Seanad debates

Wednesday, 27 April 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Third Level Fees

10:30 am

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Before I call Senator Hoey I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to the House. She will be happy to hear that her name was used a lot during the Order of Business yesterday and in praise of her and her work in her Department.

Photo of Annie HoeyAnnie Hoey (Labour)
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I am here to talk about Bank of Ireland's announcement that it is withdrawing the graduate entry medicine, GEM, loan, the only loan available that is specific to graduate entry medicine students. It came with conditions such as a moratorium on paying back the loan before four years. I am not asking any Minister of State or Government to interfere in the commercial or operational decisions of any bank, even if we have a shareholding in that bank. I recognise that banks need to be able to do whatever they want so they are free to withdraw their loan product but on behalf of the students I have spoken to we are seeking engagement from Government on alternative financing options or funding supports.

A survey was done by a number of students who will be affected by this and about 10% of all the Irish GEM students responded to it over a couple of days, which is statistically significant. Some 92% of them said they require external financial support to pay the university fees and we all know how much those university fees are; they are €16,000 per year to study GEM. That is colossal money. It is €64,000 that they have to take out as a loan. Some 74% of those who responded have or would have eventually sought to avail of the Bank of Ireland loan and that is a significant number. A number of them worry they will not be able to apply for it due to the lack of a suitable guarantor. Some 71 of the 141 respondents said the fees caused them to delay studying medicine, which is significant when we have a crisis in the healthcare system. On top of that, an additional 100 out of the 140 respondents pay accommodation costs and we all know how expensive that is. A number of them felt compelled to add in additional comments and all of them are extremely concerned, including about their capacity to continue the course. Bank of Ireland has said it will allow them to finish it out so hopefully that has been dealt with. A number of respondents feel they will not be able to undertake graduate medicine because they do not have the option of this loan.

The biggest issue people have raised is that anyone who has spoken to Bank of Ireland, including myself, has not been able to get clarity on the alternative options which have been touted. A Bank of Ireland statement on this matter mentions that it has other loans available but as far as I can tell none of the other loans seems to offer the four-year moratorium. This would be unreasonable, when it is already an accelerated course, for GEM students who are already compressing medicine into four years. It is an intense course and their final year is extremely intense, as any medical studies are. To then have to start paying back the loan in that final year is not feasible or reasonable and that is something that has come back to me from the many students I have spoken to.

The fees were already exorbitant and we have had conversations before about how it is unrealistic to expect people to pay them. We will never have any sort of diversity in medicine if we have the likes of €16,000 per year fees and if we are locking people out of loans for that money because they cannot get guarantors or take out a personal loan. One of the responses I got from Bank of Ireland was that students could take out a personal loan but that has different requirements with it. A student who said she was planning on studying GEM in August 2023 said her only feasible option right now is to study in the North and even this is a risk as:

I want to live and work in the Republic and as of yet, the government has not fixed the issue of British trained doctors being allowed to apply for an Irish Intern year post-brexit. This means if I do move my partner and family for four years to save on fees I may never be able to come back and work on a training scheme here. It does seem like a neverending maze of dead ends when all I want to is to train as a doctor in my own country.

Has the Minister of State any light to shine at the end of this tunnel?

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. These speaking notes are his. However, I will, as a former banker, answer some of the Senator's questions at the end.

I thank Senator Hoey for raising this important issue, which has recently been brought to the Minister of State's attention. The loans available to GEM students are private arrangements between the relevant lenders and the students applying for such loans. Notwithstanding this, the Department has been made aware of reports regarding the specific loan scheme for GEM and is currently seeking further information on the issue. That the Department is doing this so reassuring.

The fee payable by a student can vary depending on a variety factors, including the type of course and the student's access route, for example, previous education. Entry to medicine in Irish higher education institutions is provided through undergraduate and graduate entry routes. GEM is one of the pathways to studying medicine. Students pursuing GEM programmes pursue them as second degree courses and, consequently, are not eligible for free fees funding or student grants.

One of the recommendations of the 2006 Fottrell report was the introduction of a new GEM programme. In order to widen access to GEM programmes and give assistance towards the financial burden, the fees of participating EU students are partly subsidised by the State via the Higher Education Authority, HEA. In the 2020-21 academic year, the State contribution was €11,524 per student, with the balance of fees payable by the student.

The programme for Government committed to conducting a comprehensive review of the student grant scheme in 2021 to ensure that adequate student supports were in place. The report was conducted by Indecon and will be brought to the Government shortly. In terms of other available supports, students on GEM courses may also be eligible to apply to the student assistance fund for financial support. This fund is administered on a confidential and discretionary basis by the access office in the third level institution attended. In addition, tax relief at the standard rate may be available in respect of tuition fees paid for approved courses at approved colleges of higher education. Further information is available from a student's local tax office or the website of the Revenue Commissioners,

Work is ongoing on the development of the new strategic action plan for equity of access, participation and success in higher education. This plan will seek to reflect and implement the vision that the higher education "student body entering, participating in and completing higher education at all levels reflects the diversity and social mix of Ireland's population" and that our higher education institutions are inclusive environments that support and foster student success and outcomes, equity and diversity and are responsive to the needs of students and wider communities.

This response, which the Minister of State has provided to me, is comprehensive and tells me that a great deal of work is ongoing. In light of the situation in which the students now find themselves, it is welcome that Bank of Ireland will facilitate them and follow through on the terms and conditions, thereby letting them finish out their four years. The loans were so helpful because they acknowledged the level of professionalism required in such courses, that they were intensive and that there would be an opportunity at the end to work and earn enough income to repay them. Removing the loans from the market makes it difficult for students to consider pursuing such careers. Parents may not have the funding or correct credit status to be successful guarantors.

Photo of Annie HoeyAnnie Hoey (Labour)
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I know the Minister of State read from notes on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, but what she read out were all of the problems with GEM. The solution seems to be that the Department is looking into the matter, which is not much for me to go back to the students with. While it is welcome that the Department is looking into the matter, students need to know what they are going to do and what will be available for them. I have read the statement from Bank of Ireland – we have had some back-and-forth discussions – that other options are available, but no examples were provided. The other options just seem to be what are available to everyone else, and as the Minister of State mentioned, those do not take into account the high level of intensity involved in these courses.

As far as I am aware, this is not happening because there has been a default. This is a stable loan facility and these are people who are repaying their loans. I am not a banker like the Minister of State was, but it does not seem to me to be a high-risk loan.

This situation is frustrating. The GEM scheme is unequal and continues the elitism of medicine. As far as I can tell, I have not been provided with an answer today that I can take back to those students.

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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The Government is looking into the matter. The loan's withdrawal was not of the Government's doing; it was sprung upon the Government, and now the Government is dealing with the matter as quickly as it can. The Minister of State has made it clear that he is in talks with the bank.

The Senator is right, in that the risk attached to this loan is minimal. That is why the bank is prepared to delay for four years, with no repayments. It will suspend interest for those four years as well. There is a market to recruit into the loan facility and the level of earnings at the end is enough to meet the repayments.

This is a priority for the Government. We do not want to be in such a situation where we cannot recruit young people into these courses because they cannot afford them.