Tuesday, 18 December 2001
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. J. Cregan: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. This case was brought to my attention recently by a degree student in a third level institution who for the past three years has qualified for grant aid. When she re-applied for the grant for her fourth year in college she was refused as her mother had won £18,000 on the national lottery. That is harsh and unfair. First, the refusal of the grant does not affect the winner of the money but the student in question. Perhaps other such cases could be quoted but I am sure they are few and far between.
A family might be fortunate enough to cash in a small insurance policy and an applicant for a grant from that family would, therefore, lose out for a 12 month period. If the student were to go back to college next year or the following year, he or she would be entitled to a grant. This anomaly should be removed from the relevant legislation as it deprives needy students in these circumstances of their weekly maintenance grant. It is difficult to explain to a student that he or she is losing their grant because one of their parents won a relatively small sum of money. The sum involved could be even smaller than in the case I have raised and an applicant would still lose out. I would not have raised this matter if it concerned someone who won a large sum of money. Perhaps an upper ceiling could be put on the amount of winnings to ensure that those who could not otherwise afford to send their children to college would benefit from grant aid.
The statutory framework for the maintenance grants scheme, as set out in the Local Authorities (Higher Education Grants) Acts, 1968 to 1992, provides for means-tested higher education grants in order to assist students to attend full-time third level education. Under the terms of the scheme, a candidate's reckonable income for the purposes of the means test is his or her gross income from all sources and the gross income of  his or her parents or guardians, where applicable, with certain specified social welfare and health board payments, as follows, being exempt: child benefit; family income supplement; disability allowance (where paid to the candidate); blind pension (where paid to the candidate); means tested one parent family payments; orphan's pensions; back to education allowance; foster care allowance; domiciliary care allowance; and carer's allowance.
For the purposes of a grant application for the 2001-2002 academic year, a candidate's reckonable income is all amounts, with the exception of the above payments, received during the tax year ended 5 April 2001. In the calculation of reckonable income, account must be taken of gains from prize bonds, lotteries or sweepstakes winnings within the accounting period in question.
There are no plans at present to change the means testing arrangements under the higher education grant scheme to allow for the exclusion of lottery winnings in the calculation of reckonable income. Where prize money from the national lottery has put a candidate's reckonable income outside the income limits prescribed under the higher education grant scheme for a particular year, he or she may apply to be reassessed for grant assistance in any subsequent years.
The cost of the four maintenance grant schemes operated by the Department of Education and Science in 2000 was £90.4 million. The estimated cost for 2001 is £96.4 million. In 2000, expenditure on all student support, including free fees, amounted to just under £250 million. The equivalent cost for 2001 is likely to be in the order of £260 million.
The need to target resources at those most in need is well recognised and underpins the Government's approach to tackling disadvantage. In this regard, it is relevant that in September 2000 the Minister established the action group on access to third level education to advise on the barriers to participation by disadvantaged students in higher education. There is provision within the National Development Plan 2000-2006 for a third level access fund, totalling £95 million over the period of the plan, aimed at tackling under-representation by students from disadvantaged backgrounds, mature “second chance” students and students with disabilities.
Last July, the Minister launched the report on access to third level education prepared by the group. The report is a landmark document which contains 78 recommendations. The Department has to date initiated a number of measures aimed at implementing some of the main recommendations in the report. At the launch of the action group in September 2000, the Minister announced the introduction of special rates of maintenance grant payable to disadvantaged grant holders in 2001. Recommendations relating  to the criteria for the special rates of grant are set out in the action group's report and approval for payment of the special rates have issued to the local authorities and vocational education committees. The special rates, effective from the 2000/01 academic year are £3,000 for students residing over 15 miles from the college attended, and £1,200 for students residing less than 15 miles from the college attended.
In September 2000 the Minister also announced a millennium partnership fund for disadvantage with a provision of £1 million in 2001. The fund is intended to build on the experience of the support scheme for students from disad vantaged families, operated by the Northside Partnership, which assists students to participate in higher education. Area Development Management Limited, under whose aegis the partnerships operate, has accepted the Department's request that it would administer the fund for the 2001-2002 academic year. The Minister is committed to progressing implementation of the group's recommendations as resources permit.
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