Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014: Committee Stage (Resumed)

Debate resumed on amendment No. 18:
In page 9, lines 18 and 19, to delete all words from and including “deletion” in line 18 down to and including line 19 and substitute “substitution of “authorised” for “administered”.”
- (Senator Seán D. Barrett)

I thank the Minister for the good dialogue in which we engaged on the last occasion we debated the Bill. She proposes that a section of the Student Support Act 2011 shall be amended by the deletion of the phrase "pursuant to a scheme administered by the Minister". According to the briefing documents, this change is intended to reflect the transfer of PLC courses to SOLAS.

The amendment I propose to the Minister’s amendment is that we substitute “authorised” for “administered”. I had in mind the administration of schemes devolved to agencies, of which this is one. In the teething problems of SUSI, we found that the fact that the Minister’s predecessor, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, was in charge meant that he took on board many comments made here and the operation of it in year two was substantially improved such that it disappeared from the political radar. He put a person in charge in each part of the office to deal with a county. I had a query from somebody in Wexford and it was expeditiously handled. The purpose of the amendment is to specify that student support systems are authorised rather than administered by the Minister and it would not mean the Minister would not have a role, or that the previous Minister did not have a role. I have tabled the amendment with the intention of being useful, not to cause more confusion.

The provision of grants for students participating in further and higher education is provided for by way of secondary legislation through an annual scheme of grants and a set of regulations governed by the Student Support Act 2011. As it stands, an approved institution in the further education sector is one that receives a grant out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas, pursuant to a scheme administered by the Minister for the provision of post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses.

Following the transfer of the administration of these courses to SOLAS after its establishment last year, for clarity I propose to remove the current reference to PLC courses as being "pursuant to a scheme administered by the Minister". As a result of the change to SOLAS, the proposed amendment would not reflect the change needed to clarify arrangements on the administration of PLC courses following the establishment of SOLAS. While I appreciate what the Senator is trying to do, it is because of the establishment of SOLAS that we feel the language needs to be changed as we propose.

I thank the Minister and will not press the amendment. We wish both SUSI and SOLAS every success because they are important schemes for students.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 8 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 19:

In page 9, between lines 19 and 20, to insert the following:

"9. The Student Support Act 2011 is amended, in section 16(3), by the substitution of the following paragraph for paragraph (d)—

"(d) whether he or she has been or is self supporting having regard to information provided by bodies including but not limited to GPs, student support organisations, student unions, welfare officers, non-HSE employed social workers or non HSE employed family support workers, LGBT advocacy workers, and youth advocacy workers, as well as information provided by other government departments and statutory bodies that demonstrates evidence of self-support, or affidavits provided by the student.".

The purpose of the amendment is to address anomalies in the SUSI grant legislation. Students aged under 23 years are assessed on their parents' incomes, and can be assessed on their own incomes only if they can prove they are estranged from their parents. The only proof of estrangement SUSI will accept is verification from a HSE social worker or family support worker, FSW. This is problematic because HSE social workers and FSWs will not assess people aged over 18 years. Therefore, there is no route to verify estrangement from one's parents if it took place when one was over the age of 18 years.

My colleague, Deputy O’Brien, has continuously raised the issue, but it has not yet been rectified. It leaves very vulnerable students in a precarious position and has forced some to leave their courses if their parents do not co-operate with grant applications, given that SUSI is rigid in its application processing and vehemently sticks to its guidelines. It is a difficult situation when a Department such as the Department of Social Protection will accept that a person resides in a particular place for the purpose of social welfare claim but not for a student grant. The purpose of the amendment is to expand the range of information that is acceptable to verify a claim of estrangement for the purposes of a student grant.

I can understand the Senator's concerns about students who live away from their parents but must prove that they are also estranged from their parents. Cases of genuine estrangement are relatively rare and although they have a significant impact on individual students, each one has unique circumstances. Having carefully considered the Senator's amendment, I will not be accepting it, for the following reasons. Section 16(3) of the Student Support Act 2011 already makes provision for the Minister to specify a class of applicant or criteria that may be considered in determining whether an applicant is a student of a particular class.

For example, the student grants scheme, SI 201 of 2014, makes provision in Article 21.3 to allow a dependent student to be exempt from having parents' income taken into account where it is established to the satisfaction of the relevant awarding authority that the dependent student is irreconcilably estranged from both parents and neither parent furnishes financial support to the student. This provision allows the awarding authority to assess dependent students in genuine estrangement cases without reference to their parents or guardians' income or address.

The legislation allows latitude. I know the Senator makes the point that the actual practice may be restrictive, but the Student Support Act 2011 allows latitude for specifying some additional class of applicant and the criteria to be applied for such applicant having regard to the resources available and subject to the consent of the Minister for Finance. In effect the proposed amendment would replicate the provision in section 16.3 of the Student Support Act 2011.

In looking at how the student grants scheme is being administered, I will certainly consider the Senator's point to see whether we need to look at the administration. If we are reviewing the scheme again, I would be willing to look at it at that stage. All Members from time to time come across difficult cases where students do not qualify for grants. I would certainly like to review the scheme at some stage, but I do not feel it is appropriate to put it into this legislation.

Based on what the Minister has said, I will not press the amendment, but I reserve the right to submit an amendment on Report Stage having looked at the legislation.

I thank the Minister for agreeing to look at reviewing it. I concur with her that we should look at it in the future. We all come across such cases.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 9 agreed to.
Amendment No. 20 not moved.
Section 10 agreed to.

Amendment No. 21 has already been discussed with amendment No. 16.

I move amendment No. 21:

21. In page 10, line 2, after “Education” to insert “and Royal College of Surgeons”.

The criteria for the university to be so designated outside Ireland but not so designated in Ireland - but located in Ireland - require that it have an international reputation and have 40% of the students from outside the European Union. We had the Minister at the Irish Universities Association conference a few doors down the road only yesterday. Of the people to whom the Minister was talking yesterday, no other institution would qualify for it. As it seems that it is about the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, why not put it in the title? We had the rather strange debate the last day that only people on this side of the House were saying that this was about the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and nobody on the Government side was willing to acknowledge that. I do not know why it is a secret and it may have weakened the Bill because, as the Minister knows, doubts began to manifest themselves on this side of the House - not with me yet - as to why the body for which this legislation was primarily and probably exclusively intended within our lifetime, was not mentioned in it.

The second issue is whether it needs to change its charter to become a university for some purposes outside the country but not inside it? Should it not be referred to in its own legislation, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (Charters Amendment) Act 2003? Perhaps we might have a longer discussion on it on Report Stage, but that aspect strikes me as strange. Senator Averil Power expressed doubts when she said it is really a medical university. Other people subsequently asked whether it was possible to have a university that specialises in such a narrow area. News to my ears in those discussions was that universities need a full range of subjects and disciplines and particularly that the civilising influence on a university is its arts faculty.

While it started off with my support - it seemed like a good idea but there were doubts - at least if we want to go there and do it, why is it not mentioned in the Bill?

It would be very strange to have something implemented by a law and an Act of Parliament which does not refer at all to the body for which it is intended. This is the purpose of the amendment. It struck me as anomalous. I will not push the amendment and will not move amendment No. 22 as I would only be repeating what I have just said, which is that it is strange.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 11 agreed to.
Amendment No. 22 not moved.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported with amendment.

When is it proposed to take Report Stage?

Report Stage ordered for Tuesday, 7 October 2014.
Sitting suspended at 4.30 p.m. and resumed at 5.30 p.m.