Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 16 May 2017
Select Committee on Education and Skills
Estimates for Public Services 2017 (Resumed)
Vote 26 - Education and Skills (Revised)
We discussed the arrangements for this meeting at our last one, so I suggest we move ahead. We do not need to go into the preamble again. I need to leave the meeting for approximately 15 minutes at 4.45 p.m. to go to the Dáil, so I suggest Deputy Martin acts as Chairman during that time. Is that agreed? Agreed. I am also conscious the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, has to leave to go to the Dáil at 4.25 p.m, but I ask that the committee conclude this meeting by 5 p.m. We appreciate the fact the Ministers and their officials have come back to us for a second time and I ask that questions be brief, focused and based on the briefing material. At the last meeting, we strayed into areas of policy and I ask that we not do that today because every member is at liberty to table parliamentary questions. We can arrange further meetings on matters of policy with the Ministers and their officials.
I ask members, officials and those in the public Gallery to please ensure that their mobile phones are switched off for the duration of this meeting which has been convened to resume consideration of the Revised Estimates for Vote 26 - Education and Skills. We will start with programme B because we completed programme A at our last meeting. This was referred by the Dáil to the committee with an instruction to report back.
I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, and their officials and thank them for the open and constructive dialogue with the committee secretariat's financial scrutiny team in developing the briefing documents for this meeting. I remind the Ministers that the committee agreed at the last meeting to proceed programme by programme and we will initially focus on specific subheads before broaching any questions on the remainder of the programme. I refer again to the briefing document prepared by the financial scrutiny team of the committee's secretariat to guide our consideration of the Revised Estimates. We will resume on programme B. The Minister made his opening remarks at the last meeting and we do not need to go through those again. We will go straight to subhead B5 on grants to SOLAS and further education and training.
I invite members to ask questions.
Money is being spent on education and training, which is important. What is the position in regard to emphasising apprenticeships and traineeships at post-school level as opposed to PLC courses and general types of further education? Is there a plan there? Has the Minister set out any kind of a strategy on this?
We have the action plan to expand apprenticeships and traineeships, which runs from 2016 to 2020. The objective is to reach between 40,000 and 50,000 new apprenticeships. At one stage, before the recession, there were approximately 30,000 to 32,000 apprenticeships, which came all the way down to approximately 2,500 to 3,000. This figure covered apprenticeships at all levels, including basic apprenticeships, and there are many reasons for this drop. The objective is to bring the number past the 30,000, which it was in the past. For instance, there are already 2,400 places in existing traineeships and 800 registrations for new apprenticeships for 2017 alone. There were no questions on the FET programme but I would like to inform members there have been 320,000 beneficiaries of this programme across a wide range of provisions, both part-time and full-time, from levels 1 to 6. If Deputy Thomas Byrne wants any information, I will get him the booklet explaining everything in the action plan. There will be a much wider range of apprenticeships on offer as a result of new calls for proposals over the next few years. One such call went out only last week. I met a business group today, which I cannot name, and it was asking for a new call for apprenticeships in the business in which it is in. I am confident we will reach the proposed target by 2020.
I know we will be having a full discussion about this later, and obviously it is part of this brief, grants to SOLAS, etc., but is the call for apprenticeships basically a matter of asking businesses or otherwise to come up with ideas for new categories of apprenticeship?
Yes. There is a combination of apprenticeships. The programme for Government, as the Deputy knows, includes a commitment to increase the cumulative number of apprenticeships to 31,000. There are a number of new apprenticeships.
What we do is we regularly call to businesses, and it would not be unusual for a particular business group to ask to meet either the Minister for Education and Skills or myself. We both believe apprenticeships are needed within the industry. That applies to the basic apprenticeships, for example, plasterers or bricklayers, right up to the new apprenticeships we recently launched with insurance brokers and companies. We are getting calls from businesses right across the board. We are able to fill the apprenticeships based on the quota and it looks very positive for the next number of years.
The second part of this meeting, which will start at 5.15 p.m., will address skills development and apprenticeships. The committee recognises that it is hugely important for a modern economy that we do all we can to help support skills development and the skills development system.
Regarding subhead B5, the metrics are very useful in terms of looking at this. There were 12 key high level metrics for programme B, nine of these alone related to the National Training Fund, and only one related, partly, to this particular allocation. Despite the numbers mentioned, there was a decrease in the target for the number of further education and training beneficiaries, although there was an increase in allocation. The Minister of State can come back to this at a later point.
I will. Deputy Thomas Byrne spoke about it. The new apprenticeship we started is the insurance practitioner apprenticeship, which has a big take-up. There are also two further programmes, for example, one is in the international financial services, the IFS, which is interesting. The point the Chairman makes is that because there appears to be fewer people unemployed, the take-up among those who are unemployed will be a little less. The biggest take-up for apprenticeships, in particular for basic and starting apprenticeships, has essentially been from people coming from an unemployment base. It is not that the number has dropped, but that it has dropped in a particular group, that is, the unemployed. There has been a bigger uptake from that, however.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. Subhead B9 addresses the Regional Skills Fora. Can the Minister advise if each forum has a specific budget for the provision of programmes or initiatives to further its aims, and can the Minister advise as to the size of these budgets?
The delivery of the Regional Skills Fora is through the mainstream providers, so it is still the education and training boards, the institutes of technology or the colleges which provide. The Regional Skills Fora is a move to establish more clearly what needs there are, to create a greater connection and to develop programmes through partnerships with local enterprise. There are some very good examples of where that has been done. Cavan-Monaghan, where a traineeship was developed with one of the very prominent agricultural engineering companies, is one such excellent example. The role of the fora at this stage is to try to build that bridge to enterprise. They are not budget holders in that sense. Their role is to identify what is on offer, identify what is needed and then to try to adapt one to the other. We recently had the first meeting of the National Skills Fora and there is wide recognition that this is an area with real potential. We have not yet built connections to the provision, but there is scope there to do that.
The National Training Fund is referenced under various subheads. It is predicted that there will be a surplus of over €270 million at the end of 2017. Has there been any consideration of applying some of that funding, if possible, to the alleviate the crisis we have in third level?
Each year the allocation from the National Training Fund goes predominantly into the SOLAS budget, as well as funding other activities such as Springboard. We are currently discussing increasing the contribution to the training fund from 0.7% to 1%, which would provide additional money that would, in turn, be deployed to contribute to higher education and to apprenticeships. While the fund carries a surplus we cannot just spend that surplus. It is still within the Exchequer ceilings that we have to agree with Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I do not have the flexibility to just spend more from the fund because it still has to be approved by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the normal budgetary process. It is like a surplus in the Social Insurance Fund in that it still has to be deployed by a budgetary decision. We envisage wanting to use more money from this area for these purposes but to do so, we need to increase the contribution to the fund.
We will now move on to programme C, higher education. I propose we start with subhead C4, universities, institutes of technology and others being granted aid, and subhead C11, student support and related expenses.
This is obviously a key issue for third level funding. Subhead C4 addresses the general grant to the universities, the institutes of technology and other institutes of higher education. Could the Minister comment on the fact that this money is totally insufficient in terms of educating our young people? Is he satisfied with that and with the drop in the international rankings that has resulted from the terrible level of funding in this sector? What exactly is being proposed to deal with this? Having set us the task of looking at the Cassells report, the Minister appears to be doing some work parallel to this that was not apparent until he was questioned in the Dáil. Will the Minister expand on this as well?
Regarding C11, has the Minister considered allocating supports to students from low income families who are still being refused SUSI grants while doing their full-time degrees in independent third-level colleges, such as the Dublin Business School and Griffith College? Some students appeared before this committee in the past year who are really struggling and doing their best to get through third level, but need access to the SUSI grants.
The Fine Gael manifesto mentioned €100 million of additional funding just to stand still. What supports there are fall way short of what is needed to significantly boost the standing of the sector. I would ask the Minister to address this.
Regarding subhead C4, I welcome the fact that funding for the universities and institutes of technology has increased by 5%. This is a little too late, however, given that funding per student has fallen by over 20%. The institutes of technology are experiencing a funding crisis and there is talk of redundancies in at least one institute. Can the Minister confirm that there will be no forced redundancies in this sector and can he advise on the implementation of the Cush report? Can the Minister also advise on how much of the current general grant to universities is spent on pay?
I take it Deputy Catherine Martin is talking about the Wake Up SUSI campaign, which we heard about eight months ago.
It is probably only a small number of students who are affected but the feeling of the committee at the time was that they deserve the same level of support. One thing that struck us was that the CAO form does not specify that these colleges are not covered by SUSI grants. That places students and their families in a particular situation.
There are a number of questions there. This year, for the first year in about ten years, we have increased the funding to higher education. We have recognised that a funding deficit had built up over a number of years. There had been virtually no new funding for a decade, along with a declining amount of Exchequer funding which was partly compensated by rising student grants over an extended period. This meant that while student numbers grew, the cost per student came down, and that undoubtedly put a funding squeeze on the colleges. In order to redress that, we have put in place investment this year, and we also have secured from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform a commitment that there will be a demographic element in our funding formula. This means that as colleges expand their student numbers in the coming years, as wholly envisaged by the Cassells's report, we will see an increasing Exchequer contribution, something they lacked throughout that period. On top of that, as I mentioned to Deputy Catherine Martin, we have introduced consultation on a new source of funding, namely, an employer contribution, which was one of the elements recommended by Peter Cassells in his report and by the group he led. Deputy Thomas Byrne referred to idea of an income contingent loan, and I have always acknowledged that there needs to be a political consensus on this issue before we can move forward with it. My Department is doing the prudent thing and is preparing the ground should the Oireachtas decide that this is something we would like to go ahead with. We are putting the necessary framework in place for this idea to be implemented and have thought through what it would take to do so. That is all that has been done. We have not commissioned expensive outside work. What we have is a group looking at how this idea would work in practical terms should the Oireachtas decide to go with it.
Deputy Nolan said that funding is insufficient. What is encouraging is that the recently published performance framework for the third level colleges showed improvements across all of the indicators, including quality indicators and indicators such as their success in extending recruitment to people from disadvantaged backgrounds, people with disabilities and mature students, and their capacity to win additional research funding. There is a whole matrix of performance indicators. This last period, despite being very constrained, showed very significant progress by the third level institutions. Like many parts of the education system, there is no doubt that third level did things above and beyond at a time of crisis, and has had very significant achievements. That, as recognised by everyone, is not an option for the future. We have to plan on the basis of continued expansion and the new challenges ahead. Our third level sector is not perfect in every dimension. It has had some very big successes but there are other areas in need of improvement. That is the context in which we have committed to this investment trajectory, and we want to work with it to achieve more.
On the issue of private colleges and those who enrol in them, this would mark a significant change from the existing programme and would need a significant budgetary provision. At the moment, SUSI grants apply only to approved programmes in approved institutions and, by in large, it follows a very competitive CAO process for gaining access and so on. The private colleges are obviously fee-paying, for-profit colleges, and are a different type of institution. Policy to date has not been to extend the student supports to private colleges. I know the case has been made for this, but there are pros and cons that we would have to evaluate in terms of whether we take the step of going beyond the publicly funded colleges, with their known types of enrolment and attractions, to supporting for-profit colleges, and this would have to be done in a budgetary context. This would be a sales element in their approach. There is a for and against - I am not saying I am coming down on either side - that we would have to weigh up in public policy terms.
In terms of numbers, 80,000 students are supported on these grants and this year we have been able to extend them in a small way to postgraduate grants at the lowest level of income support. However, this scheme has not been reviewed in a number of years and I suppose people will have to decide what is the priority here in terms of what we do with scarce grant funding for grants. Do we look at extending the grant to private colleges or do we look at people who are coming into the system at a huge disadvantage and try to improve their terms of access? There are choices here - I am not trying to prejudge them - that would have to be made in a budgetary context.
We also have to take into account the 12,000 Irish students currently studying in England and Northern Ireland. In the event of a hard Brexit, we may have to cater for these extra numbers. Approximately 2,000 of those students currently avail of SUSI grants.
Yes, there are 12,000. Obviously, the hope and expectation is to protect the common travel area which would leave their studies uninterrupted. It is also the ambition of the British colleges to leave them uninterrupted, but the Chairman is right, and this is a contingency we have been looking at.
I know it would be a policy change but is there any intention to do exactly that and to weigh up the pros and cons? We are talking about students from disadvantaged areas and low income families and, as the Chairman pointed out, the CAO form does not make it clear that they would be unable to access grants for their chosen courses. There is a journalism course, in particular, that attracts many students.
I said at the start we would not stray into policy areas but I support what Deputy Catherine Martin said. I had a conversation with the clerk to the committee earlier and we will table that issue at our next meeting in terms of a recommendation that we could make to the Minister.
The pay percentage is 71%. It is €697 million out of €979 million. On the implementation of the Cush report, there are issues but it has been agreed and we are undertaking a check throughout the various institutes to make sure the agreement is being implemented. It has been raised by some of the trade unions that there are some shortcomings in its implementation, and we are checking that out.
I refer to subhead C5 and training colleges for primary school teachers. There has been reduction from €8.4 million to €6.4 million. What are the reasons for this particular reduction? Has there been a reduction in teacher training places? Where have the savings been made?
I refer to teacher training colleges specifically. In regard to budgetary allocations, I had a meeting with principals in my constituency of Kildare South last Monday week and one of the key things they felt was needed was far more training in the teacher training colleges and afterwards around mental health, supporting positive mental health in schools, special needs and autistic spectrum disorder, ASD.
Increasingly, mainstream schools have more children with special needs in an inclusive setting, and rightly so. A higher budget needs to be allocated for the training colleges to provide the appropriate training for teachers at that point, and this should be carried through to when those teachers are teaching. They need to be given adequate resources and supports at that time.
To take up Deputy Nolan's point, that reduction is not due to a reduction in training. It is because the Church of Ireland College of Education, which had been separately funded, is now funded through DCU due to its incorporation there, in that it has merged into a new college operating out of St. Patrick's as part of DCU. I will get the figures for the Deputy but, to my knowledge, there is no reduction in the number being educated from year to year.
The Chairman made a good point about the investment in upskilling across the system. While we do not want to stray into matters of policy, this is an area that deserves more thought. There is a role for the training colleges, but much of the upskilling and in-service training is run through the education training centres, which recruit experts to deliver programmes. I will provide the details of the programmes that are being delivered in the mental health area and the special needs area. The Chairman is right that an investment in the area of upskilling is worthy of assessment in regard to whether we are up to best practice and what else we could do.
A positive development committee members might have read about is that we launched a postgraduate programme for principals which is to be jointly delivered by the University of Limerick, NUI Galway, UCD and Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT. It is a bit of a pillar in the ground in that it is a programme for principals at work to upskill themselves, in part through distance learning. There is a good case to be made in this regard and I will get some of the raw data for the committee.
I appreciate that. For the Minister's information, we had a committee session around the whole area of positive mental health and we invited a number of witnesses. We will be in the process of finalising our report to the Minister in the coming weeks and we look forward to sending that on to him for his observations.
We now move to programme D, capital services, which is on page 26 of our briefing. We start with subhead D3, primary and post-primary infrastructure, which is on page 28 of the briefing. Members might indicate if they have any questions.
It has been reported in the newspapers that the Minister has agreed to buy the greyhound track at Harold's Cross for approximately €23 million, or perhaps up to €28 million. I do not expect the Minister to talk about individual transactions, although if he can, all the better, because it is a lot of money. I want to make clear that we support the provision of schools and we understand the predicament in which the Minister finds himself with regard to finding sites for schools. How much of the capital budget is being eaten into by land costs? This seems a massive amount of money, and while I understand the Department is forced to pay such an amount in that part of Dublin, is this having an impact on the building of schools? Is the Department looking at the whole issue of land costs and what can be done about it? There is also the question of what needs to be done beyond the Department. I do not think it is sustainable that sites are bought for that amount of money because it eats into the Department's budget for building schools.
It is some 15 years since the devolved grant was brought into policy and I can see the fruits of that within my own county. However, I have not heard much about it recently and I wonder whether it is still being used to the same extent. It certainly seemed to be a very good use of money.
I am conscious that subhead D3 also provides for grants towards rental of temporary school premises, and I presume this means prefabs. It was stated policy a short few years ago to get rid of all temporary accommodation, particularly prefabs, because the amount of money that has been expended on prefabs in the past 20 years is exorbitant. It would seem that, with better forward planning, we should be in a position not to have those temporary buildings. I will not say they are a waste of money because it is important students have an adequate place in which to be educated, but at the same time, it would seem not to be the appropriate way of allocating resources.
There is no doubt that land costs are an issue. As members can imagine, land costs fell off and even halved at one point in 2013, but they have increased substantially since then. This is taking up a little more than one twentieth of the budget but that figure is rising and it can wax and wane, depending on the year. Obviously, Harold's Cross is an especially expensive area of the city in which the acquire land.
In terms of whether it has impacted, the answer is no. We continue to increase the number of places we are providing. Last year we provided 22,288 places, so when compared with the previous year's 19,300 places, we increased the number of places by 3,000 in the year. It is becoming more expensive, both due to building costs and site costs, but we are getting additional budget to respond to population pressures. Nonetheless, this does inhibit our ability to do other things, which is just the way it is.
There has been a very significant reduction in the number of prefabs. In December 2011, there were 1,525 rented prefabs and that figure dropped to 950 in December 2016. As part of the six-year capital plan, there is a programme to unwind that and to move on. That will start in 2019, so it is further down the road.
The devolved building programme is still very much alive and well, with 182 projects last year and 179 the previous year. It is still there and there is also the new model of rapid build, so there is an effort to speed up that process and different models are being tried out to deal with that.
I want to ask generally about the capital programme. When the Department provides a new school for an existing national or voluntary school that is in the ownership of a patron, what happens the ownership of the old school building or old school site if the original school has moved on? Is that something the Department takes an interest in or is it just left to the patron body to do what it wants?
Did Deputy Martin or Deputy Nolan have a question related to that further back? If not, I will call the Minister to reply.
A site for the new school will often be provided by the patron. That would be the arrangement in most of these cases. More recently, I understand that new schools are not being built on patron's sites - they are being built on State sites where we have full ownership, which gives us that additional flexibility. That seems to be the pattern.
I heard of a case - I will not name the school because it is just talk - where one school is getting a new building on a new site. The rumour is that a hotel is moving in, although I cannot verify that. There should be some programme in the Department to examine this matter, because they all have a value. It would seem to me that if the Minister is providing a new school and a new site, as he is now in many cases simply because sites are unaffordable and most of the newer patrons do not have any land-banks, surely it would significantly help the Department's capital budget, as a condition for providing the new school, to take over the old site and sell it to reimburse the coffers.
I would like to make a point in support of Deputy Byrne. Sometimes there is a lack of consultation with local communities about the proposed use of an old school. I have, however, seen really good results. For example, in Rathangan where I am from, the old vocational school became a day care centre. Step-down housing was also built for old people, which was fantastic. The new boys' school is due to be opened on 16 June this year. They moved from a boys' school that was built 30 years ago and which has been flattened. It is interesting to note that we have an old boys' school which was built around the 1850s that is still in use for a community purpose. It is regrettable that more exploration was not done with the community on possible uses for a building. To be fair, part of the reason was that it was for a sports field. There was a use for the land but there could have been more negotiation on the idea of providing adjacent land and using the building for something else. I just wanted to make that point.
The way the Department would approach this is to examine each case on its merits. Obviously, if an old school had a future use we would pursue that. If an old building had very limited value at that stage, we had a lien on the building and the land was in the patron's ownership, we would have very little by way of an asset to pursue. As regards the issue of whether we can deploy them for community purposes, which would be outside the terms of the lien, that would have to be re-examined on its merits. The land, however, would still be in private ownership.
These are arrangements which predate all of us. The model then was that the land was owned by the patron, the building was built by the State and they put a lien on the use of the building. It is therefore a question of when the change arises. The Department has to evaluate what value it can recover and how best to deploy that for educational purposes. The approach taken is that each case would be decided on its merits.
I can see that point if the patron provided the site originally or if a community group provided it on behalf of a patron, which can happen too. Should there not be some arrangement, however, simply to help replenish the coffers? If the State is going to provide a new school site and replace a school building, we should be asking the patron to sign over the existing building when all that is done and we would then monetise it, or secure money for it which would contribute towards building the new premises.
Every case will be done to the best advantage of the taxpayer. Most new schools will be built on greenfield sites where we might have a competition for the patron. We would then own the school and the site, which would be a different situation whereby we retain ownership. Where there is an old, disused school and we are moving to a new site, the Department would look afresh at that in order to protect the taxpayer's interest.
I suggest that we ask the Minister to come back to us with best case examples of that. It would certainly seem appropriate to look at further educational use if a building is being deployed for a particular reason. If not, however, a possible further community use should be the fall-back position.
I think we have concluded this part of the meeting, so I wish to thank the Minister, Deputy Bruton, the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, and their officials for attending the meeting. We appreciate their attendance here. I know that they will come back to the members on particular issues.
I would like to ask Deputy Byrne and Deputy Martin some quick question, if they do not mind. This is the first time we have used the briefing document prepared by the financial scrutiny team. They went to a lot of trouble to use extensive charts and graphs in presenting the financial and performance-related information. Do the Deputies feel that has been of benefit and, if so, is that way in which we should proceed?