Seanad debates

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Adjournment Matters

Higher Education Grants.

7:00 pm

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey. He has become a regular visitor to the House in his few months in the Department of Education and Science. Like the issue I raised on the Adjournment yesterday, the matter I raise today relates to a small proportion of the population.

I am aware of a student from my own area in County Kilkenny who is in her first year of studies in Trinity College, Dublin, and whose sister will complete her second level education this year. Their father is above pension age and entitled to the State pension. However, because his State pension coupled with his wife's modest income pushes their earnings over the eligibility threshold for a third level grant, he was obliged to return to the workforce to ensure his daughter can avail of a third level education. It is inspiring that this man is prepared to go back to work to ensure his daughter can take advantage of an opportunity that was not available to him. It is also sad, however, that he is forced into this position. His second daughter is interested in attending college in Dublin in September if she gets the necessary points.

A change in this regard is worthwhile given the small numbers affected and the negligible impact on Exchequer funding for the Department of Education and Science. Children with one or more parents in receipt of the State pension should be automatically entitled to a third level grant. My father was above pension age when I went to college and I did not qualify for the third level grant. My younger sister is in the same boat. I do not raise this issue purely out of a selfish personal interest. The small numbers involved and the minimal impact in terms of funding mean there is a strong case for ensuring parents above pension age are not forced back into the workforce because they want to give their children the best possible education. The State should step in at that point and provide support. The grant system itself must be reformed and is not sufficient to cover the costs of attending college. However, the children of those eligible for the State pension should receive assistance as a matter of course.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising the issue of third level grants on the Adjournment this evening. The Department of Education and Science funds four maintenance grant schemes for third level and further education students, which are administered by local authorities and vocational education committees on its behalf. The higher education grant scheme operates under the Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Acts 1968 to 1992.

Generally speaking, students who enter approved courses for the first time are eligible for maintenance grants where they satisfy the relevant conditions as to age, residence, means, nationality and previous academic attainment. An approved course for the purpose of the grant scheme is a full-time undergraduate course of not less than two years duration or a full-time postgraduate course of not less than one year's duration, pursued in an approved institution. Under the Department's free fees initiative, the Exchequer meets the tuition fees of eligible first-time undergraduate students attending approved full-time courses.

In addition to the ordinary maintenance grant, students may be also eligible for the special rate of maintenance grant, sometimes known as the "top-up grant". Eligibility for this grant is determined by reference to an income threshold and receipt of a long-term social welfare payment, which includes the State contributory pension. To qualify for the special rate of maintenance grant, applicants must first qualify for the ordinary maintenance grant for the relevant academic year. Total reckonable income in the relevant tax year must not exceed a specified lower income threshold, which is net of standard exclusions, as set out in the maintenance grant schemes, and, where applicable, net of the social welfare child dependants increase payments. In addition, as at 31 December of the relevant tax year, the source of income must include one of the specified social welfare payments.

The special rate of maintenance grant is in place to assist the most needy students. It is increased annually in line with increases in the rate of unemployment assistance. For the current academic year 2006-07, a candidate who is eligible for the special rate of maintenance grant receives the ordinary full rate of maintenance grant of €3,110 plus the special rate of €2,860, giving a total grant of €5,970.

Apart from the maintenance grants schemes and the free fees initiative, financial support is also available to third level students through the student assistance fund. The objective of the fund is to assist students who, due to their financial circumstances, might be unable to continue their third level studies. Information on this fund is available from the access officer in the approved colleges. In addition, the millennium partnership fund for disadvantage supports students from disadvantaged areas attending further or higher education courses. Partnership companies and community groups manage the fund locally. Information on partnership and community groups can be obtained from Pobal.

The means test arrangements of the student support schemes have been in operation since 1983 and are applied nationally. In the case of both the employed and self-employed, gross income is assessed with certain deductions for specified social welfare and Health Service Executive payments. Any proposal to introduce a different method of means assessment or to abandon the means testing requirement for students dependent on those in receipt of State contributory pensions would have significant financial implications in addition to equity issues that would have to be addressed. There are no immediate plans to change the method of means assessment or to remove the means assessment for certain individuals such as those suggested by the Senator. I thank the Senator for raising this matter.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I would not argue with the Minister of State's response except for the last point about appreciating that the proposal to move to introduce a different method of means assessment or to abandon the means testing requirement for students dependent on those in receipt of State contributory pensions would have significant financial implications. I do not know the figure in terms of the numbers of third level students who are dependent on those in receipt of State pensions but I cannot accept that the sum would be significant in terms of the overall cost. I would think it is a very small proportion of the overall spend on third level fees for people going to college. I would say a small proportion of those students are dependent on people in receipt of the State contributory pension. I understand what the Minister of State said but in terms of what I would regard as a very small group of people, the Government could examine some initiative for the future. Perhaps the next Government will get the opportunity to examine it sooner rather than later.