Thursday, 3 June 2010
Dáil Éireann Debate
10. Deputy Jim O’Keeffe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills the steps that are being taken to ensure that applicants for third level maintenance grant for the academic year 2010/2011 will not face delays in view of the record number of applicants for third level college places for the forthcoming year; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23648/10]
Deputy Mary Coughlan: I am very conscious of the difficulties created for grant awarding authorities and for individual students following the unprecedented surge in student grant applications in 2009. Therefore, I am pleased to inform the Deputy that I have prioritised a range of initiatives to facilitate speedier processing of grant applications in 2010. This includes the introduction of a new, greatly simplified, application form and explanatory notes, which were made available on the www.studentfinance.ie website in recent weeks, considerably ahead of last year’s time frame. In addition, I published the grant schemes for 2010 last week, some months ahead of the publication date last year.
My Department is currently working closely with the VECs and local authorities to advance development of a scaleable on-line application facility for which tenders have already been sought. My Department is also examining the possibility of a further roll-out of payments to students by way of electronic funds transfer which proved very successful in the pilot phase in 2009-10. The issue of cash flow for grant awarding authorities has also been addressed through the introduction of an advance payment arrangement. Taken together, I am hopeful that all of these measures should serve to assist awarding authorities in the earlier and more efficient processing of student grants this year.
In the longer term, a more fundamental restructuring of the whole grants administration function will be facilitated by the passage of the Student Support Bill. I am currently re-assessing the organisational options provided for in the Bill with a view to streamlining operations and maximising administrative efficiencies in line with the Government’s wider programme of public service reform.
Deputy David Stanton: What is holding up the Student Support Bill? When does the Minister expect to progress the Bill through Committee Stage and bring it before the House in order that it can be passed? Are many students still waiting for grants this year?
Deputy David Stanton: We do not know. Can the Minister tell us when she expects students to begin receiving confirmation of whether they have been successful in their applications for grants? Will it be in September or October? In other years this went on until November, December, January, February and March and people were waiting. Does the Minister realise that very often it is the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable and those who are most under pressure who are left until last? Is she aware of or has any research been carried out into the number of students many of whom have had to drop out of colleges because they did not receive a grant in time in the past year?
Deputy Mary Coughlan: A few grants have not been paid but many of those cases are due to the fact that inadequate information was provided. There is only so much that the people working at the coalface can do.
Deputy Mary Coughlan: All of us as practising politicians dread August because it is the time when we all have to fill in the forms ourselves because people are wary of them. We have done a number of things.
Deputy Mary Coughlan: I hope that will be of benefit in making sure that people have all of the requisite information that is required. I am not aware of anyone who has stepped out of college because of the difficulties. I am very cognisant that we need to get this matter streamlined. Students can apply through the CAO and make a very good job of it, yet they cannot apply for the student grant scheme because they seem to be afraid of it. I want to make sure that we can transfer that ability into the summers. I have also asked that career guidance teachers be made aware of the new scheme to allow, facilitate and encourage students to apply, in a similar fashion to the points system when they sit down with a big red letter and say, “You must do this, you must do that”. They could do the same thing with the student grant scheme. I hope to try to get the scheme, payments and acknowledgements of eligibility as quickly as possible because I am aware of these types of issues and the angst it provides, not just for students but mainly for their parents.
Deputy Brian Hayes: One issue which I would like the Minister to examine, even in advance of the Student Support Bill which has been put to one side for the past number of years, is the question of independent residency, in particular for mature students, many of whom are trying to——
Deputy Brian Hayes: Deputy O’Keeffe tabled this question. The point he wanted to raise is the question of independent residency for mature students. There is a difficulty, in particular for those mature students who are in rented accommodation and simply cannot get the documentation to satisfy the requirements of the grant system. Will the Minister examine the issue?
Deputy Mary Coughlan: There is an answer to it in a later question. We have exceptions. We had this problem a couple of years ago, as the Deputy is probably aware where we had students from the European Union, mar dhea, coming in and taking up places. All sorts of issues arose. It has stopped because we have been able to deal with those issues. There are two issues. One has to make sure, given the scarce resources we have, that people who have entitlements get paid and do not lose out. Where there are flexibilities with regard to the scheme the Department, through the VECs and county councils, try to address that issue. If there are specific issues my Department or I will be more than happy to facilitate them.
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