Dáil debates

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Topical Issue Debate

Student Grant Scheme Administration

4:20 pm

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Longford-Westmeath, Labour)
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A significant number of people have contacted me about the failure of Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, to fund to completion those pursuing doctoral studies in various disciplines. These postgraduate students are eligible to grant aid under SUSI’s criteria. However, it is cut off due to time limits. Some have indicated SUSI is an indiscriminate guillotine for Irish research. The Department of Education and Skills is responsible for this unfortunate outcome. It is impossible for some students to complete a postdoctoral degree because of course programming. A four-year undergraduate degree is a requirement for many students. This can be followed by a two-year masters. This leaves a two-year funding window to achieve a PhD which is next to impossible. There are students not affected by this if their degree path is three years followed by a year long masters. SUSI will allow them to complete their PhD.

The facts are that SUSI funds some PhD students and cuts off others during their research. This is a significant anomaly affecting many of our ambitious students who are eager to complete their doctorate studies and contribute in various proactive research ways to the economy. Cutting off the grant aid is crucial. It is solely to do with the way courses have been designed. This is not the fault of any student. The blame lies with the Department of Education and Skills which has supported these decisions. It is unfair, unjust and wrong. Those in most need of financial support are victimised because of programming decisions made by third level institutions.

The Department reinforces this trajectory of senselessness, incomprehension and bias. There is no lateral thinking, communication or connectivity between SUSI, third level institutions and the Department to resolve this. Many researchers across various disciplines are affected by this but it is particularly prejudicial to fine arts students whose third level programmes are mainly four years followed by a two-year masters format. These students are not as exposed to employment-based funding as others and have very little funding available to them. Accordingly, many are solely dependent on SUSI. A substantial number of artists have an annual income well below the SUSI threshold, yet these policies ensure they are not supported because of lack of consideration in policy-making. Students should not be discriminated against because of course duration which has nothing to do with them.

The Government has the audacity to call this country the republic of opportunity. It should tell that to researchers who are having their research stopped by SUSI. There are many areas of inquiry being undertaken which focus on rural life, the environment, inclusion, diversity and the arts. Unfortunately, the Department does not have any vision. It cannot appreciate that our communities need these fact-finding investigations. It cannot see this research as an investment in our universities. This research has the very best of Ireland’s academics working alongside these PhD students in supervisory roles. There are two supervisors assigned to every investigation. The findings are then analytically scrutinised by an external examiner. These dissertations are comprehensively leading analysis and all for the price of a SUSI grant.

The Department, however, terminates prematurely the funding. One such researcher told me the Department’s lack of awareness and respect is really distressing. Researchers have appealed decisions that have cancelled their funding. SUSI is, however, completely indifferent to their situation or the importance of the research because it always upholds its decision to terminate and claims it is following policy. This is cruel and insane. It has the potential to be the ultimate win-win situation for the Department, our universities and our communities. Instead, it oversees a waste of public money, a waste of time for the universities and researchers and wasted opportunities of exploration of which we are in desperate need.

I hope the Minister of State can address this situation. I have no doubt but that she is acutely aware of the point I raise.

4:30 pm

Photo of Mary Mitchell O'ConnorMary Mitchell O'Connor (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Penrose for raising this important matter.

In 2017, the Department of Education and Skills allocated more than €400 million in access measures to assist students from under-represented groups to participate in and complete higher education. It is anticipated that the student grant scheme will benefit circa 80,000 students in 2017-18. The principal support provided by the Department in financial terms is the student grant scheme, or SUSI grant, which makes available means-tested financial assistance to students in further and higher education. Financial supports are currently available for those postgraduate students who meet the eligibility criteria of the student grant scheme, including those relating to nationality, residency, previous academic attainment and means.

The Deputy will be aware of the programme for Government commitment to increase financial supports for postgraduate students, with a particular focus on those from low-income households. In response to this commitment, the Government approved additional funding of €4 million in budget 2017 to facilitate the reinstatement of full maintenance grants from September 2017 for the must disadvantaged postgraduate students. A further €3 million was secured in budget 2018. Postgraduate students who meet the qualifying conditions for the special rate of grant under the student grant scheme for the 2018-19 academic year are eligible for a maintenance grant of up to €5,915. The income threshold for this grant is €23,500. Qualifying postgraduate students may also be eligible to have their tuition fees paid up to a maximum fee limit of €6,270. Alternatively, a postgraduate student may qualify to have a €2,000 contribution made towards the cost of his or her fees. The income threshold for this payment is €31,500. The student grant scheme does not extend to postgraduate courses pursued outside of Ireland.

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Longford-Westmeath, Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I am acutely aware of what the Government has committed and I welcome the additional allocation in budget 2018.

However, none of this deals with the issue I have raised, namely, the failure to ensure payment to students who qualify under the terms of the income liability criteria for the full duration of their doctoral studies. They could have spent four years on their basic degree and two years on their master's - six years in total - and then they are only allowed two more years. That could be cut off at eight years, and they may well take the extra year or year and a half to complete their studies. I know two students who do not have a penny. It is no use talking about tax relief when they do not have any money. These are excellent students. This is a discrimination that the Minister of State needs to rectify in the next budget. Researchers should not be penalised because of course programming. The ruthless decision by SUSI to conclude research while it is still in progress must stop, but SUSI is only implementing policies laid down by the Government. SUSI is just an administrative body; the Department of Education and Skills has control of the purse strings and the policy decision. PhD students do not down tools in June and start back in September; they work right throughout the year. PhD funding should be paid across 12 months. There are researchers in my constituency who do not have the finance to access university facilities during the summer months.

The attitude of the Department of Education and Skills to the financially vulnerable must be rectified immediately because it is the Department that is at fault here and is failing to address this issue. The Minister of State's reply does nothing to address this issue. I acknowledge that she has a great commitment to this and I admire some of the work she is doing. Researchers and their supervisors should be supported, not vetoed, cut off midstream and told, "Tally-ho. See what you get and do what you can yourself to try to finish." They do not have any outside support, bursaries or anything else. The Department needs to cease the current discrimination and fund all research equally. In three short words, stop terminating research. It should be funded for the full duration while people complete their doctorates.

Photo of Mary Mitchell O'ConnorMary Mitchell O'Connor (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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The Department also provides funding for the student assistance fund. This fund is available in various publicly funded higher education institutions. The student assistance fund provides financial assistance to students experiencing financial difficulties while attending third level. Students can be assisted towards their rent, childcare costs, transport costs and books and class materials. The student assistance fund is open to full-time registered students on courses of not less than one year's duration leading to a postgraduate qualification. Information on the fund is available through the access office in the third level institution attended. The fund is administered on a confidential, discretionary basis. Tax relief at the standard rate of tax may also be claimed in respect of tuition fees paid for approved courses at approved colleges of higher education. Further information is available on www.revenue.ie.