Averil Responds to Budget 2014 in the Seanad

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Senator Power: I join with Senator Darragh O’Brien in welcoming elements of the budget, including the retention of the 9% VAT rate. The rate has been a lifeline for tourism businesses and will more than pay its way in supporting job growth. The home improvement scheme is a positive initiative. As Senator Moran pointed out, the cuts to education were not as bad as we had anticipated. However, pupil-teacher ratio increases in smaller schools will come into effect in the next school year, but the expectation of harsher cuts has not been realised. This is welcome and is a direct response to the campaign that was mounted by parents and groups during the summer to highlight the importance of education to this country’s future in social terms and in terms of getting our economy back on track.

 

Senator Mary Moran: Senators were also involved in campaigning.

Senator Averil Power: Senators from all parties.

Senator Mary Moran: Exactly. It was cross-party work. We were doing what the Seanad is supposed to do best.

Senator Averil Power: Indeed. However, it must be noted that one sector that has been badly hit by the budget is that of further education. Last year, the Minister stated that there would be a one-off funding reduction of €25 million. Today, he announced that last year’s guarantee did not count, as the sector is getting hit for €25 million again. From the Estimates it is clear that the overall reduction is much greater, given the difference of €62 million for higher education between this and last year. The €25 million accounts for some of that reduction, as does the €18.5 million in the increased student service charge and the savings to be gained from the Haddington Road agreement. Some people from the higher education sector have asked me to check whether the Minister can offer an assurance that an increase in the core grant is not hidden in the Estimates. It is unclear from the numbers. The Minister for Education and Skills has not provided the details. As it is there is a great deal of concern in the further education sector about how it is meant to maintain quality and compete internationally when its budget has been reduced so much in the past three years.

One group that has been hit hard in recent years is people under the age of 25 years. I mentioned the increase in the student service charge. Despite the Labour Party’s pre-election promises, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, will have presided over a doubling in that charge if the Government runs its course. It was €1,500 when he entered into office and will be €3,000 in 2015. This increase has hit low-income families hard, those who are just over the threshold for the grant and must pay for that education themselves.

Postgraduate grants have been completely removed, meaning that people from poorer backgrounds are no longer able to access postgraduate courses. This is one of the most scandalous cuts, yet it has not received as much attention as it deserves. It has deprived people of a necessary opportunity, given the increase in the standard of education among people competing for jobs. When the Minister of State and I left college, the standard was an undergraduate course. Now, people are expected to have postgraduate qualifications. It is unfair that this standard has been put beyond the reach of many young people.

Senators referred to the cut in jobseeker’s support for people aged under 25 years. When it was first cut for younger people, I viewed it as a positive initiative, as it is not right that an 18 year old should walk in and be put straight on the dole. Some are brought in by their parents and are members of families in which there is generational dependence on social welfare. They are brought down to their dole offices on their 18th birthdays and told to sign on as if that was their future. This should not be our expectation for our young people regardless of what area of the country they are from.

However, there is a significant difference between such people and someone who is 25 years of age, may have already been in college for six or seven years, may have a high level of education and cannot find a job. The rate of youth unemployment is at least 30%. This is the official figure and does not account for unemployment. The reality is that one in two young people who finish college cannot get a job. The Minister referred to back to education, but that is a lower level of education than many of these people have already attained. The Minister of State can reply in his five minutes.

The youth guarantee—–

Deputy Brian Hayes: The back to education allowance is €160.

Senator Averil Power: Only if people go on that scheme, but why would a 24 or 25 year old who has already been through the education system and might even have a masters go onto a back to education scheme? He or she probably would not qualify due to being above the educational threshold. This provision has not been thought through. The number of places being offered under the youth guarantee is only a fraction of those who will need it. This is clear from the figures that have been published today. There are 2,000 people on the education side, a few more in JobBridge and other schemes, etc. The upper age threshold is unfair. I ask that this issue be examined.

Acting Chairman (Senator Marie Moloney): I am sorry, but I must be fair to other Senators.

Senator Averil Power: I thank the Minister of State for the opportunity to make my points about education.

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