ICMSA: Unjust to include farmland in means test for college grants

ICMSA president John Comer says it is unjust to include farmland in means tests for third-level college grants when public sector pensions are not assessed.

The dairy leader said farmers will resist any proposals to replace the current income-based model with a new capital assets-based assessment. He said any farmer working a 75-acre farm in a year of low commodity prices would have had zero net income for the year.

“In 2009 you could have farmed 500 acres and still have ended up with no net income at all,” said Mr Comer. “The reported proposals represented a seismic move away from the income of applicants’ families and onto the much less fair basis of perceived assets.”

The ICMSA leader was speaking in relation to media reports that the Department of Education is to base future grant applications on five years of farmers’ and self-employed people’s accounts.

He said a farm was the tool by which a farmer earned his income. By contrast, he challenged the view that “gold-plated” public sector pensions were not considered an asset.

Mr Comer said: “If a working farm of 70 acres is now to be considered an asset, then simple justice dictates that the kind of incredibly lush, taxpayer-subsidised, pension packages that are available to politicians and public servants should also be factored into the calculation formulas.

“Why are they not? Aren’t they wealth too? And much more accessible and guaranteed forms of wealth than a farm of land that has to be worked every day for a return that’s never guaranteed and which occasionally disappears altogether.”

A department spokesperson said broadening the student grant means-testing model would be decided collectively by the Cabinet.

“The memo which Minister Quinn is bringing to Cabinet follows a report from an interdepartmental working group set up to examine the issue,” said the spokesperson.

“This is about ensuring that, at a time of reduced resources, the Government targets valuable schemes such as the student grant system at those who need them most. Equally, those who can afford to pay to go to third level should do so.”

Meanwhile, IFA president John Bryan has challenged Teagasc to clarify the role it played in facilitating the Education Minister Ruairi Quinn in proposing that children from a farm with net assets of €750,000 would be excluded from third-level maintenance grants, regardless of income.

Mr Bryan said the calculations reportedly supplied by Teagasc are deeply flawed and will result in discrimination against farm families as eligibility will be based on asset value.

IFA deputy president Eddie Downey said: “This is a very serious matter for Teagasc, and its director Gerry Boyle must clarify their involvement in compiling these proposals. I will be prioritising this issue at the next board meeting on Wednesday.”

Teagasc said that it had not provided the type of calculation to any party as implied by some media reports which had suggested that the €750,000 threshold is derived from a Teagasc calculation that a farm of that value is likely to generate annual income of just over €41,000 — the cut-off point for full college grants to PAYE families.

A Teagasc spokesperson said Teagasc does not publish any Family Farm Income (FFI) estimates for different farm asset values.

The IFA said that existing method of assessment of self-employed income for the maintenance grant already disallows a number of expenses that are included in income tax computation.

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