Seanad Éireann - Volume 191 - 09 October, 2008

Grant Payments. - Higher Education Grants.

  Senator Pearse Doherty: I raise this issue on behalf of a group of parents from the Connemara Gaeltacht in County Galway, who have been in correspondence with the Department of Education and Science for more than a year but who have received no response to their problem. The parents are campaigning on behalf of their children who were offered third level scholarships to the value of €6,110 per annum, based on their exceptional leaving certificate results.

[422]Recipients were given only three postal days to accept or reject the scholarship offers, and were therefore dependent on raising any queries they had by telephone with the Department. The letters of offer, which were received on 31 August 2008, were in Irish and signed by the acting principal officer of the Department in Tullamore. When the parents or children contacted the office, they were told the person who signed the letters did not understand or speak Irish. There was a then a delay in getting the English version sent out. Why does the Department of Education and Science allow such maladministration which results in gross confusion and misinformation to students?

Recipients of the Gaeltacht scholarships in 2007 have to date received payments well short of the €6,110 per annum mentioned in the letters of offer. Six of the recipients have received total amounts of €1,370 for the 2007-08 college year, while the remaining two recipients have received total amounts of €3,420. What has happened to the balance of the scholarship which remains unpaid? In 2007, the parents’ group was informed by the Department that the Gaeltacht scholarship schemes were administered in accordance with the criteria and rates payable under the scheme of student supports, as administered by the local authority, which is paid to third level students based on a means test. However, this is not outlined anywhere in the guidelines regarding the terms of the Gaeltacht scholarship schemes, nor was this mentioned in the letter of offer to the scholarship recipients. This anomaly must be addressed.

The Gaeltacht scholarships are paid at two rates, namely, a lower rate paid in the case of Gaeltacht scholarship holders residing 24 km or less from the college and a higher rate being paid in all other cases. The lower rate was abandoned in the 2005-06 college year and the higher rate was paid to all recipients in that year and in subsequent years. In 2007-08, however, the two different Gaeltacht scholarship rates were reintroduced with a lower and a higher rate. This resulted in scholarship holders from the same catchment areas, including siblings living in the same households, receiving different amounts for the same scholarship. Why are such anomalies and inequalities allowed in the administration of this scheme, resulting in distress and disappointment for the young persons concerned?

The scholarship rates, which were payable at a higher and lower rate in the case of the Easter week scholarships up until 2007, were abandoned in that year and a common higher rate of €6,750 was introduced, thereby avoiding the anomalies that exist with the Gaeltacht scholarship scheme. The Donagh O’Malley scholarship, which was introduced for the first time last year, has a common maintenance rate of €6,750 regardless of place of residence. The new JP McManus third level scholarships, which will be introduced for the 2008-09 college year, will also have a common maintenance rate of €6,750, regardless of place of residence. This leaves the Gaeltacht scholarship recipients in an unfair and unequal position in comparison to all other third level scholarships.

These are concerns raised by the parents and students of the Connemara Gaeltacht, and they have informed me that such concerns are causing great distress and disappointment to all involved. They are yet to have a positive response from the Department and Minister. I hope that Minister of State’s response will shed some light on the matter.

  Deputy Jimmy Devins: I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe. I thank the Senator for giving me this opportunity to outline the position of the Department of Education and Science on the third level Gaeltacht scholarship scheme.

[423]The Department of Education and Science funds three Irish scholarship schemes which provide support for students progressing to third level education. These scholarships are designed specifically to recognise achievement through Irish and one of the them is exclusively for students from the Gaeltacht areas, namely, an scéim scoláireachtaí triú leibhéal do Scoláirí on nGaeltacht. Fifteen scholarships are awarded annually under this scheme to students from the Gaeltacht who sit their leaving certificate through Irish, who have attended an all-Irish second level school and reached a certain minimum standard in the leaving certificate.

The rate of scholarship is equivalent to the maximum standard rate of grant payable under the Department’s maintenance grant schemes, although no means test applies in the case of these scholarships. Grants are paid at either of two rates. The non-adjacent rate is paid where the grant-holder’s normal residence is more than 24 kilometres from the college attended. The adjacent rate is paid where the grant-holder’s normal residence is 24 kilometres or less from the college attended. For the 2008-09 academic year, the non-adjacent rate of grant payable is €3,420, while the adjacent rate of grant payable is €1,370. All scholarships holders have received their full grant entitlement.

The Department of Education and Science operates a number of other third level scholarship schemes. These schemes have different criteria, requirements and objectives and, therefore, it is appropriate that there should be different terms and conditions pertaining to each. In addition to the Gaeltacht scholarship scheme, the Department of Education and Science provides other financial assistance to disadvantaged students, such as the student assistance fund and the millennium partnership fund. These two funds provide financial assistance for full-time higher education students who are experiencing financial difficulties while attending college. Students can apply for funding to help them with either temporary or ongoing financial difficulties. Each year, the State allocates a certain amount of student assistance funding to all publicly funded higher education colleges based on the size of the college’s full-time student population. Students in need of financial support can then make application in the college for assistance under the fund.

The millennium partnership fund for disadvantage was launched in 2000 and its objective is to support students from disadvantaged areas with regard to the retention and participation in higher education courses. Area partnership companies and community partnerships manage the fund locally. Students in need of financial support in these areas can apply directly to their local community group for assistance from the fund. These funds are administered, on behalf of the Department, by the national office for equity of access to third level education. The schemes are funded by the Department of Education and Science under the National Development Plan 2007-2013, with assistance from the European Social Fund.

It is proposed to carry out a review of the three existing third level Irish scholarship schemes in the course of the current academic year to determine their continuing effectiveness in meeting their objectives. A range of issues, including the terms and conditions of the schemes, will be considered in the context of this review.

  Senator Pearse Doherty: I wish to ask a supplementary question.

  An Cathaoirleach: Agreed.

  Senator Pearse Doherty: I appreciate the Minister of State coming back with this information. I will need to go back to the parents and talk to them. The Minister of State stated that all the recipients received their full rate. As the Minister of State is replying on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, I ask him to check with the Minister that the letter of offer received [424]by the recipients of the Gaeltacht scholarship in 2007 stated that the grant payable was €6,110. This is the information I have received. I outlined in my contribution what the recipients have received so far which corresponds with what the Minister of State informs me are the maximum rates. The anomaly may be in what was presented to them in the letter of offer and I suggest we could follow this up privately.

  Deputy Jimmy Devins: I thank the Senator for that comment. I will undertake to make inquiries in the Department and come back to him.

  The Seanad adjourned at 1.25 p.m. until noon on Tuesday, 14 October 2008.