Seanad debates

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Student Support Bill 2008: Second Stage (Resumed).


Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

3:00 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey. I call Senator Norris.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I understood a colleague on the Government benches was in possession.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Senator Keaveney was in possession but she has waived her time remaining.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I understand. I am very happy to welcome the Minister of State to the House and I am sure he will pass on whatever substantial remarks are made during the remaining part of this debate. This is a significant matter, particularly for students who are under financial pressure. With the greatest goodwill in the world, the grant system has been fairly chaotic. The Minister in her speech made it clear that there were anomalies and that individual students suffered hardship as a result. I have called for this legislation for quite a long time and the latest mention I found of it was on 25 November 2010 on the Order of Business when I appealed to the Government to introduce and pass this legislation as rapidly as possible.

I pay tribute to the work of the Library and Research Service which once again has produced excellent material about the Bill in terms of the briefing document. It is important that we recognise that it does excellent work in framing this legislation but the briefing document we received is substantially out of date, although not necessarily its content because the outlines are perfectly all right, but, when one considers that since 2008 three Ministers have been charged with producing this Bill and a vast number of reports on this area have been produced. There was the report of the advisory committee on third level student support — the Butler report in 1993, the Report of the Action Group on Access to Third Level Education in 2001 — the McNamara report, and the report on supporting equity in higher education in 2003, and so on. It is not surprising that in this document there is reference to the hope that it would be introduced in time to benefit the students of the 2009-10 academic year. This is certainly not something that has been rushed. It is timely and in the light of the fact that the Government will shortly be out of office — of that there is no doubt — this is a positive contribution to that exit and it provides for a streamlined administration, which is very welcome. It also for the first time provides for a proper statutory basis for these grants and that is very much to be welcomed.

Turning to the Minister's speech, she indicated the pressing need for an administrative system that suits equally all students. She gave an example of two students from different parts of the country who sit beside each other in a lecture in college and said that it is important that they get the grant at the same time. That is absolutely true. I have voluminous correspondence from various representative bodies for students indicating that last year some of them did not get their first tranche of the payment until April, whereas some of them got it straight away. On a very basic principle of justice, that is completely wrong. It is appropriate for it to be addressed.

The difficulties posed are partly because of the multiplicity of granting organisations, of which I understand there are currently, before the passage of this Bill, 66. This will be halved to 33 and, clearly, that must represent an efficiency. The Minister was gracious in her speech and she did not use this to belabour the existing 66 authorities, rather she paid tribute to them and the work they have done. I welcome the fact that she did so. However, the situation is changing because ten years ago, as the Minister pointed out, there were 50,000 students in receipt of grants, while this year there will be 70,000 students in receipt of them and on top of that the financial employment situation means that there will be greater pressure upon the system because increasingly more students will decide that it is their interests to go into third level education rather than attempt to find a job straight off.

As I am in a generally positive frame of mind, I also welcome the preliminary moves that have been made before the introduction of the provisions of the Bill because they include a significant modernisation of the technology involved. First, there is the introduction of a new and simplified application form with explanatory notes. I abominate forms. I hate filling out forms; I often make mistakes in them. I recently had to fill out the return for the Ethics in Public Office Act and I put a figure of €7,000 in the wrong column, so it appeared I was volunteering to pay the Government that amount rather than looking for it. I can make a mistake like that and I am a reasonably intelligent person. The forms should be as simple and clear as possible so students do not make mistakes that create difficulties later on. An online facility for the 11 grant awarding authorities has been rolled out. That should be the norm in the entire system because this generation operates that way; it is completely computer literate. It is easy and can be done quickly and efficiently. There is also the question of electronic funds transfer that would allow for grants to be paid directly into the student's bank account.

The three most significant elements of this Bill are the introduction of a single, unified grant scheme to replace four existing schemes; that will get rid of anomalies. The single national grant awarding body is also established under the Bill. Finally, the independent appeals body is introduced. I like the idea of an independent appeals body and I like the flexibility it involves. I noted when I was reading the Bill that in certain circumstances, if a student misses a deadline for an appeal, he or she can make a case for the deadline to be extended by a calendar month. That is useful because there could be circumstances in which, for one reason or another, a student does not make the appeal on time. For the first time we have a proper independent appeals authority and, second, the appeals authority is flexible and student-centred.

I have had some criticism of the Bill, particularly from the vocational education authorities; they are concerned that there is reduction of their status. I am sure the Minister of State will address those concerns in his concluding remarks because doubtless the IVEA has made its concerns known to him. I understand the group's position, however, because any group being rationalised always experiences a certain amount of pain and regret for the past. While I sympathise on a human level, and while it makes me say it was even more important for the Minister to pay tribute to the work done by the existing bodies in difficult circumstances and without the technology and support that is now being introduced, this Bill goes in the right direction and I commend the Government and the Minister for introducing it. I hope it passes swiftly, perhaps it could even conclude within the next week, because students need it.

There has been briefing after briefing in Buswell's Hotel on this urgent issue. I fully support the students on this for practical reasons of politics and tactics. I explained to them at the same time that on fees I took a more nuanced position. I have no doubt fees are coming and in evidence I point to reports like the Hunt report. I saw this coming three years ago and I have spoken at length about it since then; I do not want to do so again as a codicil to Second Stage of this Bill. I believe in full and free access to education from primary to third level for all citizens but I am a realist and I understand that we cannot have the Scandinavian model without Scandinavian taxes to support it. To date the Irish people have not voted for that tax model. I also believe in a free and universally accessible health system but without the support of a tax system we cannot have it. In the meantime, scarce resources must be directed towards the most vulnerable in society and towards those who need it most. I would prefer for it to be universal and free but it never has been and until we revise our tax system, it never will be.

I understand the grant awarding authority will start operating soon on a transitional basis before kicking in properly by 2013. The sooner the better, as far as I am concerned. I am supported in this by every student body. The student body of Trinity College states that currently students are left waiting for grant payments well into the academic year. Last year there were students waiting until April to receive the first grant instalment. This is a massive issue as students are struggling to pay for accommodation and food as they await their grant. The Bill also allows for the amalgamation of the 66 grant awarders to one centralised body. If the Bill is not passed and the grants are late again, some students will be unable to pay for rent and food. These are basic elements.

I would like to advert to a particular situation and ask the Minister of State if he would be kind enough to bring this question to the attention of the Minister. As things stand, certain recognised third level institutions are excluded from the provisions of the Bill. Griffith College is a particular example. It is a fine institution. I have spoken at a series of debates there and have had engagement with members of staff, particularly in the legal department, and there are some fine lecturers there along with highly intelligent and gifted students. They are excluded from this grant. There is a mechanism in the Bill by which such colleges may be recognised. Will the Minister of State find out if Griffith College will be recognised? It is important that it should be.

It is excluded because it is recognised as a private commercial college, which makes the students ineligible for the grant. The students come from a variety of backgrounds and a number of them are clearly in need of this sort of support. It looks like a certain type of discrimination that is not acceptable in a republic in 2011. Griffith College offers many courses to students through the CAO system so it is already involved in part of the machinery. In addition, the fact that it is a commercial college produces yet another anomaly. Students at the Law Society of Ireland in Blackhall Place, where solicitors are trained, and the Honourable Society of Kings Inns, where barristers are trained, are fee-paying, but they are not automatically excluded from applying for a grant which may be received on the basis of an individual student's circumstances. Most of those entering these august institutions, namely, those going for the bar or to be solicitors, usually come from established and financially comfortable backgrounds. It would be wrong if we allowed the anomaly to continue. Whereas well-heeled individuals can obtain access to education and obtain grants, students at institutions such as Griffith College are precluded in this regard. My point refers to section 8 of the Bill which presents a possibility to provide for redress. I ask that the problem be addressed for all of the colleagues in the anomalous circumstances I describe, particularly at Griffith College.

I mentioned the Hunt report, in respect of which my point represents a side issue. However, I note with some satisfaction that the report provides for the upgraded recognition of certain third level colleges which do not currently have university status. There are a number in this category, one of which has been very effective, namely, Waterford Institute of Technology which has conducted internationally renowned research into diseases of the eye, including macro degeneration of the retina, for example. I would very much like to see the college recognised fully as a technical university. I am sure it is already included in respect of the payment of grants.

I welcome the significant advance made which every student and student body will welcome. I urge the House and the Minister of State to afford the Bill as quick a passage as possible in order that it will come into operation with maximum speed such that students and parents under great pressure in these very difficult economic times can be facilitated. We heard on the wireless today about people cancelling their VHI policies and about a family with a child recovering from swine flu that had no cooking capacity because its electricity and gas supply had been cut off. In such circumstances, when families are suffering, what conditions are the students likely to be in?

As a politician, I always refer to my "final word" and then have another. In this instane my final word may be irrelevant. I remember the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, when he first entered the other House and the very effective speech he made about the conditions in which some of his constituents in Ballymun were living. I would like him to leave this House with a slightly sideways thought, namely, whether we could ask the Government to reinstate the moratorium on the cutting off of the gas and electricity supply of persons who find it impossible to pay for them. I understand the moratorium is coming or has come to an end. I know this is not directly germane to the Bill, but it is directly relevant to the lives of ordinary people.

4:00 pm

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, and compliment him and the Government on grasping the nettle on this very important and urgent change to the system for processing third level grants. I note the commitment to providing a speedy and effective service that will be seen to be fair.

Senator Norris spoke eloquently about how many students were disadvantaged by being in college for almost a full term or more before receiving grant assistance. It is important to remember that many of them come from less well-off and, in many cases, disadvantaged homes. The students affected are those for whom going to a third level institution presents a huge challenge in the first instance. It is to their credit that the families concerned are determined that their children will have access to third level education. However, when the students concerned gain access to third level, they find themselves in the invidious position of being on an unequal footing by comparison with students from better-off homes, for whom third level does not present such a challenge. We all have anecdotal evidence of students living in very distressed circumstances until they are almost half way through their first term in college. Their parents are forced to borrow money, sometimes from moneylenders, in order to give them a fair chance. It is important, therefore, that the Bill is passed speedily and that the new system comes into effect and works well.

There are aspects of the Bill I would like to highlight. The establishment of the statutory appeals procedure is welcome. It was always very difficult for a student who had been refused a grant to appeal the decision in the office where he or she had been initially refused, possibly with the same officers dealing with the case. In the Bill it is proposed that a different officer deal with such cases and that, if appealed again, they should be submitted to an independent agency. This is a good step forward, as people will have confidence in the system. No one likes to be refused, but if the refusal of one's application was explained properly and it was shown that there had been an objective re-examination of the case, it might make it easier to accept.

I welcome the fact that there will be a run-off period before the existing system is replaced by the new one. The system will obviously require some tweaking as progress is made. It is important that the system in place for existing students is allowed to run its course. I welcome the fact that the Bill envisages the new system applying only to students who begin next term.

I welcome the re-examination of the residential qualification which has been a huge bugbear for local authorities and vocational education authorities. I refer to students applying from counties in which they do not officially reside, etc. The section dealing with this issue is very important.

Some aspects of the Bill are a little puzzling and I hope the Minister of State will be able to clarify one or two issues. I believe that in 2006 the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin, seemed to imply that all third level grant applications would be processed by VECs. It was implied that local authorities, county councils, would be phased out of the system and that the VECs would operate on their own. Perhaps the Minister of State will correct me on this if I am wrong. The set of proposals made in the Bill is very different. We must ask which body will ultimately be selected to become the single granting authority. There has been considerable expertise in VECs during the years. That I was a councillor and vice chairman of the VEC in County Kerry for a number of years informs my thinking on the matter. That expertise must not be lost. Whatever system is introduced and no matter which body will have overarching authority, I would still like to see a role for VECs. I do not know how this would work; I am just making the suggestion. The Minister of State accepts that the existing grant giving authorities have done a good job, although we have all had complaints about the process being drawn out.

Senator Norris referred to the filling in of application forms. As a public representative my heart dropped when a parent or student came to ask for assistance in filling in an application form for a third level grant. It was a full day's work.

One needed to be careful. Someone could make a living out of it, given that many people, including well educated people, require help with filling out the forms. I hope the new system will be simplified. That it is online and students are clued in will make the process easier and faster. I look forward to this aspect.

Given that the local authorities and VECs were doing all of this work, it makes sense to remove one of them from the equation. It is ridiculous that someone attending University College Dublin, UCD, or Trinity needs to go to a county or city council to have his or her application processed whereas someone attending an institute of technology needs to go across the street to a different organisation. It makes no sense that both bodies do the same type of work. Any move away from such duplication is a step in the right direction.

Another aspect gives me some concern. The Bill envisages the single authority as a statutory public body. This is important, given the great faith the Irish have in the prudence and probity of our public service and public servants. This standard must be maintained in whatever system is introduced by the Bill. However, the envisaged authority would be able to farm out some of the work in certain circumstances. I have concerns in this regard. I would be anxious to ensure the same high standards expected of public servants would obtain in any private organisation. Many applications contain sensitive information about incomes, social welfare payments and matrimonial issues such as separation, divorce and so on. One needs to have confidence in whatever private organisation takes on the work.

I assume the Tánaiste envisages a serious cost saving through the centralisation measures, which is welcome in these straitened times. Sometimes centralisation can be counterproductive. For example, when the application process for medical cards was centralised, people found the service unsatisfactory for a time. They have since come to terms with it. I hope the new measures will be eased in properly.

I welcome the Bill broadly but I have certain reservations about the involvement of private companies in family situations. Whatever authority is preferred, I hope the VECs' record of service will be cherished, respected and utilised.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey. This legislation is well overdue and must be brought to finality as soon as possible. It was originally introduced in 2008 but has been delayed for a variety of reasons, including a legal challenge. As such, we accept some of the reasons for the delay. The Bill aims to streamline the current grants system by centralising the 66 bodies that award third level grants into one main entity. It is enabling legislation only, however, and we still await detailed proposals on the matter. Some greater clarity was provided by the Tánaiste when she attended the House last week.

The current third level grants system is inefficient given how small our country is. There must be a standard and fair national system. It must not result, however, in efficient bodies becoming less efficient, which can occur during such a transition. I raise this point in light of the bad experience of changes in the way Garda vetting is handled. Vetting used to be carried out locally and quickly through local Garda resources, but when a special unit was set up in Templemore to centralise the process, the time extended beyond belief and is now in the region of 12 to 14 weeks. This is an example of local, dispersed decision making being centralised into a single area and becoming less efficient. Given the fear that such could occur in the case of this Bill, great care must be taken to prevent it from happening.

We need a centralised grant awarding authority in order that students entitled to a grant get it more quickly and efficiently. Central processing must be properly resourced and exempted from the recruitment embargo if any member of the team leaves for any reason. It must also be flexible enough that the resources required to deliver the service can increase or decrease in line with demand. As this is what occurs in efficient private sector areas, we must aspire to this standard. It is nothing less than what is required by the country we are managing. Students must be in a position to make informed decisions about their futures. In the current economic climate, ensuring students get their grants in a timely manner is vital, given that many are unable to find part-time work to supplement their incomes. This is important for students.

I welcome the quality control check provided by the Bill. The Minister can order a review of an awarding authority's performance in terms of issuing grants effectively or implementing other parts of the legislation. The Minister can also order an awarding authority to lose its power to issue grants for two years as punishment. I welcome the fact that students must have been resident in Ireland for three of the past five years, a reasonable provision. I welcome that when means testing candidates, a distinction between independent and dependent students is made in terms of assessing incomes. The 23 year old cut-off point is rightly being replaced with the distinction between dependent and independent.

As I understand it and as the Tánaiste stated last week, if a student applies for grant support for a course of study while still living at home, then moves out and even gets married during the time of the course, his or her status as someone living with his or her parents cannot be revoked for the duration of the course and the means of the parents will be considered. I am unsure whether this anomaly has been addressed, but there must be some flexibility and every case should be taken on its merits.

I welcome that the Bill standardises the information required on an application form for a grant to all awarding authorities. I also welcome the introduction of fines and imprisonment as penalties for falsified grant applications. The potential benefits of the Bill if it is enacted in its current form are a large reduction in the number of authorities issuing grants and a general streamlining of administration. Within each county division, students will experience less confusion about where to apply and for which grant. The establishment of an appeals process for applicants refused a grant ensures transparency and accountability for the individual student.

I will outline some problems with the Bill. Section 8(1)(b) specifically requires full-time attendance by a student. I will refer to section 8(3) momentarily. It is sensible to have some degree of creative flexibility with democratic safeguards that could enable a successor to the Tánaiste to examine the possibility of providing grants in some shape or form for students doing certain part-time courses. Section 8(3) is welcome in so far as it allows for the possibility of funding for part-time courses in certain circumstances. However, it only refers to undergraduate courses. This is unwelcome, as flexibility should be provided.

The series of reasons for funding part-time courses focus primarily on disadvantage. While this is to be welcomed, the circumstances should not be limited to disadvantage. Extending it to include other circumstances might make sense for the Department. We should consider an amendment in this respect. For example, we may need an amended provision in terms of labour market flexibility to encourage people to move sideways from a declining economic sector into a growing or developing one. The cost of up-skilling could be facilitated by the provision of grants on top of redundancy payments and other entitlements. The appeals procedure must produce a speedy outcome, especially as the beginning of the college year is an especially costly and stressful period for students, as noted by other Senators. The Bill is a progressive reform of the grants system and is to be welcomed in this regard. In several respects, however, it does not go far enough to overcome many of the problems from which the system suffers. Inconsistency in the payment of grants is a significant flaw in the system as it stands. Some local authorities pay out quickly, while others do not. It is not essential for there to be an awarding authority in every county, but students who rely on grants to fund their education need a swift and efficient response from the bureaucracy which manages them. This should be the overwhelming priority for the Student Support Bill.

The grants system is, first and foremost, a public service, one which needs to be flexible and responsive. Means testing has been debated in the past and there is great dissatisfaction with it in many parts of the country. Access to the grants system should be equitable. There has often been a perception of inequity where one person receives a college grant while a person down the road does not. This fuels anger and a lack of the essential social cohesion in society.

The Labour Party believes there should be student representation on the Student Grant Appeals Board, with at least one student representative on each sitting or division of the appeals board to be nominated by the Union of Students in Ireland. My colleague, Deputy Ruairí Quinn in the other House, tried to address this issue by way of an amendment.

Among the countries of northern Europe, Ireland probably has the lowest provision of dedicated accommodation for students attempting to get to college and this is also a major issue for the USI. Mechanisms could be put in place to enable third level colleges, the Construction Industry Federation and the Departments of Finance and Education and Skills to ease some of the pain of the current downturn in the construction sector through the provision of dedicated student accommodation. This could be provided on campus land surplus to educational requirements or in conjunction with local authorities in areas unsuitable for family accommodation.

I have some questions for the Minister of State. When is it intended to make the changes which are provided for in the legislation? Has the Minister a particular model in mind? Will the changes be in place for the next academic year? This is essential. Is it the case that one of the bigger awarding bodies has offered to carry out central processing for all of the country? If so, what is the current state of affairs in that regard?

I wish to raise the question of progression. The current guidelines state that grants will not be paid to candidates who hold a postgraduate qualification and are pursuing a second postgraduate qualification, but that candidates who hold a postgraduate qualification and are progressing to a further postgraduate course which represents progression may be deemed eligible for grant aid. I am dealing with the case of a student who has a postgraduate diploma in arts in learning and teaching. She arranged her own funding and is now studying for a postgraduate diploma in education in Trinity College. This will qualify her to become a second level teacher because her other qualification does not qualify her. She is progressing from a qualification that does not allow her to become a second level teacher to one that does. This is a progression by any definition. She was refused grant aid on the basis that the Department did not regard this as a form of progression but I must question this decision. She is progressing from a qualification that does not allow her to become a second level teacher to a qualification that does. I do not see the logic of this decision. Furthermore, I am informed that the Department applies an exemption where a student is applying for a postgraduate qualification in law.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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The Senator should conclude.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I think I have a little more time. The Leas-Chathaoirleach's timing is excellent because, in conclusion, I question why a legal qualification should be looked at differently from a qualification in education. I ask the Minister of State or his officials to revert to me on this serious matter. The rule on progression is applied to one set of qualifications and not to a qualification which is obviously a progression.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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If the Senator is referring to a particular case I ask him to forward the details to me.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State.

Photo of Niall Ó BrolcháinNiall Ó Brolcháin (Green Party)
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It is great to be in a place where timing is such a skill.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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My apologies to Senator Ryan.

Photo of Niall Ó BrolcháinNiall Ó Brolcháin (Green Party)
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No apologies are needed.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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It is a pity the Greens do not learn some timing.

Photo of Niall Ó BrolcháinNiall Ó Brolcháin (Green Party)
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I assure the Senator we are pretty good at it.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Senator Ó Brolcháin, without interruption.

Photo of Niall Ó BrolcháinNiall Ó Brolcháin (Green Party)
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I will not argue that point. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am in favour of this Bill. As Senator Ryan has argued, however, the key point will be its implementation. I ask the Minister of State to say when the Bill will be implemented. I am a Galway representative and it is a city with a population of 75,000 and a student population of 20,000. The student population of Galway is very vibrant and every September throws up numerous representations from students with regard to difficulties with grants. This information is needed by everyone in Galway and by everyone living in a city with a college or university.

I accept the principle that the plethora of grant agencies have been causing significant confusion. First-time students find it particularly difficult as they attempt to become familiar with a new curriculum and to adjust to living in a new place. When problems arise with grants, they often do not know who to talk to. Any proposals to simplify the grants system are to be welcomed. The implementation of the Bill's provisions is a key point.

I refer to a particular issue arising last year with regard to grant aid for mature students and the back to education allowance. As a result of the economic situation, many people are choosing to go to college or university as a means of helping them to find employment. This is a better use of time than being on the dole. The grants system should support people who should not be forced into a situation whereby they have to go on the dole, especially if they have children. Parents wishing to go back to education to enhance their employment prospects and to add value to their skills and abilities should be supported in every way possible. This Bill is a step in the right direction. I am aware that the number of grants for mature students has been cut and this is regrettable. However, I acknowledge the current difficult financial situation.

The effect of this Bill on mature students and their social welfare benefits should be examined. The single grants authority provided for in this Bill should allow for a more efficient administration of grants. We must invest in education and in students for the sake of the country. It has been a Green Party principle that education should be protected in this difficult economic time.

I agree with Senator Norris in his support for full and free access to education. I refer to the controversy about registration fees and college fees. I have said on a number of occasions in Galway that I support the Labour Party point of view that we do not want to reintroduce college fees. This has been a long-standing Labour Party principle and I commend the party on abolishing college fees in the first place. This policy is supported by the Green Party.

The registration fees have increased to such an extent that they are higher than similar registration fees in many other countries. Getting fees in by the back door is not appropriate either. Senator Norris also made the valid point that if we are going to be a low tax economy we cannot have high tax solutions. We cannot copy the Scandinavian model without paying Scandinavian levels of tax. We cannot afford to pay for a full student system if we do not have sufficient tax revenues.

We are harmonising grants but a number of people have told me they would like to see a proper system of student loans. At present, student loans are not easy to obtain and students would not be seen as good credit risks when they come looking for money to help themselves through college. I accept that the risk perception depends to some extent on the course being pursued. It is incumbent on the Government of the day to ensure that anybody who wants to go to college will not be barred interminably by financial considerations. If people, and mature students with families in particular, are prepared to borrow money to attend college it should be possible for them to do so. People should have some means, whether by begging or borrowing, although not by stealing, to enhance their employment prospects with a college or university education.

I am not particularly concerned about historical issues relating to the VECs or who administers the funds but there are bound to be teething problems when the new structures are implemented. We need to manage the transition period carefully. I recognise this is not a matter covered by the Bill but, as several Senators have noted, implementation is key to this issue. I welcome the Bill but I would like to know the timetable for implementing it and whether an implementation plan will be put in place.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an t-Aire Stáit. I am glad the Student Support Bill 2008 has at last come to fruition. The Bill is welcome at a time when our most educated and brightest young people are leaving in droves. It will offer greater cohesiveness through the implementation a single unified grant scheme. Fianna Fáil could do with a unified scheme to stay afloat but that is a different matter. I wish the Minister of State well in the deliberations this evening.

Last October and November, Fine Gael's spokesperson on education, Deputy O'Dowd, highlighted the current fragmented nature of the grant system. Parliamentary questions he tabled in the Dáil revealed that almost 20% of applications had not been processed at that stage. In my county of Cork, 55% of Cork County Council applications had not been processed.

Senators Ó Brolcháin and Ryan made reference to different issues. Senator Ó Brolcháin spoke about registration fee increases in the budget. His party is in government and he acquiesced to these increases.

Photo of Niall Ó BrolcháinNiall Ó Brolcháin (Green Party)
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We kept them low.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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The Senator can cry all he wants. He acquiesced.

Photo of Niall Ó BrolcháinNiall Ó Brolcháin (Green Party)
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I am not crying. Senator Buttimer can cry if he wants.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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A great number of students depend on grants to remain in college. Some are unable to cover their fees due to the delay in payments. We must implement a fast payment method for these students. I welcome that the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills acknowledged in the Dáil that the current system is fragmented. However, her admission that it was a priority for her at Cabinet tells its own story given that the legislation is not yet enacted.

Research by the USI indicates that a unified system of payments would bring savings of approximately €5 million per annum. Grants are the sole source of income for almost 70,000 students. There is a shortage of part-time employment. I am labouring the issue of grants because it is important. Families are coming under pressure because registration fees have increased, accommodation costs have to be met and food has to be purchased. My office is on Glasheen Road, which is adjacent to UCC, and I regularly meet students. They need their grants to be paid quickly. At a time of economic worries, they are doing the best they can to graduate with good degrees or diplomas. The process must ease their anxieties rather than add to them. I am concerned that the new system will not be more efficient. The cut of 4% to the student grant rate represents yet another blow against Irish students. It means a significant reduction in the money available to students and their families. Their parents were hit by other taxation measures in the budget and the cost of going to college has increased. That creates a disincentive for people to go to college.

We must never prevent people from returning to education in any shape or form. I was a director of adult education prior to becoming a Senator. The importance for mature students of returning to education cannot be overemphasised. If we lose that model, we will be in a poor position at a time when we look to build the smart economy. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, claimed he did great work to promote research and development. We must make education accessible to people.

One third of students depend on the student grant. What does that say about the Government's economic policies? If we are cutting money here and streamlining there, the grants process must be a catalyst for education. We have a well earned reputation for third level education and fourth level research and development. If we are to trade on our reputation as a well educated and skilled workforce, investment in education must be a priority.

I am concerned about the appeals process provided for in the Bill. The consideration period of 90 days is too long and should be reduced by half. The Minister proposes a more efficient system that includes much speedier processing of applications. I do not see why the appeals process should be any different. A student who is refused a grant in October should not have to wait until Christmas or longer to find out whether he or she will have the necessary support to remain in college. I know of a student who had difficulty with a grant and had to opt out of UCC this week. It took from October to January for a decision.

We must put in place supports which will allow students to remain in college. The change in the criteria which will mean that mature students will no longer qualify for the non-adjacent rate of the grant is also troubling. The increase in the qualifying distance between the student's home and college for the non-adjacent rate has also increased from 24 km to 45 km and the change in criteria will ensure another cut in the grant for many students.

Another new provision is the residency requirement which means an applicant must be resident in this State for three years of the previous five years. That will exclude many people who have had to leave our shores to find work elsewhere. When they want to come home, they will find that they are precluded from getting State assistance to enter education. That is worth addressing.

Deputy O'Dowd put forward different proposals regarding the one-stop-shop payments and entitlements service, which will act as a single point of contact for citizens making claims and which will cut the cost of administration and reduce the waiting time for grant distribution.

The Bill is welcome as we need a unified grant scheme and to allow access to education to continue. I note the IVEA's letter of concern regarding the policy and I understand from where it is coming. The VECs carried out considerable work and were very proficient in what they undertook. Through their general secretary, they put forward a very comprehensive briefing document which I am sure the Minister of State will consider and refer to in his concluding remarks.

It is important to acknowledge that we must speed up the grant payment. We cannot allow students to live in poverty and allow people to drop out of college because that is what is happening in some cases. The Minister will note that the student representative bodies have welcomed the single agency to deal with grants and the appeals board. However, the timeframe for the appeals board must be tightened.

It is important to welcome the Bill and, if we can, amend it in order to improve it. It is also incumbent on all of us to ensure that those people attend third colleges to which access is open to all and that investment in education is not diluted further. If we continue to erode third level education, we are not planning for the future.

At at time when we are experiencing an economic crisis, we must look forward and sow the seeds of recovery. The seeds of that recovery can be sown through our graduates who are currently located in the four corners of the world. There is a duty on us as legislators and on the Minister to try to entice them back. I am a former teacher and meet pupils who want to come home but there are no opportunities here for them currently and that must change.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State and compliment the Government, in particular the Minister for Education and Skills, on grasping this nettle. This Bill has been under consideration for a number of years and it has taken some time to produce but at least we have some finality in terms of a decision as to how best we formalise a new policy and a new structure to deal with higher education grants.

This Bill is about a unified grant system and it introduces a single national grant awarding body. The idea is that we try to deal with the time element in terms of the processing of applications, simplifying the application form, issuing the application form to provide enough time to tease it out and make a decision so students have a decision by the middle of August and not September, because many colleges start in early September. All that should be done in time to allow people to appeal a decision.

There is much teasing out to be done in terms of implementation. We must first get the structure right and then ensure we have the personnel to implement it at different stages. It is a great concept but its implementation has been referred to by other Senators. It is good that those on courses currently will continue under the old system in the transition period.

The Minister will play a role in regard to the institutions in the State to which grants will apply. They apply to the North of Ireland and perhaps they will apply to some of the educational institutions in EU members states. I have no difficulty with that.

A plethora of courses are coming on stream in third level colleges. Some of them are Mickey Mouse courses but others are very good new courses. They reflect modern thinking and last for a few years but then go out of fashion. It is important the Minister has a say in terms of the courses people in receipt of grants do. What qualifications will people receive? Will they lead to postgraduate courses, if necessary? Are the qualifications acknowledged internationally or do they apply only in this country? Given the number of courses coming on stream, it is a very important role when giving grants to students.

We have heard of colleges mushrooming and of courses folding before completion. I worry about that. We should narrow the range of courses somewhat. We have too many courses for the size of our country and we should streamline them. People should get a primary degree first and then do modules to complement their primary degree rather than do a course on a very particular subject which really only should be a module and not a degree course. If we are to give grants, let them be for structured and well teased out courses.

I also welcome the fact the Minister will have a say in vetting courses, how they are run and the qualifications concerned. Periodically, someone will drop in without notice and examine the courses for which grants have been given to students to ensure they are as they should be and that taxpayers' money is acknowledged.

I worry about the eligibility criteria for students applying for these grants. Most of these students will be leaving second level so there will be no difficulty with them. It would be an idea for career guidance teachers to have to hand this information which has been convoluted during the years. I often had to ring VECs or the Department to establish who could qualify for grants. The application form should be simple and the information provided at leaving certificate stage. I accept that could be done without any bother.

The residence requirement is a big issue. If a person living in Sligo got married in Dublin, there was confusion when that person became a mature student. Should he or she apply from his or her home in Sligo or from his or her present address? These are issues I have confronted as an educationist and also in my role as a public representative.

There is a major issue with mature students. A person may return after spending two or three years in Australia. He or she may not have applied for a grant since completing the leaving certificate and may decide to go to college. I understand such persons need to be here for six months before applying for a grant for the following year. I know of a 23-year old who had never applied for a grant, went to Australia and returned three or four months before the start of the academic year. When he applied for a grant, he was refused because he should have been back in the country for some length of time beforehand. Many young people will go away after completing the leaving certificate. They may not know what they want to do and having spent two or three years away decide they want to come back and go to college. When they apply for a grant, they discover they cannot qualify for it. That would be fine if they simply did not qualify for that year, but it transpired that the person to whom I referred could not get a grant for the second or third year. Am I right in my thinking? I believe there was such an anomaly and would like to see the matter cleared up once and for all as part of this Bill. It is not a problem if students need to return six months beforehand or if they are required to submit their forms by October or some other deadline. These are matters that need to be teased out. That issue is very important to me because I came across a genuine student who could not qualify for a grant for his second or third year in college and missed out totally. I have scanned through the Bill and while it may be addressed, I have not spotted it.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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The situation has changed in that as of this academic year a student must have been here for three of the previous five years.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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That has changed somewhat.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator has one minute of her time left.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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I could stay here talking about this issue for a long time. I would like to have the matter clarified further. If it is three years of the previous five, there is a lot to be teased out. I am not grasping it as the Minister of State says it and it may need to be teased out further.

It is great that we are starting this process to modernise the grants scheme. I worked in one of the VECs for many years, was a member of another VEC for many years and know how the system works. The VECs are to be complimented on the work they have done but the process became convoluted because of the increase in the number of students. While I believe in the unified system, if we farm out the system we are introducing, to what people will it be farmed out? Will they be educationists and understand the process?

While I welcome the appeals system, I would like it to be spelled out more. I welcome the Bill and look forward to further discussion on Committee Stage. It is worthwhile, but considerable further teasing out is required. Implementation is the most important part and should be done before 2012.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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It is a joy to speak after Senator Ormonde, particularly on a topic such as this on which she is so much in charge. She knows what she is talking about and speaks with great enthusiasm. I would happily forgo my time to hear her speak.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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During the good years in the economy I often found myself at retail functions throughout the world and as soon as people heard I was from Ireland, I was asked how we had succeeded in building such a strong economy. I had a list of five or six items, of which the first was always that we had continued to invest in education, even during the tough times. Even in these tough times we need to continue to invest in education.

I very much welcome the new system to replace the one that has been in place since the 1960s. While the streamlining of the system will bring benefit to students, I am worried about the additional staffing and resources which will be required to introduce the unified grants scheme, especially given the pressures on the public finances. I ask the Minister of State to elaborate on whether there are enough staff available to administer the grants scheme. If not, surely we are back to square one.

I welcome the creation of an independent appeals body, but I am somewhat concerned about the length of time to deal with appeals. Surely a waiting time of 45 days is too long, especially for a student starting university. Could we reduce the red tape and cut this figure to approximately two weeks?

I believe section 8 of the Bill does not include private colleges as being eligible to participate in the grants scheme. Should we not consider the student rather than the college when administering the scheme? I realise that not all educational institutions can be eligible, but some may see this as a form of discrimination.

The increase in online education courses will also need to be taken into account, if not in this Bill, in the near future. The question as to whether grants can be given to those doing an online course needs to be asked as this seems to the way of the future. It could be said oral, video and interactive delivery represent a natural extension of the traditional textbook and it is becoming more prevalent. Who would have thought some of the best universities in the world such as Georgetown in the United States would now be offering a multitude of online courses? In addition, there is the renaissance of the Open University in Britain which started to make lectures available to download from iTunes in 2008. More than 30 million items have been downloaded since.

Increasing numbers of undergraduates will likely choose to save money by living at home while they study, allowing part-time students to earn some money to ease their financial burden when not studying. Is there not a benefit in studying and working at the same time, allowing students to apply theoretical knowledge to solve real-life problems? I believe part-time students are not covered in the Bill. However, I welcome the provision to allow certain part-time courses to be included in the student grants scheme in the future, of course subject to resources.

There may also be cost savings in the case of online education. Hibernia College, the private teacher training college, has been providing online courses for a number of years. In the past ten years it has trained approximately 4,000 primary teachers through its online postgraduate programme who have not cost the State one cent. This compares with an annual €40 million price tag for the running of St. Patrick's College and Mary Immaculate College. Surely we should be looking to provide more support for such private colleges. The University of Phoenix, the largest private education provider in the United States, increased enrolments from 384,000 to 455,000 in just one year. This has been done without any increase in the number of buildings. It is able to use electronic means of communicating and lecturing, a subject on which we should have a debate. Last year I was asked to address via television link at NUI Galway a group of commerce students in six countries, including Russia, United States and France. They were able to ask me questions and I was able to answer them. Technology can be used in so many ways nowadays.

Perhaps employers should get more of a say on what they might consider as desirable attributes instead of completely relying on the academic scene. This is not to say there should not be education for education's sake — Cardinal Newman had strong views on that. If higher education was purely driven by businesses, they would fail to understand how philosophy graduates such as President Barack Obama and Mr. George Soros could earn a living. However, business and education can work in tandem.

I have also mentioned previously how there is a €4 billion export opportunity for Ireland in terms of attracting foreign students here to study. Just look at the success of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, which has 3,500 students, 70% of whom are non-Irish. The students create jobs, for instance, the College of Surgeons in Ireland has approximately 800 staff, and it is estimated each student spends about €8,000 locally per year. As an English-speaking country, we should be able to ramp up our efforts to attract many more such students here.

Perhaps less often mentioned is the licensing of our education services abroad or the exporting of them through on-line means. In Doha, the capital of Qatar, for instance, there are branches of campuses of a number of universities from the United States, including Cornell, Georgetown and Texas A&M. The Sorbonne in Paris has set up a campus in Abu Dhabi. The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, long open to foreign students, has set up branches in Malaysia, Bahrain and Dubai. There is much potential and there is much more that other Irish institutions such as UCD, Trinity College or renowned second level or third level schools could do.

I wish the Minister well with the Bill which reduces bureaucracy and, hopefully, will reduce waiting time for students. I hope there will be no further delay, especially as students, like so many, are facing financial difficulties.

There are other steps that can be taken in education. Returning to second schools, the three months' holiday is unsustainable. It came about when students were needed on farms 50, 60 or 100 years ago. It will not be easy to address, but it really does not make sense. In Japan, students in second level education get 16 days holidays a year. I am sure this will not be popular with teachers, who I am aware vote in the university panel in the Seanad, but there is little doubt that we can learn a great deal. There is much we can do. In Germany, for instance, second level schools finish at 1.30 p.m., but I note the effort that goes in afterwards into mathematics and languages, on of the areas where we really are quite poor. We must find some way of encouraging and developing our students, for instance, making it fun to learn mathematics and languages. There are new methods of teaching language.

When I visited a school recently it was interesting to ask the young women there what they intended to do. The teachers told me 90% of the young women there wanted to be hairdressers or opt for some other such scheme. They were not looking, as those in other countries do, at being able to develop and lift themselves up into new and better opportunities. If we are going to invest in the future, we really must encourage young people to invest their time, energies and brains in being able to concentrate particularly on languages, mathematics and science. If we do that, we will find a way through so that when people in years to come will ask how Ireland succeeded, we will give the same answer as I have been giving for the past 15 years, that there were a number of reasons, the first of which was that we continued to invest in education.

I congratulate the Minister on this step. I believe it is the correct direction. Let us ensure it happens.

5:00 pm

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senators for their valuable contribution to this debate. My overwhelming sense is one of support for this legislation based on a common goal to reform the student grants system. While we are thankful for the service that has been provided to students and parents by the existing grant awarding authorities in the past, we are now concerned with and must look forward to the future.

As demand for student grants continues to grow in the current economic climate, the quality of the service that is needed for the organisation and operation of student grants must improve dramatically to make it accessible, transparent and, most importantly, timely in its response to providing funding to those who otherwise might not be able to avail of further or higher education. In the next 20 years, the demographics show that we can expect a 50% increase in our first-year student intake at third level and the impact of this on our student grant system demands that we have a structure in place which is capable of absorbing the inevitable pressures this surge in student numbers will bring.

Simply put, our student grant administration system must change and be fit for purpose if we are not to ignore the plight of students who currently must negotiate a range of different student grant schemes and in many cases wait an unacceptable length of time to have their applications assessed and paid. In this regard, both the Tánaiste and the Department of Education and Skills fully accept that the delays in processing the student grants mentioned in the debate is not acceptable and this legislation is being enacted to tackle this issue head-on.

Concerns were raised here last week at the length of time that it has taken to bring this legislation to fruition. It is realised that progress on the Bill can appear to have been slow but this was unavoidable for a number of reasons, including the need for additional research on the legal implications for the provisions allowing the Minister to make decisions regarding the approval of institutions and courses for the purposes of the student grant schemes and a Government decision to establish a single grant awarding authority in line with the transforming public services agenda. Senator Ryan recognised the reasons for this delay. Each of these developments required significant legal input and subsequent amendments to the Bill. Because of the importance of this legislation, the emphasis at all times has been on getting it right.

The legislation provides us with the opportunity to overhaul fundamentally the student grants system by enhancing its capacity and responsiveness to the demands being made on it, not only from a changed economic environment but also in the face of dramatically increasing student numbers and the need for it to play its role satisfactorily, both in promoting participation in higher and further education and in providing quality third level education.

It is the intention, with the Senators' help, that this legislation will be enacted in the current Oireachtas session.

By selecting a single grant awarding authority and providing it with the power, where appropriate, to outsource some of its functions, we will ensure a fully equipped and robust body based on a strong legislative footing. By consolidating the four existing grant schemes into one, we will eliminate confusion for students when it comes to applying for a grant. By clearly and unambiguously setting out the details and regulations on a wide range of issues, including the application for and awarding of grants, the responsibilities of students and their parents and spouses, the conditions for grant eligibility and the residency and nationality requirements, we will ensure consistency of approach in dealing with grant applications. By the use of service level agreements with the single awarding authority, we will ensure a continuum of high quality customer service to students and their parents and the application of the terms of the schemes equitably and efficiently throughout the system. By establishing an independent appeals board, we will ensure that objectivity applies in the determination of a grant application appeal. By strengthening the processes on fraudulent claims, which will be policed by the single grant awarding authority, we protect the taxpayer and safeguard funds so they can be targeted at those most in need. By requiring the preparation and implementation of access plans and equality policies in approved institutions, we underpin Government policies to increase access to further and higher education. By including an enabling provision to include part-time courses in the student grant schemes when resources permit, we recognise the changes in the methods of delivery of higher education over the years. I look forward to the real improvement in service that these developments will facilitate, most of all the improvement in the quality of the student experience when dealing with the grant administration process.

I welcome the support for the independent appeals process in particular. This has been a feature as the Bill passed through the various stages of the legislative process.

The timeframe set out in the Bill for appeals is the maximum. It is envisaged the majority of appeals will be considered in a much shorter timeframe and the service level agreements with the single awarding authority to which I have referred and the procedures to be set down for the independent appeals board will reflect this. On Report and Final Stages in the Dáil the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills agreed to reduce the timeframe in which the independent appeals board will deal with appeals from 90 days to 60. This is the maximum timeframe which takes cognisance of the fact that there will be cases in which complex matters may need to be considered and consultation may be required with other parties, including State agencies, to reach a conclusion. Senators will find that much of the latitude provided is to allow a student more time to appeal, if necessary, rather than facilitating the response of the awarding authority or the independent appeals board. The independent appeals board will be introduced during the transitional period in line with the provisions contained in the Bill.

Three other issues arose here last week, the first of which relates to when resources might be available to include part-time courses in the student grant schemes. Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict when this might happen at this time. We know the number of full-time students eligible for grants is increasing significantly and this is likely to be the case for the foreseeable future. We realise the modes of delivery of higher education courses are constantly changing and the student grant schemes must reflect this. Whereas we are not in a position to include part-time courses, I hope Senators will agree it was important to include an enabling clause in the legislation to facilitate movement on this front when we are in a position to do so.

The second issue which arose last week had to do with whether the new online application facility would ensure more accurate grant applications would be submitted. As Senators probably know, incomplete or inaccurate applications are a major contributor to delays in processing grant applications. I am pleased to inform Senators that the new online facility is intelligent and responsive to the inputted information. It is not possible to leave blank mandatory fields and students are prompted to provide information specific to their personal circumstances. In addition, it automatically generates an e-mail to a student outlining the supporting documentation required for the application. This is student-specific and based on the information provided by the applicant.

The third issue which arose was the possibility of including funding to meet additional course costs such as equipment in the student grant schemes. Given the level of demand on the student grant budget, this will not be possible. Student grants are not intended to meet all of the costs of going to college but are intended to contribute to meeting the costs incurred. In the current economic climate, if we were to add funding in one area, it would have to be saved in another, meaning another cohort of students might suffer. On the other hand, costs incurred such as those for compulsory field trips are covered under the grant schemes. In the interests of fairness, the allocations made are deemed to be the fairest.

The possible involvement of students on the independent appeals board has been raised at various times throughout the legislative process. There is nothing in the legislation to preclude this, but the appeals board is not a representative body and it would not be appropriate for any of its members to participate on an advocacy basis. Its membership, appointed by the Minister, will be on the basis of expertise in education and other relevant fields such as accountancy. Senators will appreciate that the board must be entirely objective if it is to have credibility. I do not wish to imply that students would not be objective, but Members will appreciate that I must ensure from the outset that no question marks will hang over the board's independence.

I am pleased we have commenced the reform of the administration of the grants system by issuing invitations for expressions of interest in the establishment of the single grant awarding authority and by appointing an evaluation panel. I am also pleased that work is commencing on the consolidation of the four existing grant schemes by way of regulation. I hope Senators accept this as a sincere expression of commitment on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills and Department to deliver on this legislation for students and parents in the fastest possible timeframe. As the Tánaiste stated last week, the intention is to have the unified grants scheme in operation for the forthcoming academic year 2011-12. This will place the terms and conditions of the grant schemes on a legislative footing, including all of the eligibility conditions relating to nationality, residency, means and previous academic attainment. It will also include the eligibility requirements for various categories of student such as independent students, to whom Senator Healy Eames alluded last week. However, any changes to the definition of "independent student" will require cost implications to be taken into account and whether the cost can be borne in the current climate. The Senator also referred to continuing eligibility for student grants where a student discontinued one course and started another. Again, there would be cost implications in this regard which would have to be considered before any changes could be made to the current structure.

The intention is that the single grant awarding authority will come into operation on a transitional basis for the 2012-13 academic year. The question was posed last week as to why the authority could not commence operations sooner, but Senators will understand the legislation was originally drafted to allow for the grant administration function to be carried out by 33 vocational education committees. In line with the transformation of public services agenda, a Government decision was taken to develop a single grant awarding authority and until the legislation was sufficiently advanced, it was not possible to move on setting up the authority. There is now a process to be followed which involves inviting expressions of interest, evaluating these expressions, fleshing out proposals, where necessary, and verifying that any preferred proposals are fully viable.

Essentially, by the time the new single authority is selected, there will only be one year to put in place the necessary structures and resources to do this properly. Given the importance of the grant administration function, it is vital that the single body immediately offer an uninterrupted and effective service to students. Therefore, the new single authority will commence by accepting new applications in 2012, with current students staying with existing grant awarding bodies. This will allow a three to four year run-in period for the single authority. We are aware there were severe problems in other jurisdictions when there was an attempt to do too much too soon. Taking this on board, it is considered prudent to introduce and bed down the unified grants scheme in order that the single grant awarding authority can hit the road running with the scheme.

Senator Healy Eames asked what criteria would be used in deciding on the single awarding authority. Proposals from public bodies interested in operating the single grant awarding authority are expected to address customer service improvements, efficiency, use of technology, organisational capacity, potential for outsourcing and overall cost. Additionally, some of the principal challenges that must be addressed in proposals include the centralisation of a service currently provided by 66 grant awarding authorities, dealing with high volumes of inexperienced customers, interpreting and explaining grant schemes governed by complex regulations, development of new ICT and business processes, having new staff working with largely new management and cyclical work with relatively brief but high volume processing periods.

It has been made known to prospective applicants that the anticipated outcomes are timely processing and assessment of grant applications, decisions within a guaranteed timeframe where complete applications are submitted by the closing date, consistency in the application of scheme requirements, more streamlined and transparent processes, increased automation of service delivery from online application through to payments by electronic fund transfer, consistent and timely payments to both students and institutions, the availability of adequate information and support for students, improved management and financial information for the Government, significant gains in efficiency and cost-effectiveness in the grant administration function. Overall, there should be a greatly enhanced service for students.

Other issues were raised today by Senators Norris, Buttimer and others, including the concerns of VECs. The Department of Education and Skills is in ongoing discussions with the Irish Vocational Educational Association on its list of concerns. The matter will be discussed at a meeting with association representatives next week when its concerns will be addressed further.

Senators asked about the position of private and for-profit colleges, Griffith College was mentioned in particular. The institutions recognised under the Bill are generally publicly funded third level colleges offering full-time courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

The Department provides significant funding to the institutions in question. These funds are used to provide a broad range of courses which are required by society and not only to meet the economic needs of the country. The institutions in question operate for the greater good of the country and act in the best interests of the development of human capital in the State.

Private commercial colleges generally operate on a for-profit basis and the State does not have any say in directing their operations. By their nature, they only provide courses where there is a demand and their only objectives are to remain commercially viable and make as much profit as possible. If private colleges were to be approved under the student grants scheme, the Department would be liable to cover not only the costs of a maintenance grant and student services charge but also the cost of tuition fees, which constitute a support to the college rather than student. This would result in the State effectively contributing towards the operating costs of a private, for-profit college.

Taking together the factors I have outlined, the Government has formed the view that there are compelling reasons for not admitting for-profit colleges to the student grant scheme. For this reason, it is not proposed to depart from the policy of extending the scope of the student grant scheme to private colleges operated on a for-profit basis. This position is reflected in section 7, although the section does not preclude such colleges from being approved and makes provision for the Minister to prescribe an educational institution as being an approved institution subject to certain conditions.

Senator Norris also raised the issue of university status recognition for Waterford Institute of Technology. The issue of the status of other institutes of technology can be addressed in the context of the Senator's query. In line with the recommendation of the higher education strategy, there is no requirement for further traditional universities under the Universities Act 1997 and the Government has decided that no applications under section 9 of the Act will be approved.

An alternative pathway of evolution for institutes of technology is outlined in the report, allowing for potential amalgamation on a regional basis and redesignation as technological universities which would operate under a separate legislative framework. International expertise has been commissioned in developing detailed performance criteria for redesignation, which will be published at an early stage. Any future redesignation will follow a two stage process as set out in the report. This will include an assessment of wider system implications of any application and a second stage review by international experts focused on the amalgamated institutes' performance, quality and standards.

I am greatly encouraged by the enthusiasm of the stakeholders for the proposed programme of change and their co-operation in bringing it forward. The Department looks forward to continuing to work with them to maximise improvements in customer service and deliver an efficient and cost-effective system of grant administration. As we move towards the final stages of this legislation, I look forward to the Seanad's support for the Bill. I thank Senators and commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 25 January 2011.