Seanad debates

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Commencement Matters

Free Travel Scheme Eligibility

10:30 am

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Senator for raising this innovative idea. I acknowledge the high cost of third level education for students which is attributable to travel and accommodation in addition to fees.

Services for students and the adequacy, or otherwise, of their supports are matters for the Minister for Education and Skills. Transport is primarily a matter for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. However, my Department provides a free travel scheme as a secondary benefit to older people and certain people with disabilities who are already customers of my Department, that is, people who receive a weekly welfare payment from us. This provides free travel on the main public and private transport services for those eligible under the scheme. There are approximately 864,000 people in receipt of free travel but many do not use it regularly and prefer to travel during off-peak periods when seating is readily available.

The measure proposed would cater for the needs of students who are not our existing customers and who will be students for only a few years or, in some cases, only a few months. Any such scheme would require a more significant operation than that which administers my Department’s free travel scheme as it would have to grant and withdraw potentially hundreds of thousands of passes each year, using information that ultimately would have to be provided by all colleges in the State.

Income support and services for students are in the policy domain of the Minister for Education and Skills and my Department is not the best placed to calculate the cost of the proposed measure or to decide whether it would be an appropriate way to supplement or replace other supports available for students from the relevant funding streams. Any increase in eligibility to the scheme would require a substantial increase in funding at the expense of the taxpayer. The current funding for the scheme is €80 million per year and any scheme that extended a similar service to students would most likely require a substantial increase in funding, even taking into account the fact that many providers already operate reduced fares for students. No such provision has been made in my budget for 2016. I am, therefore, not in a position to operate such a scheme or comment on whether it would represent equitable use of resources. However, I encourage the Senator to discuss the matter further with the Minister for Education and Skills and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.


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