Tuesday, 23 June 1998
Dáil Éireann Debate
17. Mr. O'Shea asked the Minister for Education and Science the proposals, if any, he has to make appropriate increases in both the income limits which apply to the levels of third level maintenance grants; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14988/98]
18. Mr. Naughten asked the Minister for Education and Science if he considers that the third level maintenance grant is adequate to cover basic living costs in light of recent reports which indicate that many students are experiencing extreme poverty; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15147/98]
The 1998 third level student support schemes have recently been issued to local authorities and vocational education committees. It has been the practice in recent years to increase maintenance grants in line with inflation as measured by the change in the consumer price index for the period mid February to mid February each year. The inflation figure provided by the Central Statistics Office for the period mid February 1997 to mid February 1998 was 1.7 per cent. The value of the maintenance grant was therefore increased by 1.7 per cent.
It has also been the practice in recent years to increase the reckonable income limits in line with movements in the average industrial wage. The figures are provided by the Central Statistics Office and are computed in each case to March of the previous year. The average industrial wage increase for the period March 1996 to March 1997 was 3.2 per cent. The reckonable income limits for the 1998-99 academic year were therefore increased by 3.2 per cent.
This increase was also applied to the allowance by which the income limits may be increased in respect of other family members pursuing a course of study. The definition of eligible courses has also been extended.
I am committed to ongoing improvements in the third level student support schemes, including increasing the value of maintenance grants and increasing the income limits as resources permit. The Deputies will appreciate that such improvements must have regard to overall resource constraints and competing needs generally in the education sector.
I have identified the creation of additional places as my priority at third level. I have already increased the number of places at third level significantly.  I have also given a commitment to introduce maintenance grants for post leaving certificate students. Details of this new scheme will be available shortly.
Mr. O'Shea: Does the Minister agree that, against a background where the average industrial wage is £285 per week or approximately £15,000 per annum and the average male industrial wage is £375 per week or £17,000 per annum, an income limit of £18,000 per annum for a family with less than four children is grossly inadequate and is debarring many students from taking up third level places? The income limit is based on the gross figure but we are all aware that the net figure is a good deal lower. We are talking here about citizens who are obliged to provide their own accommodation on which a mortgage must be paid and who, in many cases, pay their own health insurance and run a car. Does the Minister not agree the two figures of £18,300 for families with four children or less and £20,139 in the case of families with four to six children are totally inadequate for eligibility for full maintenance?
Mr. Martin: I accept the limits are not overly generous but they have been that way for quite some time. The free fees scheme has made a difference to those above the limits in terms of their ability to survive at third level. There is no strong evidence on hand that the current rates are debarring people from attending third level courses.
The first priority I set myself on taking office was the creation of additional third level places as the lack of places was a barrier to people's participation in third level education. Since the beginning of the last academic session, we have increased the number of available places by 8,000 between third level and post leaving certificate courses. That is a very significant increase and I respectfully submit that the provision of opportunities for people to access third level education must remain our priority. Where resources permit it, we must attempt to improve the maintenance grant rates and the income thresholds although I would point out that to increase the thresholds by even £1,000 would cost approximately £5 million.
Mr. Naughten: Is the Minister aware of the survey published by the Consumers Association of Ireland which reveals that it costs up to £5,517 per annum for a student to survive away from home? Is he also aware that a recent USI survey on the same subject revealed a cost of £4,200? A comparison between the current and previous academic year revealed an additional cost of £540. Will the Minister reconsider his decision to increase maintenance grants by a paltry £28 in light of these statistics and in light of the fact that rental costs will increase dramatically in the autumn due to the new Government policy on housing?
Mr. Martin: I regret I cannot increase the rates as the Estimates do not allow me to do so. Within the overall Government fiscal policy and the resources available to me, I decided to prioritise the creation of additional third level places. One must take on board that the pursuit of a third level course is almost a certain passport to employment. The overwhelming number of graduates emerging from third level institutions now secure highly remunerative employment and that is to be welcomed.
When one looks at the needs which exist across the entire educational spectrum, one must take on board that people are still leaving school at primary level. Some second level students do not even make it to junior certificate level while others cannot proceed beyond leaving certificate level. These students require supports and we have made a good start in terms of creating an additional 8,000 places in the third level sector. We will look at the situation pertaining to the student grants system in the context of next year's Estimates to see if it can be improved. However, as it stands, I do not have the latitude to increase this year's Estimates to accommodate such an increase. I acknowledge the surveys referred to by the Deputy but regret the grants cannot be increased this year.
Mr. O'Shea: Was any cognisance taken of the increase in accommodation prices? While the creation of additional third level places is to be welcomed, they are only one aspect of access to third level education. Some young people and their families depress their educational ambitions because they realise that, in the absence of a grant, they will be unable to survive at third level. Indeed, the level of the grant is also a source of concern. Does the Minister agree that the most equitable way of approaching income limits would be to base assessment on net, rather than gross income? Should the Minister not set that as a target in the context of next year's Estimates?
Mr. Martin: Governments in the past decade or 15 years have not contemplated assessing net rather than gross income levels in view of the cost implications associated with that. In 1997-8, there was a 1.6 per cent increase in reckonable income limits, while a 2.4 per cent increase occurred in 1996-7. Increases in maintenance grant levels have been sporadic over the years; there was a good increase in 1995 but a poor one the following year. We are anxious to try to improve the position in the context of next year's Estimates and are considering it in terms of that process to try to improve the levels and rates, particularly the maintenance grant rates.
Mr. Naughten: We must welcome the provision of an additional 8,000 places, but they are not much use to the 35 per cent of young people who drop out of those courses. Why do they drop out? Some of them drop out because they cannot afford to stay in college. For example, a high number of unemployed people are in receipt of social welfare benefit in Dublin l7 and only 1 per cent of the population go on to third level. Does the Minister agree that the level of the maintenance grant prohibits students from a disadvantaged background from entering the third level education system? Has he any plans to mainstream student support from the partnership boards to encourage more disadvantaged students to participate in third level education?
Mr. Martin: I do not accept the Deputy's basic point. The Clancy report gives a much deeper explanation why young people, particularly from socio-economically disadvantaged areas, do not secure places, gain access to or participate in third level education. All the observations show that in many of the socio-economically disadvantaged areas a pattern of participation in third level education did not develop and that even by the end of second level many young people from those areas lack the motivation and do not aspire to go on to third level.
Mr. Martin: With respect, I am answering the Deputy's question. The Clancy surveys down through the years illustrate that we need to do far more at an earlier stage to increase participation in third level education in disadvantaged areas in particular and in areas of high unemployment. There is no point in believing that free fees will make one whit of a difference to young people in those areas who require intervention much earlier on. That goes back to primary and second level. The hardship and disadvantaged fund, which we increased this year, will enable third level institutions target disadvantaged areas in a more proactive way, particularly by providing scholarships to students at second level. It will create better links between second level schools and third level institutions and facilitate the introduction of familiarisation programmes in second level schools in those areas to promote greater awareness that will facilitate participation in third level education.
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