Tuesday, 17 November 2009
Higher Education Grants
I wish to raise a most important issue. I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, has stayed to take this matter. Having regard to labour services and FÁS, which we have just discussed, this matter is almost linked to it. I expect a serious response to this matter from the Department of Education and Science.
What I seek in raising this matter is simple and straightforward. From now to Christmas students are focused on next year's leaving certificate. By January they will be filling in CAO forms or other forms, depending on whether they intend to study in this country or outside it. Their focus in the period from Christmas to January is on to which college and to what course they will apply. Once the application format is complete and the students have applied to colleges for their chosen courses, they are entirely focused on their exams. I am confused as to the reason it is not possible for the Department of Education and Science at the start of the year to set out the criteria required for qualification for a grant and the information students should submit.
When students are gearing their thoughts towards filling out forms for the college courses they wish to take and are prioritising them in the order of preference and their expected results in the leaving certificate, it is ridiculous that provision is not made for them to fill out simultaneously a form for the grants for which they might apply. They cannot do that currently because the qualifying criteria is not provided by the Department in time and in line with the CAO process. Therefore, this process takes place later in the year.
The fact that students are geared more towards exams up to June and, in the case of many students, July, the concept of applying for a grant links in with a time when they have other things on their mind. However, that is not the essential point. The point is that by the time this information is given, it is very much into the summer. Some students throughout the country are only now getting their first grant and others have been told it will definitely be the week before Christmas before they get any payment and then they will get a double payment.
I remember a good few years ago the importance of the grant for those who were waiting to receive it. The fact that students have to wait until the eve of Christmas for their grants is a difficulty for many of them. I do not understand why staff in the various vocational education committees and county council offices should be put under pressure now because everything in this respect has been left to the last minute. The criteria for qualification for student grants came out late, the students then applied for them and the staff in the offices have had to interpret those forms and check facts and figures. By the time all the applications, of which there are now a glut, have been processed, it will be Christmas before they can be assessed.
If the Department issued the criteria for student grants in January, students could submit their applications for grants at the same time as they submit their applications for college courses and the information required could be submitted any time between then and May or June. The only critical point then is whether the students get the results they need for the courses for which they have applied. However, if the processing of all the information is done to the point of waiting to learn if students get their first choice, second choice, or do not get sufficient points for any of their choices, at least that process would be logical and systematic.
Some people might argue that we should wait for the introduction of Student Support Bill to make any changes that may need to be made, but I cannot understand why we would need to await the introduction of any other legislation. I will bow to the expertise of the Minister of State in terms of his response, but I would like to think that if the Department could issue the information a little earlier to facilitate the county councils, the VECs, the potential students and their parents, it would do so. The tax year has changed from April to March to 1 January to 31 December. People's income details for last year are available from January as opposed to April as was the case in the past, which was a reason we would not have needed to bring forward the date in this respect.
What I seek is simple when one considers it written in black and white. The information should be submitted earlier and the turnaround in terms of the processing of the applications could then be more systematic. It would take the pressure off the staff in the offices, the students and their parents. The opposite is the case now. Students and their parents are under pressure and are berating the staff in offices because students do not have the money they need to make ends meet. Everybody is trying to be realistic and accommodating but, unfortunately, the poor staff are getting abuse and students are doing their best to hold down colleges places.
We met representatives of the Union of Students in Ireland last week. I would always encourage students to take up part-time jobs, whether stacking shelves or some other job, to earn some money. Such work helps them to socialise in a different forum, although it is probably not one to which they would aspire to work in the future. Such learning curves are important and they should avail of the opportunity to earn some extra money. However, there are no part-time jobs in some parts of the country. Therefore, students do not have the fall-back position that students had in earlier times.
As a spokesperson on education, I look forward to the making of such simple changes which would have significant implications for everybody involved, be it the student, his or parents or those within and outside the system. There is pressure to bring forward the introduction of the Student Support Bill but it should not be the be-all and end-all in regard to this issue. Provision should be made for the grant criteria to be released earlier in order that students can be aware that January is the month for form filling and once such form filling is complete, they can relax and focus on what they need to, namely, getting the best possible results in the leaving certificate.
I hope the Minister of State will be in a position to tell me that the Department might be in a position, even by way of regulation, to fast track the criteria in this respect. The lack of such provision currently means that the process cannot be moved along. The processing of forms in June, July or August that are needed at the start of September is not fair to those concerned. None of us wants this unfair situation to continue any longer than is necessary. I look forward to a positive response from the Minister of State on this matter.
I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. I thank the Senator for giving me this opportunity to outline the Department's plans in regard to applications by students for student grants.
As the Senator will be aware, the Department funds four maintenance grant schemes for third level and further education students. These are the higher education grants scheme, the vocational education committees scholarship scheme, the third level maintenance grants scheme for trainees and the maintenance grant scheme for students attending post-leaving certificate courses. The higher education grants scheme is administered by the local authorities and the other three schemes are administered by vocational education committees.
The Department is actively engaged in a programme of administrative and legislative reform of student grants. The overall objective of this programme of legislative and administrative reform is to facilitate the introduction of significant service level improvements in the administration of student grants, thus providing for greater consistency of application, improved client accessibility and timely delivery of grants to those who need them most. It will include guaranteed timeframes for the assessment of grants and more efficient arrangements for handling applications. It is envisaged that, when fully implemented, the administration of student grants will be a significantly more customer-oriented system involving a more simplified and accessible application system.
The Student Support Bill provides for the transfer of responsibility for student grants to the VEC sector. In the existing budgetary situation, resources are not available to advance transition to new administrative arrangements in the immediate future. However, it is not possible to say definitively at this point when new administrative arrangements can be put in place and the Minister is keen, in light of the commitment to put all student grants on a statutory footing, to provide a statutory basis for all student grants for the intervening period and to advance improvements to the current administrative arrangements. Therefore, the Department is endeavouring to progress at the earliest possible date to a single scheme of grants as provided for in the Bill while further exploring the options for administrative streamlining in the context of budgetary considerations and the Government's overall programme of public service reform, Transforming Public Services.
The Department is actively engaged with VECs and local authorities on several initiatives through several technical working groups, which will bring improvements on an incremental basis. The comprehensive and user-friendly website, www.studentfinance.ie, an initiative of the Higher Education Authority, HEA, and funded by the Department, is already proving to be valuable in helping students to access information on the various grants available for further and higher education. In addition to providing information on the grants administered by the local authorities and vocational education committees, it also offers information on the back to education allowance, the student assistance fund and the fund for students with disabilities. This considerable store of information is proving to be of great benefit.
In streamlining the process of applying for a student grant, this year for the first time a downloadable application form was available on the www.studentfinance.ie website. A student can print the application form and complete it in full, or alternatively download the application form, complete it on-screen and print it. Course acceptance forms, which must accompany the application form where a student has accepted a place on an approved course, are also available to print from the www.studentfinance.ie website.
A business process re-engineering exercise is being conducted in respect of the administration of student grants. This exercise, being undertaken as part of the Government's Transforming Public Services initiative, will involve a deep-rooted analysis of the existing schemes, services, processes and procedures to identify the improvements that can be made. It is designed to effect an enhancement both of the quality of customer service and the efficiency and value for money of service delivery. Alongside this initiative, the Department is engaged in the development of a new, more user-friendly application form for student grants, which we all welcome. As part of the overall programme of reform, it is planned to make application forms available a good deal earlier in the year such that students can submit grant applications following completion of the CAO process, as suggested by Senator Keaveney. It is also planned to introduce earlier closing dates such that the process of assessing grant applications can be brought forward significantly to enable early decisions on grant applications to be made by the awarding authorities. I thank the Senator once again for raising this matter.
I welcome the information contained in the Minister of State's reply. I appreciate there is a bigger picture in respect of the student support scheme. My point in raising the issue was to indicate that in the meantime we might be able to effect an interim solution, which the Minister appears to be offering. If the Department officials are listening, perhaps they could forward an indication of the date they are considering, since the Minister of State referred to bringing it forward significantly. That is all I seek at this point. I thank the Minister of State for his response.