Wednesday, 30 May 2018
Access to Higher Education
I thank the Minister of State for her time. I acknowledge that there is a crossover between the Commencement matter and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. In 2015, lone-parent legislation impacted in a particularly harsh manner on a cohort of older lone parents, mainly women, who were placed outside the lone-parent provisions by the State and considered as simply unemployed. Under this legislation, when the child of a lone parent turns 14, that parent moves from jobseeker's transitional payment to jobseeker's benefit. After the child has reached the age of 14, the lone parent will become invisible in the system. The Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection recommended raising the age from 14 to 18 to keep this cohort visible.
Today, I want to look at older women whose children are above the age of 18 and who are no longer deemed by the State to be lone parents. They go without intervention in education and go from being lone parents at risk of poverty to older people living in poverty. The educational acquirements of this cohort were limited and many of these parents were denied the right to progress to a masters of their choice. Their right to progress to PhD was totally removed and their educational requirements were placed under the remit of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, contravening Ireland's commitment to the provision of access to all strands of higher education outlined in the Bologna process. For those who had attained a level 9 qualification through Springboard, no further training options are automatically available. It should be noted regarding educational progression that those graduating from Springboard masters, which are few and limited, do not enjoy the same level of postgraduate support as others. This further removes the possibility of educational progression and calls equality legislation into question.
It is desirable that the Department of Education and Skills works in tandem with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to address these issues. They speak to an unfair positioning of this cohort and their families, who are at an above-average risk of poverty. In some cases, women with a masters level of education have no option but to take on low-paid and low-skilled work due to large gaps in their CVs as a result of their remaining at home alone to care for their children. Competition for employment is difficult enough without being 45 years old with very little employment history due to being the sole provider and carer for children. The opportunity to progress further educationally with targeted supports may help a cohort of older women to gain decent employment and reach the highest level of educational attainment if that is their desire.
I ask for recognition that this cohort of women has been placed at risk of sustained poverty.This should include recognition of the particular difficulties that older women face in gaining employment. Since 2008 the employment market has been structured around low-paid and precarious work which in many cases favours younger employees. Many of these women have a small window of opportunity to make provision for their old age and need support from the State to have the opportunity to progress. The restoration of rights to training and further education for those who have attained a level 9 qualification is an urgent requirement. This should include access for this group of older lone parents to all educational levels, including doctorate, Ph.D., with required supports where necessary to enable equality of opportunity.
I thank Senator Ruane for raising this important matter. The programme for Government included a commitment to prepare a report on the barriers to lone parents accessing higher education. This was carried out by the National University of Ireland Maynooth which was engaged by the Department of Education and Skills to conduct the review. The review was overseen by a steering committee chaired by the Department of Education and Skills, which included representation from the Departments of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Children and Youth Affairs and the Higher Education Authority, HEA. There was also consultation with the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government.
The key findings of the report around the barriers faced by lone parents included that there is a lack of data on lone parents in higher education. Research has consistently identified lone parents as a group at higher risk of social exclusion, financial exclusion and economic vulnerability. There are a range of financial supports offered by the State to cover the direct and indirect costs of attending higher education. These include supports from the Department of Education and Skills and Higher Education Authority, specifically the student grant scheme, student assistance fund and supports available in higher education institutions; supports from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, specifically the back to education allowance, cost of education allowance, one parent family payment, jobseeker's transitional payment, family income support, jobseeker's allowance, jobseeker's benefit and rent supplement; childcare support schemes from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs; and the housing assistance payment from the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government.
There are particular financial challenges for lone parents wishing to access higher education. This can arise from the additional costs associated with supporting a family unit, the fact that there is limited support available for part-time study, which is often better suited to lone parents, some differences in the level of support provided to different categories of lone parent, and limited awareness among lone parents of the 'bundles' of supports that are offered by the State.
There is a cross-departmental group in place to respond to the recommendations of the report while the Department has put in place specific measures to focus on lone parents accessing higher education. In August last year I announced €16.5 million for new initiatives to widen access to higher education, with a strong focus on helping lone parents to access higher level education. The Department identified education as a key area to break down the barriers of disadvantage and open up pathways for those who might easily miss out. That announcement included funding bursaries worth €5,000 for 600 students coming from non-traditional backgrounds into college, with support for at least 120 socioeconomically disadvantaged lone parents. This is a €6 million regional call under the programme for access to higher education, PATH 2 of the national access plan funding. The second funding call was to support programmes to help 2,000 students from non-traditional backgrounds, including 200 lone parents, to enter college and successfully complete their course. This will be a €7.5 million regional call under PATH 3 of the national access plan funding. A further €3 million in increased funding was announced over three years for the hardship supports to help students, with lone parents being prioritised
Across Departments there is a further range of supports available to lone parents and other key supports provided by the Department of Education and Skills, including additional funding secured in budget 2017 to facilitate the reinstatement of full maintenance grants from September 2017 for the most disadvantaged postgraduate students. In addition, postgraduate students who meet the qualifying conditions for the special rate of grant under the student grant scheme are eligible for a maintenance grant of up to €5,915 and the income threshold for this grant is €23,500. Qualifying postgraduate students may also be eligible to have their tuition fees paid up to a maximum fee limit of €6,270. Alternatively, a postgraduate student may qualify to have a €2,000 contribution made towards the cost of fees. The income threshold for this payment is €31,500 for the 2017-18 academic year, increasing relative to the number of family dependants. In addition, students in third-level institutions experiencing exceptional financial need can apply for support under the student assistance fund, SAF. This fund assists students who might otherwise be unable to continue their third level studies due to their financial circumstances. Tax relief is also available on postgraduate tuition fees. The SAF has been extended to support part-time students in 2017 and an additional €1 million has been allocated to prioritising support for part-time students who are lone parents.
Students on courses that lead to a higher education award at levels 6 to 10 of the national framework qualification, NFQ, are eligible to apply for SAF. I am mindful that in some cases there can be a presumption that lone parents are more likely to be concentrated at the lower end of the age spectrum. This is by no means always the case. There are lone parents in their 40s and 50s who also want to access higher education and need support. The challenge is broad and wide-ranging. To respond to the recommendations and newer issues as they arise a cross-departmental implementation committee was established by the Department of Education and Skills. The supports that have been put in place and that are being monitored by the committee will ensure that there is positive progress with regard to lone parents participating in higher education.
I thank the Minister of State for her detailed response which comprehensively covers all the supports available. Maybe when the cross-departmental committee meets it might consider the visibility of some of those lone parents because once their children have turned either 14 or 18 they no longer fit into the bracket of lone parents. The data might not exist because their title in the system has changed. It might be a positive idea to gather data on older lone parents who have lost all supports because they have lost that title. There might be more targeted supports for them.It might not be that they would get the financial supports available to lone parents but that they would still hold onto the title of "lone parent" in order that they could access the supports available for lone parents, as their family situation does not really change just because their children turn 18, apart from such children being able to access their own social welfare payments. Perhaps some of the educational provisions could still carry on for women whose youngest child has turned 18.