We are happy to support this Bill. It is worth reflecting on it, however, because it has huge potential for Ireland in its relations with the United States.
It was established by the US-Ireland Alliance to honour Senator George Mitchell's contribution to the peace process and the tradition that was started by the Kennedy family, particularly the late Ted Kennedy. It is now in its tenth year, with 117 graduates to date. The alliance initiated a new language in our relationship with the US. It is built on a relationship of equality and mutual benefit instead of being based on emigration, the "auld sod" and feeling sorry for Ireland. From that point of view it is welcome because it shows we have matured as a nation and that we can stand among the giants of the world.
It would be remiss not to recognise the pivotal contribution George Mitchell made to the peace process and I commend the Government for the establishment of the initial endowment of £2 million. It recognised the hand of friendship and the reciprocal nature of the involvement of the US in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland. In the last two weeks the Hillsborough agreement has been achieved and we can see the importance of such stability in Northern Ireland to underpin jobs, investment, health care and education.
Our relationship with the US must be based on partnership and centred on education, the arts and business. This scholarship has more potential than just jobs emanating from pure business. We must also look at the wider possibilities to maximise its full potential. The George Mitchell Scholarship Fund is an ideal way to engage and maximise this partnership.
It is interesting how quickly the fund gained notoriety. It was competing head to head with the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships within three years. We all know Bill Clinton, former President of the United States, was a Rhodes scholar, which shows how interested Americans are in Ireland. Having studied and worked there as a teacher myself, I know there is always a fascination with Ireland. In the past it may have been based on our history of emigration. It is time to develop a more mature approach in our thinking about our country and what it has to offer. That which I have outlined shows how Mitchell scholarships have developed a good reputation in a short period.
I wish to deal with some of the more thorny issues relating to the Bill, the first of which is costings. In the context of oversight, we must be cautious and safeguard our investment and ensure it is spent wisely. The fund is managed by the US-Ireland Alliance. This system has been in operation since 1999. At this juncture, the Government is increasing the level of the fund. This means that it will have increased substantially, from IR£2 million in 1999 to €20 million now, to ensure the sustainability of the scholarship programme. It will also ensure the latter will not run into financial difficulty again. The increase will be broken down into annual payments of €4 million and will be on the basis that matching funding will be provided, through the US-Ireland Alliance, by private donors.
In the early years of the last decade the Government invested $2.7 million in the fund. As a result of a blip in the stock market in 2002, the value of this donation fell to $1.6 million and the fund quickly became unviable. I wish to ask a number of questions I would like the Minister of State to address.
The careful management of the money contained in the fund is extremely important. In that context, why was money from the fund invested in risky areas? In that context, we must bear in mind the volatility of the stock market and the eventual goal of this endowment which, essentially, is a benevolent fund. We are not asking that it make large amounts of money and I do not believe, therefore, that it should be invested in equities because they can fall as well as rise in value. Perhaps we should consider obtaining deposit returns in respect of the fund.
The competence of the fund managers must be queried. This is an endowment which must both last and grow over a period. We must ensure, therefore, that the fund is managed carefully.
The Government did not reinvest until the fund, following the losses incurred in the economic crash, was built up again. Its next instalment of funding was made just prior to the current economic downturn. As a result, the level of the fund has again decreased. The US-Ireland Alliance states it has not received funding from the Government for many years. We must monitor the position in this regard because what is happening amounts to hypocrisy of the ethos behind the programme.
In the Dáil the Minister of State indicated that the Mitchell scholarship programme tied in well with the objectives of the strategic review of Ireland-US relations and that we had to work proactively to maintain the US authorities' interest in and links with Ireland. A lackadaisical approach to funding will not work towards strengthening relations between our two countries. A proactive approach is required and the US-Ireland Alliance recommends that an endowment level substantial enough to withstand the turbulence of the economic market must be created.
The aim of the Bill is to create an amended legal framework that can achieve, with the necessary safeguards and oversight, the long-term viability of the fund. This is essential, particularly in view of the substantial increase in funding envisaged in the Bill. In 2008 alone $27,740 was spent on investment adviser fees. While I accept that this may represent a normal 1.5% fee, investment advisers must be given clear guidelines on the financial goals of the fund in order that for which the latter is intended will be achieved.
The Government included a provision of €2 million in the Estimates for 2010 for the fund. This is dependent on matching funds — the level of which now stands at €1.5 million — being made available by the US-Ireland Alliance. In the event that the alliance is not in a position to provide such matching funds, it follows that the Government will not make its contribution. Is this a wise course of action, particularly in the light of the incredible benefits that arise in the context of good US-Irish relations in many fields and the spin-off the programme can give to Ireland if its potential is maximised?
When speaking in the Dáil, the Minister for State noted that the strategic review of Irish-US relations launched in 2009 had highlighted that 10 million Americans under the age of 18 years were interested in Ireland, despite the fact that they were not of Irish descent. That is extremely interesting. How was this information established and from what sources did the young people to whom I refer develop an interest in Ireland? There is no doubt that some or many of these young people might have an opportunity to study in Ireland. If they do, they will come to recognise the US contribution to Ireland and its evolving history. More importantly, they will develop networks, based on their experiences here, that will be of use in their future careers. It must be remembered that the money from the fund will be spent in Ireland. This is, therefore, an issue on which the Government cannot lose.
Has an evaluation been carried out of the experiences of the 117 people who have engaged in studies in this country as a result of being awarded Mitchell scholarships? Has information been obtained on what they proceeded to do on completion of their studies and whether they have retained links with Ireland? If they have retained such links, what is the nature thereof? This is a matter in which I am particularly interested.
The Minister of State has indicated that the Government intends to establish Ireland as a centre of excellence for international education. I completely concur with this intention. I raised a number of matters on the Adjournment in the past year in which I highlighted the major potential but which was not being exploited. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform appears to be placing barriers in the way of international students who wish to come here to pursue courses.
I am extremely concerned about the fact that Enterprise Ireland is to be given responsibility for promoting and marketing Irish education. Is that a wise move? Will the Minister of State, please, clarify what will be the role of Enterprise Ireland in promoting Irish education abroad? Does it possess the necessary expertise and is it best placed to engage in such promotion? I have my doubts in that regard. Will the Minister of State indicate what is the link between education and enterprise in order that we can be confident that the potential might be maximised?
Education is a global business. The job of marketing Irish education should reflect every aspect of life and include the arts and culture, as well as business. Pure business is sometimes seen as the only means of attracting or creating employment. A group which is doing great work in this area is the Western Development Commission which is examining the potential of the arts and culture in what are known as the creative industries. Has the George Mitchell scholarship fund, through the US-Ireland Alliance, linked with the Western Development Commission to explore its definitions of education, culture and creativity and how focusing on these areas can lead to the creation of jobs?
The scholarship fund is of long-term significance and can give rise to many possibilities. Higher education is a global business. I had an extremely positive experience while studying in the United States and developed many links — based both on friendship and education — with that country. Studying in another country gives rise to memories and experiences one will never forget. Mitchell scholarships allow us to offer young US citizens the means to study here and ultimately become Irish ambassadors abroad. What a great return this gives us on our investment. The scholarships can help to make Ireland an iconic brand at a time when we are striving to build on the country's good name abroad. This must be a policy objective in the coming years.
As well as focusing on business development and attracting economics graduates from the United States, we must also explore the huge potential offered by culture and the arts. Deputies Deenihan and Quinn referred to this matter during the debate on the Bill in the Dáil. As Deputy Quinn stated, we need only consider the recent nominations for Academy Awards received by graduates from Ballyfermot College as an example of what can be achieved.
Let us work to our strengths, while also expanding our understanding of these strengths. Much more could be done to exploit the potential of the scholarship fund. However, we need a plan to achieve it. I compliment the work of Trina Vargo and I encourage her to expand further the boundaries of this plan.
I will finish with a number of questions for the Minister of State. I was going to ask whether the scholarships continued to be awarded when the Irish Government was not contributing but I understand they did. However, I did not like that the Irish Government was not contributing at that point. How many additional scholars will come to Ireland through the additional funding? What percentage of the money committed by the Irish Government goes to administration? This is always a concern.
Has the Department of Education and Science been in consultation with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform about the extraordinary number of international students prevented from studying here, which is well documented, and about resolving the issue of barriers, which is even more important? If we want to pursue the idea of promoting Ireland as a centre for international educational excellence we need to resolve the issue of these barriers.
Will the Department of Education and Science put a means in place to attract and facilitate US universities and colleges that want to spend money in this country? I understand from listening to Deputy John Deasy's contribution in the Dáil that there are extraordinary difficulties and barriers in some cases where a US college or university does not have links with an Irish college. We should always look to be more open while being vigilant. I look forward to hearing the response of the Minister of State.