Thursday, 11 March 2021
Department of Education and Skills
169. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the extent to which he hopes to encourage participation in third and fourth-level education throughout the country regardless of socioeconomic background; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13846/21]
Equity of Access to Higher Education continues to be a national priority for the Government and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. The Programme for Government reflects the importance of supporting learners at risk of education disadvantage and learners with special education needs in higher education.
The vision of National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015-2021 is that the student body entering, participating in, and completing higher education at all levels reflects the diversity and social mix of Ireland’s population. The plan set out five goals and more than thirty actions, developed following widespread consultation with stakeholders, with the aim of supporting increased access and participation in higher education by six main target groups. Those groups include entrants from socio-economic groups that have low participation in higher education; first-time mature students, students with disabilities, part-time/flexible learners, further education and training award holders; and Irish Travellers. The plan also indicated subgroups that require support, including lone parents, teen parents and ethnic minorities. Improving equity of access to higher education is an ongoing objective.
My Department is committed to the continued the roll-out of supports for students and targeted initiatives to support delivery of the vision and targets within the National Access Plan.
The main support available to students is the statutory based Student Grant Scheme. Under the terms of the Student Grant Scheme, grant assistance is awarded to students attending an approved course in an approved institution who meet the prescribed conditions of funding including those which relate to nationality, residency, previous academic attainment and means.
Apart from the student grant and dedicated access supports it is important to note the range of additional supports which have been put in place for students as part of Budget 2021 and as part of the Government's COVID response earlier this year.
- The level of funding available in the Student Assistance Fund for 2020 was doubled;
- €1.9m in the form of a once-off COVID-19 contingency fund to enable HEIs deliver local COVID-19 responses to support disadvantaged students;
- The level of funding for the 1916 Bursary Fund (also known as PATH 2) increased to €5 million per annum, which will provide an additional 200 bursaries, bringing the total number for 2021 to 1,000 bursaries for the most disadvantaged students in the country; - An additional €20 million in funding for SUSI in 2021to cover increased applications to the scheme;
- €6 million allocated to enhance SUSI support for postgraduates;
- €15 million scheme to support access to laptops and digital devices;
- €50 million to provide financial assistance to full time third level students in recognition of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on this group. This funding will offer financial assistance to all EU full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students attending publicly funded Higher Education Institutions (HEI).
- €300,000 has been secured through the Dormant Accounts Fund for targeted supports to address the implications of COVID-19 on Traveller participation in higher education.
The objectives of the National Access Plan are supported by a range of interventions and programmes:
- Programme for Access to Higher Education (PATH) which comprises dedicated funding to support access to higher education and consists of three strands focussed on increasing the participation of under-represented groups in higher education. The PATH fund has a current investment envelope of €40.4 million over the period 2016 to 2022, across the three strands which are currently supporting access to initial teacher education, enables the award of bursaries of €5,000 per academic year to 1,200 (200 per year) of the most socio economically disadvantaged students and through the Higher Education Access Fund is supporting institutional capacity in developing regional and community partnership strategies for increasing access to higher education
- Student Assistance Fund - annual funding of €9.1m including ring-fenced funding €1m for part-time students. In recent years, ring-fenced funding has also been provided for students on Professional Master of Education (PME) courses.
- Fund for Students with Disabilities (FSD) – €9.6m in funding every year covering both higher and further education sectors. The purpose of the Fund for Students with Disabilities is to provide funding to higher and further education institutions to assist them in offering supports and services to eligible students with disabilities so that they can access, fully participate in and successfully complete their chosen course of study. Since 2018 the fund covers part-time students.
- A study commissioned by the Higher Education Authority on the challenges facing mature students in participating in higher education is nearing completion and will be considered in the context of the new National Access Plan commencing in 2022.
- The Action Plan for Increasing Traveller Participation in Higher Education 2019-2021 was launched in 2019 and its aim is to advance Traveller participation in higher education within the context of approaches on retention and transition of Travellers across the education spectrum.
- Persons in the protection process (asylum and subsidiary protection) or leave to remain process are not eligible to access the statutory based SUSI grant scheme. However, the administratively based Student Support Scheme provides supports along similar lines to the SUSI grant scheme and is available to persons in the asylum, subsidiary protection or leave to remain process.
As part of the System Performance Framework 2018-2020, HEIs are required to put in place whole-of-institution Student Success Strategies to address the issue of non-completion of programmes, particularly for those in under-represented target groups. It was hoped to have this in place by the end of 2020 but due to the COVID 19 restrictions this important work will run into 2021.
A new National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education will be developed in 2021 for the years 2022-2026. Consultations on the approach to the development of the Plan has commenced.
Science Foundations Ireland's Education and Public Engagement programme seeks to promote the awareness and engagement of the Irish public with science, technology, engineering and maths. This work supports the growth in confidence of the Irish public to be informed and reflective on societal challenges we face together. Creativity, talent, the ability to innovate and to understand science will be required to ensure citizens can fully participate in our society and economy, both now and in the future. The research agencies under my Department overarching aim across all their work is to contribute to the betterment of society and to help foster an engaged and informed public that values research.