College grant system favours farmers and self-employed
FARMERS AND the self-employed are more than twice as likely to get college grants for their children as PAYE workers.
According to the latest figures from the Higher Education Authority, more than 40 per cent of farmers and close to 50 per cent of all self-employed people secure a college grant for their sons or daughters.
By contrast, only 17 per cent of those from families headed by a “lower professional” can expect to be grant-aided in college. The percentage is also relatively low for a range of other groups including non-manual workers (27 per cent) and “higher professionals” (10 per cent).
The figures for 2010/2011 also show that 17 per cent of those from an employer/manager background secured a grant.
Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has signalled how he would like to broaden the means test for third-level student grants to include capital assets in addition to income.
Next month, the Cabinet is expected to consider a report from a group which has been examining whether capital assets such as farms should be included in the means-testing for student grants. The proposed change has drawn fierce criticism from several Fine Gael Deputies and from farmer groups.
Yesterday Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney said no decision had been taken on the issue. He said that, while many farmers were asset rich, their cash flow and income level was well below the national average. Few would support a scenario where farmers were forced to sell off their farms to secure a higher education grant for their children, he said.
The working party is made up of senior officials from the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Social Protection, the Valuation Office, the Revenue Commissioners and others. The Department of Agriculture is also represented.
Reform of the student grant scheme has been on the education agenda for more than 20 years but successive ministers have been reluctant to overhaul it. Change has been demanded since the 1997 de Buitléir report concluded that the means test “is defective in that it fails to take full account of ability to pay – particularly since it ignores the accumulated wealth of individuals. Some people with clearly expensive lifestyles obtain grants while others, who are very hard-pressed, lose out.”
According to the authority figures, 10 per cent of all grant holders at third level are from a farming background, while 11 per cent come from a family headed by a self-employed person. Students from a family headed by a higher or lower professional are less likely to gain a grant; these groups account for 3 per cent and 5 per cent of all grant holders respectively.
The de Buitléir report revealed how one farmer had 122 acres and net assets of £215,000, but his annual income for grant purposes was only £15,000.
The PAYE sector was treated harshly as a disproportionate number of grants flowed to the self-employed and farmers, it concluded.
Mr Quinn’s spokeswoman said any proposals arising from the Capital Asset Test Implementation Group’s recommendations would require further Government agreement and necessitate legislative amendment.