Wednesday, 17 September 2014
Topical Issue Debate
Student Grant Scheme Eligibility
I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for selecting this Topical Issue. Some tens of thousands of students are returning to college after the summer break and re-entering the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, system to access supports for education such as having their fees paid and receiving maintenance grants. While SUSI has improved since its first year in operation, there are still difficulties with the rules by which it must operate, in particular, the eligibility criteria by which students are identified as independent, meaning they are judged on their means, rather than on those of their parents, the alternative being dependent status. This is an issue particularly for students entering postgraduate courses who must fulfil one of two requirements, namely, that the applicant must be over 23 years of age when he or she enters third level education, or must have a gap of three years in his or her education path between finishing his or her undergraduate degree and proceeding to postgraduate study. This has led to some very unusual, peculiar and undesirable outcomes. For example, a student who visited me in my constituency office in Galway last week is in her second year of PhD studies.
She had entered the third level education system at 19 years of age, which means that she fails the first criterion for independent status. She is now 27 years old and in the second year of a PhD programme, but because there was only a two-year gap between her masters programme and the PhD programme, she is now being deemed as dependent on her parents, notwithstanding that she has not lived at home with them for years. She is financing her way through college as much as she can through part-time work, but the requirements we have in place say this grown woman must be judged on her parents' income. It is an unfortunate aspect of the system. It tells people not to go back to college but rather to keep the gap as great as possible in order to get maintenance. It encourages people not to continue in education but to stay out of it for longer. It is an unfortunate element of the policy. We need people to upskill, and these postgraduate courses are what we mean when we refer to the knowledge economy and our ability to compete internationally in terms of education, skills and being at the forefront of research. Rather than encouraging that, the policy disincentivises it. I ask the Minister of State, who has an interest in this, to give a commitment today to discuss the matter with the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, to see if we really want a system that is a disincentive for people to stay in education.
I apologise on behalf of my line Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, who cannot be here as she is out of the country on a trade mission.
For student grant purposes, students are categorised according to their circumstances as either students dependent on parents or legal guardians or independent mature students. A student may be assessed as an independent mature student if he or she has attained the age of 23 on 1 January of the year of first entry to an approved course, or re-entry following a break in study of at least three years, and was not ordinarily resident with his or her parents in the previous October. Otherwise, he or she will continue to be assessed on the basis of parental income. To be assessed as an independent mature student, an applicant must provide sufficient evidence to show he or she was living independently of his or her parents on 1 October of the year before the first point of entry to higher education. I gather that the first point of entry requirement is Deputy Nolan's main concern. I see the point he makes that where someone is 27 or 28 years old, it is a major difficulty. I have also come across cases in which a person is under 23 and lives in his or her own house with his or her own children. I accept that. There are other criteria with regard to providing proof of independence to SUSI through bills, etc. While there are difficulties in that regard as well, the Deputy will understand that the criteria are there for certain reasons. There are ways of sorting that out.
While there are no plans to review the matter, the Deputy raises a very important issue. I have come across other cases myself. I will sit down with the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, to discuss the matter and see if we can address these cases. The Deputy is right to say we want to improve people's skills and encourage them back into education. There are many people who need to be reskilled, including those with an existing college qualification. I will raise the matter with the Minister and we will get back to the Deputy in due course. While there are no set plans to do this, the Deputy raises a good example and we will see what can be done.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply and his commitment to review the issue, talk to the Minister and see if we can put a better set of rules in place. While we are discussing third level students, I note that there is talk of greater flexibility in future budgets and of starting to see the end of absolute pressure on budgets. If there is any opportunity in the third level budget in the forthcoming Estimates, we should freeze the student contribution charge. It is planned to increase it in the next budget, but it is getting to a prohibitive level and this is having a significant impact. If there were some flexibility to row back, we could at least freeze it. It is heading quickly towards €3,000, which is a great deal of money, especially if one has more than one child in college. If there is flexibility, it would send a great signal and provide families with the relief they need in the current circumstances.
That is a separate issue altogether, but it is no harm for Deputy Nolan to take the opportunity to raise it. It is something we would all like to avoid if we could. When the contribution came in and the plan was made to increase it every year, the context was one of very tight budgetary constraints. Those have not yet gone away, and we must be very careful. Although things have improved and the recovery is on track, which means that some of the €2 billion that must be found in the budget in five or six weeks' time has been dealt with already through increases in tax receipts, every Department continues to have commitments to reduce costs over the next couple of years. If every Department comes back with an increased list, we will be right back where we started.
The Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform have pointed out that they do not want to go back to a boom-and-bust scenario. It is not the case that the Departments are free to start spending endless amounts of money again. The money is still not in the system. While I accept the Deputy's point, previous Ministers explained clearly why it had to be done, and Deputy O'Sullivan has explained that she does not see how it can be reversed. I will bring the Deputy's points to her and make the case, but I do not want to give the impression that there is a pot of money in education whereby we can start changing things back. We cannot. We have to make our own case and there is a great deal of pressure on the Department, mainly as a result of demographic change. The numbers attending primary, secondary and third level education are increasing every year. We cannot predict in the third level sector where that will end. The numbers are rising at such a high rate in primary and secondary that it will keep going up. I do not think there will be space to do what the Deputy asks, and I do not think the Minister will be in a position to do it, but I will raise it with her and get back to the Deputy. There is an impression going around now that every Department can stop making the changes, but while I wish we could, that is not the case. Spending is still very tight. I will raise the matter with the Minister, who could not be here in person.