Thursday, 28 January 2010
The passage of the Student Support Bill will facilitate progress on the two significant pillars of an overall programme of legislative and administrative reform of student grants. These are the development of a single unified grant scheme and reform of the administration of student grants. A number of amendments to the Bill in relation to legal and policy issues which have arisen since Second Stage are being advanced by my Department in close consultation with the Office of the Attorney General.
The main purpose of the Bill is to provide for a unified student grant payment scheme to replace the four existing schemes. The Bill, as published, also makes provision for the transfer of administrative responsibility for student grants to the VEC sector.
In light of the commitment to put all student grants on a statutory footing, I am anxious to provide a statutory basis for all student grants for any interregnum period that may arise, pending transition to new administrative arrangements. This transitional period will necessitate retention of the existing administrative structures in the immediate term. In bringing amendments to Committee Stage I will, therefore, endeavour to provide for existing administrative arrangements for this transitional phase, while progressing to a single scheme of grants as provided for in the Bill at the earliest possible date.
In the context of the Government's wider programme of public service reform, I am also reassessing organisational options for the grants administration function in the longer run, with a view to revisiting the current proposals provided for in the Bill. Possible options for a more significant centralisation of functions are being explored with a view to streamlining operations and maximising administrative efficiency.
These developments have required consideration of a complex set of legal options regarding further amendment to the Bill and my Department has been working closely with the Office of the Attorney General to address the issues in that regard. These proposed amendments are at an advanced stage of preparation. Subject to the technical, drafting and legal considerations arising, I hope to be in a position to have these amendments advanced sufficiently to move to Committee Stage early in the current session.
I believe I am correct in observing that the Minister inherited the Student Support Bill from his predecessor who moved the legislation and the debate on Second Stage. Many of the issues surrounding the legislation have been resolved. For example, the Irish Vocational Education Association has proposed a centralised system of administration which would, by and large, give new legitimacy to the organisation by finding a new role for it, while also delivering the efficiencies sought by the Department. Why is it that the Department is able to provide a five page reply to every parliamentary question it receives but is incapable of showing the same level of productivity when drafting legislation?
A new sense of urgency surrounds the Student Support Bill. The downturn in the economy has created acute problems for students seeking to secure grants under the existing system. Will the Minister speed up the review and establish the centralised system, for which a plan has been drafted but left on a shelf in the Department?
While I accept that this has taken a long time, the Deputy must also accept that significant legal difficulties have arisen. I had to approach the Attorney General on this issue to try to ensure we could advance the process. The Deputy will be aware that a judicial review which was taken created some issues for the Department.
He will also recall that one of the fundamental issues that arose during the Second Stage debate was a grant system for part-time courses.
On the issue of having the administration and operation of grants located in a single co-ordinated area, we had to leave the Bill in its current form owing to the economic downturn. This meant we had to address various legal definitions and changes. It is my intention to bring the Bill to Committee Stage in this session.
Deputy Quinn asked a fundamental question about students waiting for grants to be paid. I am concerned that the payment of grants is taking such a long time. As a result of a 30% increase in the number of grant applications this year, the vocational education committees and local authorities are having great difficulty in processing applications. I am examining ways to make the system more user friendly in the meantime. I have asked my Department, the local authorities and the Higher Education Authority to examine ways to speed up the process. For example, I will make the applications available earlier in the current year and we will try to do much more work on-line with regard to applications. When one considers that 50% of all returns to the National Educational Welfare Board are made on-line----
Will the Minister give an assurance that the new Bill will be enacted before the next academic year so that students need not undergo the crisis which many of them faced this year? In some cases landlords threatened to throw students out and many payments were not made until December or January. Can we have that level of assurance from the Minister today?
I welcome what the Minister said in respect of the bringing forward of the date of application. It makes absolute sense that at very least applications would be cleared pending the CAO's offer. The Minister might get that information out to the 66 awarding bodies. Presumably they will still be in place next September.
Will the Minister confirm to the House that, according to information I recently received from his Department, there are still 6,500 applications pending? If one takes as a conservative estimate that 60,000 people obtain student grants, effectively one in ten of all students who applied for student support has not obtained the grant some five months later.
As I recall, the last time I answered this question there were approximately 10,000 students in this situation. I do not have the actual figure but will get it for the Deputy. A statement was put by students giving a figure of 6,500. I cannot confirm that now but shall get the exact figure. We are not satisfied with the process. I am seeking to have EFT transfers to banks used as part of the overall process and I will make that available too.
Regarding the actual grants, I have asked, through the HEA, that third-level institutions should be flexible with regard to payments on the basis that grants have been held up so much this year. I understand that flexibility applies.