Tuesday, 15 December 2020
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Student Universal Support Ireland
55. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if he will provide additional information on the €20 million in budget 2021 for SUSI that will see the funding returned to 2019 levels; the projections on demand upon which this is based; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43163/20]
I ask the Minister to provide further details on the €20 million in budget 2021 for SUSI, which will see funding return to 2019 levels, and the demand projections upon which this figure is based. I have raised this with the Minister previously at the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. The additional funding for SUSI announced in budget 2021 will bring funding back to 2019 levels but given the economic environment in which we find ourselves, will this be enough?
During the course of 2020, SUSI has experienced, not unexpectedly, an increase in the number of applications for grant assistance as well as the number of students seeking a review, understandably, based on the change of circumstances provision in the scheme. This is primarily due to the negative impact that Covid-19 has had on the tenure of employment and income levels. For this reason I sought and secured additional funding of €20 million for 2021 to meet the existing and expected demands on the SUSI grant scheme for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 academic years to ensure that we provide SUSI support to everyone who is eligible.
To date there has been an increase of 4% in the number of applications received by SUSI in comparison to this time last year. SUSI has received 100,826 applications for the 2020-21 academic year. This compares to 96,094 for the 2019-20 academic year. Not every student who qualifies for grant support proceeds to take up a grant. For 2019-20, the actual number of grant holders was around 72,000 as some students decided not to proceed to college, defer their college place or not complete their studies. Of the 100,826 applications processed to date this year, 77,710 have been assessed as eligible for grant support. This figure is likely to increase as some late applications are processed to conclusion.
My Department is satisfied that the €20 million in additional funding sought is in line with our expectations. As the Deputy knows, since the establishment of SUSI the Oireachtas has, on a number of occasions, increased its funding because it administers a demand-led scheme. The Oireachtas and the Government will continue to monitor the situation closely.
I welcome the Minister's recent announcement of a review of SUSI. I have been calling for such a review for a long time and the information we gathered in August of this year spoke to that very much.
I ask the Minister to focus on the situation facing mature students who have been forced to move back home due to the current housing situation. Currently we have mature students, often with their own children, being assessed on their parents' income. The burden of proof required to demonstrate financial independence in general is difficult and young people who are estranged from their parents are often excluded from the system. Student renters are often asked to demonstrate that their landlord is registered with the Residential Tenancies Board, something that is beyond their control.
Speed is of the essence here. While I welcome the forthcoming review, I am concerned about the students who will be coming on board next year. There are changes that we could make to the system here and now, rather than waiting for the outcome of the review, particularly with regard to students being assessed independently. I ask the Minister to consider things we could change now that would make life easier for students.
Since taking up office I have made three changes to SUSI. The first was the €250 payment. The second was the change to postgraduate supports, both to the level of grant and the level of income allowed. The third, and perhaps most important, was the change to the student support scheme for people in asylum. Only five people in asylum were able to access financial support last year but this year there are 25 such people accessing support, with 29 more potentially valid applications being assessed as we speak.
I agree with the Deputy's comments on mature students. The three areas that I would like to see action on in the SUSI review, while not wanting to pre-empt it, are mature students, part-time learners and costs. I am frustrated that the SUSI system does not understand costs and only understands income. An applicant could be a single parent with a certain amount of income but he or she could have childcare costs. Indeed, couples can also have significant childcare costs. The system has served us well in many ways but it is a bit outdated. It needs to be updated and I will take on board the points made by Deputy Conway-Walsh. There will be an opportunity for the Deputy and all stakeholders to consult and give their views, which will be given the most serious consideration.
I thank the Minister and assure him that I will make an input into the review.
I also wish to raise the matter of the exclusion of online and part-time students. This particularly militates against students with disabilities who cannot go on campus or engage in full-time courses because of their conditions. This discrimination is totally wrong. I am concerned about those who are looking forward to studying next year. Given the current climate, we need to encourage more people to engage in third level education and to engage in upskilling and the way to do that is make it easier for them to access SUSI grants. I do not want them to have to wait until 2022 before they can get onto their chosen course because at that stage they could have a year completed. I ask the Minister to make changes to the system sooner rather than later so that we can include as many people as possible.
I agree that not everybody can pack their bags and head off to college for four years, for a variety of reasons. That is not the way people learn in Ireland now and that is not the way we live in many ways and the system needs to be more flexible. I accept the Deputy's point that part-time rather than full-time learning is a much more viable option for some people and part-time students are included in the terms of reference of the review. The terms of reference are quite broad and have been welcomed by the USI. We will be putting a steering group together and the voice of the student will be represented thereon. I do not want this review to go on forever. It will make initial recommendations to me by the summer which gives us plenty of time, in advance of the budget, to prepare our list of asks. I will engage seriously with the Deputy on this.
I will make sure that this is considered as a core component. I note that some universities are now making a real effort to become autism friendly. We have some very bright students and very bright people in our country but they are not the challenge. Sometimes it is the institutions that are the challenge; they need to be more flexible and understanding of how people with autism learn because we all learn differently. While I am not yet sure of the composition of the steering group, I will make sure there is an opportunity for meaningful input.