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CAROL NOLAN: We cannot let disadvantaged students fail by insisting on unrealistic earning limits

Let me begin by making a statement of the obvious.  

If you are a third level student from a disadvantaged background, then the chances of you having to work part time and during your holidays are significantly higher than if you were a student from one of the more economically privileged social groups.   

Of course, this is also true for the many thousands of students who are from what we still call the middle class, or, if you like, those who hover precariously somewhere between the upper and lower economic categories.

But now imagine we had a system whereby students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who genuinely work hard to make ends meet and to take some of the pressure off their families are penalised if they go above a relatively low earnings cap.

Unfortunately, we do not have to imagine such a system, because that is exactly the way the current Student Grant Scheme operates.

This is how it works in detail.

The current requirements for students seeking access to SUSI (Student Universal Supports Ireland) grants is such that the student can earn up to €4,500 in holiday earnings whilst in education, without any effect on grant eligibility.

But if he or she earned even minimally more than €4,500 during holiday periods, then the balance is taken into account.

This €4,500 limit was confirmed to me previously by the former Minister for by Education Joe McHugh in response to queries I made in 2019 on the number of students that failed to qualify for third level SUSI grants in 2017 and 2018 due to their earnings being above the €4,500 limit.

At that time the government also noted that the value of the Holiday Earnings income was increased from €3,809 to €4,500 under the Student Grant Scheme 2016.

However, it has remained clear since then that the current cap on earnings is having a significantly negative impact in terms of increasing the number of pressures that students are facing.

It is also proven to be a major contributory factor in terms of the reasons why many students from disadvantaged backgrounds opt to leave third level, if they ever get there in the first place that is.

This grant model is now being reviewed by government “in the context of competing educational priorities and limited public funding.”

This is something I very much welcome. Indeed, I have recently made a submission to the Steering Group overseeing this review process, requesting that the current student earnings cap be revised upward without any cuts to grants being made in the process, especially for poorer students.

To see just how important it is that pragmatic outcomes like this are achieved, you need only take a brief look at any of the recent research on how deeply embedded educational disadvantage remains in this country.

This was clearly demonstrated for instance in the Higher Education Authority’s (HEA) report, ‘A Spatial and Socio-Economic Profile of Higher Education Institutions in Ireland.’

This Profile conclusively showed that students from less-well off backgrounds and geographical areas continue to experience significant and systemic levels of social and class disadvantage in the education system.

In fact, we know from one analysis of progression rates from feeder schools to third level that the gap is huge. Between 86 to 100% of students attending private schools go to college, but that falls drastically to just 33% for disadvantaged students from DEIS schools.

The National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education also showed that educational disadvantage and disengagement from education can occur at any stage in the education cycle.

That is why policies to address fair levels of access to higher education must span the entire education system, from pre-school, through primary, secondary and further education.

That is also why it would be tragic if we provided support to disadvantaged students at the early stages of their educational journey only to abandon them at the final furlong, so to speak.

It is for these reasons and more that I am supporting an increase on the cap on student earnings.

If you want to make a submission to government on this issue, then you can email [email protected]

The closing date is April 16th 2021



Carol Nolan TD, Independent-Constituency of Laois Offaly 

Member of Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science 


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