Students Support Bill 2008 – 30th April 2008

April 30th, 2008 - 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 administration 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 varies 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.

Deputy Pat Breen:      The House is almost empty. I had expected that many people would follow proceedings on the Internet but, unfortunately, other events in Washington will take precedence.

Before the debate adjourned I was discussing the cost of living for students, particularly accommodation costs. I also referred to my sons who have completed primary, secondary and third level education. Before entering the Chamber, I attended a meeting with representatives of the Union of Students of Ireland who made three key points.

The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, was due to establish a student accommodation task force today but failed to do so. I urge the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy Seán Haughey, to exert pressure on the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to proceed with this important step.

Students are living in very poor accommodation for which they pay prices of up to €700 in Dublin. This makes a mockery of the grant which is only €3,420. Even in Limerick, accommodation in some areas is very poor, particularly in the vicinity of University College Limerick. Many students live in run-down, old-style houses, paying rents to faceless agents working on behalf of absentee landlords who will not invest in upgrading the accommodation. The attitude of these landlords is that any accommodation will do for students. Despite this, students also have problems having their deposits returned at the end of the year because landlords claim that damage has been done to their properties. Clearly, students must take the blame when damage is done.

I hope a large number of Deputies and Senators will meet the USI representatives who are lobbying the Oireachtas today. The USI has been demanding action on the accommodation issue for some time. The problem must be resolved before enrolment in September. For this reason, the Minister must establish a student accommodation task force as soon as possible.

The issue of part-time students is not addressed in the Bill. In the United Kingdom, students studying part-time higher education courses may apply for non-repayable grants to cover tuition fees and other course-related costs. Many of those who decided to abandon their education in the middle of the Celtic tiger boom want to return to education. With the construction industry in decline, many workers in the sector have lost their jobs and wish to return to education. It is a pity funding is not available for this purpose because we must ensure this group is able to return to education. These people will have to be educated. That is very important. Fine Gael also proposed that the national training fund, NTF, be used to introduce a scheme for individuals who have not already benefited from higher education to pay for courses in higher education institutions taken on a part-time basis.

I want to address an issue in my constituency related to a third level college for Ennis. Much has been said on that over the past number of years. County Clare is expanding rapidly. We will have a railway line all the way from the west, particularly from Galway and Mayo, to Ennis and on to Limerick and Cork. Instead of students going to the various third level institutions, it would be nice if students could stay at home and attend a third level college in Ennis. The town of Ennis is an ideal location. The region has experienced a decline and it would be good to have a shift to the west rather than the east. The Shannon area is a key area for attracting new foreign investment and the supply of graduates. There is inadequate funding in education. Primary and secondary education is seriously under funded. We have all put down parliamentary questions and made representations to Ministers on our primary and secondary schools. A long list of schools in County Clare needs urgent facilities and buildings. There is also a problem in our third level colleges, which are under funded. This threatens to interfere with quality and there is a significant case for investment. This was brought to my attention by the students today. There are outdated buildings, the libraries are under stocked and classrooms are overcrowded. This must be addressed.

The students stated that Ireland’s spend on third level education is below the OECD average as a proportion of GDP. While the Government provided €184 million for third level infrastructure in the 2008 budget, it is doubtful that this is sufficient to keep pace with third level college funding requirements after years of under funding in the sector. This must be examined. With manufacturing industry moving out of Ireland we must always produce graduates who will meet the technology demands for modern industry.

The independent appeals board is part of this Bill and I welcome it. It is a good idea. We have all had cases in our constituencies of students who have been turned down for third level grants and have gone to appeal. In some cases they have been successful. I had a case of a constituent with learning difficulties that wanted to do a repeat course at third level and was deemed ineligible for the grant. Thankfully, he came out well from it but many students do not. Any decisions by the independent appeals board should be fair and equitable. That is very important for an appeals board.