Wednesday, 7 March 2001
Dáil Eireann Debate
22. Mr. U. Burke asked the Minister for Education and Science if he has taken action following the completion by the action group on access to third level education of its report; the plans he has to implement its recommendations; and if he will substantially increase third level maintenance grants to students and bring qualifying income limits to realistic levels. [6851/01]
Dr. Woods: I appointed an action group on access to third level education last September to consider the development of a co-ordinated framework to promote access by students from three target groups. The group was asked to advise on specific interventions which would be most effective in making further progress. I have received the report of the action group and I compliment the members of the group and their chairman, Dr. Cormac McNamara, on producing the report within a relatively short period of time. I am considering their recommendations and hope to make an initial response in the near future.
To indicate the Government's support of equity in access, a special maintenance grant is now payable to disadvantaged grant holders, targeted at those most in need. This was announced last September as an initial step, pending the findings of the action group. The full rates of the special maintenance grant entail increases over standard rates, from £1,775 to £2,000 for students residing more than 15 miles from college and from £710 to £1,000 for students resident within 15 miles. Recommendations relating to criteria for the special maintenance grant, and the rates to apply, form part of the action group's report.
I also announced last November that I was setting up a special project team to carry out a review of every aspect of the maintenance grants, and other student supports, to ensure their relevance to the needs of third level students. This review will include the level of grants, the methods by which they are paid, eligibility and income limits, accommodation needs, student support services, the most suitable paying agency, the provision of an appeals system, student loans and taxation measures. Issues relating to the implementation of the team's recommendations will be addressed when its report has been completed.
Mr. U. Burke: I also congratulate the chairman of the action group on access. The Minister's reply shows he has no plans to change rules of access from the current inequitable situation, despite the fact that he has received the report and is aware of the situation prior to it. Many young people apply for admission to third level institutions at this time of the year. The Government has failed to do two things.
Mr. U. Burke: Will the Minister indicate that maintenance grants will be substantially  improved in the coming year? That indication has to come now, as young people have applied to college, but are not enthusiastic about the application due to financial difficulties. A recent ESRI report indicates that we will need 350,000 people in the coming years, most of whom will have to be skilled, but what chance of becoming skilled have the students who are now entering? An initial excess is not an indicator of the outcome. The question is whether they will qualify and not drop out as happens so frequently, and that is linked to the total inadequacy of maintenance grants. Increasing them from £1,700 to £2,000 is absolutely ridiculous.
Dr. Woods: Grants for disadvantaged students will be improved. We will base our approach on the work of the commission, and we have £95 million with which to do it. We asked the commission to look at this and we will soon have a report on the overall situation. The initial increase I gave came out of last year's funds because no fund had been allocated – I came in after that. I made an allocation when this was being set up in September last. We are directing a good deal of extra funding towards the disadvantaged because, as the various surveys show, they are people who are not getting into further and higher education. They are also the people who have difficulty when they are there. That aspect will certainly receive attention.
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