Dáil debates

Thursday, 3 February 2005

Priority Questions.

Higher Education Access.

3:00 pm

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Westmeath, Labour)
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Question 8: To ask the Minister for Education and Science if she will fund the recent plan advanced by the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities which would guarantee university places for students who are exempt from paying fees to sit the leaving certificate (details supplied); and her views on this proposal. [3012/05]

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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During 2004, the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities, CHIU, indicated to my Department and the Higher Education Authority that the seven universities were considering the introduction of an alternative entry process whereby leaving certificate students whose family hold a medical card could apply for a higher education place through a separate process from the general points system. Applicants would not be required to achieve the same leaving certificate points as their peers, but would be eligible for selection on achievement of 300 points or more. Some 5% or approximately 750 places for new entrants would be available in all faculties in the seven universities.

Currently, approximately 590 places in the university sector are filled by socio-economically disadvantaged students through an existing direct entry scheme, which is principally funded through the HEA's strategic initiative scheme. Criteria to select students includes a range of social as well as economic indicators, including family income, parental occupation and parental education levels.

I am particularly interested in and supportive of the approach being taken by the HEA in favour of the concept of core funding structures incentivising increased participation of students from all backgrounds. It is in this context that the National Office for Equity of Access to Higher Education was asked for its advice on the CHIU proposal, estimated to cost an additional €25 million per annum, as well as a recently received similar proposal from the Council of Directors of the Institutes of Technology which proposes an estimated additional expenditure of €15 million per annum for the technological sector.

I have asked the national office in the HEA to undertake a review of the effectiveness of the existing range of initiatives to promote and support access to higher education from the non-traditional or socio-economically disadvantaged target groups. In its recently published national plan, the national office identified a range of goals and actions to bring about increased participation from the groups who have, to date, been under-represented in higher education. These include learners with a disability, mature students, disadvantaged school leavers and members of the Traveller community and ethnic minorities.

The national office has just begun implementation of a 2005-07 national plan to achieve equity of access to higher education. An action point prioritised in the plan is to ensure that socio-economically disadvantaged students, schools and communities are linked to an access programme in at least one higher education institution. The CHIU proposal is being considered in this context. A key issue in relation to the proposals from the CHIU and Council of Directors of the Institutes of Technology will be the level of additionality which these proposals will involve in respect of the key target groups and the extent to which progress will be made by the institutions in supporting retention of students after admission as well as facilitating transfer and progression within and between the further and higher education sectors.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Given the substantial additional costs envisaged for plans from the CHIU and the Council of Directors of the Institutes of Technology, it is essential that the proposals are fully examined by the national office in the HEA and I await the views of that office. When I receive these views I will consider the proposals from the sector in the context of ensuring that available funds are properly targeted.

In this regard, spending on third level access measures funded directly by my Department has increased from €0.5 million in 1997 to €34 million in 2005. The maximum rate of maintenance grant, including the "top-up" grant, is €4,855, compared to €2,032 in 1997. In addition, the HEA through its strategic targeted initiatives provided approximately €7.3 million in 2004 to support access. This represents a quantum leap in the commitment of resources. Moreover, in the academic year 2003-04, about 9,000 third level students were awarded "top-up" grants. This represents almost 7% of the total third level enrolment.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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I thank the Minister for her reply. I congratulate both the universities and the institutes of technology on taking an interest in this area. I accept that the Minister has asked the equity office to examine the proposals but will she be in a position to make a decision on this matter for the forthcoming academic year? On a point of clarification, the Minister referred to 590 places. I presume this proposal is in addition to those places. Are we talking about extra places?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy O'Sullivan has hit the nail on the head. We have asked them to indicate whether these will be additional places because it is not quite clear. To be honest, I doubt that they are additional because I am sure those already included in the 590 are people who would have medical cards. The medical card alone is too narrow a criterion because the way it works is that other indicators are considered, including family income, parental occupation and parental education levels, which are equally valuable in determining whether somebody is at an educational disadvantage as opposed to a medical disadvantage, which is the position in the case of the medical card. That is the reason all those elements must be examined. We must ensure we can increase the number of people from those backgrounds getting into third level education and not have universities or the institutes, which I know are working from a good motivation, come up with a scheme that would only allow us the same number of students in the system.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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Is the Minister aware that Mary Immaculate College has produced a model to bring in students from disadvantaged backgrounds, which takes into account much broader issues than just the medical card? Perhaps the Minister will examine that model.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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Perhaps I am being presumptuous in suggesting that Deputy O'Sullivan almost agrees that medical card might be too narrow a criterion. We must examine all the other areas. I attended the national access conference in Kilkenny where I met one of the students who was from a very disadvantaged background in Cork. He was trying to work his way through the system based on grants but he told me that he aspired to being in the top tax bracket, which I thought was a great aspiration for a young man.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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One could earn €1 million and still not pay any tax in this country.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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He wants to be one of the ones paying tax.