Thursday, 11 March 2021
Young People and Access to Further and Higher Education: Motion [Private Members]
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the motion on access to higher and further education. I commend Solidarity-People Before Profit on bringing it forward. It is a wide-ranging and detailed motion and to cover all of it would probably take an hour. That is as it should be.
I want to talk about a couple of issues in my contribution. I would like to begin by welcoming the Minister's announcement of a revamp of the Central Applications Office system and its expansion to allow applicants to access options such as apprenticeships and further education and training, a strategy which will be led by SOLAS. I will touch on this in my contribution.
I want to discuss SUSI. In mid-February I raised the need to address issues with the SUSI grant system. I have raised this important matter a number of times, but inadequacies remain. Last month, I called for the eligibility requirements for SUSI grants to be broadened for higher and further education. All students whose parents earn less than €24,500 a year should qualify for a top-up SUSI grant. It is hard to believe that parents who earn less than that do not automatically qualify. The reality is that unless part of a person's income is made up of a qualifying social welfare payment students will not qualify for a top-up, and parents are affected by that rule. The figure of €24,500 is appallingly low for parents to have to depend on.
There are many issues in how the SUSI grant is decided on. One thing which has always been a bone of contention for me is the fact that self-employed people can manipulate the system much better than PRSI workers who cannot hide their income. A PRSI worker can earn a lot less than a neighbour who is self-employed but whose children will qualify for grants.
I have not received any assurances that the impact of coronavirus pandemic on incomes will be taken into account in eligibility assessments for SUSI. This issue relates to those who are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, as well as those who might have experienced changes in self-employment during the pandemic. Assessment of SUSI eligibility should be determined for PAYE workers on net, rather than gross, income, and deductions should be given for childcare and medical expenses.
It is unfair that students must be over 23 years of age to be classed as independent. I have worked with students aged in their 50s and 60s who are still classed as dependent children because it is easier to qualify for the SUSI grant that way as the system does not accommodate them otherwise. It is absolutely crazy.
The relevant age should be lowered to at least 21 years. Young people may live at home longer in Dublin due to skyrocketing rents, but in rural areas they are more likely to live independently than their Dublin counterparts and should be treated as independent students rather than having to rely on their parents' incomes.
I have raised the issue of young graduates in Donegal on several occasions. The Government must actively create opportunities for graduates to remain in rural constituencies. Many of us in Donegal have encouraged our young wains to go to college and university, knowing that it is highly unlikely they will return to their home towns to live and work after graduation. That is the sad reality of the situation. I have three children in college and it is probable that none of them will live in Donegal after they graduate. We are raising our children to go to college and move away. That needs to be reversed.
Where are the job opportunities in the forgotten county? Many people work in the North and are used to travelling back and forth between Donegal, Glasgow and Scotland, but Brexit and Covid have changed all of that. There have been some initial positive reports of people moving back to their home towns during lockdown while they can work from home. The repopulation of rural Ireland is very welcome and I hope the necessary infrastructure and resources are put in place to continue this trend. A train to Donegal might be a bit of a stretch.
My concerns about the working from home phenomenon is that employers will continue to blur the lines of when they expect work to be done. As long as proper boundaries are put in place around the right to switch off, the pandemic creates an opportunity for job opportunities to be decentralised. Workers have to be careful what they wish for because employers will abuse it and make sure they are available at any time of day or night.
I wanted to talk about a number of other issues but I have to give way to my colleague.