Seanad debates

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

6:00 pm

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I appreciate that the Minister for Education and Science is abroad at present. The Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, needs to meet his Northern counterpart to discuss some students' lack of access to certain supports. Bursaries and other forms of financial assistance are not available to students from the Republic. That is a cause of serious hardship for many of my constituents. I am a three-time graduate of the University of Ulster, Jordanstown. I was one of those students who availed of free fees in the North before a similar regime was brought into effect here. It seems that questions are being asked about the reintroduction of fees in the Republic.

It is traditional for people in my constituency to attend their local third level institution. While Letterkenny Institute of Technology is very good, many people choose to study at the various University of Ulster campuses — Magee, Coleraine, Jordanstown and Belfast — or at Queen's University Belfast.

I recently received a letter from Sir Reg Empey stating that the significant difficulties which have developed since the new situation in the North started to evolve are to be examined. I am concerned that the examination will focus solely on the students from that jurisdiction. The difficulties being encountered by students from the Republic who attend colleges in the North need to be addressed too. In his letter, Sir Reg Empey mentioned that variable tuition fees were introduced in Northern Ireland in September 2006 to provide higher education institutions with much-needed additional revenue. The authorities in the North are trying to get more people to attend the colleges in question.

Sir Reg Empey's letter goes on to say, "At the same time, enhanced student support arrangements, including access bursaries, provided by higher education institutes were introduced to mitigate the impact of student fees on less well off students." He has just completed the second academic year of the new arrangements and has made clear his commitment to review variable tuition fees and student finance, which is due to commence in the 2008-09 academic year. Therefore, it is very opportune that our Minister for Education and Science would speak to the equivalent Minister, not necessarily the Minister for Education because it seems to be devolved to the Minister for Employment and Learning, to outline our concerns to address the deficit that appears to exist for our students and to clarify whether students going from the Republic of Ireland to the North qualify for these bursaries and extra supports within student hardship schemes.

There are mixed messages. I defy anyone to read some of the documentation on the web. The University of Ulster website says one is classified as a "home" student for fee purposes if one meets all the following criteria: one is "settled" in the UK, has been ordinarily resident within the UK for the previous three years and while one was there one was not there just to receive full-time education. It then goes on to say, "Other groups of students who do not meet the immigration and residence conditions in the UK and Islands but who will be assessed as Home-EU students for fee purposes" include students from the EU. My problem is that students are getting the impression they are not eligible to apply for bursaries or hardship schemes because they come from the Republic. I would like clarification on whether they are entitled to it, and if they are, I would be interested to know the numbers of students availing of this and whether there are difficulties with particular colleges.

This is about trying to keep our graduates in our area. I want Ulster graduates to remain in Ulster if they can. I have no objection to their coming to the universities in the Republic, but we do not want them to fly to Scotland, which many of them do because Scotland has absorbed the fee issue. Yesterday at Stormont I raised this issue with most of the political parties and I have had feedback already in that the chair of the education committee there wants to deal with this issue which they also see as important. I will return to talk to them, not only as a person interested in the topic but also as a person on the education committee in this jurisdiction. However, this must be driven at ministerial level. There are new ideas about fees. Much learning has taken place in the North and I would like to think we can learn from them. We must also ensure our students are given as much support as possible.

A student of whom I am aware must pay £3,145 per year for three years. She cannot get a grant because she is not more than 15 miles from the college. Her parents are on illness benefit. She is not entitled to the top-up grant because it is not a long-term benefit. The loan is the only help she can get. Another student has graduated from the University of London and has gone on to do a masters in the King's College because it is a specialised course and is not offered here. She is one of a very small number of people qualifying and is a credit to her country, yet she can get no help.

I appreciate the Minister of State taking this matter. I hope she can give me some enlightenment. If not, I hope she can bring clarity to the issue and encourage the Minister to do as I ask and talk to his Northern colleague on this issue of most importance to our students.

Photo of Mary WallaceMary Wallace (Minister of State with special responsibility for Health Promotion and Food Safety, Department of Health and Children; Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue as it affords me the opportunity to outline the formal structures for co-operation in the education sphere between the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Education in Northern Ireland. More specifically, it gives me the opportunity to outline existing arrangements under the Department's third level student support schemes relating to students from this State who undertake courses in Northern Ireland.

The general context is that the North-South co-operation unit in the Department of Education and Science manages the Department's funding and co-ordinates co-operation activities within the education sector with the Department of Education and the Department of Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland. The Department of Education in Northern Ireland has responsibility for all school and youth-based education matters in Northern Ireland. The Department formally engages with the Department of Education in Northern Ireland at ministerial level on co-operation issues under the auspices of the North-South Ministerial Council in four main areas: special education needs, educational underachievement, teacher mobility and school and youth exchanges. The Department of Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland has responsibility for further, vocational and higher education matters as well as employment matters in Northern Ireland.

The Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe has asked me to clarify that the Department does not formally engage with the Department of Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland within the structures of the North-South Ministerial Council owing to the provisions of the Belfast and St. Andrew's agreements which designate the specific sectoral areas for North-South co-operation. However, the Department engages in co-operative activities with the Department of Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland at official level on a number of issues.

Some years ago, the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland co-funded and collaborated on a series of conferences dealing with higher education issues. The themes of those conferences were Ireland as a centre of excellence in third level education; international education, a capacity builder for the island of Ireland; widening access to higher education on the island of Ireland; cross-Border higher education co-operation in Ireland and Europe; higher education and business, beyond mutual incomprehension; and what role for higher education in the development of the 21st century workplace.

Regarding student supports, the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe would like to indicate that within the parameters of existing liaison mechanisms with Northern Ireland counterparts, he will do all he can to raise awareness of the concerns raised by Senator Keaveney. Under the Department's third level free fees initiative the Exchequer meets the tuition fees of eligible students, including those from Northern Ireland and other EU member states, who attend approved undergraduate courses in the State. The main eligibility conditions of the initiative are that students must be first-time undergraduates, hold EU nationality or official refugee status and have been ordinarily resident in an EU member state for at least three of the five years preceding their entry to an approved third level course.

Regarding eligibility for financial assistance under the student maintenance grant schemes which are administered by the vocational education committees, VECs, students entering approved full-time courses for the first time are eligible for grants where they satisfy the relevant conditions as to residence, means, nationality and previous academic attainment. An approved course for the purpose of the third level maintenance grant schemes means a full-time undergraduate course of not less than two years' duration and a full-time postgraduate course of not less than one year's duration pursued in an approved third level institution. Further information on grants and the schemes can be accessed on the Department's website at www.studentfinance.ie.

The third level student support schemes extend to undergraduate study in Ireland and the EU and postgraduate study in Ireland, including Northern Ireland. Any extension of the current arrangements to provide for students pursuing postgraduate courses outside of the island of Ireland could only be considered in the light of available resources and other competing demands within the education sector. There are no plans to expand the provisions in the grant schemes in relation to study abroad.

Section 473A of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 provides tax relief, at the standard rate of tax, for tuition fees paid in respect of approved courses at approved colleges of higher education, including certain approved undergraduate and postgraduate courses in EU member states and postgraduate courses in non-EU countries. Tax relief at undergraduate level extends to approved full or part-time courses in both private and publicly funded third level colleges in the State and any other EU member state and approved full or part-time courses operated by colleges in any EU member state providing distance education in the State.

Tax relief on tuition fees is claimed directly from the tax office using an IT31 form and the details of approved colleges and courses are also available on the Revenue Commissioner's website. Approved undergraduate courses must be of at least two years' duration, and both the college and the course must satisfy the codes of standards as laid down by the Minister for Education and Science with the consent of the Minister for Finance.

Again, I thank the Senator for providing me with the opportunity to address the House on this matter and to outline the current position here. We will bring the Senator's concerns to the Minister's attention on his return.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I appreciate the very lengthy answer. does the Minister of State agree that bursaries offered by universities should be open to all students? That is where I am coming from. Where a university support is called a bursary, the best student should get it. I know the danger of opening up schemes to everybody. In Stormont we were able to move on the concept of the North-South parliamentary forum. Two working groups will now be set up to put terms of reference in place. We are hoping that these types of issues, that are so pertinent to real politicians and real constituents, can be addressed in an easier way.

I emphasise one point again, namely, that bursaries should be open to all students. I ask the Minister of State to bring that message back to the Department and use it as a starting point for the discussion.