Farmers battle college grant plans
Self-employed voice concerns over changes to third-level means tests
A "tooth and nail" campaign of resistance against changes to third-level means tests is gathering momentum amid claims that children of farm families won't be able to get grants to go to college -- despite low incomes.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn's decision to set up a Capital Asset Test Implementation Group has caused deep unease among the farming community and the self employed who would also be affected.
The move looks likely to sharpen internal unrest between rural Labour and Fine Gael TDs and "the Sandymount set" -- a reference to the Mr Quinn's Dublin South East base.
The Capital Asset Test Implementation Group will be bringing forward detailed proposals on new means testing arrangements for student grants, to include the value of assets, for new applicants from the 2013/14 academic year.
But a spokesman for Mr Quinn says that the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) has "jumped the gun" in their criticism.
"No decisions have been taken about what assets will be included in any changes in the means test. No proposals are even on the table yet," she said.
But ICMSA president John Comer claims there is little doubt that the group was set up with the intention of changing the criteria measuring eligibility for third-level grants in a manner that would effectively discriminate against the children of farm families.
The ICMSA also referred to correspondence sent by Mr Quinn to the ICMSA last year, in which he admitted that analysis of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) stats shows that the claim that a disproportionate number of farmers' children are in third-level education was "an urban myth".
Mr Comer added that the ICMSA would contact every rural TD and alert them to the obvious implications of such a move.
"Can the Minister of Education at least be frank about what it is he wants? It is perfectly obvious that the desired end here is less farmers' sons and daughters qualifying for the grants to which they are currently entitled by reason of their parents' income," stated Mr Comer.
"In the face of the continuing reality that there are large numbers of farm families with total income below the qualifying criteria, the Government have simply decided to not alone shift the goalposts further down the pitch -- but to actually remove them altogether."
A spokeswoman for the minister insisted: "The minister announced last December that the means test for student grants would be amended to take account of certain capital assets as well as income for the year starting September 2013.
"This has come about because of the view that the current system is unfair. The 1993 de Buitleir report concluded that the current means test is defective in that it fails to take full account of ability to pay since it ignores the accumulated wealth of individuals."
The spokeswoman said that by "accumulated wealth", what was meant were savings.
"No minister has looked at the issue until Mr Quinn decided to examine it last December. He wants to look at the means testing; it is fairer and more equitable and everyone has a fair crack of the whip in accessing a student grant," she said.
Data provided by the HEA showed that 8.9 per cent of new students in 2010 were from farming backgrounds and of that figure 8.3 per cent were the children of farmers and 0.6 per cent were the children of agricultural workers.
Among the children of farmers, 39.7 per cent received higher education grants with that figure climbing to 63.6 per cent for the children of the agricultural workers.
"The minister himself noted in the past that these figures were lower than the 'urban myth' had them and he hoped that they inform a more reasoned debate," Mr Comer said. "None of us object to a reasoned debate on this subject but -- in all justice -- that debate must be premised on the principle of income deciding eligibility."