The third level maintenance grant schemes, which my Department revises annually, are administered by the local authorities and VECs. The arrangement for the payment of grants under the grant schemes are a matter for the local authorities-VECs. The terms of the higher education grants scheme and the VEC scholarships scheme for the 2003-04 academic year provide for the payment by the local authorities-VECs of each maintenance grant in three equal instalments as early as possible in each term with the individual payable orders being addressed to the grant holder c/o the bursar's office of the college.
A survey of the 66 local authorities and VECs, carried out by my Department in early November 2003, in respect of the current academic year, indicated that the vast majority of the awarding bodies had paid the first instalment of the grant, with the exception of cases where further information from applicants was awaited or where late applications had been accepted. The remaining awarding bodies made payments in respect of the first instalment of the grant in November. A breakdown of the number of grants approved each month is not available to my Department.
My Department has issued a questionnaire to each local authority and VEC requesting information on the processing of applications for the current academic year and on the outcome of the process. When all completed questionnaires are returned, my Department will be in a position to assess the extent to which there are delays, and the reasons why, in the processing of applications. I have previously indicated that, in accordance with our commitment in An Agreed Programme for Government, it is my intention to introduce a unified grant payment scheme. I also propose to put in place a more coherent administration system which will, I believe, facilitate the introduction of more sophisticated means testing arrangements and ensure consistency of application and client accessibility as suggested in the report Supporting Equity in Higher Education, which was published in August 2003 and which arose from a review undertaken, at my request, within my Department. I have asked my Department to enter into consultations in this regard. Initial discussions have taken place between officials of my Department and officials in the Department of Social and Family Affairs and I expect that consultations with representatives of the other stakeholders, such as the grant awarding bodies, will take place shortly.