Farmers oppose college grants scheme proposal

FARMERS have warned of strong resistance against Education Minster Noel Dempsey’s proposals to assess land and assets to decide who qualifies for college grants.

The change to means-testing for the grants scheme has been urged in a Department of Education report published by Mr Dempsey yesterday.

The review of third-level student support also shows one-quarter of farmers' children at third-level institutions benefit from maintenance grants more than any other sector of workers.

The reform plan would reduce the perceived inequities in the current system, as rich farmers and self-employed are seen by many PAYE workers to be using loopholes to get grants for their children.

Farmers Association of Ireland president John Dillon said he does not condone any inappropriate advantages being taken of the system but that it probably happens in every walk of life. "We are very annoyed that the minister wants to use our assets to decide if farmers get grants. Our land is only a tool for our incomes, which are mostly far less than the average industrial wage," he said.

Mr Dillon said the minister should be fully aware of the low incomes families earn from farming after the FAI's tractorcade brought the country to a standstill in January.

He said a repeat of the protest could not be ruled out if the Government pushes forward with the means-testing of assets. Farmers earn an average 15,800 a year, according to official figures, and these low incomes are the reason so many of their children in college get a grant, the FAI president said. The Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers' Association said the fact that farmland value has risen does not mean that farm incomes are high.

"If this plan is implemented, the question will also have to be asked should the value of homes be included in the assessment," said general secretary Eddie Punch. Macra na Feirme said it was totally unacceptable to suggest anybody should undermine their livelihood by selling their means of generating income. But Labour Party education spokesperson Jan O'Sullivan said it was clear people with substantial financial assets can abuse the system to the detriment of others.

Mr Dempsey's report set out ways of increasing money to help get more disadvantaged people into higher education. The change to grants assessments is suggested as one way of freeing up more money for less well-off students.

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