Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Bill, 1992: Second Stage.

Tuesday, 7 July 1992

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 422 No. 3

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Minister of State at the Department of Education (Mr. Aylward): Information on Liam Aylward  Zoom on Liam Aylward  I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

The purpose of this Bill is to amend the Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Acts, 1968 and 1978, so that a number of new and significant provisions concerning, in the main, mature students, can be made in the higher education grants scheme for 1992 and subsequent years. The higher education [292] grants scheme is the scheme under which the local authorities pay grants to eligible students attending full-time courses in universities and other approved third level institutions.

The proposed amendments covered by the Bill are that: (i) the income eligibility of mature persons, who are not dependent on their parents, would be assessed by reference to their and, where appropriate, that of their spouses' incomes; (ii) mature students who secure a place in a third level institution would be recognised as satisfying the academic attainment requirements for the award of a grant and (iii) other school terminal examinations, such as the general certificate of education of Northern Ireland, would be accepted in lieu of the leaving certificate examination for the award of grants.

In accordance with standard practice, these amendments are to come into effect as and from the 1992 higher education grants scheme for students entering approved third level institutions in 1992 and subsequent years.

I wish to state at the outset, in relation to access to third level education for mature students, that facilitating the return of mature students to formal education — including third level education — has a very definite emphasis in the Green Paper which has been published recently. This follows the broad statement of education policy in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress which identified the facilitating of mature students in upgrading their education or training levels within the education system as a key policy objective. There are currently about 1,600 mature students enrolled in full-time courses of third level education — about 850 in the vocational education committee colleges sector and the balance of 750 in the Higher Education Authority sector. It is not possible at this stage to estimate with any certainty how many mature students will qualify for grants under the new scheme, but firm data should be available after the first year of operation of the new scheme.

The higher education grants scheme [293] was introduced in 1968, almost a quarter of a century ago, following the enactment of the Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Act, 1968. It is worthwhile and appropriate at this juncture to reflect on how the numbers of students in, and the public funding of, third level education have changed in the intervening 25 years or so. Numbers in third level education have expanded rapidly over the last quarter of a century, from 21,000 in 1965 to almost 70,000 in 1990-91, increasing in 1991-92 to about 75,000.

Total public expenditure on education in 1992 amounts to £1.6 billion, representing almost 20 per cent of total Government expenditure and almost 6 per cent of GDP. This represents a substantial increase in allocation of available resources to education in comparison with 1965, when the corresponding figures were 13.2 per cent and 3.3 per cent respectively. In 1992 third level education accounts for 22 per cent of expenditure compared to 8 per cent in 1966.

As I have said, the total enrolment in third level education at present is 75,000. A student intake of almost 26,000 in 1991-92 represents a participation rate of 40 per cent of the age-group — compared to 20 per cent in 1980. A further increase in student places is planned over the next four to five years which will bring the participation rate up to about 45 per cent of the age group. In a period of not less than ten years there will have been an increase of 34,000 students in third level education — a staggering increase of 60 per cent which reflects continuing Government commitment to providing additional third level student places, as well as improving access to higher education.

I have pointed out on another occasion that despite the explosion in numbers of students at third level more than half of all students at present in third level colleges receive grant assistance of one type or another — higher education grants, ESF grants and vocational education committee scholarships, etc.

The total student support for fees and maintenance provided by the State is about £72 million. The average support [294] per student benefiting under the various grants schemes is £1,900.

Members of this House will be aware that the local authorities are the bodies statutorily entrusted with the administration of the higher education grants scheme. Grants awarded under the scheme have, of course, always been means tested. Each year my Department prepare and issue a specimen scheme for the guidance of local authorities and make recoupment to them in respect of expenditure by them on grants awarded under the scheme. Each local authority make a new scheme for each year and under the existing legislation this has to be submitted to the Minister for approval. The scheme itself is quite complex because of developments in third level education, social changes and related improvements and amendments to the scheme over the years. I would like to outline briefly a number of the key changes made in the scheme since its introduction in 1968.

In 1972-73, grants were divided into separate fee and maintenance elements for the first time to replace the inclusive grants system which had applied since 1968. In 1973-74, four grade Cs in any four subjects of the leaving certificate examination were accepted, in place of in four matriculation subjects as had been the case.

In 1974-75, grants became tenable at regional technical colleges for the first time. During the seventies and eighties generally, the means test income limits and fee maintenance grants were revised periodically. It will be recalled that this was a period of high inflation which eroded income limits and the real value of grants. In 1982-83, the Poor Law Valuation system was found unconstitutional. New means testing arrangements were introduced for farmers and the self-employed generally.

In 1983-84, special provision was made to enable grant-holders to pursue courses in Northern Ireland.

In 1985-86, tapering of lecture fee grants was introduced as a result of more gradual tapering of eligibility limits. Up until the 1985 scheme there was no provision [295] for awarding less than the full fee. Grants also became tenable in colleges of education. In 1986-87 and subsequent years, income limits and maintenance grants were index-linked, i.e. increased in line with increases in the consumer price index. The practice has been to increase fee grants in line with increases in third level fees generally.

In 1990-91 and subsequent years, the requirement of four higher level leaving certificate grade Cs was reduced to two grade Cs in higher level papers.

I will deal shortly with the major new improvements to be introduced in 1992.

I now come to a very important point in the context of the amendments proposed in this Bill — the question of exactly what group of students is to benefit from an improvement in the terms of the grants scheme.

Having regard to the constraints on Exchequer resources, it has only been possible in years when there has been an improvement in the conditions for qualifying for grants under the higher education grants scheme to introduce and fund the improvement with effect from the scheme of the year in question. In fact this has always been the position since the scheme was first introduced in 1968 and is therefore in the nature of a general principal. Thus, when, for example, it was decided in 1990 to reduce the requirement of four Cs in leaving certificate higher level papers to two Cs in higher level papers, that improvement applied only in respect of persons entering third level and qualifying for grants under the scheme for 1990 and subsequent years.

The background to this Bill is that following on proposals contained in both the Programme for Economic and Social Progress and in the Joint Programme for Government, the higher education grants scheme was re-examined in a number of key areas and the Government sanctioned a range of improvements. In accordance with the standard procedures those improvements will take effect in the schemes for 1992 and subsequent years in [296] respect of new entrants to third level education in 1992 or subsequently.

The principal improvements under the Programme for Economic and Social Progress as already announced are: (a) the income eligibility ceiling for families will be increased by £2,000 for each child after the first child attending third level education; (b) income eligibility will be assessed on current income and income limits in the year of entry into third level rather than as heretofore, on the income limits in the year in which the student sat the Leaving Certificate; (c) mature students who secure a place in a third level institution will automatically be considered to meet the academic requirements for the award of a grant; (d) mature students who are not dependent on their parents may be assessed on the basis of their own incomes — and, if applicable, their spouses' incomes — rather than on their parents' income which has been the case up to now and (e) lone parents welfare payments under the lone parents allowance scheme will be excluded from the assessment of income for grant eligibility.

Arising also from the proposals in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress and in the Joint Programme for Government, a working group in my Department have carried out a review of the criteria for eligibility for third level student grants with a view to achieving greater equity and transparency. Following this detailed review the Minister for Education yesterday announced new income assessment procedures together with a substantial increase in income eligibility limits with effect from the 1992-93 academic year.

The increases in the income limits are very substantial and will be of significant benefit to lower and middle-income families who have been experiencing difficulties in sending their children to third level education.

For instance, under the new arrangement now being announced by the Minister, a family with anything from one to three children will qualify for full fee and full maintenance grants on an income of £15,000. This represents a dramatic [297] increase on the present income limit of £10,787 — an increase of over £4,200 or 40 per cent. This same family will be eligible for a full fee grant with an income of up to £18,000 and a 50 per cent fee grant up to an income of £19,000.

As well as this, it is important to note, as already mentioned, that these income limits will be increased by a further £2,000 in respect of every child, after the first child, attending third level education, as announced earlier this year.

It was because of his concern about the families in these income groups, and who are now catered for in the new income limits, that the Minister announced earlier this year that he was carrying out this radical and fundamental review of third level student grants. The Minister, Deputy Brennan, was also anxious to see that greater equity, fairness and openness be introduced into the system of means testing for student support and in the allocation of resources for students and their families.

Taken in conjunction with the package of improvements announced earlier this year — all of which will come into effect for the 1992-93 academic year — this announcement represents the most radical and far-reaching set of reforms in student support since the schemes were introduced in the late sixties.

As the Minister has already pointed out, the introduction of means testing of the maintenance element of ESF Grants for students commencing in 1992-93, has to be seen in the context of this wide-ranging programme of improvements and in the wider context of achieving more places for more and more students in third level education within the scope of the funds available and a more equitable distribution of students from lower income groups.

The Minister reiterated that the means testing for ESF courses will be confined to the maintenance element for students commencing in 1992. All students on ESF courses will continue to receive free tuition.

In introducing this range of improvements, the Minister is also determined to ensure that a greater degree of fairness [298] and rigour is introduced in the assessment of income and in ensuring a full return of income from all applicants. This approach is motivated by a wish to ensure that there is greater equity and fair-play for everyone and he is anxious that the more direct involvement of the Revenue Commissioners in this important aspect of the schemes will make a significant contribution to achieving this aim.

The Minister is satisfied that this announcement will be widely welcomed especially by lower and middle-income families and PAYE workers. This package represents an unprecedented leap forward in the whole area of student support and provides a major boost to thousands of students and families throughout the country.

The Bill proposes minor amending legislation to give effect to the amendments at (c) and (d) relating to mature students so that the grants schemes for 1992 and thereafter can be appropriately amended and grants paid to mature students on the new basis from the 1992-93 academic year. The other improvements mentioned will be taken care of in the context of the 1992 higher education grants scheme.

I am also taking the opportunity, in section 4 of the Bill, of amending section 2 (i) (a) of the Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Act, 1968, to permit the acceptance of other school terminal examinations in place of the leaving certificate examination.

I now propose, a Cheann Comhairle, to outline to the House the provisions of the Bill as presented.

Section 1 defines “the Principal Act”, which is referred to in the Bill, as the Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants), Act, 1968.

Section 2 amends section 1 of the Act of 1968 (as amended by section 1 of the Act of 1978) by inserting definitions of “mature students” and “spouse”. The section, in providing for a minimum age of 23 years for mature students, takes account of current admission requirements of approved institutions, and provides the facility for the Minister for Education with the consent of the Minister [299] for Finance to vary that age by making regulations. The making of such regulations is dealt with in section 6. The definition of “spouse” in section 2 includes either person of a married couple living together and also includes a man and woman who are not married to each other but are cohabiting as husband and wife and is identical to the same definition in social welfare legislation.

Section 3 amends section 2 of the Act of 1968 and provides for local authorities to award grants to mature students who do not qualify for grants under the existing arrangements and, in the case of those who are not dependent on their parents, to assess means by reference to their own income, if any, and that of their spouses — as defined — if applicable.

Mature students who are dependent on their parents will be assessed by reference to their own income, if any, and that of their parents in accordance with the general practice for higher education grants. Section 3 also provides that mature students must comply with such other requirements as may be prescribed by the Minister. A similar provision exists in relation to higher education grants generally in subsection 2 (1) (d) of the Act of 1968.

Section 3 will enable, inter alia, a suitable provision to be included in the higher education grants scheme for 1992 and subsequent years deeming mature students to have met the academic requirements for grants.

Section 4 amends section 2 of the Act of 1968 to permit the acceptance of other school terminal examinations in place of the leaving certificate examination. This section is not geared towards mature students per se. Rather the purpose of the amendment is to permit local authorities to consider a small number of Irish nationals who are resident in Border areas in the State but who are ineligible for a grant because they attend second level schools in Northern Ireland.

The amended provision would enable the general certificate of education of Northern Ireland to be considered for grants purposes. It would also permit the [300] acceptance of school leaving examinations from the EC, generally at a later stage, should such a need arise.

Section 5(1) stipulates that the amended provisions relating to mature students “shall apply to mature students who have secured places to commence courses in approved institutions in the year 1992 or subsequent years”.

Section 5 (2) stipulates that the amended provision relating to school terminal examinations outside the State shall apply to the higher education grants scheme for 1992 and subsequent years. As regards section 5, as I stated earlier, there is a general principle involved in making amendments and improvements in the higher education grants scheme effective only as and from the higher education grants scheme for 1992 and subsequent years.

Section 6 amends the Act of 1968 and provides for regulations made under the Act to be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. Section 7 is a standard provision relating to short title construction and collective citation. I commend this Bill to the House.

Mr. J. Higgins: Information on Jim Higgins  Zoom on Jim Higgins  I welcome this Bill in that it will put in place a structure for the award of higher education grants to mature students. This structure which was in the pipeline for a considerable period, was one of the clearly stated promises in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress. I also welcome the Bill in that it responds positively and in large part, although not fully, to the very strong arguments and submissions put very forcibly over a very considerable period by the Irish Mature Students' Association.

It is a pity that the Minister should spoil the general welcome, acclaim and goodwill for this Bill, which has been a long time coming, so to speak, and has been eagerly awaited, eagerly sought, and the thrust of which is basically right, by specifically excluding from it the 350 existing mature students. Even though these people meet all the criteria age-wise, qualification-wise and income-wise, they are excluded because they happen [301] to be in the right place at the wrong time; they are excluded because they are already in college and have commenced their courses of study.

The irony and injustice of this is that these are the very people who assembled all of the arguments, mounted a very effective lobby and convinced the decision-makers of the merits of a proper grant scheme for mature students, which the Minister is proposing in this Bill. They are the one group who are precluded from qualifying because of the way in which section 5 (1) is drafted. I believe any impartial observer would acknowledge that it is most unfair that advocates of their own cause should be eliminated in this fashion. I put it to the Minister that he should not spoil the ship for the sake of a ha'p'worth of tar; he should not spoil the occasion for the sake of a once off payment of £1 million, which is what it would cost to include these 350 students and thereby enable them to qualify. The bulk of these 350 students undertook their studies on the basis of what they regarded as the sure and safe commitments given in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress.

It was clear from that document that grants for mature students would be introduced, even before the Programme for Economic and Social Progress was published the then Minister for Education, Deputy O'Rourke, made reference to it in considerable detail. The injustice and inconsistency of what the Minister is now doing in deliberately sidelining these 350 students is forcibly underlined when one considers that the European Social Fund grants which were extended to mature students on 1 January 1991 took effect immediately and were retrospective, thus enabling people already in the regional technical colleges and Dublin Institute of Technology colleges to qualify. Why should the basic ground rules be changed here when we are introducing new and related changes in the higher education grants scheme for mature students in universities?

I have tabled an amendment — I am sure other Opposition spokespersons have done the same — which proposes [302] that the scheme should be extended to include existing mature students. I earnestly beseech the Minister in the interest of equity and fair play and in order to launch this scheme with the proper forward thrust which will ensure that it receives the goodwill of everybody, especially the people who have made their case so forcibly, to take this amendment on board.

When one considers that there are only 1,200 mature students one can see that the commitment to continuing education has been very weak indeed. We have to laud those people who, on their own initiative and volition, have grasped the nettle, entered third level institutions and pursued courses from their own resources. They have made many and major sacrifices in the process of doing this. The higher education sector will have to display a much greater involvement in and evident commitment to continuing adult education and the education of mature students. Given the pace of technological change a new balance will have to be struck between initial and continuing education. This will have to be an absolute requirement in the future. If we are to give adult and continuing education its rightful place then new structures will have to be devised at institutional and college levels and clear and definite structures and policies will have to be formulated at national level. The European Community will have to add its impetus to this by co-ordinating approaches and policies and promoting trans-national co-operation.

Expert studies which have been carried out, particularly recent EC studies on current sectoral and regional skilled shortages, show that skilled shortages are a growing phenomenon in the Community. Even during periods of ongoing, rising unemployment, such as we have at present, skilled shortages occur and increase because of the vast rate of job losses.

If those whose skills are becoming obsolete are not to be permanently left behind on the European dole queue a well-structured system of professional and vocational re-training will have to be [303] put in place. We will have to face the fact that the days of having one job for life, over a lifespan of 40 years, are well nigh past. It could happen that in the normal workspan of 40 years one might have to change jobs on three or four occasions, indeed every ten years. This might not necessarily be a bad thing but we must be prepared for it, and that is where vocational training and re-training and emphasis on mature and adult education come into being.

A recent IRDAC report entitled Skills Shortages in Europe states:

The output of education and training systems (including in particular higher education) in terms of both quantity and quality of skills at all levels, is the prime determinant of a country's level of industrial productivity and hence, competitiveness.

If this diagnosis is correct it is up to us to get our act together and to ensure that we have in place the higher education structures to equip all the members of our labour force, the older members as well as the young, with the new skills needed to meet the rapidly changing demands of European enterprises.

There is a decline in the number of young people in member states — the demographic trend is very much downward — and the evidence suggests that the decline will continue at an accelerating rate. Therefore industry will require more and more manpower. One source of manpower must be the existing labour force, and we must focus more sharply on that area. More than 80 per cent of the existing labour force will still be active by the end of the century. Re-training, therefore, takes on a new urgency and skills and knowledge will have to be updated frequently. Because of technological changes, industry and economic activity will be more and more knowledge based.

We will have to seriously consider the extent to which higher education institutes fulfil their obligations. They vary enormously from one member state to another. For example, in some countries [304] there is a legally defined responsibility and requirement in respect of mature students, adult education and re-training. The inadequacy of the response of higher education institutes, particularly in this country, to continuing education is highlighted by the growth in recent years of private training. There will have to be a major commitment by, and possibly a statutory obligation on the higher education colleges to address the whole area of continuing education, adult education and mature student education. Some tentative moves have been made but emphasis will have to be placed on bringing adult and mature student education centre stage in mainstream education.

I pay tribute to the vocational education committees for providing night classes over the years and for bringing onstream a highly competent level of certification in relation to adult education. I pay tribute also to the six Dublin Institute of Technology colleges which have provided many courses in terms of higher education. However, we must ensure that the university sector, the revamped sector for which we legislated last week, the regional technical colleges and the Dublin Institute of Technology colleges, meets the quite obvious challenges of the remaining years of the nineties and post-Maastricht 21st century Europe.

I would like to say a few words on the very timely announcement made yesterday by the Minister for Education in relation to higher education grants. Any change in the higher education grants structure is welcome, but I would like clarification about the mechanism that will be used to bring about these changes. Will they be brought about by way of legislation in this House or by way of ministerial order? I acknowledge that the Minister has given a 50 per cent increase in the area, which will obviously have considerable Exchequer implications, but I am disappointed that he did not go the whole way and fundamentally reform the system. The Minister announced not a reform of the system but an easing of the burden on certain middle income families. If one trawled the administrative [305] jungles of this country for a system riddled with anomalies and inequities one would need to look no further than to the higher education grants scheme. This scheme is manifestly unjust, and inherently wrong. It does nothing to redress the genuine grievance of a huge sector, the middle income PAYE people, the new poor, the people who have been bearing a great burden over a considerable period of time. The scheme is unjust in that it is based on gross income rather than on net income. It is based on a system that gives no cognisance to special factors such as illness in a family, day-to-day running costs and repayments on a mortgage or such essential items as a motor car. Therefore, what we are doing here is not reforming the system but introducing a short term redress, a remedial measure.

I had hoped the Minister would have issued to the people who last week received their “change of mind” slip a note reminding them that ESF grants would be means tested as and from next September. He should have pointed out that there is now on the table a Green Paper on Education, a document that will open up discussion on every aspect of education, pre-school, primary school, second level, third level, the points system and particularly the higher education grants scheme, one of the most contentious areas of grievance for middle income families. The Minister should seek submissions from the various interest groups, the parents, chambers of commerce, teachers' unions, students and the colleges who administer the schemes, who have a profile in relation to the calibre and quality of people attending and are aware of the many social anomalies that exist.

Even though we may laud the merits of what was introduced yesterday amid a glare of publicity, irrespective of how we tamper with the threshold, at the end of the day despite the well intentioned measures the vast majority of teachers, engineers, gardaí, nurses, civil servants and journalists as well as politicians will not get a penny in grants to [306] send their sons and daughters to third level education. The Minister is easing the burden slightly, he is not introducing the fundamental reform that is needed. What is needed is an in-depth examination of the whole system of third level grants, the package we are introducing today and the European Social Fund as it applies to Dublin Institute of Technology colleges and regional technical colleges as well as the university sector. This should not be the type of so-called examination promised by the Minister in the House on 18 and 19 February when he said he would set up an interdepartmental group consisting of officials of his own Department and the Departments of Finance, Social Welfare and Health. We do not know whether that body met or if they made recommendations. Were the recommendations not for public consumption? Did they not produce what the Minister wanted? We need an objective analysis in relation to third level grants.

The NESC have the personnel and expertise to objectively analyse the good points and the bad points of higher education. The ESRI could also give an independent analysis or the Minister could select a group representing parents, unions, departmental officials, the IVEA and other higher education groups to give an analysis. The Green Paper afforded an excellent opportunity for this.

When we examine who will benefit from this legislation, we will find that the vast majority of the huge dominant PAYE sector will not qualify. A person on an income of £19,000 per annum and a mortgage of £5,000 per annum would have to borrow £5,000 per annum over a four year period in order to send a son or daughter through third level education. Every penny must be paid back. A family will literally have to put life on hold. Everything will have to be subjugated to the primary purpose of getting a son or daughter through third level education. The increases in the thresholds will only give marginal relief to a person on £19,000 with two or three children.

I welcome the changes in the relief but I am disappointed that the Minister did [307] not avail of a golden opportunity to carry out a fundamental study of the system. If the Minister had done that his name would be emblazoned on the history of Irish education. There are thousands of middle income people reading the headlines of the newspaper today who are taking this at face value but when they get down to examining the small print they will discover that it simply does not apply to them.

I exhort the Minister to take on board one of the suggestions we have been making repeatedly, and commission a competent independent analysis of the third level grant system. Despite the changes the system is fundamentally flawed, inherently unjust and extremely discriminating against a huge sector of society.

Mr. O'Shea: Information on Brian O'Shea  Zoom on Brian O'Shea  I welcome this Bill in as much as it is progressive and in as much as it enables local authorities to award third level grants to mature students. I welcome the fact that terminal examinations at second level from outside the State can now be accepted in place of the leaving certificate. I gather that the Minister initially sees this as something which will apply to a small number of students in Border counties but which can be extended to EC countries. That is progressive in its way. Also when mature students obtain a place they will automatically be seen to have reached the academic qualifications.

Section 5 (1) creates a problem. The Minister has adopted a very niggardly approach here. To illustrate what I mean I can do no better than to read from a letter which I received from a mature student this morning. It underlines the whole point very effectively. It says:

I am writing to you in connection with the proposed changes to the higher education grants scheme which is being debated in the Dáil on Tuesday 7 July next. This scheme includes a provision to fund mature students on a par with school leavers, based on their own incomes and on confirmation [308] of their being accepted into college. These changes were publicised in 1991 and I applied for and was granted a place in Trinity College in that year. I accepted in anticipation of the grant becoming available in my second year in College.

I was therefore pleased with the announcements that the grant was due to be introduced. In all the initial publicity for the proposals the only requirement for mature students was that they secured a place in a college and fulfil means test requirements. However the Bill proposes a scheme which will only apply to new entrants to college. Those already in college and who otherwise met the requirements will not qualify.

I have written to the Minister for Education in this regard and he has informed me that the reason for this new requirement is that sufficient funding has not been made available from the Department of Finance to fully implement the scheme, that is to fund all those mature students currently in college. The estimated cost of funding all mature sudents in the country under the terms of the scheme is approximately three quarters of a million pounds. However not all students would qualify under a means test and the actual amount which would be paid out would, it is suggested, be substantially less than this figure. Such sums are a negligible part of government budgets and I strongly feel that the commitments to a “fair and equitable education system”, outlined in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress, demands that such sums as are required are made available.

The grant can make a real difference to whether I can remain in college to complete my degree. If I was forced to leave the course through financial hardship I would more than likely be forced to collect unemployment benefit. This would result in a situation whereby I would cost the state substantially more than the cost of the [309] higher education grant, and the state would gain nothing from this outlay. The benefits to completing a degree course for me personally and for the state are obvious. Many mature students are in this position. However this is particularly true of those of us who entered college last year in anticipation of the introduction of the grant scheme for mature students.

I support the sentiments expressed in that letter. In the Programme for Economic and Social Progress where the introduction of grants for mature students was announced there is no reference to it applying only to those students who would gain places in the forthcoming academic year. The Explanatory Memorandum, section 6, says:

Section 5 provides for the amendments to the Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Act, 1968, to apply in respect of both the Higher Education Grants Scheme and students who secure places in approved institutions for 1992 and subsequent years.

I will grant that the opposite is stated in the Bill but would the Minister not agree that this section of the Explanatory Memorandum is somewhat misleading? The Minister in his speech today in somewhat similar terminology brings in the word “commerce”. I will certainly put down an appropriate amendment on Committee Stage so that those students who are already in the system will benefit from the introduction of grants to mature students.

I put it to the Minister that he is breaking faith with the Programme for Economic and Social Progress, a document proposed by all social partners which was subsequently debated and approved in this House. It is utterly wrong in terms of the students' expectations — and I read out one student's letter here in the House — that provision is not being made for students already in the system. The Irish Mature Students Association estimate that 350 students who are already in the system would benefit if the provisions applied to this group. As quite a small [310] amount of money is involved, it is niggardly that this group are not catered for in the Bill.

Third level grants have been much in the news since the Minister announced yesterday a substantial increase in the income level eligibility for grants. I welcome this progressive move, and it would be dishonest of me not to say otherwise, but essentially it is inconsistent and illogical that the income limits are based on gross rather than net income. I have stated this previously and I wish to stress the point. We are highly taxed and gross income bears little relationship to take home pay. I believe the first change the Government should have introduced is to use the net income when determining eligibility for grants. Although the changes are very welcome, they do not go far enough.

A number of factors come into play in ensuring universal equality of access to education. As I have often stated, socio-economic factors are not the only bar to equality of access, geographical factors also come into play. While university fees will be increased by 20 per cent in some instances, the maintenance grant is not being increased. Therefore the amount of money a student will receive towards his or her lodgings and upkeep while at university is not being increased. This is absolutely ridiculous. Fees are being increased way beyond the level of inflation while at the same time the maintenance portion of the grant remains at a standstill.

The Bill deals with second chance education. However, while I welcome that, I question the Government's strategy for this sector. The Government's decision to subject the maintenance element of the ESF grant to a means test of parents' income will undoubtedly have two effects: first, many students will not now have the benefit of a third level education because of this decision — and I again appeal to the Government to pull back from it — and, second, the student who on balance would pursue a certificate and a diploma course at an regional technical college if ESF funding were available for the maintenance portion will now opt for [311] a university education because on balance this is the more favourable prospect.

Despite what was said during the debate on the Regional Technical Colleges Bill, 1992, I believe the Department of Education desire students to go to universities and this will become more apparent as demographic factors impact on student numbers. I believe this will lead to the democratically based third level institutions in the regions being undermined. I do not believe that the real strategy behind the Government's decision to means test the maintenance portion of the ESF grant is to bring about greater equality.

The Minister mentioned another improvement in the higher education grant scheme. Eligibility for grants will be assessed on current income in the year of entry to third level education rather than, as heretofore, on the income level in the year the student sat the leaving certificate. However if we question whether a student who did not qualify for either the fees or maintenance portion of a higher education grant because of parental income levels last year but would qualify under the increased income level, we find out that this student will not benefit. Therefore students who entered third level education last year will not benefit from the changes the Minister announced yesterday. The Minister was remiss in not pointing this out. Whereas we got a good deal of information, we did not get the whole story. From what the Minister said in the Chamber today, students who are already in the system will not benefit next September from the increase in income limits for third level grants. The Minister should state clearly and unequivocally the down side of these welcome changes.

I now wish to deal with the pilot scheme to allow those in receipt of social welfare to take up a college place. Last year pilot schemes were introduced so that people could retain their social welfare benefit by way of grant while attending third level institutions. I ask the Minister to inform the House about these pilot schemes and state whether it is [312] intended to extend this provision in the coming year so that a greater number can avail of it? Some students still will not qualify as mature students and if they do not benefit from the retention of a social welfare payment they will not have the wherewithal to pursue courses. That area needs to be examined and I should like the Minister to deal with it in his response today.

Last February, Minister Davern announced that an interdepartmental group were being set up to examine the whole issue of third level grant qualification in order that a more equitable system could be provided. I recall the Minister indicating in reply to a Dáil question asked earlier in the year that he hoped that the interdepartmental group would report by 1 September. More recently, he indicated that the report might be made sooner than that. It seems that this issue might be similar to that of the Green Paper on Education and the Regional Technical Colleges Bill and the Dublin Institute of Technology Bill in that moves are made and decisions taken before production of the final report. It would have been better for students attending third level courses had the Minister speeded up the publication of the report of the interdepartmental group so that decisions of a much more comprehensive and wide-ranging form than those we have now could be made after consideration of that report. It is quite possible that the income limits announced yesterday could in some way or another reflect an interim, informal report.

I believe that there would not be a Deputy in the House who would not say, if asked, that the present system is far from equitable. In recent days both the Minister and the Minister of State have pointed to a general perception among the public that the PAYE sector is the most disadvantaged in terms of qualification for the grants. There is absolutely no doubt about such a perception.

I have been astounded by some of the comments I have heard from people who administer the grants. I have a query that I should like the Minister to answer. If [313] business accounts presented with an application for a third level grant contain an item for “drawings” without there being any explanation of what the drawings were for, must a local authority accept that that bald figure is not to be taken into consideration when assessing the income of the household concerned? If the item “drawings” appears in a set of accounts money must be going out of a business for some purpose. My information is — and I wish to check it out here today — that a local authority do not seek and are not directed to seek an explanation of what happened to that amount, where it went and what purpose it served. Every Deputy knows that in some cases accounts that are presented along with an application for a third level grant, accounts that have been accepted by the Revenue Commissioners and are therefore legally presented to a local authority, certainly do not reflect the actual income of the applicant's parents. The revenue side of such applications needs to be re-examined. It begs a question about the general effectiveness of the revenue and taxation system in the self-employed sector. As I have often said, the PAYE worker is the prisoner of his or her P60. A P60 is a very definite document in which figures are stated clearly and unequivocally and a decision on qualification for a grant follows from the figures provided.

I point out to the Minister that there is a great deal of room for manoeuvre in business accounts and the accounts of the self-employed generally. I could not blame those in the PAYE sector if they felt bitter about that. Earlier, I alluded to the fact that Ireland is a highly taxed country and that assessment for qualification should be made on the amount of money that is taken out in a wage packet rather than on the notional figure of gross income.

Each provision in the Bill could be criticised. I have not done that. I ask the Minister to correct the inequity in relation to people entering third level education as mature students who, because of the much-heralded Programme for Economic and Social Progress[314] commitments, expected that in the second year of their course they would qualify for a mature student's grant. It would be fair to say that mature students who took university places had, in some cases anyway, budgeted to have sufficient funds to take them through to the end of their first year's education but expected to receive a grant in the second year. Their expectations were legitimate. Anyone who followed Government statements, who read the Programme for Economic and Social Progress and who was in touch with the issue — right up to the publication of the Bill — would have been justified in believing that he or she was entitled to the mature student's grant for the 1992-93 academic year. In a most niggardly way, that expectation has been frustrated. The measure is unfair and unjust and I call on the Minister to put the inequity to rights by the introduction of a suitable amendment of his own on Committee Stage.

Miss Quill: Information on Máirín Quill  Zoom on Máirín Quill  On behalf of the Progressive Democrats, I warmly welcome this legislation. It certainly represents progressive and very timely thinking as well as hope and a major breakthrough for people who want to avail of second-chance education, people who did not get a fair crack of the whip the first time around. Many of those people were dealt with very unfairly within the formal education system, for one reason or another, and now, recognising their own talents and their own potential, want to avail of further formal education. It is only fair that we should give recognition in law to the right and entitlement of such people to avail of third level education and that we should make grant provision for them so that they will be able to so do. That is what this Bill does.

The Bill and the announcement made by the Minister yesterday in relation to eligibility limits for third level grants represent a major package of reform in education. They must be welcomed by all in the House and, I am glad to say, they have been welcomed by Members who have already spoken. There are refinements that need to be made, but in fairness [315] it has to be acknowledged that the two measures represent a major breakthrough for people who in the past were dealt with shabbily and unfairly within the system and who can, in the future, look forward to more fair play and a better chance.

I am particularly pleased about the announcement made by the Minister yesterday in relation to grant eligibility limits. This was included in the joint Programme for Government agreed and produced by the two parties in this Coalition Government three years ago. It was reinforced and restated during the review of that programme last November. I am glad legislative proposals are before the House to enable this provision of the joint programme to be put in place.

Taken in conjunction with yesterday's announcement we have grounds for optimism about third level education. I am particularly pleased with the revised income eligibility limits the Minister announced yesterday. It is well known that under the third level grant system, as it applied for more than 20 years, certain categories of students, and their parents, fared very badly, particularly children of PAYE workers — they fared worst. I know a number of people, some of them relatives of mine, who had to go the the bank and mortgage their houses, especially those who had two or more students in college at the same time, to pay the tuition fees. The sad irony was that, having assisted their children to get third level education, very often the children on completion of the course were forced to emigrate as they could not get jobs at home. That has been a fact of Irish life in the last decade. Parents went to enormous expense to put their children through third level education.

I welcome the provision being made for all parents, particularly those who have more than one student at college at the same time. This will make a difference for them. It will be welcomed widely, certainly by parents who are in the PAYE category. It has been galling for students who were not grant-aided to sit in lecture halls with grant-aided [316] students whose parents' means were above those of their parents. There has been great inequity in the system. I am glad measures are being proposed to introduce greater equity and transparency into it so that all students will get a fair deal. All parents applying for grants will be subjected to some form of investigation and that will subject parents not in the PAYE system to the same investigation and scrutiny as applied to parents in the PAYE system. That is only fair and just and is overdue. The Minister is to be complimented for grasping that nettle because, inevitably, his action will make him unpopular in certain places. However, any right-minded person will compliment him.

In regard to making better conditions for mature students and students who want to avail of second chance education this Bill is a major step in the right direction. There is a fundamental need in a rapidly changing society which sees economic and social changes, for second chance education among large sectors in our society. It is only fair and proper that we enable so-called mature students to re-enter formal education, to update their skills and build up the self confidence they need to enable them to live in these challenging and confusing times. In this context I join in the appeal made today to the Minister to consider students already in the system. Those students should be eligible for the new grants. Many of the mature students in college are married women and for one reason or another wanted to improve their skills, very often with a view to re-entering the workforce or, perhaps, entering the workforce for the first time.

Very often they want to do voluntary work in a more structured way within the community, or want to obtain the parenting skills so badly needed to enable them raise their children in the very testing times in which we live. The Minister should make the necessary changes to enable mature students in the system avail of the new scheme. I understand the cost will be less than £1.5 million which is not a great deal of money in terms of the value of the investment by [317] people who attend these courses. I acknowledge that money is scarce.

Every day now greater demands are being made on parents and more will be made in the context of the Green Paper on Education. We are calling on parents to play a stronger role in the management and administration of education, and rightly so. It is about time parents were given the recognition that has been denied them for so long. However, a number of parents are not in a position to play the role envisaged for them in that paper. Some of them simply have not self-confidence and the only way to give them that and bring the aspiration of the Green Paper in this respect to reality is to enable them to avail of second chance education.

It is extremely important that we put in place a system that will make parents aware of the effort being made under the judicial system to come to terms with the growing number of young people who are in trouble with the law. Young people are being sucked into crime. To enable parents play the role that will be demanded of them we have a duty to provide access to proper education on parenting and to give them the self-confidence to realise their own potential as individuals and to fulfil their role as parents which is extremely important. We have to make provision for them now. It is important that we discuss those matters in the context of this Bill.

Parenting is a very demanding and undervalued role in our society. Parents have to be breadwinners, cooks, sources of encouragement and consolation, homework tutors, arbiters in childhood disputes, imparters of sex education, nurses, have calm heads in a crisis, housekeepers, financial controllers, enforcers of the family code of behaviour and sanctions for bad behaviour, monitors of a child's whereabouts, promoters of the family's religious or ethical standards, purchasers or advisers in relation to clothing, counsellors, career advisers and managers of their children's social life. Extraordinary demands are made on parents these days. All too often parents are overwhelmed by the changes which have [318] taken place in every level of society, and in education since they were at school, a fact which must be acknowledged. In that context, I am particularly pleased with the advances now being proposed to enable mature students — many of whom are parents — to come within the system. I praise the legislation in that regard.

In relation to third level grants in general, it is important that this Bill should pass through the House without undue delay because large numbers of persons, students or their parents, are at present making financial provision for young people whom, they hope, will enter third level education at the beginning of the next academic year in the autumn. It is important that the relevant changes are communicated to parents, career guidance counsellors, prospective students and colleges with all due haste so that people will know where they stand in September. One thing I can say with certainity in welcoming this Bill is that this is major and reforming legislation for which I commend the Minister. I am enormously happy to offer my support and that of my party for this legislation.

Mr. Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  I am very pleased that this Bill is before us because on the Order of Business last week I asked that it should be brought before the House before the summer recess so that its measures would be in place in time for the autumn and that any amendments which the Minister might be disposed to accept — or which he might introduce himself — would all be in place by October.

I welcome the improvements announced over the last couple of days in relation to the higher education grants scheme. Our systems for providing financial assistance to students are very scattered and in need of co-ordination and review. All the reports which have been introduced over the years show that, with regard to participation in higher education, the better off you are the better the chance of such participation. The poorer you are — and the poorer the family from which you come — the less likely you are to go to a university or a [319] third level college of education. It is quite clear that there is a direct relationship between parental income and participation in higher education. In that context, it is critically important — if we are to have any degree of equity with regard to participation in higher education — to have an adequate system of student support in place. I welcome any moves in that direction.

The Minister when introducing this Bill put it in context in regard to the overall situation in relation to student support. Three issues arise from the Minister's speech which need to be addressed: the first is the improvement in the means test limit for the higher education grants scheme which were announced yesterday and which are welcome; the second is the continuing insistence by the Government to means test the ESF grants and, third, in the form of this legislation the extension of the higher education grants scheme to mature students.

I welcome yesterday's announcement that the means test limits for the higher education grants scheme is to be increased. I agree with the comments made that the means test limit which applied up to now was ludicrously low and — in so far as the means test operates as an income test — is very seriously biased against the PAYE worker. I agree with speakers who said that it is not fair to base this means test on gross income, on a system of income whereby the PAYE worker has to declare his or her entire income, whereas somebody in business can, through the submission of accounts and so on, perhaps disguise elements of income or wealth. The means test, such as it is, is based solely on taxable income.

Despite the announcement yesterday by the Minister for Education, there are still anomalies in the higher education grants system and, indeed, in the way in which the means test operates. There are still many parents who will not qualify for a higher education grant even under the increased means test limit announced by the Minister. The cut-off limit is £15,000 for parents with up to three children [320] which will qualify them for the maximum grant. I have been looking through the State Directory to try to establish the categories of public service employees who will not qualify for a maximum grant and it makes interesting reading. The following people do not qualify: a staff officer in the Civil Service with three children; equivalent grades in local authorities and health boards; teachers with three children will very probably not qualify for any grant. A nurse, laboratory technician, a junior clerk in the Houses of the Oireachtas, a garda or a bank official will not qualify for the maximum grant. These are the very people whose taxes are paying for the grant system in the first place, yet they will not benefit. I welcome the improvements but they must be put in the context of an entire band of what is loosely termed “middle income families” whose taxes are paying for the entire education system. It is not true that those at present excluded from the grants scheme are people on higher incomes. Any of the categories of employees which I listed could not be regarded as being on a high income.

The other point which must be borne in mind relates to the level of the grant. The maximum level of grant works out at approximately £38 per week; full board in most of the town and cities in which universities, regional colleges and so on are located, works out at about £40, £45 or — in some cases — £50 per week. The maximum grant, therefore, is not sufficient to cover full board. In self-catering accommodation the cost of a flat works out at about £25 or £30 per week, leaving about £8 to £10 per week for students, to feed and clothe themselves and to pay for books and other student materials. By any reckoning even a student on the maximum grant still has to find support from some other source. In some cases that will be in the form of parental support, but it is difficult to see how parents on the levels of income which would enable a student to qualify for a grant in the first place, could afford to support them. At one time, this could be done through raising loans or through [321] some form of supplemental income but as a result of unemployment levels here and emigrants returning from abroad because they are unable to find employment, the opportunities for supplemental or seasonal earnings are now quite limited.

It is regrettable that the Minister's announcement yesterday was spoiled by his continuing refusal to reverse his predecessor's decision to means test the ESF grants. The new means test limit for grants may reduce somewhat the numbers of future students who will be affected by the means testing of the ESF grants, but huge numbers of students, who would otherwise be able to participate in ESF-funded courses, will now be denied the opportunity to do so for financial reasons. That will seriously restrict the opportunities for lower and middle income families to participate in higher education.

It is interesting to note the comparison between the levels of participation in the universities which are operated under the higher education grants scheme and the levels of participation of various income groups in regional technical colleges and the Dublin Institute of Technology colleges where students are largely supported from ESF grants. For example, the participation rate of children of manual workers in universities works out at under 14 per cent; in the regional technical colleges it is 31 per cent. As against that, the proportion of participants in universities who come from professional backgrounds is 30 per cent, while in the regional technical colleges it is 12 per cent. Any examination of those figures will show that the participation rates in the regional technical colleges and Dublin Institute of Technology colleges more accurately reflects the proportion of various categories of employment in society as a whole than does the participation rate in universities. That is mainly due to the differing kinds of student support systems which apply in both types of colleges. The means tested higher education grants system which applies to university-type courses has resulted in a lower participation by children [322] from lower and middle income families in universities than has been the case in the regional technical colleges where the ESF grants applied. To means test the ESF grants would have the effect of limiting educational opportunities for students from lower income families.

The Bill which proposes to extend higher education grants to mature students had its origins in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress which was signed early in 1991. I welcomed subsequent statements by Ministers for Education that the grants scheme would be extended to mature students. I welcome the fact that second chance education is being given this degree of formal recognition and support. However, it is significant that Deputy Quill, on behalf of the Progressive Democrats, indicated her concern in this area, that the extension of the grants scheme to mature students has been spoiled by the rather niggardly approach being taken by the Minister in not including those students who are currently in the system. The Minister must address that anomaly if this Bill is to have the desired effect. Indeed, he must do so if next autumn this Bill is not to be counterproductive.

The Irish Mature Students' Association, who have been lobbying for this measure for some time, in a letter from their spokesperson, Mr. Mike Egan, state:

A recent national survey carried out by our Association indicates that only 350 of the 1,200 mature students currently in college would qualify for a grant. These students are typically in the low income bracket and make considerable personal and family sacrifices in order to gain further education. This anomaly — the exclusion of the current students from the remit of the Bill — will force mature students in financial hardship to drop out or defer from university. These people will almost certainly end up claiming social payments. This is cruelly ironic as many mature students accepted college places in good faith that they [323] would be covered by the grant proposals in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress agreement. Furthermore students who joined last September were given verbal assurances by the Department of Education that they would be included in the scheme. This apparently is not now the case.

A similar point was made in a letter from the education officer of the Union of Students of Ireland which state that many mature students returned to college as a result of guarantees given in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress published in January 1991 that grants for mature students would be introduced. I have had several letters from mature students currently in the system all of whom make the point that the reason they decided to return to college in the first place was on the promise that they would be covered by the higher education grants scheme. They understood that they would not be covered by the higher education grants scheme last year and most of them made other financial arrangements while in college. However, they did expect that when the legislation would be introduced — it had been promised that it would be introduced this year — that they would be covered by it.

Many of those mature students went to college in the belief and on the assumption that the higher education grants scheme would be extended to them and that they would benefit from it. Many of them were quite happy to make financial arrangements to cover themselves in the short term until the legislation was passed. It is clear, from the correspondence and the telephone calls I have been getting over the past two weeks or so from mature students, that many of them who are currently attending courses will not be able to return to college next October if they are not covered by this Bill. I have a letter here from a student in Trinity College which states:

[324] I accepted my place on the basis of the commitment given in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress, published in its final form in January 1991, to introduce grants for mature students... I funded my course last year by loans from the credit union and the bank, which have not been paid off at all. A benefit do was held for me which raised £300 and my entire family donated what they could. My mother is a widow on a pension. None of this finance can be repeated this year... I will not be able to complete my course without this grant. Last year was an immense strain... I have tried to raise sponsorship and I have not succeeded.

This student will not be going back to Trinity College next October if she is not covered by the Bill before us. I also received a similar letter to that which Deputy O'Shea put on the record and I have another letter here, which I will not delay the House by quoting but it makes the same point. This concerns a single parent who went back to college and is repaying a loan at £12 a week from the £69 a week single parent's allowance. She will have to leave college if the grant is not extended to her.

I join with previous speakers who pleaded with the Minister not to spoil this measure by excluding those students who are currently in the system. It is only fair that they should be included. Many of them accepted places in colleges on the basis that they would be covered by this measure and they will have to leave if they are not covered.

There is a precedent for this. When the European Social Fund grants were extended to mature students on 1 January last, they included all students within the system. The Minister has laid very strong emphasis, in justifying the means-testing of ESF grants, on there being the same rules for all in regard to student support. He should apply that level of consistency to this situation. If it was right to include existing mature students within the extension of the ESF grants on 1 January 1991, then it is surely right that existing [325] students under the Higher Education Authority grants scheme should also be included. The inclusion of existing mature students in the ESF grants scheme lent credibility to the view held by many mature students of the Higher Education Authority grants scheme extension.

I have tabled amendments on this point. It seems that other colleagues have done likewise. I do not want to anticipate the fate of those amendments either at the hand of the Ceann Comhairle or of the Minister for Education. This Bill will be dealt with in its entirety today and I would ask the Minister, if he has not already considered doing so, to spend the afternoon examining how he might introduce, this evening, an amendment to extend the scheme to existing students. Various estimates have been made of the cost but I do not believe the cost would be as high as some of the figures mentioned. One has to offset against those figures the cost of keeping these people on social welfare if they are not enabled to pursue their courses.

A final point relates to the definition of “spouse”. A spouse will not only be somebody who is married but will also be a person who is cohabiting. This is the definition used in the social welfare code, but quite a different approach is taken by the Revenue Commissioners. Under the Minister's definition a student will be means-tested on the basis of a partner's income but the partner will not be able to claim any tax relief for the spouse. The Revenue Commissioners claim that if a couple are not officially married, they are not entitled to a tax allowance, but when it comes to giving out money the State does not care about the legality of the relationship and will assess means on the basis of circumstances. The State should be consistent. The same rule should apply with regard to the definition of a “spouse” when it comes to giving money or taking money through the tax system. I have tabled a Committee Stage amendment on this point and I would ask the Minister to consider it.

Mr. Leyden: Information on Terry Leyden  Zoom on Terry Leyden  I congratulate the Minister [326] of State, Deputy Aylward, and the Minister for Education, Deputy Brennan, on bringing forward this enlightened legislation which is one of the most exciting Education Bills for some time. It is widely welcomed by people who will be able to avail of these grants in 1992.

I listened with great interest to the contributions regarding those mature students who have already enrolled in universities and colleges. The Minister's argument is based on economic considerations. On the other hand, Ministers as Deputies are conscious of the hardship imposed on those students who have returned to second and third level education at great cost to themselves and, in some cases, to their spouses. The Minister should at least make provision in the Bill to take power by order to extend this grant scheme to those at present in the system. Nobody has asked for retrospective payment for 1991 but in equity there is a strong case to be made, bearing in mind the difficulty in relation to finance. It would have to be approved by the Department of Finance and that may prove to be a difficulty for the Minister and his officials. I am sure that is the only criterion for this decision. One can understand the sense of inequity among students who enrolled in 1991 in the expectation that the grants scheme would be extended to them on a means-tested basis. Not all students will be eligible for grants on that basis.

I have come across cases of students who completed their first or second year of studies before the age of 23 but then opted out for personal or financial reasons, usually because they did not qualify for grants on account of their parents' income. I expect that in the course of 1992 they may apply and be accepted for re-entry to university, being over the age of 23 and in many cases in receipt of unemployment assistance. I understand that in some cases they would be in a position to re-enter second year and, in some cases, possibly, third year studies. I recommend — if it is not already provided for in the Bill — that the Minister by means of the regulations [327] governing the Bill should not deem ineligible a student who had to opt out some years ago and who now wishes to opt into the educational system again. I do not think that point has been raised by other Deputies in this House today.

I recommend the Minister and his officials to leave this Bill as flexible as possible. I realise it will be going to the Seanad and the Bill will be passed but as we will not resume until the end of September or early October there is no way the Minister can accept an amendment in the Seanad because that would delay the implementation of the Bill.

I would ask the Government, following careful analysis of and reflection on those who applied in 1991 to become students in third level colleges and universities, would now be eligible, due to a revision of the regulations, to qualify for grant purposes under the scheme before us, in 1992-93 until the completion of their studies. This would be a welcome gesture but I would like to ensure that the Minister would not be restricted in the action he may wish to take later in the year to allow the students to avail of the grants. Basically, this Bill should be as flexible as possible and the orders and regulations made under it should allow the Minister to comply with the requests I have heard from all sides of the House. I am glad there is such a widespread welcome from all sides of the House for the Bill but I would emphasise that it is a question of finance at the end of the day. This country is experiencing severe financial difficulties at present.

I can draw attention to the Department of the Environment where new grant schemes were introduced and people who had applied previously were not eligible. There are a great many people who are dissatisfied because of changes in regulations and schemes from which they would have benefited had they delayed their projects for some time. That is the case here also. I have no doubt the Minister of State at the Department of Education, Deputy Aylward, and the Minister for Education, Deputy Brennan, would have a great deal of [328] goodwill in seeking to bring about a change in the legislation. I am aware also of the pressures on both Ministers and the Department from the Department of Finance who are concerned about the overrun in the Exchequer for 1992. Indeed, the sum of £1.6 billion is a massive investment in education and rightly so. That sum represents about 20 per cent of total Government expenditure and almost six per cent of GDP. This is a good investment from which this country and our young people benefit enormously.

In the field of marketing, in which I was involved for some time, the high calibre of our young marketeers is due to our education system. The major increase in exports in 1991 to £15 billion can be directly linked to the quality of our education system and our young people who are obtaining, without question, the best education in the world. I regard our regional technical colleges as being equal to the majority of the universities I have looked at in the United States, and our universities are top class in the world. We should be very proud of that achievement and we should ensure that as many people as possible can return to the education system. To allow people at the age of 23 years a second opportunity is a tremendous, imaginative proposal by this Government. I commend the Taoiseach, the Ministers and the Cabinet on bringing forward this legislation which is most welcome and will bring many opportunities to many people.

At 23 years of age most people feel they should not be in the educational system. I appeal to any 23 year old who will be involved to regard himself or herself as being a young person with enormous opportunities and potential for development. By means of this legislation the Minister is giving many thousands of people a second chance. Going from unemployment assistance to a grants system is a very practical provision. Now people will have an opportunity to return to the educational system and be in a position to take up a job at home or abroad, at the highest level of payment. We have found from studies [329] that unfortunately, those who have the lowest level of education have the highest level of unemployment and in the highest level of education the lowest level of unemployment was found. Therefore, it is obvious that action must be taken and the Government are now taking action to resolve those issues.

I recall, at local government level, making cases for people who were seeking grants for their families. We warmly welcome the extension of the grants system to 23 year olds and the improved means testing for parents of young people going into college for the first time in 1992. The extension in the grants system is long overdue. This is something about which PAYE people felt particularly aggrieved. They compare the self-employed with the PAYE sector. The examples are not great because the self-employed have enormous difficulties so far as sickness and maintaining their livelihood are concerned but at least the PAYE people have some support from the PRSI system.

On numerous occasions when canvassing for general elections I have been approached by many families who would say: “We are struggling to send our two young children to college or university. We are on the borderline and we are not able to manage. We are sacrificing ourselves and are mortgaging our homes to ensure that our children will have a third level education”. The means test improvements allow for full maintenance grants to a person whose parents have an income of £15,000. This represents a dramatic increase on the present income limit of £10,787 which was so much out of touch. This increase, although welcome, is long overdue. The same family will be eligible for full fee grants up to an income of £18,000 and a 50 per cent fee grant up to an income of £19,000. The same provisions will apply to mature students who are re-entering the educational system.

Finally, it is not often, in difficult financial circumstances, that we have legislation before this House which is so progressive and so imaginative. In Government generally we find we have [330] to carry on and take responsibility for so many difficult decisions. In this regard, having attended party meetings in my constituency over the last few days, I must say I received a great welcome for this legislation, which I support within the bounds of the financial constraints on the Minister and the Government. I fully appreciate the situation that the Government find themselves in and they are to be congratulated on bringing forward this legislation now.

Many people will look back on this day as an historic one. To be given an opportunity to return to third level education which they thought they would never have and to obtain financial support towards that education and to eventually graduate. Mature students will take on this responsibility with a renewed vigour knowing that at perhaps 23 years of age they are being given a second opportunity to return to college; they will use their time very productively at their studies and will eventually acquire their desired qualification. I also welcome the cross-Border co-operation in relation to qualifications from Northern Ireland. The improvement in the means test system will ensure that many students who had to go to Britain to avail of the free fees system implemented by EC regulations may no longer be required to resort to this in 1992, and I welcome this.

I recommend this Bill to the House but I ask the Minister to make the provisions as flexible as possible bearing in mind the timescale in relation to the summer recess. I appreciate the constraints on amendments coming back from the Seanad not being allowed to be taken in this House. Under the regulations contained in the Bill the Minister could cover some of the issues during the summer recess.

Mrs. T. Ahearn: Information on Theresa Ahearn  Zoom on Theresa Ahearn  In welcoming this Bill I am glad that the message conveyed by me when I was the Fine Gael spokesperson on third level education and reiterated on numerous occasions by my party colleagues in which we outlined the gross inequities in the higher education [331] grant system are now at last being heeded by this Government. We always believed that so compelling was our argument, so realistic and fair our proposals on the higher education grants system and so great the support from the general public for our concerns, that the Government had no option but to take on board the spirit of our policies. The tragedy is, however, that the Minister has, in fact, only tinkered with the system rather than taking on board a radical review of the entire higher education grant system. Whatever the shortcomings of this legislation, I welcome the improvements in the higher education grants system announced by the Minister yesterday. It is in my opinion a step in the right direction.

This Bill was promised by the Government some time ago and indeed its progress to this House today is due entirely to the determination and commitment of the Mature Students Association who spared no effort or time in their claim for grants for mature students. The Bill is a tragedy in that it excludes those who actually campaigned for this change. It is extraordinary that those who fought the battle are now excluded from the victory. There are 350 existing mature students all of whom undoubtedly would qualify under the criteria of age, qualifications and income. It is totally unfair and downright mean that they are excluded from the Bill. Their exclusion would cost a mere £1 million, and surely it is regrettable that they should be left out when the cost is not prohibitive and when one considers who will benefit.

We must realise that mature students in our colleges are, for the most part, people who were denied the chance of third level education for one reason only, lack of finance. The system failed them. We failed them. They, on their own initiative and at their own cost, funded themselves in order to get to the position they are in today. Is it not too much to ask that those who were victims of the system and those who had to opt to work in order to obtain the necessary funding to get them through college should be [332] given their entitlement. These are the people who are excluded from this Bill.

As I said, their exclusion is unfair and unjust because they, more than anybody else, are most in need of a grant because of the strain that funding their own education has placed on their scarce resources and, indeed, on those of their families. It is only right that we should recognise their initiative and salute their efforts instead of penalising and punishing them. It is just not good enough to be in the right place at the right time. It is not good enough that those who perhaps work overtime, who saved and sacrificed themselves and their families in order to accumulate the necessary funding to get themselves through college, should now be excluded from the grant because they started their education too early. I appeal to the Minister to give a positive response to the amendment that we in the Fine Gael Party have tabled for Committee Stage regarding existing mature students.

This Bill is very timely and very welcome but if it is to be really effective it must be backed up with the extra provision of second chance education. Too few opportunities are available for people to return to the education system. I hope the Minister will extend the availability of leaving certificate courses which were designed in particular for those who wish to return to the education system. It is vitally important that every town provide such courses and that resources be made available for the provision of those classes.

The opportunity to take up second chance education should not be dependent on where you live. Equality of opportunity must not be only an aspiration but also a reality. Those who could not avail of an education opportunity during their teens should now be given that chance. They should be enabled to benefit from this legislation. There is little point in having a grant for mature students unless we also give them the facilities, resources and opportunity to participate in second level education and to meet the educational requirements that will enable them to apply for third [333] level education places. Many people who desire to opt for second chance education, who are deserving of places in third level colleges and who would qualify for this mature student grant will never have the opportunity to avail themselves of it unless they are given the facilities to sit leaving certificate courses that suit their needs.

This is a step the Minister must take. It is not good enough to deal with this Bill in isolation. If we really want to benefit those who actually need it, those who unfortunately were unable to avail of the opportunities in their early years, we must provide them with all the necessary help to acquire the educational standards which will enable them to achieve their aspiration of entering third level education. In this regard, I commend our vocational education committees who to date have been the only educational bodies to provide second chance education. Many of our vocational education committees provide courses specifically for the needs of those who wish to return to the education system. Expecting mature students to go back into normal second level classes is not realistic and does not match their needs. We are indebted to the vocational education committees for their initiative in providing those courses, which are run also in my constituency. As a result many people will be able to avail of the mature student grants.

In addition the success of this Bill will be dependent on the availability of third-level places for mature students. It is realistic to assume that there will be an increased demand for third-level places when the Bill is enacted and that must be matched by the availability of such places. I hope the Minister has looked beyond the provisions of this Bill to ensure that extra places will be provided for mature students who are entitled to special consideration.

While welcoming the provisions of the Bill that allow mature students fulfil academic qualification guidelines, they will be useless unless there are extra places made available for those students in third-level colleges. If we are to give [334] people a realistic second chance we must also extend the opportunities for career breaks and leave of absence. Potential students will be unable to avail of the grants being provided under the Bill unless they are afforded an opportunity to take career breaks or leave of absence from their present posts. Every effort must be made to ensure that mature students benefit from the provisions of this Bill. However, I have certain reservations in regard to the method of means-testing of mature students outlined in the Bill.

Debate adjourned.

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