Wednesday, 13 October 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
13. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to address student poverty particularly poverty arising from extortionate costs of accommodation and the burden of fees; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49872/21]
Owen Keegan showed utter contempt for students and the crisis they face with accommodation costs. I put it to the Minister that the Government has not been far off in its contempt due to its failure to address the student poverty crisis and the cost of student accommodation. There are no measures whatsoever in the budget to deal with the extortionate cost of accommodation and the student accommodation crisis, and nothing about reducing the student contribution charge.
Of course the Deputy can put that to me but he will not be surprised when I utterly reject it. I have already given my view on Mr. Keegan's comments and I will not take up time on that. We have taken a number of measures, including in recent days, to assist with student welfare, student mental health and student incomes.
I refer to the pandemic unemployment payment and the significant income support we provided to students over a sustained period of time. That was the right and proper policy decision but the Deputy should look at the direct income and financial assistance we can provide to students. I mention our record on the student assistance fund and the fact that, since I have become Minister, we have provided €16 million more to that fund. I was talking to the president of the UCC students' union in recent days about the challenges there and we provided €1.2 million to the student assistance fund in University College Cork. I refer to the changes to the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants we made yesterday.
I am sure the Deputy wanted us to do more and I accept that but those were good changes and many of the Deputy's constituents will probably benefit from them. For example, we have changed the distance rule so that many students will see their grants rise by up to €2,000 next year as we drop the 45 km rule to 30 km. We made the first maintenance grant increase in many a year as well as making the first income threshold increase for many years so that more families qualify. Some 17,000 free laptops are being provided to students, recognising the shortfall there, and €5 million more is being provided for mental health supports. Period products are being provided for free in a number of our universities, and the contraception changes we made yesterday will benefit young people, many of whom are students. I also mention the public transport measures that have been announced.
I accept we have an awful lot more to do. We had a lengthy discussion earlier about purpose-built and college-owned student accommodation that is affordable and I am happy to come back to that in my supplementary response. I accept we have a road to travel but we took a number of measures yesterday that will help students, starting with the most vulnerable and the most in need. That is the most socially just way to approach it.
The student grants have not gone up for nearly a decade so the small patch-up we saw in the budget yesterday does not go anywhere near dealing with the cost of living and, in particular, the accommodation cost hikes we have seen. In three months alone this summer in Dublin there was a 5.6% rise in rents. That was on top of an almost 5% increase the year before. Average rents in Dublin are running at about €2,000 per month and then there is the issue of fees. The Union of Students in Ireland, ourselves and others have been asking the Minister to get rid of the student contribution charge. Whenever I meet students, whether they are undergraduates or postgraduates, they talk about the fees. People pay €15,000 to do psychology, allied health professional courses, PhDs and masters courses and then the bulk of students pay €3,000 a year. They asked the Minister to reduce the fees by even €1,000 but nothing was done. I put it to the Minister that with the cost of living increases, the fees and so on, student poverty has not been addressed in the budget in any way.
No single budget solves all of the challenges people face but the Deputy's critical analysis of the budget would have more validity if he acknowledged some of the positive steps we have taken in recent weeks, days and months. Those steps include the significant investment in the student assistance fund that has been widely welcomed by students, the significant increase in mental health funding, and the more than 17,000 free laptops that have been provided to recognise that the cost of a laptop was a barrier to participation for some people. I accept we have a way to go with SUSI grants and I will not argue with the Deputy on that but we took a significant step yesterday. The package of SUSI measures we announced yesterday would cost €60 million in a full year.
I would like to see the registration fee reduced, but if the Deputy was in my position he would see this provides access to a certain amount of additional funding for the year. It is appropriate we start by increasing the grants for people on lower incomes rather than reducing the fees for the son or daughter of a much more wealthy person, and I would have thought the Deputy would have agreed with this. We made a socially just decision yesterday to prioritise the resources towards those most in need.
The Government gave €63 million to KBC Bank Ireland and Ulster Bank yesterday as a goodbye present as they exit the Irish market, so I ask the Minister not to tell me about the €60 million, which is less than that, which the Government gave to students. Students will be outside Dublin City Council today and I will be speaking to them, as will other Members. You need only talk to students to determine why they are on the streets. The issue of student accommodation was not an acute crisis ten years ago the way it is now. The issue of fees is a major barrier to us dealing with some of the skills shortages we have in this country. Anybody who is trying to do a masters or postgraduate degree will tell the Minister they are crippled by fees and the student nurses are still not being paid for placement. Student poverty is a reality, and it is not just bad for the students but it is also bad for our society. This was not seriously addressed in the budget and there were a lot more giveaways for the banks, the special assignee relief programme and God knows what else than there were for students.
I acknowledge the progress the Minister is making and I welcome the student assistance fund that was announced at the weekend. In my constituency it amounted to almost €250,000, which is important to the students of the Tralee campus of the Munster Technological University. The Minister was there recently and he met Chris Clifford and the other students' union representatives. As we come towards the end of the year, sometimes funding in Departments frees up and there is some discretionary funding. The student assistance fund is very welcome and the money can be spent by the end of the year. I ask the Minister to be vigilant in keeping an eye out for any funding that might be available so that more can be ploughed into the student assistance fund before the year end.
I will do that and I thank Deputy Griffin for bringing me around Tralee. Deputy Boyd Barrett suggested I should talk to students and I do so all the time. They are not the preserve or ownership of any single side of this House. We need to do more in student supports and we took significant actions yesterday. We could not rectify everything in one budget but it is a statement of intent by this Government, and before the end of the year we will bring forward proposals on a sustainable funding model for higher education.
I want to be clear in case anyone seeks to misrepresent this. It will not involve student loans or any of those other failed policies that have been tried in other jurisdictions, including jurisdictions on this island, that have been bad for students and have left them indebted as they leave our universities. We took a number of actions yesterday, including the students assistance fund, SUSI grants, free laptops, mental health supports, changes to the adjacent grants to do directly and exactly what the Deputy is asking for. There are some students whose SUSI grant will rise by €2,000 as a result of those changes yesterday. That is a direct recognition of the cost of living issues we need to address. We have more to do and we are happy to work with students on this.