Dáil Éireann - Volume 526 - 21 November, 2000

Written Answers. - Higher Education Grants.

383. Mr. O'Shea asked the Minister for Education and Science the proposals he has to increase the level of maintenance grant for students at third level and to substantially [738] increase the income limits; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26354/00]

Minister for Education and Science (Dr. Woods): The statutory framework for the maintenance grants schemes, 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.

The practice in recent years has been to increase the rates of third level maintenance grants annually in line with inflation and to increase the reckonable income limits in line with movements in the average industrial wage. Last June, in line with this policy, I announced increases of 5% in the rates of maintenance grant and 5% in the qualifying income limits for the 2000-01 academic year.

The reference value for inflation for the purpose of the annual review is the annual percentage increase in the CPI to February. The increase of 5% in grant rates for 2000-01 was higher than the reference value, which was 4.3%.

In the present financial year expenditure on student support, including free fees, is expected to be about £250 million.

In view of the scale of expenditure involved and the representations being made by students and other groups, I announced on 11 November that I was setting up a special project team to carry out a comprehensive review of every aspect of the maintenance grants, and other student supports, to ensure their relevance to the needs of present day 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. The project team is to report to me by the end of March 2001.

Some 40% of third level students qualify for maintenance grants. The need to target resources at those most in need is well recognised and underpins my approach to tackling disadvantage. In this regard there is provision within the national development plan 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 students and students with disabilities.

I recently established an action group on access to third level education with the aim of tackling under-representation of disadvantaged students. This action group will advise me on the development of a co-ordinated framework to promote participation at third level by such students. I have asked the group to provide a report to me within three months.

As an indication of the Government's support in promoting equity in access and as an initial step, pending the findings of the action group, I have announced the introduction of a special maintenance grant payable to disadvantaged [739] grant holders, targeted at those most in need. The full rates of the special maintenance grant entail increases over the standard rates as follows: 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 of college.

Tentative indications are that up to 10,000 students may benefit from this measure.