Student Support

Foot-and-Mouth Disease – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:30 am on 26th March 2001.

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Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:30 am, 26th March 2001

I have received notice from the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment that he wishes to make a statement on student support proposals.

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

Members will recall that 13 months ago, on the eve of suspension, I announced my intention to conduct a review of student financial support. The details of the review’s terms of reference were published approximately 12 months ago. Notwithstanding suspension, we have proceeded expeditiously to complete the review and formulate the set of proposals which are being announced today.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)

Members will acknowledge, I trust, that in formulating this package of new methods of financial and other support for further and higher education students, we are serious about making a difference in student support in both sectors. I also trust that the seriousness of our determination to make a difference for the better will be acknowledged outside the Assembly.

Members will recall that, before Christmas, I announced the broad framework of my proposals to change the arrangements for student support. I indicated then that further work on the detail of the proposals needed to be done by my officials in liaison with the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Economic Policy Unit in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Thereafter, it would require final clearance by the Executive.

I am pleased to say that the Executive fully endorsed my package of proposals last Thursday, and my purpose today is to inform the Assembly of the content of that package. I thank my Executive Colleagues for their support and, in particular, the officials in my Department, in the Department of Finance and Personnel, and in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister who worked hard to ensure the finalisation of this package.

I will begin by recalling the key aims that underpin my proposals. Those aims are social, economic and educational, and I was encouraged by the support that they received in most quarters. My key aims are to widen access to further and higher education — especially higher education — in Northern Ireland and provide greater equality of opportunity and greater equity of treatment by reducing the barriers to participation and retention that exist for those from lower socioeconomic groups.

I wish to increase the contribution that higher and further education makes to economic development in Northern Ireland, particularly by enhancing the skills base. I wish to promote lifelong learning through increasing participation in higher and further education.

In support of those key aims, my proposals are designed, first, to target resources in higher education to those from lower income groups, thereby widening access to higher education from among the underrepresented and those with specific needs; secondly, to upgrade support to those over 19 years of age wishing to participate full-time in vocational further education to boost the skills base of the economy; thirdly, to increase support for certain categories of students who are under-represented in both higher and further education, including part-time students; fourthly, to provide potential students and parents with a clearer, simpler system of administration for student support, particularly in relation to full-time education.

As Members are aware, my Department, along with other Departments, operates in a world of finite resources and many competing pressures for those resources, not only in higher and further education itself but in other areas such as health, schools, transport, and so on. I have made no secret of the fact that I wished to go even further than I have done. However, I would not have been fulfilling my ministerial responsibilities if I had come forward with proposals which did not have careful regard to affordability and to the need to ensure that any additional resources were indeed targeted on clear and pressing priority areas. That has meant that options such as abolishing the loan-based system or the total abolition of fees in higher education were not real options for me.

I trust that Members will appreciate that we are at the beginning of a new political era and that the changes that are being announced today do not mark the end of a process but rather the beginning of a process of change.

Student loans were first introduced in 1990 in recognition of the growing cost to taxpayers of higher education. The present loan-based system is a response to the crisis in higher education funding, identified by Dearing in his report in 1997, as more and more school-leavers each year move into third-level education. It costs some £90 million each year to fund loans to students in Northern Ireland. It is a simple fact that neither the Northern Ireland Executive nor the Executive in Scotland nor the UK Government in Whitehall could afford to operate a student support system without a strong loan element.

Furthermore, the current loans offer a good deal to students in commercial terms, a situation acknowledged by student representatives and by a departmental Committee. They are not repaid until the graduate is in employment and earning £10,000 per year. They are repaid at a zero rate of real interest, and no more than 9% of income above £10,000 is taken annually in repayment.

Some 75% of students now take out a loan, and the average loan is about £3,200 per year. Let me remind Members that the private rate of return to those with a degree is some 20% above those without a degree. Dearing, Cubie and many other commentators, including the departmental Committee, agree that those who benefit most from higher education should pay something towards their upkeep during their course.

In theory one could change unilaterally the basis on which the loans are repaid, but in practice this would of necessity have to be done on a UK-wide basis since the Inland Revenue is unlikely to accept collection on a different basis in each jurisdiction. The Scottish Executive accepted this position despite the Cubie recommendations.

We have covered the ground on fee contribution before, but it is worth repeating that I did not feel that complete abolition would help the least-well-off members of society who aspire to higher education. Expenditure in that area would not be appropriately targeted, and it would be extremely divisive to make the change, as in Scotland, for locally domiciled students at local universities and colleges. European Union regulations mean that the many Northern Ireland students who have recourse to further and higher education opportunities outside Northern Ireland would be precluded from so benefiting. That would be a divisive and politically unacceptable position to move to.

Having set the context for my proposals, both in terms of aims and objectives and financial constraints, I shall now set out the detail. My proposals are based on a new targeting social needs/skills approach. There are three main elements to the overall package within which my proposals can be grouped.

First, there are measures to promote greater full-time adult participation in further education in order to improve equality of opportunity, to enhance the skills base and to promote lifelong learning. I wish to place much greater emphasis on the further education sector as a significant engine for economic development. Members will be aware that I have taken many opportunities — both inside and outside the Assembly — to express that emphasis. I have begun this process through a range of measures designed to upgrade the sector’s information and communication technology capacity, to restructure its staffing profile, to improve facilities and to identify centres of excellence relevant to regional economic need.

I have been successful in increasing part-time enrolments of over-18-year-olds. However, I wish to secure an increase in adult full-time enrolments. Therefore, I propose to abolish tuition fees on a broad range of vocational courses at levels 2 and 3 for full-time students aged over 19. In so doing I will be pleased to have been able to go further than my pre-Christmas proposal, which was to confine fee abolition to courses in certain key skill areas.

In combination with fee abolition, I propose to introduce around 3,000 discretionary further education access bursaries. Those will be decided on a sliding scale of up £1,500 each for full-time students aged over 19 on incomes below £10,000, up to £1,000 for those whose incomes are between £10,000 and £12,500 and up to £500 for those whose incomes are between £12,500 and £15,000. The bursaries will replace the current further education discretionary awards and will be administered by the education and library boards.

In addition to fee abolition and the introduction of discretionary bursaries, I intend to increase the access funds — the support funds — administered by the further education colleges by a further £0·5 million a year. That will bring the total to approximately £1·7 million and focus them specifically on hardship in order to provide a greater safety net drop-out for those students who find themselves in financial difficulties after starting their courses.

Full-time course provision provides a much better opportunity for adults to reskill completely and to change career direction. This will be an essential element in meeting the needs of the new knowledge-based economy by providing adults with the incentive to make the necessary change. I expect, therefore, that this combination of fee abolition and bursary provision across the broad range of vocational provision, together with the increase of £0·5 million in the access funds of the further education colleges, will provide the necessary incentives and represent a significant step forward in narrowing the gap between further education and higher education student support.

I have not concentrated my attention purely on the full-time aspect of further education. As well as the increase in access (support) funds, to which I have referred and which will be equally accessible to part-time students, I will take action to ensure that a consistent fee remission policy for part-time students operates in every college across the further education sector. This will remove uncertainty about entitlement and eliminate local variations. It will provide for the tuition fees of students on low incomes or benefits, or who become unemployed after starting their courses, to be met by the colleges.

I will also provide individual learning accounts to help pay fees for part-time further education students in certain vocational courses to encourage greater participation in important skill areas and enhance lifelong learning.

The second broad category of the new arrangements is the introduction of access bursaries and other measures in higher education to widen access for the under-represented and provide greater equity of treatment for those in higher education from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Social groups IV and V make up 25% of the overall population, but students from these groups represent only 11% of the student population. There are a number of factors in this under-representation, but finance and debt aversion are included in them. Evidence from the recent student income and expenditure survey, which covered Great Britain and Northern Ireland, demonstrates that students from these groups get less financial support from parents and relatives, have to assume more debt, have to undertake significantly longer part-time hours of paid work and are more likely to drop out for financial reasons than students from better-off families.

I intend, therefore, to address these elements of inequality of opportunity and inequity by introducing means-tested, non-repayable access bursaries on a sliding scale of up to £1,500 per annum for full-time undergraduates whose parental or spouse residual income is £15,000 or less. It is estimated that such bursaries will be taken up by over one third of the full-time student population. The amount of bursaries and the income thresholds at which they are payable will be along the same lines as the discretionary further education bursaries which I have already mentioned. They will interact with loan-based support. For example, someone whose family or spouse has a residual income of less than £10,000 will receive a total support package of £4,320, which is made up of £2,820 in loan and £1,500 in bursary.

To interact with these new bursaries I intend to reduce the loan available by up to £250 for students whose parents or spouses have residual incomes of over £46,000 per annum. This will enable resources to be targeted on assistance for students from lower-income families. The full reduction of £250 will apply to those with earnings of £47,700 per annum and above. Average earnings in Northern Ireland are around £18,700 per annum. It is estimated that reduced loan entitlement will affect only 20% of the student population.

I intend to raise the residual income threshold at which a student contribution towards tuition fees becomes due from £17,805 per annum to £20,000 per annum. Currently the maximum is £1,050. Therefore, more than 50% of students will not pay anything towards the cost of their tuition. It will also mean that many students who are required to pay a contribution which is less than the maximum amount will benefit from a further reduction.

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Residual income is gross income, before tax and National Insurance, reduced by certain allowances, for example, superannuation payments that qualify for tax relief or for adult dependants.

In addition to these measures, I will introduce a childcare grant to assist students on low incomes with dependant children and to help to reduce the disincentive to full-time higher education. The grant will be based on 85% of the actual costs of registered or accredited childcare in term-time and 70% of actual costs during the long vacation, subject to a maximum of £100 per week for one child and £150 per week for two or more children. For those students who, for whatever reason, cannot avail of registered or accredited childcare, assistance is available through the access (support) funds of their institutions.

In addition to these measures for full-time higher education students, part-time students will be assisted by individual learning accounts (ILAs). ILAs were introduced in September 2000 to encourage lifelong learning by helping those aged 18 and over to meet the costs of a wide range of part-time courses. In Northern Ireland, learning eligible for ILA support is extended to vocationally relevant part-time higher education courses including the Higher National Certificates (HNCs) and part-time Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) offered by universities and higher education colleges as well as courses offered by the Open University and vocational courses studied through distance learning. For the initial 20,000 Northern Ireland account holders, up to £150 is available towards the first course costs, provided the learner pays at least £25. For subsequent eligible courses a discount of 20% will be available.

Where a part-time higher education course extends over several years, each complete year is regarded as a separate course for ILA purposes. Employed students may get a contribution from their employer towards fees and other course-related costs. If that is for a course purchased through an ILA, the employer may offset the contribution for tax purposes.

Thirdly, an increase in domestic higher education places, in order to widen access and increase the contribution of higher education to regional economic development, is proposed.

It has been argued by a wide range of commentators, including Lord Dearing, that there is a shortage of higher education places in Northern Ireland. This has the effect of driving up the grades required for entrance to our universities, leading to the phenomenon of "reluctant leavers" — those who must go outside Northern Ireland to take up a higher education course. It is impossible to quantify the exact extent of the problem, but I have been successful in bidding for an additional 1,000 higher education places on top of the 4,400 already announced in the Programme for Government.

In my view this is a reasonable estimate of the need at this time. I have not yet decided how these places will be allocated, but the majority will certainly be targeted at disciplines regarded as important for economic development.

In addition to the proposals I have already covered, I intend to ensure that we do everything possible to make clear and concise information and guidance on the student support system easily available to all those who need it. Therefore, I will be commissioning the education and library boards, assisted by student representatives including the National Union of Students (NUS), the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and others, to review the nature and distribution of the financial information they provide to students, potential students and parents.

I am also conscious of the special needs of mature students and I intend to ask the Educational Guidance Service for Adults (EGSA) to provide a guidance service, again in co-operation with student representatives, to ensure that such students receive full information about the costs and other aspects of entry into higher education. I am delighted at the positive response of the student representatives to this proposal.

I will also open discussions with the education and library boards and the Student Loans Company with a view to re-engineering the administrative system for higher education loans to make the process simpler and more transparent, and to develop its capacity for the electronic delivery of services.

The cost of implementing my proposals will be some £65 million over the next three years. I trust that Members will agree that this represents a significant investment in the future of our young people. It is an investment that has been secured with considerable difficulty given the competing pressures on the Executive. I hope, therefore, that I can rely on the support of the Assembly as I move towards a public equality consultation as required by my Department’s equality scheme.

In conclusion, I thank the Assembly again for the opportunity to speak today and, more importantly, for the contribution that the Assembly and its Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee have made to this debate. I also extend my thanks to my Colleagues in the Executive, the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Office of the First and the Deputy First Ministers. I know that I have not delivered everything that the Committee sought in its report, but I have attempted to give effect to several of its key recommendations. I have tried to seek a conclusion that I believe to be in the best interests of our students and our wider society.

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP 11:45 am, 26th March 2001

I congratulate the Minister on the completion of this most recent, and lengthy, part of the review process. I note the extra resources that he has secured from both the Department of Finance and the Executive. The Committee welcomes those. I want to ask two brief questions. Will the Minister confirm that, since his previous statement on this matter on 15 December 2000, he has significantly widened the scope of the provisions for further education students in respect of access bursaries and the non-payment of up-front tuition fees? If so, I am interested to know why he has broadened that. The Committee will welcome that change.

Will the Minister provide an assessment of the level and generosity of his bursary scheme? The Committee welcomes it in principle, but I am concerned about how it compares with the situation in another devolved administration — namely Scotland — where, as I understand it, the bursaries are set at £2,000 for family incomes less than £10,000 and do not taper down to zero until the family or spouse income reaches as high as £25,000.

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

With respect to the first question, we have widened the scope for the abolition of tuition fees in relation to courses in further education. We did so because, on reflection, it appeared that it would be more appropriate to be as broad as possible rather than to approach the issue on the more restricted basis that I initially thought might have been necessary.

The same answer applies to the question of access bursaries in the further education sector. With respect to the comparisons that the Member has drawn with the situation in Scotland, one of the most important challenges that I met in formulating these proposals was their affordability — there are many competing bids and demands for the funds that are available to the Executive. Furthermore, as a basis for my proposals, targeting social need had to be clearly demonstrated. That was the challenge put to me on behalf of the Executive by both the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Economic Policy Unit. I had to clearly demonstrate that I would be targeting the resources that would be made available to me at those students from the lower income groups in our society, particularly income groups IV and V. As my figures illustrate, these groups are badly under-represented in further and higher education. For that reason, the thresholds are drawn at a lower level and the amounts available are within the limits of affordability. As and when greater resources are available, we can look at the amounts that we make available and the thresholds below which they will apply.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I too welcome the additional support for students attending colleges of further education. Can the Minister indicate how much money has been set aside to cover the cost of the bursaries? Also, has a quality impact assessment of his proposals been carried out? If so, when can we see it?

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

Approximately £3·8 million is being made available with respect to the access bursaries. On the second point, an equality impact assessment has been carried out. I drew that to the attention of the Committee when I met it this morning. The more positive impacts of the proposals should be self-evident in terms of those who are below the different thresholds who will now gain access to fee remission and to bursaries, when the bursaries are introduced. Those in need of childcare and those in further and higher education will be able to benefit from the extension of Individual Learning Accounts to higher education courses.

There are some other possible impacts that must be addressed. These issues will receive the attention of the Equality Commission and all those who will be involved in the consultation process — those listed in my Department’s equality scheme, with whom we are obliged to enter into consultation. The proposals involving a means test may impact more positively on Catholics than on Protestants, given the likely religious balance in the income scales targeted. I am informed that some Muslims may have difficulty with the retention of a loans-based system of support in higher education because of inhibitions or prohibitions in some of their sects on availing of loans.

On a gender basis, and despite the fact that more women than men study full-time in higher education, the targeting of additional higher education provision on skills shortage may impact more positively on men. The areas of science, engineering and technology, where men predominate, are likely to attract many of the additional places, but we may well ask ourselves what we are doing to attract greater participation by women in such courses.

The introduction of a childcare grant may have a more positive impact on women, who are traditionally the primary carers. With respect to age, the childcare grant as currently proposed may have a negative impact on some older students since, due to current regulations, it will not be available to those aged over 55.

The positive and negative impacts will have to be considered. There may well be others which will be identified by those with whom we consult in the process.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 12:15 pm, 26th March 2001

Much of what the Minister has said today has been based on what the parents of students earn. Does the Minister not recognise that university students are not dependent on their parents? Has he given any consideration to situations in which, for example, parents may be divorced and the young person may live with either the mother or the father? That parent may not be the main earner and may not have a particularly good relationship with the other parent, who may not want to pay for his or her child’s time at university. In such an instance, a young person can be discriminated against.

Has the Minister also given any consideration to parents in the wealthier band who may have two, or even three, children at university at one time?

Furthermore, the repayment of student loans has been set at £10,000, which is a fairly low point if housing costs, in particular, are taken into consideration. Will that be reviewed on a yearly basis with a view to raising that band? Students would not then have to make any repayments until a higher level of earnings was reached.

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am very sympathetic to students who find that parental support is not available on the scale which might appear possible. Under existing regulations, there is provision for students to be assessed completely on their own means. Account can be taken of circumstances if it can be demonstrated — with respect to whatever means from whatever source — that students are not receiving the full degree of support to which it might initially have appeared that they were entitled. It is not a case of students’ finding themselves disregarded if they are in such circumstances as the Member has indicated.

With respect to the repayment of student loans, I have in the course of my remarks indicated that, for reasons associated with procedures in the Inland Revenue, we have to follow a UK-wide basis for the repayment of loans. I certainly believe that the threshold at which loan repayment becomes obligatory should be kept — and it is being kept — under review.

I think there were three questions. With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, perhaps the Member would repeat the second of those.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

It concerned people in the higher tax band who have more than one child at university.

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

Residual income is what remains when certain commitments have been taken into account. That will vary, depending on the particular circumstances of the families involved. Families with greater levels of dependency than others will have lower levels of residual income on which their commitments to their student children will be determined.

Photo of Mary Nelis Mary Nelis Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s announcement as a first step towards implementing the many recommendations of the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee, and accepting students’ demands that maintenance support is required to promote third-level education.

Given that the Minister is retaining up-front fees, does he share the view that there is still the major problem of the perceived deterrent effect of up-front fees among families and communities that are under-represented in participation in higher education in the North? What plans does the Minister have for challenging this perception?

Does the Minister share the Committee’s view that the abolition of up-front fees and their replacement with an income-contingent graduate endowment with a payback threshold of £25,000, together with the restoration of maintenance, should be the ultimate policy objective for targeting social need?

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

The package of proposals is a challenge to the perception identified by the Member. In terms of the access bursaries, the package is very clearly targeted at meeting the perception that debt aversion deters. People who might enter third level education are being deterred because they perceive that they will have a burden of debt. The access bursaries go a significant way towards removing that perception. People will now know that, depending on the level of parental income, they will receive degrees of support not previously available. These will be the primary means of addressing that perception.

In theory, there are attractions for a graduate endowment fund. The Committee proposed that such a fund would kick in at an income of £25,000. However, given that the average income in Northern Ireland is approximately £18,500, it would take a long time before there would be any significant return to the public purse. During that lengthy period there would be such pressure for additional finance on the bids from my Department that I doubt it could be met. The graduate endowment fund meets the widely supported proposition that those who benefit most from education should repay to the system for the benefit of future generations. It is a proposal that has received a lot of attention, not just in Scotland, where it originated, but also in our own considerations and in the recent deliberations of UK universities in the form of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors. That proposal has a number of significant problems associated with it.

On the issue of the abolition of tuition fees, when considering the abolition of any charge the key question that we need to ask ourselves, whether in education or elsewhere, is who will benefit most from that abolition. At present, approximately 50% of our students do not make a contribution to their tuition fees, and if we increase that figure to 100% by abolishing the contribution to tuition fees completely we are only going to benefit those in the higher income brackets. That does not seem to me to meet the challenge of targeting social need, which is a fundamental principle on which all our social policies have to be based. I ask the Member to consider the immediate effect of abolition. It would be to benefit those who are better off, at the expense of making more resources available to those who are least well off, which is, in fact, what I have been trying to do with this package.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Alliance

First of all, I welcome the Minister’s package. It is comprehensive and far-reaching, and I hope that it will improve access to third-level education. Unfortunately, I got the paper less than an hour ago. It is very specific, and I will need to look at it in more detail before returning to the Minister.

I welcome a number of things: the abolition of tuition fees for full-time students on vocational courses, the increase in access support grants and bursaries, and the childcare grant. However, although the Minister has been very definite in his remarks about the abolition of fees, I ask him not to think that it will be impossible in the future. Perhaps it is difficult in the short term, but I hope that it will not be impossible in the future. For instance, if we get tax-varying powers here as they have in Scotland, we may be able to look at it again.

The Alliance Party has called for the abolition of tuition fees. However, there is a problem from the equality point of view. The Minister is abolishing tuition fees for students on a broad range of vocational courses. However, students on university courses and other vocational courses do have to pay tuition fees. Obviously, the Minister will be looking at this within the Department’s equality scheme.

The Cubie Report suggested that the student loan system should be replaced with a graduate endowment fund. The Minister has also commented on that. However, the Scottish Executive said that that could only be accomplished on a UK-wide basis. In his further deliberations, will the Minister be working with the Scottish Executive to bring about this change in Westminster so that true equity can be achieved?

I welcome the growing number of further education places. The Minister says that he has not yet decided how those places will allocated, but certainly the majority will be targeted at disciplines regarded as important for economic development. As well as looking at the disciplines, the Minister should look at places such as Magee and Coleraine, so that all further education courses and campuses will be adequately served. The Minister will be looking at the full resourcing of all the campuses so that we have not just the students but also the buildings and libraries and so on that go along with them.

A Member:

Was there a question?

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Alliance

I was asking questions.

Photo of Sir John Gorman Sir John Gorman UUP

Please sit down.

Dr Farren, please answer the questions rather than deal with the general matters in Mrs Bell’s statement.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Alliance

With respect, Mr Deputy Speaker, that was included in my question, as the Minister knows.

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

There were several questions in the Member’s comments.

I am not opposed in principle to the abolition of tuition fees. Indeed, in my statement I announced that I am proposing the abolition of tuition fees for a broad range of vocational courses in the further education sector at level 3 and below. The question as to whether we should plan for their total abolition right across the whole of the further and higher education sector is one that, in principle, we can say that we will keep under review.

However, we have to bear in mind that any steps taken towards significantly increasing the numbers to whom tuition fees do not apply, or abolishing fees completely, would raise significant affordability questions and questions related to targeting social need.

We certainly want an increase in the number of places in our universities and colleges. Over the 1999 base, we have announced an increase of 4,400 places, to which I am now adding an additional 1,000. We need to address where these additional places should be made available and to which courses they should apply.

Photo of Prof Monica McWilliams Prof Monica McWilliams NIWC 12:30 pm, 26th March 2001

I am afraid that I do not welcome many of these proposals — some of them are a step backwards, rather than forwards. I do welcome the proposal relating to childcare, and I am pleased that the Minister took up my recommendation that provision be extended to all those with dependent children, and not just to those over 21. I made this recommendation to the Committee on the grounds that restricted provision might not be in line with the equality impact statements of these proposals.

I also noted this morning that the SDLP states on its web site that it is committed to the abolition of student loans and to the introduction of a proper grant system. I assume that that remains the case. Unfortunately, however, the only evidence of this commitment is the abolition of part of the student loan in a new proposal to step backwards by taking up to £250 from those who are not deemed to need the loan. Therefore, I remain concerned that in the future people will have debts and not degrees. A Select Committee of the House of Commons has already pointed to the fact that there is a serious problem with regard to retaining students, and that one — but just one — of the factors which affect this issue is debt.

Does the Minister not consider that it is extremely difficult to ask parents and education and library boards to administer a system of access to bursaries which range between £500, £1000 and £1,500 and are based on a means test? According to that Select Committee, in any year a student will have debts of between £3,000 and up to £7,000 by the time he leaves. In the light of this, would it not have been better to consider a decent package of access to bursaries which, I assume, could be considered, to some extent, as replacing student grants. We know that the problem will not be resolved by throwing a tiny bit of money into this sector, and we may continue to have serious problems with retention, never mind initial recruitment to universities.

Did the Minister succeed in raising in the British-Irish Council the issue of parity throughout the devolved Administrations? I share Members’ concerns that systems in Scotland, England and Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are now different from one another. That is a step backwards, particularly when one is trying to work out in simple terms what students are entitled to if they go to different universities. Does the Minister also consider that his proposals to give financial assistance to some further education courses, and not to others, might be discriminatory?

I welcome the extra 1,000 places that have been created. However, does the Minister accept that none of his proposals address the skills shortage crises affecting the Health Service — particularly in such fields as speech therapy and nursing — that have been debated in the Assembly?

Finally, has the Minister set in place any monitoring to assure us that mature students, those with disabilities, and young entrants from disadvantaged backgrounds will be attracted by these proposals? I do not believe that this is the case. Why did the Minister not take up our proposal to have a joint funding council for the further education and higher education sectors, given that many of his proposals now relate to both sectors?

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Deputy Speaker, at some stage a ruling on the number of questions that may be asked at any one time may be necessary. It is very difficult for a Minister to keep track of seven or eight questions, as I have tried to do with Ms McWilliams and others.

I will do my best, and if I miss any of the questions I will be only too willing to have the Member remind me of them.

Approximately 17,000 students will gain access bursaries — 14,000 in higher education and 3,000 in further education — and these numbers could well increase over the next few years. All will find these proposals a very helpful source of support to them in the course of their studies. I do not believe that they will be as disappointed as the Member suggests. In fact, I believe that the introduction of access bursaries will be welcomed in both the higher and further education sectors. It is not the case that we have missed an opportunity to target our scarce resources at those in greatest need, and I have not heard any proposals which would, on the grounds of affordability, indicate how we might better target the resources available to us towards those groups.

As to the level of take-up, quite obviously that remains to be seen; therefore I cannot give a 100% assurance to Ms McWilliams or indeed to any other Member that the take-up will be of level X or level Y. We are addressing the perception of aversion to entering higher education that is claimed to exist among many in the lower income brackets due to a lack of adequate support. I trust that by moving as we have done we will at least dent that perception, and that as more resources become available they too will be targeted. I certainly believe very strongly in targeting social need. As I have already indicated, I am not in principle opposed to the complete abolition of tuition fees, and the replacement of a loan system by a generous grant system for all remains an objective that we can certainly work towards. I would indeed welcome that, should the opportunity arise.

However, the Member, who herself holds a wide range of concerns for many social issues, must tell me and other Ministers how resources are to be made available for us to move more rapidly towards that objective than seems possible at present. At whose expense are we to move? At whose expense in the Health Service, the social services, or the rest of the educational services are we to proceed in order to get those resources? I do not hear that solution from Ms McWilliams or indeed from any other Members.

Photo of Prof Monica McWilliams Prof Monica McWilliams NIWC

On the issue of take-up, most academic research studies show that when you increase means-testing and complexity in the system, it is the middle classes rather than the lower socio-economic groups who benefit. Does the Minister agree with that?

I must also point out that the Committee did in fact make proposals to the Minister which did not suggest that all of the money should come out of the block fund. Indeed, we recommended that students repay their access grant money through an endowment fund after graduation.

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have dealt with the issue of a graduate endowment fund and the difficulties associated with the proposals of the departmental Committee, particularly the huge gap with respect to public finance which would exist if we were to adopt its proposal to set a threshold at £25,000.

The Member claims that it is the middle-income groups who benefit most from means-tested benefits. On the contrary, these benefits are deliberately targeted at those in the lower income brackets.

For the purposes of access bursaries, they are below the residual income of £15,000. It will be very difficult for people with incomes much greater than that to demonstrate that they have residual incomes as low as £15,000 in order to avail of such bursaries. In a few years’ time, whether I am Minister or not, we could be open to accusations that if we do not significantly increase participation, we will not have met our key objectives.

How else can we ensure that those who need most receive most? It is likely that lower-income students will benefit from the remission of tuition fees because they will fall within the 50% who do not have to pay those fees. Lower-income students will benefit from the remission of tuition fees and also from maintenance support through access bursaries. However, this would not be the case if tuition fees were totally abolished.

As I indicated some time ago, my Department is actively considering changes to the current further and higher education advisory councils and also to training procedures.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir UUP

While sharing some Members’ concerns about whether these proposals go far enough, I welcome the fact that additional resources have been made available and that we have been given more details.

Potential students and parents will be looking for clarity and certainty in these proposals to see how they will affect them individually. The Minister has indicated that in the further education sector, tuition fees will be abolished for full-time students over 19 years of age on a broad range of vocational courses at levels 2 and 3. First, can the Minister confirm that this will take effect from the start of the next academic year? Secondly, among a plethora of points raised by Ms McWilliams, there was a question that was not answered. If fees are to be abolished on a broad range of vocational courses, it follows that fees will still be payable on some courses. Is that not discriminatory, not only within the further education sector but also between the further education sector and the higher education sector? Finally, potential students will want to know for which courses fees have been abolished. When will the Minister’s Department be in a position to publish a list of such courses?

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

My Department is working towards a broad interpretation of which vocational courses will qualify, but it is not currently in a position to publish a list. I hope that we will be able to introduce this part of the package from September 2001, when most further education proposals will be introduced. Legislation is necessary for the higher education proposals, and we will not be in a position to introduce those bursaries until September 2002.

A major information campaign will be put in place to help potential students to work out their entitlements and to plan the management of their finances. This will involve the Education Guidance Service for Adults, student representatives and the education and library boards. They will be as well prepared as we can possibly assist them to be at a point prior to entering their courses.

I take the point about the potential for what the Member described as "discrimination" between courses. That is why we are looking very carefully at how we should approach this. We do not want to run into difficulties in this regard.

On the issue of any distinction between further education and higher education because of the abolition of fees, I do not anticipate that an equality assessment will cause difficulties. If it does, we will have to look again at a major part of the scheme. However, the soundings that we have taken indicate that we should not have difficulties. The process of formal consultation is only beginning now.

Photo of Sir John Gorman Sir John Gorman UUP 12:45 pm, 26th March 2001

Five Members have notified me that they want to ask questions. We have 14 minutes, so I ask Members and the Minister to limit their remarks. In particular, I remind the Assembly that it is nugatory to repeat a question that somebody else has asked.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the Minister’s package, particularly its focus on targeting social need. How much will the extra 1,000 higher education places cost, and how many of these new places will there be in each of the next three years? I invite the Minister to make sure that the extra places are spread across Northern Ireland and ask that County Tyrone — where there is actually no full-time higher education — be considered as a location for some of these places. Finally, can the Minister confirm that the 1,000 places are in addition to the 4,400 that were included in the Programme for Government?

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

The cost of the additional higher education places is estimated at around £7·5 million in a full year. On the question of whether they are included in the 4,400, I trust that I have made it clear in my remarks that they are additional to those which are already being put in place. Where they will be assigned is a matter that is still under consideration. Members will know that a number of initiatives are being undertaken to expand the provision of higher education courses, both full-time and part-time, and the colleges of further education are deeply involved in this expansion with us. The introduction next September of foundation degrees, which will be on an experimental basis for the next two years, will see 100 full-time equivalent places available this year and a further 100 the following year. These courses, which will be delivered exclusively within the further education college sector, will add to the places, and I understand that the college in the area referred to by the Member is one of the colleges in which foundation degree places will be made available.

Obviously, that is an issue that needs to be kept under close review. The places need to be made available in order to meet particular demands. Of course, some of those demands are skill-specific, and some of them are also specific to the needs of different university campuses. We need to bear a number of factors in mind before we will be able to say precisely where all of those additional places will be allocated.

Photo of Mr John Kelly Mr John Kelly Sinn Féin

Go raibh agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Along with others, I welcome the fact that the Minister has accepted our demand that maintenance support is required to promote participation in third-level education for disadvantaged sections of our community.

We also welcome plans to introduce childcare grants, provide additional student places and simplify administrative arrangements for student support. However, we are disappointed that, despite evidence from many informed sources, including the recent report from the Select Committee on Education at Westminster, the Government will continue to charge many students and their families tuition fees in respect of higher education.

As regards education, no one is suggesting that the rich should be made richer and the poor poorer. However, given that the Minister’s party, the Committee and, indeed, the Assembly are committed to the abolition of tuition fees, can the Minister instigate a defined programme over the next few years that will lead to the abolition of tuition fees for our students?

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am not at all averse to considering proposals for the further extension of the new arrangements that I have announced. Nor, indeed, am I averse to considering the objective that the Member and many others have referred to.

I have a particular responsibility, as Minister, to negotiate proposals with my Executive Colleagues that can be broadly acceptable to them, and that can be broadly endorsed by the Assembly itself.

I understand that targeting social need is one of the fundamental bases as regards social policy that emanates from the Good Friday Agreement. Indeed, even without that agreement, I am a strong proponent of looking at social policies in the context of addressing the needs of those who are less well endowed with resources than others. That is a priority.

When we have addressed that priority, we should then move to address the needs of others. However, in targeting social need we need to be very clear as to what we are asking for, and, indeed, how affordable that is at any one time.

All political parties have aims and objectives. They all recognise that most aims and objectives take time to be achieved. Indeed, some may never be fully achieved. In my area of responsibility, social justice is a key principle that I will argue for, and work to ensure that all my proposals are based on, as a first and essential criterion.

Photo of George Savage George Savage UUP

I congratulate the Minister on his statement. Does he agree that a primary move that the Department could make, in the award of enhanced discretionary grants, would be to review grant applications refused by education and library boards in the current round? That would rectify injustices that have occurred, mainly due to artificially early closing dates.

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member’s question refers to an issue with which I am frequently confronted — that is the efficacy and efficiency with which loan applications and applications for other forms of support are processed.

Closing dates are necessary for the efficient operation of the system, although, as I understand it, many of them can be treated flexibly. The dates are there for good reasons, and they are announced well in advance. Those who intend to apply for courses should become as aware of the requirements for securing financial support as they are of the academic requirements that they must meet.

It would not be easy to allocate what are limited resources without the closing dates. This is particularly true of discretionary awards. Those are very limited — they are not mandatory — and must be considered within a time frame in order to stop people from being disadvantaged. Such a situation would not be tolerable, and we need to observe the time frame. Whenever administrative difficulties have arisen they have been willingly addressed by those responsible.

Photo of Mrs Annie Courtney Mrs Annie Courtney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the package of measures that the Minister has announced. I particularly welcome the introduction of a childcare grant to assist students on a low income who have dependent children. Does the childcare grant apply only in term time, and how many people will benefit from the grant?

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

The terms that were announced show that support is available at a level of 80% of cost in term time and, I think, 70% of cost out of term time. The introduction of such support will be of considerable assistance to those who, because of family commitments, find it difficult to participate in higher and further education. Approximately 1,000 students are thought to be in those circumstances at present. I hope that this will be seen as a significant measure of assistance to those who are already in the system and those who might currently be deterred from entering it.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I thank the Minister for his announcement and, in particular, for the additional £65 million that will be spent in the higher and further education sector over the next three years. Is he satisfied with the residual level income that will apply to families that have two or more children? Will this area be kept under review, and is he satisfied that the information is easily available to students and their families so that they will know which grants apply to them?

Will the 1,000 extra student places be affected by any subsequent review by the Health Minister, who is investigating the number of nursing and speech therapy students? Will any announcement by her be in addition to what the Minister has announced today? Does the Health budget cover the students in health areas?

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

With regard to the second part of the question, we will have to consult the relevant Minister and, indeed, the universities, because all places are university places, notwithstanding the source of the financial support that they receive. I think that it was Prof McWilliams who raised a question about the supply of professionals to the Health Service. Often when we examine the situation, it is a question of availability rather than supply. The question is whether the people with the professional qualifications are making themselves available in Northern Ireland for the positions that are advertised. I am prepared to look at that issue with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

Advice and guidance are given to ensure that parents, and, indeed, the students themselves, whether mature or still at school, are as fully informed as possible, and we are engaged with both the Educational Guidance Service for Adults and student representatives to ensure that that information is available. The whole system is individually related, because the commitments that parents have can vary depending not just on their income but on family circumstances. You cannot say that somebody with an income of £25,000 will be treated in the same way as somebody else with an income of £25,000, because circumstances may vary. Therefore, what is taken into account or disregarded will vary because of those circumstances. It is a complex system because individual circumstances vary.