Seanad debates

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Third Level Education

10:30 am

Photo of Annie HoeyAnnie Hoey (Labour)
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I am raising the need to address the issue around higher education funding being potentially lost to students who withdraw from their courses and the knock-on consequences that this will have not only for free fees - a term I use lightly - but also for their access to Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants.

There is a certain point, usually at the end of October, by which students must withdraw from their courses or serve notice that they do not wish to continue their learning if they want to be able to access learning the following year, still be able to get free fees and the like. I am concerned about this because this has been an extraordinary year. Students have had to adapt to new learning styles, as lecturers have had to adapt to new teaching styles. We have all had to adapt to a whole new system. I am concerned about the impact this will have on students, their interaction and the sense of the course they are undertaking. This is through no fault of their own. Neither is it through any fault of their lecturers, the support staff in the educational institutions or the State. The coronavirus happened and we have to make the best of it. There is an opportunity, however, to do something about it.

I do not need to go into too much about the consequences of dropping out from a course. There is no shame in dropping out of a course if it is not the right course for one. The knock-on consequences, however, for those who feel they have to drop out because of financial reasons or because the course was not right for them often mean they are not able to continue on with their learning. It is important that students have been able to leave courses before October which would not have a knock-on consequence for their education.

However, I have spoken to some people in the past while who just do not know. That is because they have not been able to get a sense of their course, themselves, their space or being, all of the things with which we are all trying to grapple too. These people are concerned about the consequences of either staying in a course that is wrong for them or staying in a course they simply should not be in and out of which they will not get any value. This also means there is a knock-on cost to the State and wider society. These people feel that if they bite the bullet and drop out, they will then lock themselves out of coming back next year to do a different course. They will also lock themselves out of being able to access the SUSI grant and other supports. There are also students for whom circumstances are changing dramatically. We still have coronavirus, people getting sick and knock-on consequences for families.

As it is an exceptional year, I am asking for exceptional leniency and understanding for the circumstances in which students may find themselves at the end of 2020 and in 2021 with their education. I have always said, both inside and outside Leinster House, that education is the great leveller. Both the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Harris, have also spoken about how education is a great leveller and that we need to work more on easing access to it. I am pleading with the Minister of State for understanding and leniency that we do not lock anyone out due to circumstances beyond his or her control this year and for exceptional understanding for exceptional circumstances.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Hoey for raising this important matter.

Under the Department's free fees schemes, the Exchequer provides funding toward the tuition fee costs of eligible undergraduate higher education students with students paying the student contribution. The student contribution applies to all students on an annual basis who are eligible under the free fees scheme. The current rate is €3,000 per annum. Currently, 60,000 students had all or part of their student contribution paid on their behalf by the State via the student grant scheme.

To satisfy the terms and conditions of the SUSI and free fees schemes regarding progression, a student must be moving from year to year within a course, having successfully completed the previous year, or be transferring from one course to another where the award for the subsequent course is of a higher level than the previous course.

Under the progression-previous academic attainment criteria of the schemes, a grant or funding will not be paid to a student for a repeat period of study on the same course, or for a different course at the same level. The objective of this policy is to help as many students as possible to obtain one qualification at each level of study. However, once an equivalent period of study has been completed on the new course, the student may be eligible for student grant assistance or free fees funding for the remainder of the course.

Typically students are not supported for a repeat period of study under the free fees initiative. However, in exceptional circumstances or where a student receives a leaving certificate uplifted offer from their original CAO application following an appeal, an exception may be allowed.

The student contribution applies to all students on an annual basis who benefit under the free fees scheme. If the student receives an uplifted place and, subsequently, switches courses during the academic year, they will only pay one student contribution. If a student leaves the current course mid-year, they may be eligible for a partial refund of the contribution from the higher education institution. Students should discuss this with their institution in the first instance.

In addition, under the student grant scheme of 2020, SUSI has discretion to award a grant for a repeat period of study in exceptional circumstances which impacted on a student completing a particular period of study or undertaking exams. SUSI treats each application for repeat funding on a case-by-case basis. It is a matter for the individual student to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the awarding authority that there were exceptional circumstances.

If a student leaves their course, normal rules apply and the student will not continue to receive a student grant payment. Students must inform SUSI that they are no longer attending their course.

My Department is acutely aware of the needs of students. The student assistance fund provides financial assistance to students experiencing financial difficulties while attending third level. Students can be assisted towards the rent, childcare costs, transport costs and books or class materials. The total allocation for the fund in 2020 and 2021 is €18.2 million.

Additionally, in response to Covid-19, a once-off fund of €1.9 million for access and support services was provided as part of the July stimulus package in 2020 for higher education institutions.This funding has been ring-fenced to meet the wider demands of vulnerable students and target groups. The funding will be used to support activities such as: support learner and student access; engagement or re-engagement activities; retention; progression and positive learning experiences; student success measures; the recruitment of temporary staff to support access services; student advisory support; enhanced orientation programmes; outreach; and pre-entry work.

Photo of Annie HoeyAnnie Hoey (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for that. He indicated that an exception may be allowed. He also stated that a student who leaves a course mid-year may be eligible for a partial refund of contribution from the relevant higher education institution. Would that effectively set students who would not be eligible for a SUSI grant back to point zero? I note that SUSI has discretion to award a grant for a repeat period of study in exceptional circumstances. Will the Department be advising SUSI to consider circumstances related to Covid-19 as exceptional? Do we just have to hope it will address matters on a case-by-case basis? Will the Department be stating this year has been exceptional owing to Covid and that this could have had a major impact on students' experience?

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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We are aware of the difficulties students have been facing during the pandemic. We encourage any students who are struggling to cope with studying at home to contact their educational institutions or access officers in order that they can be informed of the wide range of services that are available to support them on their journey prior to making any decisions regarding a cessation of their studies.

In recognition of the challenges facing full-time third level students, the Government approved once-off funding of up to €50 million to provide financial assistance in this academic year. That resulted in a payment of €250 for SUSI students and a €250 credit for all EU full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students attending publicly funded higher education institutes. It will be allocated in the coming weeks. SUSI and the higher education institutions will be communicating with students shortly in this regard. That builds on the additional supports that I referred to, namely, the doubling of the student assistance fund, the €15 million technology fund for devices for students in further and higher education, and the €3 million euro provided as part of the July stimulus to support enhanced mental health services and well-being initiatives.

If the Senator communicates with me separately on some of the issues referred to in her supplementary question, I will get her a more definitive reply. I am just not in a position to give a reply on the issues now.

As early as yesterday, the Government approved a review of the entire SUSI system, to commence immediately. The system has not been reviewed in a number of years. The review will cover all aspects of the system, including criteria, payments and eligibility. It will be all-encompassing. All the stakeholders, including the student unions, will be consulted as part of it. I envisage that there will be an opportunity for public submissions to be made. Public representatives will be able to avail of this facility also. I hope that helps.