Dáil Éireann - Volume 653 - 30 April, 2008
Student Support Bill 2008: Second Stage (Resumed).
Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
Deputy John O’Mahony Deputy John O’Mahony
Deputy John O’Mahony: I am glad to have an opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill and in general terms to welcome its introduction. This legislation has been talked about for many years. I am delighted it has at last reached this stage.
The Bill will go some way to improve the current inefficient system which forces many students to take up part-time employment owing to them having to wait some weeks and months to receive their grants. This has, in many cases, added to the difficulties of students in fully concentrating on their studies and has prolonged the time needed to attain their qualifications.
By and large, the Bill streamlines the eligibility of students for grants in giving the VECs sole responsibility for administration of maintenance grants. This will make the system more student friendly and enable it to be applied on a more consistent and fair basis. If this happens, students should receive their grants speedily. While in an ideal situation the new system could be introduced this year it is, perhaps, prudent that time is provided to allow the structures to adjust to ensure the smooth introduction of the new system in the 2009 education year.
Those are the positives of the Bill. However, there are some areas that need to be looked at again. While the provision in respect of an independent appeals board is good, the timeframe for a decision on an appeal is too long. A delay of 45 days for a decision on an appeal is too long and leaves a student in total limbo. It is worth noting that students will have to wait a similar length of time in respect of initial decisions. In this regard, students may have to wait four and a half months for a decision in respect of a grant. There is no reason this timeframe could not be at least halved.
There is a need to address independent, under 23 year old students in the Bill. The age of students entering third level education is changing. Many under 23 year olds can be estranged from or living independently from their parents. For those in this category it is unfair to take their parents’ income into account when assessment is made for a grant. Some of these students who have their own family and children must have their special circumstances taken into account. If full-time course was replaced with “approved” course it would create the opportunity for those students who are studying on a part-time basis to apply for a maintenance grant also.
Another anomaly exists for students who are doing courses in private colleges who are not entitled to qualify for a maintenance grant. At the Joint Committee on Education and Science last week we heard a presentation from a student who won a place on a journalism course at Griffith College under the CAO system. He got a scholarship towards his fees. He won a place also in Dundalk IT for a marketing course. He wished to follow the journalism route so he took up the course in Griffith College. Because of his family’s income he would have got a maintenance grant if he took his place on the marketing course in Dundalk IT, but he was denied the maintenance grant because he went to a private college. This is unfair. Grants should be given on the basis of the students, not the college they attend. This student appealed the decision and lost. He went to the Ombudsman and eventually won his case in the High Court.
 This Bill proposes to continue this inequity in the system by attempting to continue the ban on maintenance grants to students attending private colleges, even though their personal circumstances would mean they were eligible for it. Section 8(3)(e), which states “whether the institution is established for the principal purposes of higher education, training and research, and operated and managed on a basis other than for financial gain”, should be deleted to remove this anomaly. If this part of the Bill was amended it would not mean the floodgates would open with regard to students applying for maintenance grants from private colleges. I am informed and I understand the numbers would be very low.
There is a need to take into account independent adult students from disadvantaged backgrounds who wish to enter third level education. At present it is extremely difficult for them to gain access as they are not entitled to the grants and support systems. The reality is as presented by the Combat Poverty Agency in its pre-budget submission. For example, a social welfare recipient returning to full-time education gets €185.52 per week, amounting to more than €9,000 per annum. Other allowances, including a maintenance grant, would bring the amount to more than €16,000. However, a person in low income employment wishing to return to education, who may earn roughly the same amount, is entitled only to the higher education grant of €3,000. This, in effect, means the low income worker is discouraged from going back into full-time education. The person in receipt of social welfare gets €12,000 extra. Therefore, the low income worker is penalised for being less of a burden on the State. Surely this is a blatant injustice.
Many provisions in the Bill are welcome. However, a number of issues in regard to the timeframe for appeals, the independent, under 23 year old students, maintenance grants for those in private colleges and low income workers lead to inequities for these students. It is crucial that the Bill passes all Stages as soon as possible because other major issues pertaining to third level education need to be tackled immediately.
I wish to refer briefly to the underfunding of third level institutions, universities and institutes of technology. Understaffing in many colleges is affecting the delivery of courses. I met a student today who told me there were 500 in his class in UCD. Surely that is not acceptable in a modern third level institution. This is as a result of Ireland being at the bottom of the league in OECD funding in tertiary education.
A student accommodation task force has been promised but still has not been delivered. We are experiencing severe shortages of affordable accommodation for students in Ireland today. There should be more purpose-built student accommodation on campus or adjacent to campuses throughout the country. There is student accommodation for only 1,800 in UCD even though 11,000 students seek accommodation.
Deputy Jimmy Deenihan Deputy Jimmy Deenihan
Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: I welcome the legislation which I called for previously on a number of occasions. There is much confusion among the student population, who are doing the leaving certificate, and their parents as to where they should go for information and apply for grants, which is critical for many. I welcome the fact that the Minister has identified the vocational education service as the body to run the scheme. It is uniquely equipped to run the scheme because of its historic involvement in education, its understanding of education, running so many second level schools and the local and community involvement in education committees. County councils, in particular Kerry County Council, operated the scheme well and it was accessible at all times. Its approach was very professional. When unifying the grant payments system this was the best approach because the role of the vocational education committees is education and because they have a connection with the schools in their area. They will be able to go as a single body to the schools and advise leaving certificate students well in advance of the application date, the requirements and how the grants system works. There could be a very  good synergy between VECs and all the schools as regards providing information. At present it is difficult given that the VECs and the county councils are doing this. That probably means that neither will do it.
Through career guidance teachers I can see a good synergy emerging between schools and the VECs as regards the administration and understanding of the grants system. I compliment the Minister on bringing forward the Bill. It will result in a marked improvement and will eliminate the confusion that arises especially in September when people focus on the necessity of getting a grant to attend college. In many cases people are not prepared to apply for a grant and at times do not know what precisely they want to do. Young people change their minds on a number of occasions in regard to the courses they wish to pursue.
I refer briefly to a few particular cases. As Deputy O’Mahony said, there is a need to look at the issue of student accommodation. The Government promised the Union of Students in Ireland that it would set up a student accommodation task force. Most TDs would have been briefed today by the USI. Certainly this is one of the points that came across very strongly. When replying to Second Stage, I ask the Minister to respond to the issue of the student accommodation task force. There is a need for a major review of the maintenance grant. The maximum maintenance grant of €3,420 is insufficient when one considers the annual cost of paying one’s way through college in Dublin is approximately €8,000. Students must make up the balance by working and new figures show that 50% of students in third level education are working, even during term time, to pay their way through college. This places a major burden on students and their families.
Given that students only attend college for three to four years, it is important they spend as much time as possible studying and carrying out research, rather than working and confining their efforts to preparing for examinations or studying a few aspects of their curriculum. They need to immerse themselves in college life and get the most out of their courses. If most of one’s spare time is spent working, one cannot do sufficient research.
Figures from the Union of Students of Ireland show that the maximum of €3,420 equates to €342 per month for a ten-month academic year. The typical rent paid by students in Dublin can be as much as €600 in some areas and the total cost of living for students is calculated at €667 per month. Clearly, many students will be unable to afford the costs of studying. In many cases, the costs of accommodation compel students to stay at home and commute to a nearby college, rather than move to Dublin to study the subject of their choice. As a result, they may not enter the profession of their choice. I appeal to the Minister to take a hard look at this issue. I hope for a number of reasons that she will still be Minister for Education and Science next week.
On expenditure on education in Ireland compared to other countries, the Minister will be familiar with the OECD education survey of various countries. Figures on annual expenditure per head of the student population show that the United States, which spends $17,738 on each student, ranks highest, while our nearest neighbour spends $8,792 per head per annum. Ireland is ranked far down the league table, spending just $7,445 per head. If we are to remain competitive, we must invest more in education, whether on buildings, student accommodation or research.
One of the reasons for the remarkable economic growth of the past 14 years was that, even during the dark 1980s, when the economy was not faring well, all Governments invested in education. For example, substantial investment in institutes of technology meant that technicians were available for IT companies such as Intel and Hewlett Packard when they decided to invest here in the 1990s. The success of former Minister for Education, Ms Gemma Hussey,  in negotiating ESF funding for the institutes of technology was a major, albeit under-appreciated development. Perhaps people do not want to recognise her achievement.
I also acknowledge the efforts of another former Minister for Education, Deputy Mary O’Rourke, who is present.
Deputy Mary O’Rourke Deputy Mary O’Rourke
Deputy Mary O’Rourke: I was making faces at the Deputy.
Deputy Jimmy Deenihan Deputy Jimmy Deenihan
Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: The Government must seriously consider increasing investment in education. As we enter turbulent economic waters, we must not take our eyes off education. On a recent visit to Silicon Valley to promote investment in the technology park in Tralee, I noted the importance in competitive terms of maintaining funding in the education system. Total unit labour costs are €26 in Silicon Valley, whereas they are €28 here and €6 in Poland. It is cheaper to employ people in Silicon Valley, supposedly the most expensive place in the world, than it is here. We must persuade companies located there to invest in Ireland, one of the most expensive countries in the world to employ people. To do so, we must offer something else, which will require having a workforce that is educated, knowledgeable and ahead of its peers in other countries.
The children of those who are awaiting the outcome of citizenship applications do not qualify for grant aid. I was contacted last week by a young woman who has been attending college for one year. Her mother, through various sources, accumulated enough money to allow her daughter to start college but she now has debts which may force her to leave college in October. The mother is eligible to be granted citizenship and her application will be approved in two or three years. The student, however, cannot acquire citizenship until her mother’s application is approved. Surely provision should be made to accommodate this category of people. The children of eligible applicants for citizenship who are waiting for their file to be dealt with should qualify for grant support.
In the case in question the local authority in County Kerry has been very supportive. I received a letter yesterday indicating that it would fund students from this category of people if it were able to do so. I ask the Minister to examine this matter. I will provide details of this and another case of a person awaiting naturalisation who encountered a similar problem. While some provision is made for asylum seekers and others, I will bring to the attention of departmental officials a number of categories of people which should be examined in the context of the Bill.
The Student Support Bill is 2008 is important legislation. We should do all in our power to facilitate young people to attend college and encourage parents to send their children to college. We cannot ignore education because it is our main advantage. We must invest sufficient resources in it and facilitate and encourage people to attend third level education because the more people we have with certificates, diplomas, degrees and postgraduate qualifications, the greater will be our advantage over our competitors. The world has become a much smaller place. When one considers the quality of education in India, China and other emerging nations, as well as among our competitors in eastern Europe, Ireland retains a competitive edge. I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill, which I am certain will receive universal support.
Deputy Mary O’Rourke Deputy Mary O’Rourke
Deputy Mary O’Rourke: I commend the thrust of this eminently appropriate Bill. I expect the Minister conceived the legislation and issued an instruction that it should be formulated and introduced. There was considerable confusion among the student population and, specifically, their parents about securing grants to enable students to attend college, whether in the IT or university sector. The decision to consolidate and rationalise the processing of grants by having one application address and a single method of dealing with applications is to be commended. It is a common sense approach to third level funding. I like to think it had its genesis  in the frustration of people who came to the Minister and asked whether they should apply to Dún Laoghaire VEC, South Dublin County Council or otherwise for a particular grant. Although my time as Minister for Education was long ago I remember it and draw on it. Dublin, Galway, Cork, Maynooth, Trinity, DCU and Limerick universities all operated different schemes of marking for how one could apply for a place. One day I came into the Department on Marlborough Street and said this was ridiculous. I was greatly helped and strengthened by a wonderful education correspondent on The Irish Times, the late Christina Murphy. It was a hotchpotch. Different universities awarded different numbers of points.
I can see the Minister is about to be relieved of the tedium of being here. I am sure she does not see it as tedious, but as an enjoyable process. Her admirable deputy is about to arrive to relieve her. I will burden him with praise and with the two points, one of which I want to take up from Deputy O’Mahony who spoke so eloquently on parents awaiting their naturalisation process. There is not a Deputy in this House who has not been approached about the children of parents who are legally here but, because their naturalisation time of six or seven years has not been fulfilled, are not eligible for a third level grant. It is a case waiting to be taken to courts here and in Europe. These people are here legally. They are not asylum seekers, worthy as they may be, but children of people who are legally resident here and who cannot get a third level grant.
I must praise the primary and secondary schools which do marvellous work with children of all nationalities. The teachers put themselves out. Every morning eight or ten school buses come to the site in Athlone where the mobile homes for the asylum seekers are located. They bring them to different primary schools because they rightly believe they should not all be put into one school but scattered about where they will make different friends. The same occurs at second level; wonderful efforts are made for students.
I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, to ensure this matter is highlighted, which I am sure it has been. I cannot understand it. A wonderfully talented young woman got over 500 points in her leaving certificate; many an Irish girl or boy would give their eye teeth for them. She came here only in fifth or sixth class of primary school and worked right through second level. Apparently without any great effort she got a wonderful leaving certificate. She is enrolled in the Athlone Institute of Technology, AIT, and is doing remarkably well. She and her mother have had meetings with the college registrar, director and chaplain and, hallelujah, they have reduced her fees to €8,000. That price is like Never Never Land to a woman of that age. She has not got 8,000p, if there were such a thing. The current economic cost of a year’s fees in AIT would be €12,000. Many Chinese students flock there because the director is very active and goes to Asia to seek students to fill vacancies since many of the IT courses, as we all know, are experiencing a downturn. AIT has made its great concession from €12,000 to €8,000.
Strangely enough, I have sympathy with AIT. It argues that it cannot make an exception for this very bright young woman while students from other countries, including the Chinese and Asian students, pay the fees. How do we single out one particularly bright family? There are three more daughters and one little boy in the family who are equally if not more clever than the girl to whom I refer. They all hope to make their way in third level. There is a gap of approximately three years between this young woman and the next sibling. Hopefully by the time she comes to third level the citizenship issue will be settled. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform tells me it is working on a backlog. It does not help at all to have a nephew in that Department. I take my turn like everybody else, and that is as it should be.
This is a grave injustice. We help students through primary and secondary level with wonderful teachers and support systems, SNAs, books, bonding sessions and whatever is needed. When  they get a wonderful leaving certificate, wham, the Department can do no more. This young woman has almost finished a year in the college. She will be told she will not be registered next September or October. She may sit her exam but will not get the results. It is difficult not to share her disillusionment. She asks what it was all about, why she was nurtured to do her very best at her leaving certificate and get on to third level in the land of the free. She reached third level and all her dreams are collapsing around her. She cannot find €8,000, and that is for the first year of a four year course.
I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, to ask the Secretary General of the Department to come and talk to him about this matter. If anybody would fund legal cases for such families they would win hands down.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan Deputy Bernard J. Durkan
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Hear, hear.
Deputy Mary O’Rourke Deputy Mary O’Rourke
Deputy Mary O’Rourke: It is an abuse of human rights. These people have been given legal status of a type until they get their citizenship, yet they cannot go any further. If a big benefactor comes down from heaven — although we do not see many of them — and pays that young woman’s fees, she would go on to get a very good job in this country and contribute to the economic well-being of the country of which she wants to become a citizen. It is amazing that the essential beam of light and truth which permeates cases such as this cannot be seen.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan Deputy Bernard J. Durkan
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: That is correct.
Deputy Mary O’Rourke Deputy Mary O’Rourke
Deputy Mary O’Rourke: I do not fault the college. As the director very earnestly told me, one cannot single out a particular applicant. I had a long conversation with the chaplain of the college, who would be very keen to help this family. The Department of Education and Science owes it to those young people, whom they have nurtured through the latter stage of primary and secondary levels, to help them progress .
I wish also to speak on the very strange case of Hibernia College, which trains more than half of the primary teachers in this land. If one visits any primary school from Donegal to Cork, Galway to Dublin and Athlone in between, one will find Hibernia College students teaching diligently and well in the classrooms and their pupils listening diligently and learning well. However, because Hibernia College is a private college its students are not eligible for student support grants. Private colleges are exempt. However, these students teach in our public primary schools at no expense to the taxpayer. The present primary teaching colleges receive large grants every year from the Exchequer through the Department of Education and Science, and so they should as they are doing wonderful work. However, so are the Hibernia College students, which does not cost the Exchequer, taxpayer or Departments of Finance or Education and Science one cent. It is turning out the most marvellously attuned, clever and well endowed young teachers who, as I said, can be found teaching throughout Ireland. I was constantly amazed, when canvassing in rural Westmeath during the last general election campaign, to find so many students studying at Hibernia College. One would go to a house with the register and tick off Mum and Dad and maybe a young man working, and then, upon asking where Mary was, one would be told she was upstairs studying as she was a Hibernia student. Mary would then come down and ask me if I had ever heard of Hibernia and say she was a student there and that it was a marvellous teacher training course. One can do a postgraduate course for one year after one’s BA or BSc degree, or one can do a course ab initio.
What is really odd about this situation is that Hibernia College is now delivering teacher training for primary school teachers throughout the UK, through the various decentralised student support bodies and teacher training colleges. Hibernia is now recognised as the pre-eminent college in the UK. I will declare an interest at this point, although it is not monetary  but friendly, in that I am a friend of the director of the college. It is nothing more and nothing less. I knew him many years ago in Boston and kept up the friendship over the years. I am in admiration of him and the tight-knit team who are working wonders for the primary school teachers of Ireland.
Last Saturday week in my clinic I met a lovely young woman, a separated mother of three young children who was waiting for her formal separation. She has a primary degree and she wishes to do a Hibernia primary teaching course. However, she cannot get grant support. Another Deputy in this House who has taken up her case received a firm “No” from the Minister. This is in accordance with the current rules and I am not faulting the Minister because the rules state that one cannot receive a grant when studying at a private college. I can understand this to a certain extent. If we were talking about a private college of beauty or astrology, I would not be surprised, but this is a private college that provides primary teaching qualifications, whose graduates are going straight into primary schools and contributing to the educational well-being of young people.
I ask the Minister of State to consider these two issues, about which I am glad to have the opportunity of speaking in the House. While I support the Bill, because it makes sense out of mayhem and puts a shape on many things that needed it, I expect the Minister to come back to me on both of these issues.
Deputy Deenihan spoke very accurately of a previous Minister, Gemma Hussey, until he caught sight of me and linked me with it. Fair dues to him; he did that anyway.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan Deputy Bernard J. Durkan
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: A good Kerryman.
Deputy Mary O’Rourke Deputy Mary O’Rourke
Deputy Mary O’Rourke: I thank Deputy Deenihan. I think it was Deputy Durkan who gave him a warning look to let him know he had better amend his sentence. I remember the blossoming of finance for third level institutions in 1990, the year of our European Presidency, when the Minister of State’s dear father, Charles Haughey, was the Taoiseach, and I was Minister for Education. At that time the ERASMUS student exchange programme was also established. I always get a great kick out of meeting young people who say they have been on the ERASMUS programme, whether in Florence or anywhere else. What a wonderful idea. Students are meant to travel.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan Deputy Bernard J. Durkan
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: That is right.
Deputy Mary O’Rourke Deputy Mary O’Rourke
Deputy Mary O’Rourke: In the old days of the 16th and 17th centuries, when the great universities of Bologna and Florence, among others, were established, students came from all over the world to study there and then to go forth and bring their learning back to their own countries. Clonmacnoise, in the sixth century, had 4,000 students from all over Europe. Deputy Durkan is the Chairman of the Joint Committee on European Affairs and when we talk about Ireland and Europe, we should think of this. Four thousand students from all over Europe came to Ireland, sailed down the Shannon, landed at Clonmacnoise, acquired skills and learning and returned to the countries of Europe bringing with them what they had absorbed in this country. When I hear now of the ERASMUS programme, under which students go to other countries, I reflect that it is not just about what they learn, it is also important that they mingle with other students, broaden their minds and come to know fresh cities, streets, galleries, theatres and so on. There is new fun, new fellas and new girls.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan Deputy Bernard J. Durkan
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: That is very important too.
Deputy Mary O’Rourke Deputy Mary O’Rourke
 Deputy Mary O’Rourke: All this contributes to a student’s life and results in a wonderful broadening of their minds, and they come back different people. I have never subscribed to the notion that one should stay in one’s own town throughout one’s education. I was dying to come to Dublin when I was 17, and so I did. What is it all about? One does not want to stay tied to Mammy forever, one wants to spread one’s wings and learn what things are like over the hill. That was the case in our day and so it will remain. Indeed, student travel broadens the mind.
The ITs have been a massive success story. That is why the Minister, the Minister of State and the Department are correct in saying that we cannot make every third level institution into a university. It is a bizarre notion. In the UK, every polytechnic became a university overnight, but they were still polytechnics. We need different branches of learning and we need various skills at diploma, degree and postgraduate level. Most colleges offer education to doctoral level and beyond — indeed, one can stay a student forever if one wishes.
The ITs have been the saviour of Ireland in an industrial sense because they offered the chance to acquire skills and further learning to a population which did not previously have a chance but which had a good record at first and second level. Building on the contribution of the late Donogh O’Malley to the education system, it was a real step forward. I praise each one of the ITs, which are wonderful institutions. They have brought help, hope and aspirations to the minds of young people.
It has been good to have an opportunity to put the two matters of which I spoke to the Minister of State. I know that Deputy Haughey has listened carefully.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan Deputy Bernard J. Durkan
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: I acknowledge the words of the last three speakers, particularly Deputy O’Rourke. It is a privilege to listen to somebody who is a former Minister for Education and a former educationalist. It brings a depth and breath of experience that is beneficial to the House and to all legislators. It is useful to listen to a person who has such experience, who has worked at the coalface and who can quote from personal experience. I particularly support the case being made for non-stamp 4 students, of whom there are many. All of us have met such children, some of whom have Irish accents. That is the thing that really stretches my imagination. They have Cork, Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow accents. One can identify their accents to the area in which they are living. The sad thing is that because they arrived in the country as minors they cannot obtain the appropriate residency status, even though their parents may have done so, and they must apply separately. Sadly, they could be waiting three, four or five years as there is no urgency about it. What is going on is totally counterproductive. I ask that the Minister for Education and Science make contact with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to work out a simple system for such individuals, who are anxious to go to third level college and almost all of whom have done their primary and second level education here and have good leaving certificates. Any investment in them is a good economic investment on the part of the country. It is appalling to disillusion them at that stage in their lives. Otherwise, all that happens is if he or she does nothing, eventually he or she will get status anyway and be rewarded and the State will keep him or her. Why would they do otherwise?
When these young people are anxious, they all come to our clinics, and to the clinics of the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, to set out their case. They know the same case has been made to the Minister of State on several occasions previously and they know what is the problem, and we put down the usual questions. Incidentally, I would not give any marks out of 100 for the way the Department of Education and Science replies to those questions. A little personal attention to the question would be much more beneficial than a long historical preamble about which we all know. I could write those from the 1980s.
 I remember getting replies like that from the then Department of Education. We do not need a long historical dissertation. It is not relevant in any event. Departments will always state that over the past number of years they have increased expenditure in this area by whatever. What they were doing ten years ago is of no relevance anymore. Neither is what they were doing in 1948 or 1938 of any relevance anymore and that is put into the replies to the parliamentary questions. I plead with the Minister of State to convey this to his colleagues. Some Departments are good at addressing the issues and just go straight to the point. I have no problem with them giving the odd political remark in the middle of it about how great the Minister was, but I do not want to see a page and a quarter of historical drivel when it all could be put down in one half-sentence.
I plead with the Minister of State, and support Deputies O’Rourke, Deenihan and all the previous speakers, including my colleague, Deputy O’Mahony, that in the area of third level grants for such students — immigrants’ sons and daughters who themselves have not yet been classified and are not eligible — he make some arrangements, even on an interim basis, to enable them, provided their parents qualify and they qualify at this stage. Otherwise, we will never move the matter forward and we will have the added burden of educating them in ten years’ time. Why not do it now and get them into an economically viable position? That can be done.
The other area is the back to education allowance scheme. This relates to the co-operation between the Department and the Department of Social and Family Affairs. It is a good scheme, although a little restrictive. There is no way it should remain cast in iron as it is at present. There are countless potential third level students being excluded from it. It might be no harm to take another look at the age limits of the scheme. It could be of some help and would relieve the situation for some students. A review of the refusals over the past 12 months or two years — this would apply to my previous point as well — will always give sufficient inspiration to identify what the problem is and where were the barbs on which the scheme was being caught up, and to try to relieve the situation. I ask the Minister of State to undertake such a review of the back to education allowance and the grants for non-national students who have not yet qualified for any kind of status.
Another matter that has come to my attention in recent times is one for the Higher Education Authority, and also for the Minister for Education and Science, which, as far as I understand it, is being dealt with at a European level. I have come across a number of qualified persons — these are persons with medical qualifications, engineering qualifications or others — whose qualifications are not recognised here, for instance, qualifications from South Africa in one case. I do not mind if it can be ascertained that the particular qualification no longer has any status or is a lower level qualification as long as that can be proved, but I get worried about cases which turn up from time to time where it appears as if an artificial mechanism is being used to deprive the person of access to his or her entitlement.
There are a number of such persons in this country who hold qualifications from other universities throughout Africa and Asia who will not qualify unless they return to university, medical school, nursing college or wherever the case may be here. A refresher course should be sufficient for those who hold qualifications unless there is some other impediment to their qualification but it is a little arbitrary to state that we do not recognise the standard of education in some of these countries anymore. If USI can tell us that the level of investment in education is somewhat comparable to Brazil at present — I am sure it was in a position to do a fair amount of research, even though the Minister for Education and Science will respond by telling us that this is not true because it is looking at it from an incorrect perspective — we go through such matters every day of the week and in the case of the recognition of qualifications the  Minister has an influence and should use it. Would it be possible to examine the cases to ascertain whether something can be done in the interim rather than wait for the European courts or the European Commission to decide it? We should always show our own initiative and deal with such matters in our own time and without being forced to do so by others.
I draw the Minister of State’s attention to the fact that until recently one could always submit a late application for a third level grant and it was always acceptable. In recent times a “dead late” date has also been set and if the application arrives after that date, it does not get considered and one must wait until next year. That is daft. There is no reason for it. It is done for the convenience of the people who process the applications. I accept there should be a deadline and a second deadline, but one should not disqualify the student altogether if the application was not submitted on time. The Department of Social and Family Affairs learned that years ago. If a person qualifies, there is no right to deprive him or her of the entitlement to a third level grant just because the application was late. I ask the Minister of State, as one of the long list of queries continuing on from Deputies O’Rourke and Deenihan, to look at that matter as well and to find out where local authorities or VECs are disqualifying people on the basis that their applications are late or dead late. To my mind, those people still qualify. If that is the only reason they are being deprived, it is wrong and it has been proven in the past to be wrong in law from the point of view of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Those issues have been tried in court long ago.
Introducing artificial blockades does not amuse me at all and I am sure does not amuse the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, either. It saves a few quid here and there, but not a great deal. It creates inconvenience most of all and when we are talking about making a grant available to a student, or making any entitlement available to anybody, inconvenience should not come into it. There must be order, rules and patterns, but if one deprives the person on the basis that it was inconvenient because he or she came at the wrong time, one should look at what happens in the case of access to psychiatric and other services outside of education at present where if the person does not apply at the appropriate time during working hours, the possibility is that the person will not get service. That is no excuse. I ask the Minister of State to ensure that this closing date is abolished and that people who qualify under the other headings, excluding the closing date, are awarded their grants.
Over the years there has been much debate about student holidays and school holidays and every year at about this time scribes write stating that the holidays should be shortened and students should work longer. This is a criticism that ties in with criticism of TDs and we have heard it all before. I do not believe in that notion. I believe that children have to be children and students have to be students, and they need a break from the tedium of study because that is good for them. If all of a child’s life is going to be tedious, it is important that he or she has a good holiday. The child at national school needs to have a good holiday to ensure that he or she has the chance to be a child, to be carefree and to be without concerns, worries and obligations.
The USI also brought the issue of investment in education to our attention recently. We all get letters from the Department of Education and Science telling us how much money has been invested in education and how much better we are now than in 1997. I do not know what 1997 has to do with the present day. We are now in 2008 and what matters is that we must compete with other countries with whom our graduates will be competing in the future. We have to compete for investment and especially for the product that we produce. This country has an obligation to its students to ensure that the level of investment in education is adequate to make our students well able to compete with their contemporaries on a worldwide basis, not just on a European basis.
 The USI also raised the issue of student accommodation, which is currently being considered by the student accommodation task force. As I live in a university town, I am acutely aware of accommodation problems for students, particularly in October when they come back to college. There is often competition between the local needs of young couples or single parents who are in rent-assisted accommodation and the student population. One group has to lose out, but both are vulnerable and in need of assistance. When this task force reports, I hope it will contain specific references and recommendations whereby it will be possible to identify accommodation exclusively available for students in a university campus or within the campus region. I know there are all sorts of problems, which I do not propose to examine now, but we would do well to recognise the main problem.
The USI also raised the question of financial supports for part-time students. Such students may be working for low wages and trying to better themselves by going to college in the meantime. What needs to be done is to look at the extent to which qualifications for the back to education allowance can be matched with people who might be on a low income from employment or with those who might have an income from social welfare that means they do not qualify for such an allowance.
The Minister should try to relay all the points made by the last few speakers, including Deputies O’Rourke, Deenihan, O’Mahony and others. These issues have been brought to our attention and we must bring them to the attention of the Minister. They are urgent issues that need to be addressed fairly quickly and I hope it will be possible to do that.
Deputy Jan O’Sullivan Deputy Jan O’Sullivan
Deputy Jan O’Sullivan: I welcome this Bill. It has been a long time coming as it has been on the list of proposed legislation for the past couple of years. Deputy Quinn spoke in detail about the Bill on behalf of the Labour Party and I concur with what he said in his contribution. We would prefer to see a centralised Department deal with the issue of student support grants, but what is on the table before us today is an improvement on the current situation. We will now have 33 grant awarding bodies, which halves the current number of such bodies. VECs will now deal with the grant, as opposed to VECs, local authorities and possibly another awarding body.
We would prefer to see the Department of Social and Family Affairs assess the applications on the basis that this Department has the experience of carrying out means tests, and this is a means-tested scheme. We are all aware of stories from the past of people who managed to get a higher education grant and people who have not been able to do so, despite the disparity in their circumstances. A predecessor of mine in the Labour Party seat in Limerick East, Mr. Frank Prendergast, used to tell a story about a garage owner who got a grant while a mechanic who worked for him could not get a grant. There is a complete inequity in that situation. There are aspects to the system which allow people, particularly those who are self-employed, to organise themselves in such a way that their income is low the year before their sons or daughters are entering third level education. The PAYE worker clearly does not have any facility to move income around from one year to another. We would all like to see a fairer system. Other people have similar stories where somebody with considerable wealth is able to get a higher education grant for his or her child, which is inequitable.
I welcome any measure that improves that situation and there are aspects to this Bill which will tighten things up. There are offences that are punishable under the Bill, which is welcome. There will always be a certain amount of honesty required from people in their applications. If that sanction is there, there is more of an incentive to be honest with information given.
I also welcome the fact that there is an appeals process. Possibly every Member in the House deals with individuals who feel that they have been unfairly treated when applying for grants. It is difficult to get a second examination of applications. Some people are on the borderline  of the income threshold. There are also certain specifications on social welfare qualifications for some applicants. There is a concern for some borderline cases that the person involved has not been fairly treated. I welcome the fact that there is an appeals mechanism for these cases.
I dealt with a person whose father is working in a poorly paid part-time job and the person was on social welfare for a period before he went back to university as a mature student. However, the combination of the reckonable income and the length of time he was on social welfare meant that he did not get a grant. This young man is really struggling. The family does not have much of an income, but he did not get the grant because he was not long enough on social welfare to qualify. There are other cases of people who find it extremely difficult to make ends meet. In many cases, these people come from families who do not have a tradition of higher or third-level education. They are not the kind of people who should have to struggle. Indeed, as Deputy Durkan noted, many of us met representatives of the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, this morning in Buswells Hotel. One of the issues it raised with us is the fact so many third-level students must now work. USI told us that some students must work 40-hour weeks to keep themselves in college. While it is probably good for students to do some level of work, preferably during the summer vacation period, because a bit of work experience does nobody any harm, it must be impossible for them to maintain their studies if they are working those kind of hours. Again, they tend to be the students who do not have a huge amount of money at home and must work in order to make ends meet. In many cases, it is the cost of accommodation that is the problem for them if they are living away from home, particularly in the cities where accommodation is expensive. I suppose Dublin would be the prime example of that.
A very large amount of the student body lives in Dublin and away from home. In many cases, they must work to survive. There is a need to ensure that the grant is at a level where students like this can afford to stay in third-level education. There is a high dropout rate, at least some of which is due to the fact that students work long hours and do not put the necessary time into their studies. I know there are many other factors relating to why students drop out of third-level education but that is one of them.
I pay tribute, as did my colleague, Deputy Quinn, to the former Minister for Education and Science, Niamh Breathnach, who introduced free third-level fees, and Donogh O’Malley before her, who introduced free second-level fees. I strongly believe that the message that one has free access, or at least free fees, at all education levels is a positive one in terms of not closing the gates to people’s aspirations to education.
I am glad that suggestions made by the Minister’s predecessor that this might change have not happened. Many statistics have been produced saying that the free fees benefited people in the upper income brackets more than those in the lower brackets. There is no doubt that the statistics, particularly those produced by Patrick Clancy over a series of years, showed that the numbers of people who would have been just outside the income threshold for a grant significantly increased in terms of participation. We are talking about middle income workers — the gardaí and teachers of this world and people working in factories with a higher level of income. We can deduce that this is due to the fact that we have free fees at third level. I would strongly support that concept. We talk a lot about a knowledge economy. The fact that there has been such a vast increase in participation in third-level education, both in universities, institutes of technology and post-leaving certificate colleges — we should not leave them out — has meant that we have a well educated workforce.
Obviously, there are very specific challenges ahead relating to issues arising from people losing their jobs and the economic problems we are beginning to see. As recently as yesterday, we heard about the loss of 250 jobs at Dell in Dublin and Limerick. Not only is it very important  for us to train young people and give them educational opportunities as they go through the educational system, it is also important for us to offer opportunities to those who drop out before they ever get a chance to go to third-level education, those who perhaps left school a long time ago but who want to return to the educational system and those who are in the workplace and may have a certain level of income but whose jobs may be threatened or who cannot progress because of their level of educational attainment. We must offer second chance and upskilling opportunities to people in those categories. The proposal in one of the partnership agreements and possibly a programme for Government that part-time students should have the same opportunities as full-time students needs to be addressed.
I welcome the fact that standardised information will be the norm in terms of what is requested and required of applicants. Over the years, I have dealt with many applicants. They go to the person who deals with the grants in the local authority or VEC and are told that they must produce ESB bills to show where they lived during the relevant year, information from a landlord that they really did live there and certain information about income. They give a list of things and the poor unfortunate person goes off, gets all those things, comes back and is told “we also need this, this and this”. I have met people in tears because of what they have been asked for and because they have been asked again for something else when they have returned. It does not happen in all cases but it certainly happens in some. I very much welcome the fact that there will, hopefully, be clarity in terms of what information is required of students when they apply.
Another related issue is that of whether a student is a dependant of his or her parents or is independent. I know that this is addressed in the Bill. Students are very confused about whether they are considered to be dependent on their parents or whether they are independent applicants when they are adults. There is a particular category of people who have children and are still considered to be dependent on their parents because of the rules of the applications. Again, we need to be clear on that but we also need some compassion.
Deputy O’Rourke, to whom I pay tribute for many things she did as Minister for Education, referred to the opportunities that young people now have to travel. However, in some cases, if a student has been abroad before they apply to third-level colleges as a mature student, this can sometimes mean that they do not get the grant because they have been living outside the country for a period of time and their continuous habitation status is affected by the fact that they have been abroad. They may only have been abroad for a relatively short period of time, as many young people are when they travel, but it sometimes means that they do not get a third-level grant. I hope that we can have some compassion in that area. That there is an appeals system is welcome in that regard.
I refer to non-Irish nationals living in this country, including families. In particular, I am thinking of one family I know very well. The mother came to Ireland to work as a nurse in the hospital system. She works full time, pays her taxes and subsequently brought the rest of her family over as part of the family reunification scheme. Her husband and six children now live with her. The children go to school in my constituency. Some of the children have already gone on to third-level education but had to pay the fees because they are not here for the requisite amount of time to get naturalisation. It is a real struggle for that family. In respect of situations like that where the parents are both working but are struggling because they are not in very well paid jobs and are trying to educate their children, I would like to see some acceptance of the fact that this family has settled and is paying taxes in the country. I know this may not be within the ambit of this legislation but there are genuine cases where people are really struggling and should have opportunities. They are going to pay the fees if they have to because they want their children to have this educational opportunity but it is a real struggle.
 I also wish to speak briefly on the issue of access to education. I am aware the Acting Chairman is concerned about access to education for students with disabilities and students from minority groups. Access officers are in place in most third level institutions. I am not sure if such officers are in place in all the DITs, but they probably are. Good access programmes operate in most third level institutions, but if there are any gaps in that respect, I hope they will be filled. Some people, especially those with disabilities, find it a major struggle to stay in third level education. It is particularly important for them that they should have those opportunities.
I referred to institutes of technology and PLCs. The institutes of technology have given the opportunity of third level education to a cohort of students who probably otherwise would not have had that opportunity. We should salute the work they have done and support them in every way possible. However, the PLCs, in some respects, have not been brought up to the level of, to use a commonly used phrase, parity of esteem in terms of facilities. We spoke here previously about the implementation of the McIver report, which makes recommendations on PLCs. There are large PLCs located in various parts of the country doing excellent work in giving opportunities to students and they need the kinds of supports available in other colleges. Many of them are struggling even to provide proper basic facilities for students, namely, library and canteen facilities and so on. This requires the Minister’s attention and I hope she will address this need.
It is important that the necessary resources are provided to implement this legislation. The delay experienced by some students in various parts of the country has caused major difficulties. In this respect, some authorities have been good, some have not been good and others have been terrible in the service they provided. Some students have had to complete their first term before receiving their grants. If the VECs are to handle the extra applications that will be submitted, they will need to have the necessary resources to process the applications in as short a timeframe as possible. I presume the Minister is making provision for that. However, I raise this issue because, while we can all have the best of intentions regarding legislation, if the people are not put in place to implement it, we will not be able to improve the system.
I welcome the fact that this legislation is before us. I hope it will improve the position for those applying for grants and that it will make matters easier for families who are struggling to put their young people through third level education and for adults who are struggling to do so themselves. We should not underestimate the difficulties experienced by people due to delays in the processing of grants. Some people are not able to come up with the money to meet their expenses while waiting for their grants to come through. Families on limited incomes who are waiting for their grants to come through have to try to pay deposits on accommodation, purchase course materials and cover the other expenses they incur. If they do not get their grants in the appropriate time, they find it difficult to cope. This legislation is welcome in so far as I sincerely hope it will speed up the processing time of third level grants for students.
Deputy Pat Breen Deputy Pat Breen
Deputy Pat Breen: I wish to share time with Deputy Terence Flanagan, who obviously will not contribute before the sos but later in the afternoon.
Deputy Kathleen Lynch Deputy Kathleen Lynch
Deputy Kathleen Lynch: That is agreed.
Deputy Pat Breen Deputy Pat Breen
Deputy Pat Breen: I welcome this Bill. There is a general consensus throughout the House that the bringing forward of this legislation will streamline third level education, and that is welcome. The Minister’s press release on 5 February 2008 stated that the Bill would streamline the administrative procedures for the management of the student grant awarding process, which is welcome. The decision in this respect will give the VECs sole responsibility for the admini stration of students’ maintenance grants. It will end the current position where four bodies are involved.
Having served on a VEC from 1999 to 2004, I recognise the valuable work they do throughout the country, particularly the VEC on which I served in County Clare. It operates in a state-of-the-art building and has an excellent administrative staff. VECs deal not only with administration, school transport and processing students’ grants but with a complete range of educational services in 30 locations throughout the country. The staff in the VEC have a difficult job and the girls in the VEC in Clare do an excellent job.
The current student grant system is cumbersome, of that there is no doubt. The experience of students in obtaining grants varies widely in different colleges and locations. County councils and VECs state that the majority of delays in finalising grant funding are due to requests for further information. The experience of students from different counties attending the same college vary in regard to obtaining grants. A student from Donegal may have to wait a month for his or her grant while another student may have received the grant. Students find it frustrating to have to wait a while for their grants. Serious financial burdens are caused for students whose grant payments are delayed.
It is imperative that such delays will be a thing of the past when the provisions of this Bill come into play in the 2009 and 2010 academic years. There is a mad rush by students to submit their applications for grants towards the end of July and some VECs deal with them on a numbered basis in that they might deal with applications from one to 100 on one day and so on. Some students suffer hardship while waiting for their grants to come through. This Bill is important in that it hopefully will relieve the clogging up of applications in the system.
Other delays in the processing of grants may be related to delays in the submission of parents’ incomes in the case of those who are self-employed or delays in the issuing of tax clearance certificates. Many such delays in the submission of information prevent grants from being paid to students when they need them.
Some students have found that the current grant scheme is unfair in the qualifying conditions that apply. A constituent of mine was refused a third level grant because she was a single parent living at home. Her parents had to transport her to college each day. She needed the support of her family if she was to continue her third level education because her parents were babysitting her child. She was penalised for that because her parents’ income was taken into account in the means test. Each year students and parents worry about how they will fund third level education for the academic year.
I acknowledge the contribution of the various speakers who contributed to this Bill since it first came before the House last March. I was following the debate on the monitor in my office when my constituency colleague, Deputy Dooley, spoke. He acknowledged the work that was done by the rainbow Government on the abolition of third level fees. He said it was enlightened thinking on the part of the then Government. If Fine Gael ever get into government again, Deputy Hayes will have enlightened thinking, although I do not know if the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, would agree with me on that.
The abolition of fees was a milestone. Initially it helped some parents to divert their funds to their children attending second level education. However, the increases in the cost of student accommodation, about which many Deputies spoke this morning, has meant that parents are finding it difficult to fund their children’s third level education. If parents had to pay fees in addition to the other costs, it would not be possible for many of our children, particularly those in disadvantaged areas, to avail of third level education. The current maintenance grant covers students’ day to day costs, but they have many additional expenses at third level, particularly  in terms of materials and equipment. I am aware of this, having gone through the system from primary to secondary and on to third level with my two sons. Thankfully, they have now completed third level.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.
Dáil Éireann 653 Student Support Bill 2008: Second Stage (Resumed).