Higher Educational Grants (Adjournment Debates)
I thank the Ceann Comhairle’s office for affording me the opportunity to speak on this issue. I appreciate the grave financial difficulties currently facing us, caused by reasons already known and spoken of at length in this Chamber and outside. I acknowledge the commitment and dedication of the Minister, Deputy Quinn, and the Ministers of State, Deputies Cannon and Sherlock, who are working hard to maintain educational supports and to best utilise stretched budgets in the face of diminished resources.
Despite the very regrettable changes to the levels of grants, I welcome that none of the measures being taken will result in the loss of a grant for a student or a student becoming ineligible for one. I also acknowledge the efforts of the Minister and Ministers of State to introduce measures to create efficiencies in the areas of administration, such as the online application method for grants and the creation of a single grant-awarding body, the City of Dublin VEC. However, I sincerely hope that this centralisation will prove more successful than that of the drug payment scheme under the HSE which has been centralised in Dublin but has more than doubled the waiting time for reimbursements to eligible citizens. However, sin scéal eile and I will pursue that matter on another occasion. Such efficiencies in the administration of the grant system can and will minimise the impact on the rates of grant payments. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, with whom I served on Galway County Council a few years ago, will remember the delays in the processing of grants, so I hope the change will be a positive one.
The one measure of great concern to me and a number of constituents in Galway West, however, is the ending of the automatic entitlement to the non-adjacent grant for mature students. This is unfair and at the very least there is a need to enable mature students who are pursuing educational courses to retain their funding grants at the current non-adjacent rate. Mature students have made significant investments in furthering their education, and acquiring new skills and knowledge while at the same time having other commitments such a family or financial ones which other students would not have. The State has also acknowledged their investment by providing grants and other educational supports.
In 2009-10, mature students comprised more than 13% of the total student population with more than 45,000 mature students attending third level institutions. At some educational institutions such as NUI Galway, NUI Maynooth and Dublin City University, more one in ten students were in the mature category with the figure rising to one in five students for the institutes of technology. The figures provide a clear indication of the value and success of second-chance education and life-long learning policies. It would be unfair to proceed with a funding measure that will undo years of hard work and commitment on the part of students which may also ultimately deprive students of the fruits of their investment.
If, as may be the case for thousands of mature students, a person has to drop out of an educational programme owing to the financial hardship the loss of the non-adjacent grant would bring, the State would also stand to suffer the financial consequences of the increased strain on the social welfare system. For the sake of saving a few thousand euro, therefore, the State would end up paying five times this amount in jobseekers benefits or allowances and the supplementary benefits that the former mature student would now have to seek. It would be a case of being penny rich but pound foolish and I ask the Minister to reconsider the measure for all current and perspective mature students but in particular for those who currently attend third level educational institutions in Galway and across the State.
Deputy Ciarán Cannon:
I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn and I thank the Deputy for raising it.
The Deputy refers to a change to the student grant schemes announced in budget 2011 by the previous Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government, which removed the automatic eligibility for mature students to the non-adjacent rate of grant effective from September 2011. I understand the overarching need in making changes to the student grant schemes for the 2011-12 academic year was to find savings to manage additional cost pressures arising from a significant increase in the number of students qualifying for grants, a proportionate increase in the number of students qualifying for higher rates of grants and payment of the student contribution on behalf of grant-holders.
As a consequence, the removal of the automatic entitlement to the non-adjacent rate of grant for mature students was one of three measures introduced to ensure that the student grant system is not extended beyond what current resources will allow in a climate of overall pressures on the public finances.
The non-adjacent rate of grant is designed to assist with the costs of living away from home. I know that the change for mature students took account, therefore, of the availability of improved transport facilities and road networks, and better and more cost effective travelling options that have altered commuting practice more generally in society over that time. It also took account the availability of further and higher education options closer to home in the PLC and institute of technology sector.
Reliance was also placed on the fourth round of the Irish Eurostudent Survey which provides information on where students live. The statistics indicate that 45% of all full-time students now choose to live in their own or their parents’ home during term time, yet 77% of grant holders are currently on the higher non-adjacent rate. Clearly, this is a mismatch given what the non-adjacent rate of grant is trying to achieve.
The recently published DIT Student Cost Of Living Guide 2011-12, which provides students with information on costs for rent, utilities, food, travel, etc. shows that the likely cost for a student living in rented accommodation is almost twice the cost involved for students living at home. This underscores the reason for a non-adjacent rate of grant. Where mature students are living within 45 km of their college the measure in question brings the grant level that will be paid to them from next September in line with all other students in similar circumstances.
In general, it was considered that none of the changes in budget 2011 would result in a student losing a grant or becoming ineligible for a grant. However, if the approach was not taken to target grant reductions in areas where students’ costs are genuinely lower, a far deeper cut than the 4%, which was introduced for all grant levels in January of this year, would have been needed. The potential impact of this on all students, particularly those on the lowest income, was taken into account.
From next September, all eligible students, including mature students, living more than 45 km away will get the non-adjacent rate of grant and those with particularly low incomes will still qualify for a top-up in the special rate of grant. In addition, the student assistance fund at some €5 million continues to be made available through the access offices of third-level institutions to assist students in exceptional financial need.
I regret that the economic circumstances of the country are such that the Minister is not in a position to reverse or vary any of the changes to the student grant schemes, including that for mature students.