Significant increases in the grants paid to students and restoring supports for postgraduate students have been recommended by the expert group on third-level funding.
It says that the poorest families should benefit from the more significant hikes in rates in order to help address the difficulties faced by students, particularly those studying away from home.
While most focus has been on the question of fees, and whether they should be increased, abolished, or replaced with a loan scheme to cover student tuition, the group chaired by Peter Cassells makes several recommendations on grants in its report published this week.
Rather than the option of introducing loans to assist students with living costs, which happens in some countries, it strongly urges the improvement in the current system of maintenance grants.
At a cost of close to €400m a year, they pay amounts ranging from €305 to nearly €6,000 a year, depending on family income and the distance from home to college. Half of all undergraduates are now eligible for a grant due to falling incomes in recent years, but the rest are liable for the annual €3,000 undergraduate fee.
But the Cassells report said that the amounts paid force many students to rely excessively on part-time work or family contributions, in some cases financed by borrowing.
The cut in funding for some students because of increases in the distance between home and college required to qualify for higher rates was also highlighted.
“Many students are commuting long distances as a result. The expert group believe that the value of grant payments needs to be increased, with specific attention paid to those on lower incomes,” its report said.
The group also warned of the social divide emerging in the postgraduate sector since grants and most other supports were removed in 2012, making the associated fees affordable only to some groups.
“This will permeate into the labour market and life chances as many professions and careers now require a postgraduate qualification.”
The report also recommends extending supports to part-time students, over two-thirds of whom are aged over 30 and some require help with living costs. As well as part-time learners, consideration of extending the grant scheme to students in private colleges is also urged by the Cassells-chaired group.
These issues are to be debated by the Oireachtas Education Committee, which has been asked by Education Minister Richard Bruton to try and reach a consensus on the fairest way to redress the massive shortfall in funding for third-level. Other options are to retain the current €3,000 fee and increase public funding, or scrap the fee and hike public investment.
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