position will not change.

Whether we embrace all, any or some of the recommendations made in the McCarthy report, it was said €4 million could be saved this year and €35 million by 2012 by changing this programme. That is why I am interested in the figures produced by the delegation which suggests a figure of €7 million, whereas in the McCarthy report there is talk of a saving of €35 million. If the statistics are correct, by implementing the measures proposed, there would be a saving of €28 million. This is but a crack in the pavement if we are presenting a case.

Currently, if one is not eligible for the BTEA or VTOS, it does not mean one is ineligible for maintenance allowance. Given that people come from disadvantaged backgrounds, does a high percentage still qualify for the grant? Is this because they are leaving work and going to college? Why are they ineligible for the maintenance grant? The argument was that there was duplication of payments. I understand the argument about child care costs, no matter what sector of employment in which one is involved. We must include this in any argument we make.

The Minister has been told he can save €35 million, but the delegation suggests the figure would be €7 million if we were to go about this in another way. The Department will argue that money is available for those who really need it because maintenance grants are available to those who qualify. The figure amounts to €6,355 at the higher, non-adjacent, rate. A sum of €5 million is also available in the special fund. Who, therefore, is falling out of the net?

The Department of Finance is always interested when one presents figures. I hope we will come across as being helpful, which is what we always try to be.

Mr. Naoise McDonagh

I want to clarify the issue of access. Senator Keaveney has suggested anyone who received money in 2009 will continue to receive it all the way through a course. That is correct for those who began a degree course. While we started our Access course in 2009, we will not receive money.

Is that because Mr. McDonagh changed courses?

Mr. Naoise McDonagh

No. The Access programme involves progression to a degree course. It is run by the colleges, not the Government; therefore, it does not officially recognise it. It is being suggested we are moving on to a new course, but we are not. As such, we are not entitled to receive any money. There was no run-in time. The Access programme is in place in order that one can continue in a degree course. It is in place for those who are under-represented at third level in order that they can get a second chance. Halfway through the course, we were told we would not receive the grant. Those who had started their degree course in 2009 were allowed to continue to receive it because it would not have been fair to tell them that they would no longer receive the money.

It is important to be clear on the matter.

I congratulate Mr. McDonagh for his courage in appearing to present its case. He represents some 800 to 1,000 Access programme students nationally, but, unknown to himself, he is also representing a whole tranche of other students who are undertaking post-leaving certificate courses in institutes of technology who will lose their maintenance grant in moving from a level 7 to a level 8 course. One student told me that as he was technically moving from one course to another, from level 7 to level 8, he would no longer be able to receive the grant. He is now about to move from a pass degree to an honours degree course and his grant is being cut. This issue, therefore, affects more than Access programme students.

On entry Mr. McDonagh had a legitimate expectation that he would receive the maintenance grant, but that has now been dashed. How does he feel about this? What are his life chances without access to third level education? He mentioned that 50% of his cohort were dropping out. Many of these kids had dropped out at second level and come from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are now at risk of dropping out a second time. Mr. McDonagh has made a major choice to come back.

The Government is looking to save money. It is targeting Access programme students who are perhaps the most disadvantaged group. When the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills attended the committee a few weeks ago, we put the question to her, but she refused to budge. What cost-benefit analysis can Mr. McDonagh provide for the committee to show that it would be worth investing in him? He has come up with the idea of a new educational supplement that would cost less than the maintenance grant. How much money would be saved in the long term if the proposal was taken up and he was provided with a third level education?

Mr. Naoise McDonagh

As Ms Mitchell said, the Access programme has been designed to meet the needs of people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. I grew up in such an area in Galway city. In my teenage years I did poorly at school and failed the leaving certificate examination. None of my peers believed in education or that we could continue in it. There was no dream and no one ahead of us had led the way. No one in my family had gone to college. It took me many years to get over the mental block. I am now 27 years old. In 2009 I decided I was going to go for it. While I loved the idea of going to college and it sounded like an amazing thing to do, I did not believe I could do it, but I finally got over that mental block and applied to participate in the Access programme. I am now finishing my course. I loved doing it; it has been brilliant and a revelation. Halfway through, when we heard about this decision, it crushed me. It broke my heart because I had been thinking that I found something in my life that I loved doing. It was fizzling away in front of me because I do not know how I can do it from a financial perspective.

Is the witness faced with dropping out without the maintenance grant?

Mr. Naoise McDonagh

Definitely.

What are his life chances, in his own view, without access to third level education?

Mr. Naoise McDonagh

They are vague. I do not know to be honest. I am a qualified electrician and the construction is just not there. I did not go into the construction industry because I wanted to; I did not know what I wanted with my life so I just started working. It is not what I want to do and I would prefer to be in college.

The programme provided focus.

What is the cost to the State of listening to the proposal for an education supplement, which is costing less than the maintenance grant? The figures are there so they could be elaborated.

I was interested in the maintenance grant.

Ms Michelle Mitchell

The proposal we sent illustrates that the cost would be €7.142 million. That takes in 2,400 mature students over a three-year degree course, with 800 for each year. We are using that scenario. Approximately a third have a child or dependant and two thirds are without children or dependants. As we mentioned, we used NUI Galway as the sample because we cannot get these kinds of figures from every Access student in the country.

By bringing the figures in our proposal together, we argue that a person without a child or dependant would seek €59 over and above the back to education allowance.

Ms Michelle Mitchell

Yes. That is for 35 weeks, which is the academic year rather than the calendar year of 52 weeks. The person with a child would seek €137. That is so much higher because child care costs are significant. The total for child care is €342 per month, formulated using the early childhood care and education scheme model and dealing with children of the appropriate age. I have outlined the total cost to the Exchequer and it would save millions of euro, with a figure of €35 million mentioned. In the long run it will cost the Exchequer much less.

Are the statistics in the programme the same as those which the witness is working from?

Ms Michelle Mitchell

Yes.

Students will end up getting an education as well, which is key.

Ms Michelle Mitchell

Yes. Once a student graduates he or she will seek a job. He or she may not get a job immediately but will get one eventually. He or she will then pay taxes. The period is three or four years but we must look into the long term rather than what we will save this year. We are only thinking about the €35 million. The Government must think ahead.

Why will students not qualify for the maintenance grant?

Mr. Naoise McDonagh

One reason I will not qualify for the maintenance grant is because I am unemployed. As a result I will not be given money to go to college, which is amazing. Unemployed people who are on disability or are lone parents would qualify but I am an example of a single person who is unemployed, receiving €196 per week to live. I am not eligible for extra money.

Has Mr. McDonagh made an application and been told that?

Mr. Naoise McDonagh

These are changes from the budget. I receive social welfare payments but if I go to college I receive a back to education allowance, a title with which I take serious issue. I currently receive €196, which I need to live on. It is not easy to do so but it can be done. When I go to college, it is termed a back to education allowance but I still need the money to live on. I rent accommodation and pay utility bills and for food and travel costs, etc. If extra money could be provided on top of the €196, it could be called a back to education allowance.

I call on Deputy O'Mahony.

I have one question. Will the cutting of the maintenance grant keep Mr. McDonagh dependent on welfare?

Mr. Naoise McDonagh

Yes.

The idea defies everything we are meant to be about as a nation.

Mr. Naoise McDonagh

Yes.

It defies all the theory about increasing education outcomes towards a knowledge economy.

Did the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Ó Cuív give a reason for individually dealing with it rather than as an overall problem?

Ms Michelle Mitchell

He did not. He said people should write letters to him and he would consider the matter individually, that is, he would consider individual cases. I have no idea why he decided to take that route.

There must be a national scheme rather than a localised process of having an individual Minister dealing with single constituents.

There are alternatives for people in serious trouble. The argument is that the student support fund is not big enough at €5 million, and all the students cannot get enough from it. The Minister is saying there is a national scheme but if individuals are not able to make ends meet, there are alternatives.

It would be interesting to have representatives of the Department of Education and Skills come back on the €7.1 million spending figure as opposed to the €35 million in savings to deal with the justification. As Deputy Quinn noted, the difficulty is that everybody is wearing separate hats; there is one each for education, social welfare and employment. The country needs young and educated employers and employees, so the three elements must work together. It would be helpful to have some mechanism to get representatives of the three Departments before the committee to discuss issues such as this where there is a spend in one direction and a saving in another. The three Departments must come together.

Employment has been mentioned and the submission contained a statement from a person asking if he would become "another dole dad". That idea is running through everybody's actions, as it involves families, spouses, etc.

They are dependants of one kind or another. It is reprehensible for the Minister to deal with certain cases and ignore the rest of the country. It is unacceptable and we should take it to the Minister himself to ask whether the scheme exists. We should restore services to the people affected by being cut off mid-term. These people are participating in the Access programme with the anticipation of getting into third level education. It is not acceptable to the people here. We would fail in our duty as public representatives on this committee if we did not take this along the line to provide equality to people in their efforts to get into education to achieve a start in life.

Have the witnesses had any contact with the Union of Students in Ireland or does it support the cause? It should be included in a forceful effort for restoration. It can be given whatever term is required but it is essential that the people represented by the witnesses get a positive response. We have heard rhetoric from the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation about the smart economy and how we need further education and to get people back to education. It is empty without support to people like the witnesses.

Two questions arise from some of the earlier contributions. Mr. McDonagh mentioned the maintenance grant and stated that because he was unemployed he was discriminated against. Can he explain this to me? Does it mean that if he left employment to go to college he would be eligible for the maintenance grant?

Mr. Naoise McDonagh

No, it is related to the social welfare payment. The name was changed to the back to education allowance and once one is on the allowance, one is no longer eligible for any other support bar the student assistance fund, which is €5 million for 170,000 students. It is just not feasible.

Mr. McDonagh stated that he only last year overcame the mental block of going back. Could he explain what he means?

Mr. Naoise McDonagh

That was through personal growth over the years. When I was in my late teens, there was no talk about college or education in my peer group and we did not really spend time in school. Once a person begins to think in this way, he has it in his head. I did not think I was stupid; I just did not think that, academically, I could go on to college. I was smart, I was good with my hands and I was good in construction, but I just did not have the belief in myself. As time went by and I re-evaluated myself and grew as a person, I thought "Why should I not be able to do this?" It was only when I was put out of work by the downturn that I decided I wanted to do something meaningful and positive with my life and started to think about college. It all came together in 2009; I found the access course and applied for it, and it just went from there.

What we are hearing today is exactly what we are hearing from so many underachievers at second level who are seeking a second chance. So many kids drop out and come back ten years later. The Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, says he will consider individual cases, but this means he is going ahead with the cut. He is using a divide and conquer approach by considering individual cases. I fundamentally disagree with this and I support——

I am sorry; that is not——

The Senator should let me finish my point.

Senator Keaveney, allow Senator Healy Eames to continue, and then you can come back in.

This is about the——

She is making the wrong point.

There is an assumption about what the Minister is thinking.

I am drawing my conclusions.

The Senator can come back in afterwards.

The Minister is entitled to the protection of the Chair if something incorrect is being said.

Absolutely.

I am drawing conclusions.

I consider it to be a fair comment. Senator Healy Eames is entitled to make that distinction. If she were to accuse the Minister of being a criminal or of having ulterior or sinister motives, that would be a different story. I will give leeway.

To follow up on what Deputy Burke said, we need to take this to the Minister — in fact, to two Ministers: the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Ó Cuív, and the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Coughlan. I am requesting the Chair and the committee to forward the text of this morning's conversation to both Ministers. They need to be told about the stories that have been shared here and the impact on the lives of people who have made a major effort to return to education but now face the prospect of being cut off at the knees. This defies everything we are supposed to stand for as a nation. We must ask the Ministers to come together and devise a scheme to ensure our access students, and all other students in PLCs, ITs and so on, will get a second chance by receiving a supplement to allow them to start or continue their third level education.

I thank Senator Healy Eames. Does Senator Keaveney wish to say anything?

It is important that the statistics we have been given are provided to the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Social Protection and Education and Skills for their reaction. I am interested in pursuing the issue. What is the point in saying that a person cannot get the back to education allowance, or the VTOS allowance, and the maintenance grant and then saying he or she does not qualify for either the back to education allowance or the maintenance grant? In the good old days — or the bad old days — maintenance grants were a vehicle to support those who were below a certain means in going to college. The witnesses are now saying that because they do not earn anything and they are on social welfare, they cannot get a maintenance grant. Who does qualify for a maintenance grant? That is the question I will ask the Minister.

The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Ó Cuív, is being targeted unfairly with regard to individual cases. There are a variety of people in every walk of life who either subscribe to a scheme or fall outside its remit, but they still have needs, and there are schemes to support them. In some respects we are saying the same thing: we want the scheme to be evaluated. To say that the Minister, by considering individual cases, is favouring his own constituency and discriminating against the rest of the country is unfair and unworthy of comment.

There is no other national scheme, under any heading — social welfare, education or enterprise — under which a Minister can decide whether X, Y or Z——

In the absence of a scheme that has been demolished by the Government, this man takes up cases on an individual basis. That is unbelievable. It is going back to the 1920s.

It is what any Deputy does in his or her constituency office.

It is unacceptable and we must change it.

The Deputy is saying this unfairly.

I am going to cut the Deputy off.

It is not helping the debate.

Both members have made their points; we will not get into a broader political debate. Deputy Burke initially presented a proposal which was supported by Senators Keaveney and Healy Eames and, indeed, by myself. I propose that the recommendations made by the visiting delegation and a transcript of the conversations we have had be sent to the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Ó Cuív, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, and the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Coughlan, along with a request for a written response incorporating their views on the savings that have been made. This will include the figures.

Somebody else is waiting to comment.

I will come to that in a minute, as I also wish to comment. One of the notes I made during the discussion was the initials BTEA, or back to education allowance. From what Mr. McDonagh is saying, this does not stand for back to education allowance at all; it stands for "Basically taking education away". I am half joking. However, to tell people they cannot better themselves because they are already down in the dirt is a poor way to treat them. I do not think it is the intent of any person in Government but it is certainly a major shortcoming that needs to be addressed. I hope that when the Ministers respond they will consider individual cases.

It is a fair comment for me to make that the figures in the proposals will never add up fully, and the Departments are bound to come back and say this. For example, the length of time unemployed is assumed to be six years, but there is no guarantee that even a person with a PhD will find a job in the current economic climate, just as there is no guarantee that someone who does not go on to third level education will not get a job if the economy improves. However, whether the saving is €115 million or €6 million, it is still a saving, and there is value in helping people who are falling through the cracks.

As Chairman, I wholeheartedly support the contentions of the witnesses. It is great to hear personal experiences rather than the general discussion we usually have. The situation beggars belief. Although there is an economic downturn and savings have been made by shaving off little bits here and there, I hope a small amount of money can be found for a supplement, which is a fantastic idea and might help paper over the small number of cracks. As the witnesses said, those on disability allowance or lone parent's allowance are entitled to receive the student support maintenance grant, but to replace unemployment benefit with a back to education allowance is simply renaming the allowance with shiny letters. It is, as I said, basically taking education away.

I commend the witnesses for coming before the committee and being so honest and open in their comments. If they have any parting shots they wish to be read by the Minister, they can take the opportunity now.

Ms Michelle Mitchell

I wish to answer Senator Keaveney's earlier question about why a person might not get the maintenance grant. Some people do not receive the back to education allowance because to qualify one must be long-term unemployed. If such a person is unemployed, but not for long enough to qualify, they would lose that €196 but can apply for the maintenance grant.

Mention was made of the money put aside for the student assistance fund. It is vital to remember the implications for students who ask for assistance. Mr. Ward must address this issue. It is a very difficult avenue to enter.

Mr. Owen Ward

In NUI Galway last year there were up to 800 applicants for the student assistance fund. One must apply on-line in September and must also download a hard copy. When a student submits an application he or she must provide receipts.

The student has to pay for them first.

Mr. Owen Ward

Yes. If a student has no money and wishes to get some from the student assistance fund, he or she must come up with the money first and then be reimbursed. One applies in September so the poor student has to wait three months, probably with no heating and needing money for food, etc.

Of the 800 people who applied last year 400 received some form of assistance. We had a meeting on Monday with our Access officer who told us the size of the cake is basically the same but this year, as we all know, the hands reaching out for it will double in number.

I have personal experience of students who have come to me, even those who go to university in Galway, to whom a genuine — I do not say any applications are not genuine — tragedy has happened in the middle of the year. A dynamic has been changed for that student and those funds have been very helpful and constructive.

Part of our argument in this debate must include an evaluation of how the €5 million is being spent and what percentage of the need is being met from it. We should be looking at this aspect. It comes back to the other issue, namely, that not everybody who applies will be eligible, whatever the reasons. Many people come to me with requests. Any politician will say the same, that some people come in with all the letters needed, why they need a house, all the medical proof and all the rest of it. Other people come in who might say they need a bath instead of a shower and when they leave, just as they are walking out the door, one realises they have no roof and three walls instead of four. Some people are very good at applying but sometimes the most genuine people are not good at applying. It is about devising a system that gets the money to those who need it most. I say that without trying to undermine people who apply. It is very important that the right people get the money at a time when money is tight.

Ms Michelle Mitchell

Something was given to us by a group of Access students to read to the committee. They are not from NUI Galway but from County Dublin. It reads:

I need to explain the magnitude of the decision that people like me have made in undertaking the Access courses last September and in what the change in the budget has done. We are mentally, emotionally and financially committed to staying through years of limited income in order to achieve a greater goal, in many cases accepting that the place in the workforce is to be suspended until their education is completed. However, we are motivated by success and I think I can safely say that this is true of all Access students, it is our commitment and resourcefulness that have gotten us this far in our lives, operating often on minimal qualifications but for which this recession proved to be the final wound. This educational opportunity would position us to finally excel and shine without the threat that not having a qualification held over us, to finally bring to fruition those skills we have developed outside of formal education but which often went unrecognised and unrewarded. For many of us it is not feasible to continue without experiencing severe hardship and ultimately I think many will fail.

I believe this is what most Access students are feeling at present. I thank the committee for taking this time with us, for taking the issue on board and for the suggestions some members have made for taking it further.

I thank the committee for granting this hearing. I believe that with a little help, the delegates have bright futures because they have made a mammoth decision to come back to education. They believe in themselves and are only looking for a small leg-up to keep going and stay in the system.

I thank Senator Healy Eames for her suggestion to bring the Access students to the committee. It was very rewarding to hear it straight from the horse's mouth, much better than looking at bare statistics.

I thank all for attending and for their patience while the committee did its private business. There is little more to be said other than to wait and see what the Ministers concerned will come back with. One hopes there will be a progressive way forward.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.25 a.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 2 June 2010.