Thursday, 26 February 2004
I was unclear about the position of mature students from reading the documentation from the Department of Education and Science. Mature students obviously will form a growing part of those engaged in third level education. This issue arises frequently. Mature students are obviously in a different position from younger students; they often have financial commitments they would not have had when they were younger. They have families to keep, mortgages to pay and so on. The problem of support for mature students needs to be further investigated.
I am responding on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, who is chairing the meeting of EU Education Council in Brussels. I thank the Senator for the opportunity to set out the position of the Department of Education and Science on this issue.
Under the terms of the higher education grant scheme administered by the local authorities, generally speaking, students who are entering approved courses for the first time are eligible for grants where they satisfy the relevant conditions of age, residence, means, nationality and previous academic attainment. A mature student for the purpose of the scheme means a student who is at least 23 years of age on 1 January of the year of entry or re-entry to an approved course. Mature students are categorised as either independent mature students or mature students dependent on parents. An independent mature student is defined as a student who was not ordinarily resident at home with his or her parents from the October preceding his or her entry to an approved course. Independent mature students are assessed without reference to either their parents' income or address.
When assessing the means of students other than independent mature students, the student's means and those of his or her parents or guardians must be below a prescribed limit. This provision requires that parental income be taken into account irrespective of the individual circumstances in any case in which the student is not an independent mature student. Under the means test provisions of the higher education grant scheme in 2003, a candidate's reckonable income is that for the year ended 31 December 2002, which is the 2002 tax year. However, the scheme contains a change in circumstances clause whereby the eligibility of a person may be assessed or re-assessed by the awarding body in the event of a permanent change in circumstances in, inter alia, the candidate's reckonable income.
In general, the students referred to by the Senator who cease full-time employment prior to commencing their third-level studies are eligible to be assessed with reference to the change in circumstances clause of the grant scheme. In such cases, the student provides the relevant awarding body with a copy of his or her P45 and that income would be disregarded for grant-reckonable income purposes. In the case of a mature candidate dependent on parents, the candidate is assessed with reference to his or her parents' income. Students who are in receipt of maintenance grants may, in addition, apply for funding through the millennium partnership fund for disadvantage. This fund supports students from disadvantaged areas attending further or higher education courses. Partnership companies and community groups manage the fund locally. Information on these groups can be obtained from Area Development Management Limited.
Apart from the maintenance grants schemes and the free fees initiative, under which the Department meets the cost of tuition fees for eligible undergraduate students in approved institutions, financial support is also available to students in approved third level institutions through the student assistance fund. The objective of the fund, which is ESF-aided, is to assist students in a sensitive and compassionate manner who might otherwise, due to their financial circumstances, be unable to continue their third level studies. Further information on the fund, including details on the application procedure, is available to students from the access officers at approved colleges. If the Senator wishes to provide full details of an individual case, I will arrange for a more detailed and specific response based on that person's particular circumstances.