Third Level Charges

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 205 No. 9

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Senator Cecilia Keaveney: Information on Cecilia Keaveney Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this issue and thank the Minister of State for attending to respond to it. I have asked for the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills to ensure that any increase in registration fees is ring-fenced for student services. I have also asked that students applying for college courses for the next academic year be simultaneously allowed to apply for their grants so that the delays in payments experienced this year will be eliminated.

I know we have this debate every year and understand it is not strictly the Department of Education and Skills that has control over the situation. That said, we need strong negotiations between the Department and the Department of Finance to ensure the criteria for the grants are issued as early as possible. Students I encounter day in, day out point out that they need to concentrate on their exams in their final year at school but they must make their applications for courses. We should put a mechanism in place in order that when students apply for their course, they also apply for their grant. In that way they would put in the time required to fill in their forms which would then move on to the adjudication mechanism, either the vocational education committee, VEC, or the county council. This would be of benefit also to county council and VEC staff who would not face an avalanche of applications late in the year, such as what they are currently trying to battle their way through. While I feel for the VEC and county council staff in this regard, I feel more for the students.

[565]I would like clarification of the current situation. I am aware some county councils are issuing student grants in batches and that while grants for some students have been processed, the next batch will not be processed until approximately 29 November. I understand some of these grants have been allocated but are in the system waiting to be transferred either by cheque or electronic transfer. We are at a time when we are taking cost-cutting measures and trying to achieve efficiencies and effectiveness. In this technological age, all grant awarding bodies should be at a stage where an electronic transfer can be made directly to students when the adjudication process is complete. This issue relates also to the fear people have that the current €1,500 registration fee will be increased to €3,000. If this happens, it is important that any increase is ring-fenced for student services.

I urge the Minister of State to ensure the Department encourages the grant awarding bodies to participate in career days in schools.

There are career days in many schools but few of them invite the grant-awarding bodies to explain the cost of going to college. It should not scare students off but prepare them for it. One council with which I am familiar sends an official to secondary schools to talk to first year students and their parents to suggest €5 per week be put away towards a college fund. The official also explains to fifth year students the college application process and the information required by the grant-awarding bodies. It was noted this led to better accuracy in the application forms and, in turn, a faster processing time.

Could a central body send information to all final year students on how this operates? Very often, students concentrate on getting the course they want, only to discover when they start college they have to put down a €1,500 student services fee. Other charges pop up unexpectedly like a deposit for accommodation. Information should be provided from this point in the year to prospective students to ease their burden and the college application process. I hope the Departments of Finance and Education and Skills will work towards a process whereby the forms for college applications and third level grants will be filled out at the start of each school year. I also hope any fees they pay are ring-fenced for their benefit. It is important we bring newly qualified people into the workforce.

Deputy Seán Haughey: Information on Seán Haughey Zoom on Seán Haughey I am taking this adjournment on behalf of my colleague the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Coughlan. I thank Senator Keaveney for raising this matter and I am sure she will appreciate it would not be appropriate for me to comment on any possible budgetary proposals.

The student service charge is levied by the higher education institutions to defray the costs of examinations, registration and student services. The range of student services may include such facilities as on-campus medical and counselling facilities for students, access and disability services, careers office services, student facilities, student clubs and societies. In accordance with the legal provisions, it is a matter for the institutions to determine the student services that are comprehended in their institution by the charge. The precise range of student services that comes under the ambit of the charge can vary to some degree across institutions in particular circumstances. However, the charge relates to broad student services and is not intended to relate to direct tuition costs.

For the academic year 2009-10, the Government indicated it was prepared to accept increases in the level of this charge to bring it to a limit of €1,500 in individual higher education institutions. No increase was applied to the charge for the current academic year, 2010-11. Students eligible under the means-tested student grant schemes do not have to pay this charge. It is paid on their behalf under the Department’s student grant schemes in addition to any maintenance grant and tuition fee support to which they are entitled. Some 43% of undergraduate students fall into this category.

[566]The use of the student service charge by higher education institutions to ensure the full income from the charge is being utilised on student services has been reviewed by the Higher Education Authority, HEA. The review has been completed and submitted to the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills. It covers income and expenditure associated with the charge, internal allocation processes for same, arrangements for accounting for the charge and additional charges levied on students outside the charge. Officials from the Department are following up with the HEA on aspects of the report and its findings in more detail. It is envisaged the outcome of the review will lead to the adoption of accounting policies that can be applied in a consistent manner across the sectors and between institutions and to an examination and updating of the HEA’s framework of good practice for the provision of student services.

With regard to student grants, the 66 grant-awarding authorities received an unprecedented number of student grant applications for the 2009-10 academic year with increases in applications up by 30% in some areas. It is acknowledged some students experienced delays in the processing of those grant applications. While pressures continue to exist in grant-awarding authorities due to the recruitment moratorium in the public sector, which has reduced their capacity to deal with the surge in demand, every effort is being made to ensure students get decisions on their grant applications and are paid as soon as possible for the current academic year.

In association with the grant-awarding authorities, the Department took several steps to improve service levels this year and to streamline administrative processes. Key among them were a simplification of the grant application form, a downloadable application form, advance payments to awarding authorities, a roll-out of payments by electronic funds transfer, the publication of the grant schemes two months earlier than last year and the introduction of a new on-line grant application system already operating in 11 grant-awarding authorities. For grant-awarding authorities, it will mean more timely and more accurate applications to help with the management of the application process.

In excess of 69,000 students received financial support from the Government under the student grant schemes in the 2009-10 academic year and this number is likely to rise further this year. With this volume, delays are inevitable if a large number of students leave their applications to the last minute or submit poorly completed forms. Unfortunately, up to 60% of applications have to be returned in some areas because they are incomplete. It is critical that fully completed application forms are submitted to the relevant local awarding authority as soon as possible and that all required supporting documentation is included to help the awarding bodies make prompt decisions on entitlement.

The consistent message which the Department has put out to students over the years is to encourage them to apply for a grant as soon as they have taken a decision to go to college. It uses various mechanisms to disseminate this message including through the students unions and other relevant groups. The Department also contacts all Central Applications Office, CAO, applicants using the CAO e-mail facility. The single most fundamental and radical restructuring of the whole student grants administration function is provided for in the Student Support Bill, which also provides for a single unified scheme. Committee Stage of this Bill will be taken on 25 November 2010. Several amendments relating to legal and policy issues arose since Second Stage and had to be finalised with the Attorney General’s office. In addition, possible options for a more significant centralisation of functions have been explored in line with the Government’s wider programme of public service reform. It has been decided the grants function will be administered by a single grant-awarding authority. The further amendments arising from the decision on this issue will also be dealt with on Committee Stage.

[567]I thank the Senator for affording me the opportunity to respond on this matter.

Senator Cecilia Keaveney: Information on Cecilia Keaveney Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney I am aware Committee Stage of the Student Services Bill will be taken this month and it will streamline some of the issues I raised. Students in receipt of means-tested third level grants do not have to pay the student services fee. However, if their forms have not been processed, there is no proof they are eligible for exemption from the student services fee. Some students have been badly caught by this because certain institutions will not accept word of mouth assurances in this regard. I hope the new system will speed up the grant-awarding process. I hope it also will make this as easy as possible to negotiate. Proving that one does not have to pay the charge necessitates having to get some information to say the form is being processed. I hope the Minister of State can see the anomaly involved.

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