Thursday, 19 May 2022
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Third Level Costs
105. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if he will outline measures to improve funding supports for students in further and higher education, including an update on the review of the SUSI grant scheme and an update on the implementation group to look at the issue of future funding of our higher education institutions, grant supports and reform implementation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25268/22]
The Minister recently made an announcement of substantial extra funding for third level education. He also committed to revamping the Student Universal Support Ireland grant scheme. I am interested in where we are with that and about its timeline. How will the extra funding he announced for third level address the problems that we have just discussed?
I think it will remove any excuses about universities needing to hike up student accommodation costs. The sector now agrees that €307 million is needed and if we provide that, we need to start to see fair play on a number of these important issues. The €307 million will drive down the student-staff ratio. It is about 19:1 or 20:1 in Ireland. The EU average is about 14:1 or 15:1. It will get us to the EU average and mean that we are funding higher education at a similar level to Sweden. It will mean we are investing €2,000 more per student, per year in their education. Five themes are set out for reforms, including access and better links between further education. I give the example of a nurse who does a post-leaving certificate course, PLC. We cannot have a situation where someone can do wonderfully well in a PLC in nursing and not get a place in a graduate course for a nursing degree. There are five themes for reform in the group chaired by Professor Anne Looney, Professor Tom Collins and I, which will meet for the first time next week.
Core funding is one part of the plan. The cost of education is another part. The Government has agreed to take a two-pronged approach, with a gradual reduction in the registration fee and a significant increase in the SUSI student grant scheme. We have outlined a number of things that need to happen with the SUSI student grant scheme, including making sure the grants increase more in line with the cost of living. The review reckons that the grants need to increase by 25% to get back to where they need to be. We also need to make decisions about funding part-time students under SUSI. We have started, in the budgets that we voted for, to increase student grants, reducing the distance that a student has to live from college to qualify for a larger grant and increasing the income threshold. I expect to be in a position to introduce another package of student supports in budget 2023 to improve SUSI further.
I thank the Minister. He has been in this House for long enough to know that money will not absolve people from not taking responsibility. We are good at throwing money at things, but we need to make sure that we get outcomes. What is the timeline to reduce the teacher-student ratio or lecturer-student ratio? The student contribution is currently €3,000 per annum. The Minister committed that it would be gradually reduced. Will that happen in this year's budget? Is he seeking support for that process to begin in this year's budget? Coming back to SUSI, a 25% increase is needed, and it will be higher as the year goes on and inflation rockets higher. Has the Minister a timeline in mind for that increase? What other reforms is he considering for this year's budget?
I am actively seeking support to reduce the registration fee. I welcome the support of the Deputy and everybody else on this because I believe €3,000 per year is too high. We could and should increase the grants, but there will always be people who we all represent who will not qualify for the grant. The €3,000 was brought in at a time of extraordinary difficulty in this country. If a family has two kids going to college at the same time, as many people do, there will be €24,000 in Government charges to get those two students through a four-year degree. I met students and parents in Longford recently and they were clear about this. The pace which we do this at, which we have to be honest about since we are part of a collective Government, is a matter for the Estimates process. This Government has three budgets left. I believe, looking at the figure of €307 million, that we can make extraordinary progress in closing that gap in the lifetime of this Government. Similarly, we can make progress on the SUSI review and the student registration fee. I have been a Minister for long enough to know that we cannot achieve everything in one budget, but in three budgets, now that we have the plan, the figures and the reform agenda, I genuinely believe that we can make significant progress on the registration fee, the grant and the core funding.
Could we anticipate a reduction in the student contribution fee or an increase in SUSI in 2023? It is important that we expand the available SUSI grant support. I am with the Minister on the student contribution. It is a fee. "Student contribution" is a silly, insulting phrase. It is a fee and it excludes many people from education. The same people are hit all the time. They may be working and cannot get support for anything. When it comes to investing in the family's education or their own education, they are blocked if they are working part-time. I ask the Minister to prioritise this. I know the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, will be more than open to this. He shares many of those aspirations. We have to send a signal that the macro-money, the €307 million, has been provided, but also that the concerns of students, parents and those funding their education are being taken seriously too.
I could not agree more with the Deputy. He has summed it up correctly. The core funding is key. We cannot rob Peter to pay Paul. We have to close the gap in the core funding of €307 million in the lifetime of this Government. We also have to make progress on the cost of education. We have published a Government policy that states we will, through successive budgets, increase grants and gradually reduce the fees. I would like to say more on that. That is the Government's position, so that is what we will do.
With my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, we did put it together. I think it was a €30 million package of student supports last year. We saw the SUSI grants increase for the first time in ten years last year. From September all the SUSI grants increase and quite a lot of changes are coming in to SUSI. I expect we will receive another pot of funding for student supports. How we divide that between registration fee changes and student grants will be a matter for the budget. I expect we will be in a position to show good form and good progress in this in budget 2023. The key thing will be for us to keep the momentum going during the lifetime of this Government and the three remaining budgets.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh na daltaí san Áiléar Poiblí. Tá sé tráthúil go mbaineann na ceisteanna le cúrsaí oideachais agus leis an Aire Breisoideachais agus Ardoideachais, Taighde, Nuálaíochta agus Eolaíochta . Guím ar an Teachta Boyd Barrett a cheist a chur trí Ghaeilge más mian leis.