Written answers

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Department of Education and Skills

Third Level Education

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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219. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if his attention has been drawn to the proposal by an association (details supplied) for the establishment of a transformation fund to support an enhanced skills development programme to provide sustained investment in digital infrastructure and to provide capacity for the known demographic growth in student numbers over the next decade; and his views on the assessment that €180 million of an annual investment will be required in addition to the capital investment proposed for third-level in Project Ireland 2040. [6009/20]

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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As part of the collaborative response to this pandemic with key tertiary education stakeholders, the Department has established working groups composed of experts to assess and respond to the impacts of Covid 19 across the Sector.  These working groups members are reviewing immediate operations, medium term contingency planning and the review of specific and acute needs within Tertiary Education.  This process continues to facilitate the provision of key information from stakeholders, that will inform immediate and medium term actions to respond to the rapidly changing circumstances.

The projected financial impact of Covid19 on Higher Education and the Tertiary Education system as a whole is being assessed by the Department of Education and Skills as part of its ongoing analysis of the impact of Covid19 on the education sector overall.  The provision of additional financial support to support Tertiary Education to ensure that it can contribute fully to economic recovery and to meeting priority skill needs will be examined in the context of overall expenditure management and budgetary policy. The Department will continue to engage with key stakeholders to safeguard the recovery of the tertiary education sector.

In relation to capital expenditure, I recognise the challenges posed for the sector by demographic growth, and by ambitious energy efficiency and decarbonisation targets. The need for robust digital infrastructure has also been underlined by the experience of the pandemic.  Project Ireland 2040 already provides for an ambitious investment programme for the higher education sector and within the past year we have seen a number of transformative university building projects approved for co-funding by the State.  I am confident that these projects will play a key role in supporting the national recovery and skills agenda.  I also consider that the experience of the pandemic provides an opportunity to reflect on the future direction of, and priorities for, higher education capital investment and will be keen to have a dialogue on this with sectoral representatives in the coming months.

I am also aware of the immediate impact on universities of the temporary suspension of building projects and the complexities involved in remobilisation.  My Department is continuing to liaise closely on this with the HEA and with the institutions affected. 

My Department will continue to work with all key stakeholders as we move into a further phase of planning in the context of mitigating the impact of Covid 19 and planning for a return to learning under changed and changing circumstances.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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220. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if his attention has been drawn to the proposal by an association (details supplied) for a stability fund to provide targeted support for students and their families in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis focused on enhanced access programmes, improved SUSI grants and well-being supports; and his views on establishing such a fund. [6010/20]

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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My Department is fully aware of the difficulties being experienced by students and their families as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. A working group on mitigating educational disadvantage is supporting on-going responses to what is an evolving situation, to ensure the continuation of crucial funding sources such as SUSI grants, the 1916 Bursary Scheme, the Student Assistant Fund, Fund for Students with a disability and other allowances. All stakeholders in this group have worked to support learners without access to sufficient technology and to ensure the continuation of services offered by access and disability offices, guidance counsellors and counselling services.

My Department is conscious of the importance of the Student Grant Scheme and related supports, such as the Student Assistance Fund and the Fund for Students with Disabilities. These supports have a fundamental role in assisting families who are putting their children through further and higher education.

Accordingly, the following arrangements have been put in place:

SUSI

- Student grant payments for academic year 2019/20 will continue as normal. The duration and value of the grant will not change.

- Student grant applications for academic year 2020/21 will be assessed based on income earned in 2019.

- If a student or party to their application experiences a change in circumstances that is not a temporary change and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, they can apply to have their application assessed under the change in circumstances provision of the relevant Student Grant Scheme. Following such a review, the applicant may fall within the thresholds to become eligible for grant assistance or be entitled to an increased rate of grant or the special rate of grant.

- The Student Grant Scheme provides for different levels of income thresholds where families have (i) less than 4 dependent children (ii) between 4 and 7 dependent children and (iii) 8 or more dependent children. In recognition of the additional cost to families where more than one person is attending college, income thresholds may also be increased by up to €4,830 for each additional family member attending college at the same time. In this way, the Student Grant Scheme is responsive to the individual circumstances of particular families.

- The income threshold for the special rate of grant has been increased from €24,000 to €24,500 for the 2020 scheme, so as to ensure that students from families dependent on welfare will continue to be eligible for the special rate of grant. (This reflects the Budget 2019 increase to the maximum point of the weekly State Contributory Pension, plus maximum Qualified Adult Allowance for a person over 66 years).

Student Assistance Fund

- The Student Assistance Fund (SAF) 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/class materials. The total allocation for the SAF is €9.1 million which includes an additional €1m added to the Fund in 2017 for part-time students who are lone-parents or members of the other access target groups.  Prior to that the fund supported full-time students only. In December 2018 a further €1 million was added to the Fund for students attending Professional Masters of Education courses, who are experiencing financial difficulty. This funding continued into 2019 and 2020.

-  Institutions have the autonomy to maximise the flexibility in the Student Assistance Fund to enable HEIs to support students during the COVID-19 situation.

- The funding allocation for the student grant scheme and the Student Assistance Fund (SAF) is determined in the context of the overall estimates and budgetary process undertaken by all Government Departments.  However, all proposals made in relation to education expenditure will be considered in the context of Budget 2021, having regard to overall resource constraints and other competing demands in the education sector.

PATH Bursaries

- Funding under the strand 1 of the Programme for  Access to Higher Education (PATH) which supports access to initial teacher training by Nation 

- all Access Plan target groups, set up in 2016 on a pilot basis for three years will be continued for a further three years. This will ensure that initiatives supported under this fund will continue despite disruptions in education brought about by Covid-19.

- Finally,  tax relief at the standard rate of tax may be claimed in respect of tuition fees paid for approved courses at approved colleges of higher education. Further information on this tax relief is available from a student’s local Tax Office or from the Revenue Commissioners website, www.revenue.ie

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