Minister for Education and Skills Ruairi Quinn is putting forward proposals to reform the grant system for students with self-employed parents and students from farming backgrounds. Under the new regime, farmers will have their land assessed as well as their income as part of a new means test for grant applications.
Farms and other businesses will be asked to value their assets and declare it once their business is worth more than €750,000. The Minister will also ask the cabinet to include other “non-productive assets” such as savings and shareholdings, above €20,000. This limit is being imposed so as not to exclude parents who have saved to send their children to college.
UCD Students’ Union Welfare Officer Mícheál Gallagher said that the scheme is concerning for students, commenting: “I don’t think it’s fair. I question the value of a system that won’t distinguish between assets that are and are not making money.” President of the Irish Farmers’ Association John Bryan had similar concerns, stating: “Regardless of whatever thresholds or off-sets are introduced, there is no relation between the value of land and the income derived from it.”
Teagasc has calculated that a farm valued at €750,000 will, on average, amass an income of just over €41,000, which is the cut-off point for the normal means-tested full maintenance grant of just over €3,000. This is where the threshold derived from. The proposed amended means test will assume an income of €520 from the first €10,000 in asset-value above the threshold, double that for the next €10,000, and triple (at €2,080) for every €10,000 after that. It has been estimated that this new regime, if implemented, could encompass over a third of the country’s working farms.
Bryan has indicated that the IFA are “utterly opposed to the use of assets in any calculation of income” and has promised a “vigorous campaign” against the changes. Gallagher believes that this will impede a large number of students from attending third level institutions. He stated: “I think that it may become a barrier to those from farming backgrounds entering higher level education and that Students’ Unions around the country need to work with Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) in lobbying the government to ensure that a fair system is developed.”
Gallagher also voiced concerns over the wisdom of implementing such a scheme now, when the SUSI grants fiasco is still not resolved. He feels that Minister Quinn will need to reconsider the scheme, and in particular will need to bear the impact these constant reforms to the grant system, will have on students. He said: “I think that the system needs to be developed carefully, as seen with the ongoing SUSI fiasco, sudden changes can have a huge human cost for students as they are left relying on emergency funding.”
These proposed amendments come after a study by the Higher Education Authority last August that revealed that more than 40% of farmers and more than 50% of self-employed parents are awarded maintenance grants for their children. This compares with 17% of the children of “lower professionals” securing grants.
Minister Quinn has claimed that it is possible for self employed and farming families to manipulate their earnings and their business’ earnings by purchasing machinery and other assets the previous year, to bring them under the grant threshold. He believes that this is the reason for almost twice the number of students from these backgrounds receiving grants over PAYE workers’ children, and that it is necessary to means-test business assets for this reason.