Seanad debates

Thursday, 17 November 2005

1:00 pm

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State and wish her well in future career choices. I have raised this issue before and it is close to the Minister of State's heart. She has acknowledged difficulties in the facilitation and distribution of higher education grants. This issue is usually raised by politicians when they are under pressure from constituents in August, September and October. I raise it now because I want to know where the Government's policy is going.

The distribution of grants and the facilitation process is not working. The Minister of State will agree that it is not a question of poor competencies but of resource disparities between the VECs and local authorities. The VECs receive core staff and resources to deal with grant allocations but in my experience as a member of Donegal County Council, local authorities have no funding for staff to allocate higher education grants. Local authorities do not complain enough about this. Their staff have been grinning and bearing this for a number of years as dedicated personnel and through their secretaries offices do work for which they are not paid. Will the Minister of State outline the Government's present and future policy? The system does not work. This is not due to negligence by the people who administer the grant applications but the lack of a proper system and dedicated staff resources.

Many families who celebrate leaving certificate results in August find the elation subsides quickly when they find their efforts to get funding for their students are logjammed due to lack of resources. They approach politicians at every level while we trample over each other trying to facilitate them. They come to politicians because the proper staffing and approach, including computerisation, is not there. I hope the Minister of State will outline the Government's policy.

Síle de Valera (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator McHugh for his kind remarks about me and apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, for her absence. I thank the Senator for affording me the opportunity to outline to the House the position on putting in place a more centralised facility for issuing higher education grants.

My Department currently provides third level student support through three means-tested maintenance grant schemes. The higher education grants scheme operates on a statutory basis, while the vocational education committees' scholarship scheme and the third-level maintenance grants scheme for trainees operate on an administrative basis. The statutory framework for maintenance grants under the higher education grants scheme is set out in the Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Acts 1968 to 1992.

In accordance with the commitment in An Agreed Programme for Government, my Department plans to introduce a single unified scheme of maintenance grants for students in higher education. This will provide for a more coherent administration system which will facilitate consistency of application and improved client accessibility. My Department believes this is necessary if we are to ensure public confidence in the awards system and also ensure the timely delivery of grants to those who need them most.

My Department has been engaged in ongoing consultations with the key stakeholders such as the Irish Vocational Education Association, the Association of City and County and Managers, various social partners, other relevant Departments, including the Department of Social and Family Affairs, and the Revenue Commissioners to map the most logical and effective arrangements for the future structure and administration of the student support schemes.

There are major implications, including resource issues, in any proposals to change the administration of the maintenance grants schemes, and that is why there has been ongoing consultation with the stakeholders. These discussions have substantially clarified the positions of the stakeholders in relation to the future administration possibilities for student support and their possible role. My Department expects to be shortly in a position to determine the best strategy to give effect to the programme for Government commitment to the payment of the maintenance grants through a unified and flexible payment scheme.

Whatever new arrangements are eventually decided on will, as previously indicated, be provided for in new statutory arrangements through a student support Bill. This Bill, which will provide statutory underpinning for the schemes, will have as a key objective the promotion of equality of access. It is also envisaged that the Bill will provide for an independent appeals system. The timescale for the publication of the Bill is contingent on the range of issues which are the subject of the deliberations following the consultations already referred to.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for outlining that this matter is being dealt with. If she used her influence to resolve the higher education grants issue it would be a nice note on which to end her Dáil career. She would be remembered for it.

Síle de Valera (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Clare, Fianna Fail)
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It is always civilised in here.