Thousands of children from farming families will be locked out of third-level education if farm assets are included in means-testing for college grants, farm organisations have warned.
A proposal by economist Dr Colin Hunt to include assets such as farmland in means-testing for higher education grants has been rejected as ludicrous and discriminatory by farming leaders.
The Hunt Report, which was launched by Minister for Education Mary Coughlan, says that the present system of allocating grants solely on the basis of declared income "does not command confidence".
Any asset test would affect farming families who have traditionally placed great importance on the value of third-level education. One-in-11 college grants currently go to children of farm families.
Labour TD Ruairi Quinn said that he was in favour of the proposal "in principle".
Fine Gael said it couldn't comment on the proposal without further information on the issues involved.
IFA president John Bryan has written to Ms Coughlan seeking assurances that the Government will not introduce any test that includes productive assets such as farmland for determining grant eligibility.
The higher education grant was worth up to €3,250 for a student living away from home and €1,300 for a student living at home last year. The rates of payment for this year will be cut by 4pc in line with the Budget announced by Finance Minister Brian Lenihan last month.
An ESRI study carried out in 2010 showed that over half of farmers' children attending third-level college were in receipt of grants.
Writing to the Tanaiste, Mr Bryan pointed out that, during last year, average farm incomes were less than €17,000, and even the top 30pc of farmers had an average farm income of only €35,000.
"It is well documented that farm families traditionally have placed a high value on education. However, it is clear from these figures that many could not afford to send their children to third-level education without grant assistance," he maintained.
"Farming is a relatively low-income occupation, where the income derived gives little or no return on the capital value of the asset," he said. "Any move to introduce an asset test that includes farmland will deny access to higher education to many students from low-income farm families."
Macra president Michael Gowing described the proposal to include farmland in asset tests as ludicrous and out of touch with the economic reality for sole traders and farm families.
"Education has proven to be a cornerstone of Ireland's success in the past, we need as many people as possible accessing education. We should not be restricting entry due to financial constraints," he insisted.
"Farm assets are productive assets and are essential to the survival of the business from generation to generation and cannot be factored into means- testing for higher education grants. These sectors of the economy must be exempted from such proposals."