The Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association has promised a political campaign targeting rural TDs, and particularly those of Government parties, over fears that farming assets will be included in college grant assessments and make third level education inaccessible for farmers’ children.
In the budget last December, it was announced that the means test for student maintenance grants will include the value of certain capital assets as well as income from 2013. The change will apply to all new students starting third level in autumn of next year, and is expected to save the Department of Education €1.5m in 2013, eventually rising to a €14m annual saving.
But ICMSA president John Comer says allowing the proposal go ahead will mean the children of the typical full-time farmer will never qualify for a higher education grant.
“They will never qualify because of a value that will be placed on land, and other productive assets, without any connection to the actual income these assets produce,” he said.
“That is not a fair measure and it is intended to function — and will function — as a bar to farm families receiving third level grants on the same basis as their suburban and urban counterparts,” Mr Comer said.
He asked how it could be fair that high value and readily saleable homes — even in the current climate — seem likely to be excluded from any formula to determine eligibility for grants.
“I’d go as far as to say that not alone is this proposal manifestly unfair, but it is quite possibly illegal, in as much as it is an unjust, specifically-targeted and very significant discrimination against the children of farm families which will have a permanent impact on their ability to access third level education,” Mr Comer said.
He said rural TDs, and Government deputies in particular, would want to concentrate hard on the consequences of the changes being assembled.
“ICMSA will begin immediately to lobby against this move and our campaign will examine every possible line of resistance,” he said.
But the Department of Education says no decision has been made yet about what kind of capital assets would be included in the revised means testing arrangements, or how farmers would be treated.
A dedicated capital asset test implementation group has been set up to bring forward detailed proposals on new means testing arrangements for student grants, to include the value of assets, for new applicants from next year.
“In the circumstances, it is not possible to say at this time what assets may be included. Contrary to the assertions made in the ICMSA statement, no decision has been taken on the treatment of farm or other business assets,” a department spokesperson said.
“However, any proposals will require further Government agreement and necessitate legislative amendment,” she said.
In a letter to the ICMSA last September released by the organisation, education minister Ruairi Quinn pointed to Higher Education Authority statistics from a survey of first year students in the 2009/2010 academic year.
“They show that of the 8.3% of students who were children of farmers, 39.7% were receiving higher education grants, a figure which Mr Quinn wrote was “lower than ‘urban myth’ would have it”.
“These new statistics should help inform a more reasoned debate, including the arguments that you make in your letter, about any changes that may be made in the present system to ensure greater equity,” said Mr Quinn. “Let me assure you that I would not wish to see students from less well-off farm families excluded from grant eligibility.”
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