Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 12 November 2020
Select Committee on Education and Skills
Estimates for Public Services 2020
Vote 45 - Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (Revised)
I welcome the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, the Minister of State at the same Department, Deputy Niall Collins, who has responsibility for skills and further education, and their officials to this meeting. I thank them for the briefing documents which were provided in advance of the meeting. Before we begin, I must point out that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science will meet at 1.20 p.m. to consider a motion on the date of commencement of the Munster technological university. As the support services need 15 minutes to reorganise this room in advance of that meeting, I must ask members, in a spirit of working together, to ensure that this meeting finishes at 1.05 p.m. This means that speaking slots will be reduced to two minutes each. I thank members for their co-operation and forbearance in this regard.
As the Minister and Minister of State are present, officials should not speak in public session. I will invite the Minister to make his opening statement, after which members can ask general questions on Vote 45 but before doing so, I wish to inform members that I asked the Minister to appear before the committee early in the new year to discuss the technological universities and related matters. In that context, I ask members to be as brief as possible and to be aware that I will cut them off if they go over time.
The Chairman should feel free to cut me off too, if necessary. I will be brief so as not to take time from members. I am very grateful for the opportunity to address the committee, along with my ministerial colleague, Deputy Niall Collins, as part of its consideration of my Department's Further Revised Estimate for 2020. This is the first time we have had Vote 45 constituted; it is a new Vote for a new Department. I propose to give a very brief overview of the Estimate and address any questions.
This Further Revised Estimate includes two main components. The first involves moving money that was in the Department of Education and Skills to my Department. This comprises two expenditure programmes that transferred from Vote 26, namely those for skills development and for higher education. The Dáil previously voted on these elements on 16 July 2020. On 21 October, these relevant functions were transferred from the Department of Education to my Department. Therefore, element one is a straightforward transfer of the funding to go with the functions from the Department of Education to the new Department. The second part of the Revised Estimate is additional funding that has been included in this Estimate to meet the Covid-related expenditure incurred by the Department, which was approved by the Government and announced earlier in the year, as well as certain other expenditure.
I should say that there will be further transfers of functions into my Department but what we are looking today is the Vote that has transferred from the Department of Education. The primary additional functions to come relate to research and will transfer from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. These include the research area, Science Foundation Ireland and so on. The work to underpin these transfers is well advanced and I expect that in terms of funding, this will be reflected in the Revised Estimates for 2021.
The further Revised Estimate for Vote 45 that is now before the committee provides for a net allocation of €2.402 billion. This represents a gross allocation of €2.506 billion reduced by appropriations-in-aid of some €103 million. This allocation includes the original gross allocation transferred from Vote 26, which I have gone through already. It also includes an additional €150 million allocated to provide for Covid-related expenditure, and this funding provides for support for institutions, students and researchers. It also includes an additional €23 million for 2020, allocated to the Department at budget time, which is reflected in the Estimate. This will support an additional capital grant of €15 million to higher education institutions, which is, effectively, a minor works scheme for higher education institutions, as well as €8 million for a new initiative managed by SOLAS. It is a new educational disadvantage fund for the further education and training sector. It is the first time we have had a ring-fenced fund for this and we need to make it a permanent part of the landscape.
At budget time, I also announced a once-off €50 million fund to support students in the context of Covid. I will be bringing proposals to Government next week on how we intend to distribute this fund. I believe we will have statements on third level education in the Dáil next Thursday and there will be an opportunity for me to seek Government approval on Tuesday and debate it and any other matter in the Dáil next Thursday. It is my intention to have to return for a Supplementary Estimate in this regard. In light of the time constraints I will leave it at that.
I welcome the Minister and Minister of State to the committee and thank them for coming before it. This is a very important, albeit brief, encounter on the establishment of the technological university in Munster, which I am delighted to see. I have a personal interest in the south east, so I look forward to that happening in due course as well.
My question is broader, I am sure the Minister will appreciate, than the establishment of the technological university in Munster, but it relates to admissions and college places next year. We all really appreciate how promptly the Department responded with additional spaces, particularly after the calculated grades issue was identified and rectified. The Department certainly responded promptly. Next year, we will potentially have another problem brewing because of the additional numbers that had to be created in this academic year. Is there a commitment to make sure these places are available next year? My next query is kind of set out in the Minister's long statement on the establishment of the other technological universities and perhaps I will leave it and ask for a response to my first question.
I will have an opportunity to outline the technological university agenda at the second part of this meeting. I am very excited about it. It will be about more than just access to university education no matter where people live in our country, which is important. The impact on regional development could be very significant. The Deputy referenced the south east of our country. It has no universities. In the north west of the map of Ireland, forget about partition and politics, there is a big gaping hole, whether people are in Derry or Letterkenny, and there is a huge amount of work to be done there.
Specifically on the question about additional places, the Deputy is right to be looking ahead to the next leaving certificate. I am pleased we received funding in budget 2021 to retain, effectively, all of the additional places we put into the system this year. It was not a once-off blip or inflation of places. We have banked these places, which is important. A total of €18 million has also being provided in budget 2021 to deliver an additional 2,700 new undergraduate places from next September to address demographic growth pressures. This equates to an overall investment of almost €80 million since 2018 for extra places in higher education.
This year was an horrific year for students, but I hope one of the good things to come out of it will be significant investment in expanding higher education places. It would be very useful for the committee to hear from ourselves and the Department of Education on how we are planning and preparing, and I have no doubt it will do so. Deputy Ó Laoghaire previously questioned me on how we are preparing for the leaving certificate in 2021. From the Department's point of view, making the additional places for this year a permanent feature and putting in extra places for demographic pressures is a large part of the role we are trying to play.
I thank the Minister and Minister of State for coming before the committee and I commend them on the announcement from the Department earlier in the week on trying to encourage on-campus activity. It has been an horrific year for secondary and third level students. What type of proposals is the Minister engaging in with the third level institutions and how can he try to encourage greater on-campus activity? There is the danger that people will drop out.
I am very glad the Deputy has asked me this. I am very worried, as I know he is, about the mental health and well-being of our students. I am also worried about the dropout rate. This is why I made the comments that I did. Our colleges have been great and they have followed public health advice. They have stepped up to the plate and acted in a co-ordinated manner. They have linked with us. This afternoon, I am meeting the representative bodies of the universities and institutes of technology and next week the Taoiseach, the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, and I will meet the presidents of our universities.
We have to follow public health advice and there will be no deviation from this. Safety for staff and safety for students will come first. If, God willing, this country gets back to level 3 because of the work people are putting in now with regard to the sacrifices people are making, it does have to mean more activity on campus than it would at level 5. That is logical. Today, the libraries are open and this is an important message. The libraries are still open and people can book them and use them. Not everyone has a safe place to learn at home. Practicals are ongoing, as is research. There is also an ability for universities to bring in small groups of students, such as vulnerable learners and people they are worried about. I would like to see a focus on first year students and, perhaps, final year students. I do not think I will be able to be prescriptive and say every institution must do this, because they come in all different shapes and sizes, but I do not think it is unreasonable, in return for the massive investment we are making in our university sector to help it with Covid, to say that in return we want to see an expansion of the on-site campus, subject to it being in line with public health advice. We will be able to bottom this out one way or the other in the next fortnight.
I thank the Minister. The first year student in my house will be pleased with that. With regard to the transfer of the functions and funding, when will it happen? I know the Minister has said it will be reflected in the 2021 figures with regard to enterprise, trade and employment. Was is easier to make the transfer from education? Are there blockages? Perhaps the Minister will speak about this.
Subhead B11 indicates that student support and related expenses amounted to €19 million, which was a decrease of 5% in 2020 compared with 2019. Is this an accurate figure? Why did this happen? What caused this reduction? As part of the 2021 budget announcement, the Minister earmarked €20 million in additional funding for the anticipated increase in SUSI eligible applicants. Is it the case that, even with the effects of Covid, we are only anticipating the need for the same level of funding as 2019? I am trying to get a grip on whether we really have more money or do we just have more announcements now that we have a specific Department. When we account for scheduled increases, such as pay and the high level of student numbers due to the demographic changes, what is the level of increase per student in further and higher education between 2019 and 2020? The Minister answered my question on the hardship fund and I look forward to seeing the outrun of this on Thursday.
Subheads B12 and B16 cover research and infrastructure. The Minister stated the research fund has not all been transferred over. We see a decrease in that the figure for research is 13% less. I take it this will be made up. Infrastructure is €6 million, or 7%, less than in 2019. With regard to infrastructure, I know one of the challenges this year was the extra places and that we did not have the laboratories and the physical infrastructure we needed.
Are we going to have enough for that for them to get started as soon as possible in 2021?
We do have a new Department, so I am pleased to say that we have new announcements and new funding, but I will share with the committee a useful document that I had done for myself which outlines the main features of budget 2021 and can help track where the additionality is. I will circulate a copy of that to the committee through the clerk at the end of this meeting.
On the transfer of functions question, I am being blunt and honest, but it was easier to do it from education to further and higher education because there was a very clear demarcation. We were basically lifting anything that did not involve going to primary or secondary school and moving it to the new Department. With the new Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, it took a bit longer to work out what should be retained, for example, with Enterprise Ireland, versus what should come to the new Department. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform will bring the memo to Government this month to transfer those functions, and then the budget will be transferred with the agreement of this committee, early in the new year. Therefore there is no difficulty or blockage. The principal area for which we will be receiving responsibility is Science Foundation Ireland and, in addition to that, the responsibilities for research policy and innovation 2020.
In respect of the figure per student, it is an important figure, and I will get it to the Deputy because I do not have it. The point made by the Deputy on infrastructure is a fair one, and it is one of the reasons, when I got the chance to get some one-off money on budget day for 2020, we decided to favour capital investment. There is €15 million extra going out to the higher education institutes now for capital work schemes.
Subheading B12 relates to a technical adjustment. In fairness to every colleague here and myself, some of these tables are a little bit difficult, because some parts are remaining under the Department of Education and some parts are coming to my Department, so sometimes the minus figure can be a reflection of that.
On the issue of student support, I was asking the very same question. It just so happens that in terms of the demand for SUSI, we have not seen the level of increase that we expected to see, probably because we were in a good place economically at the start of 2020 in terms of people's employment. However, we expect that figure to rise in 2021, and that is why we have set aside an additional €20 million.
I have already raised this issue with the Minister, but I am going to raise it again to keep it on the agenda. It concerns the funding of software costs. I know that significant funding has been allocated at third level in the area of hardware to try to close the digital divide and allow people participate in an off-campus way, but we need to keep an eye on the software issue because there are some packages that are still not funded, as I understand it.
The second issue I wish to raise is on the percentage of the labour force in the national qualification framework levels. The numbers of people remaining at levels 1 to 3 remains stubbornly high at 18%, and it shows that one of the areas in which we do not well in education this country is lifelong learning. I would like the Minister to comment on that issue and whether funding is being allocated to tackle it specifically.
The third issue relates to equality budgeting. The Minister's Department was involved in a pilot scheme, and we have already seen great success in this area. The number of women involved in apprenticeships jumped from 145 in 2017 to 622 in 2019, which is excellent progress. We saw similar results in the film industry where there was another pilot programme run by the Department of the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin. Is equality budgeting going anywhere, however, and have the successes been fed back to the Department of Finance or the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform?
On the issue of software costs, I must have a separate conversation with the Deputy, because he clearly has a concern in respect of some examples and I am very happy to take them up. As a Department we engage very regularly with the Irish Universities Association, the Technological Higher Education Association and directly with the institutions, so if there are specific programmes, I would be happy to look into them.
The issue of lifelong learning is a key issue. Most of the questions I am asked are about universities, as though I am the minister for universities, but one of the big priorities for my Department has to be that of lifelong learning, the fact that we still have a level of participation in lifelong learning that is below the OECD average, and that our adult literacy levels still mask the veneer that we like to promote in terms of our country being a knowledge-based economy. That is why we are doing a few things to improve that. The educational disadvantage fund of €8 million that we have given to SOLAS for the first time ever is specifically about trying to engage with vulnerable learners, which is a bit of a catch-all term for those who might not otherwise be in a position to continue to interact with education in the community. Today, as part of the dormant accounts funding, I have announced funding of €600,000 for Travellers and Traveller education. Yesterday I had a joint meeting with the Minister for Education about a Traveller education plan, which is a commitment in the programme for Government.
We also need to ask ourselves why people are not engaging in lifelong learning in Ireland in a way that they are in other countries. I think there are two answers to that. One, is perhaps the rigidity of our education system, the idea being that the system has not been that responsive to people dipping in and out of education. Even when I have conversations with those in universities on this issue, there is this rigid idea that one goes and does a three- or four-year programme, but that does not work for everybody. I think a modular system could be a big thing. The second point is that, culturally in business, we need to change the attitude as well. I addressed Skillnet Ireland yesterday, and we are funding businesses - quite a lot now, thankfully - to help them with skills and retraining. However, we need to help employers - whether it requires Government help is a different day's work - so that it becomes a normal part of being in the workforce that a person can take time out to reskill and upskill, because we need that and we are not where we need to be on that.
On the issue of equality budgeting, I will come back to the Deputy with a proper note that perhaps I could send to the committee. However, I do take his point, and wherever I look in my Department I do see huge issues of inequality, and the whole area of gender inequality is very pertinent. As the Deputy said, we have made progress in respect of apprenticeships, but we still have a long way to go. There is a degree of "if you see it, you can be it", to the issue. For example, up until a few weeks ago we had never had a female president of a university in this country.
I welcome both Ministers to the committee. I have only one question for the Minister, which concerns the €50 million fund. I know that he is bringing it to Cabinet shortly and he might not be able to share all the details, if any, with us. It was initially announced in media circles that the funding was going to equate to €250 per student. Will he give the committee any indication if the funding will be per student or per head or will it be allocated on a needs basis with some type of assessment in that regard? Will the funding be available to SUSI students only or will it be open to students who are studying in the UK, although they might be doing so from Ireland at the moment given the Covid restrictions? I ask the Minister to give the committee an indication of whether there will be an assessment for the allocation of such funding.
If there is time, and I am happy for him to answer in writing, on a separate issue, there was an initiative for a €3,000 incentive for employers to take on apprentices until the end of June or July. I ask him to outline his plans for that kind of incentive going forward.
On the Deputy's final point first, I am really pleased with how the incentive scheme is going, and I will get the committee the latest figures. However, the last time I checked, approximately 1,000 new apprentices had taken up that scheme, so it really has worked and I have received very good feedback from both apprentices and businesses who have availed of it. It was due to run out in December 2020, but we made a decision in the budget to keep it going for the first six months of 2021. My view is that if it is working, I would like to see the scheme as a permanent part of our landscape, but we have our apprenticeship action plan due to go to Cabinet by Christmas and that will try to tease out some of those issues.
On the €50 million, what I can say and have said before is that there are two cohorts whom we are trying to assist. First, there are those who are in receipt of the SUSI grant, and by virtue of the fact that they are in receipt of this grant, we recognise, as a State, that they need financial assistance. The most obvious way to help them is with a once-off top-up to the SUSI grant, which I would like to happen in the majority of cases in advance of Christmas, if at all possible. The second group is the many students who do not get the SUSI grant and who also have met additional financial costs this year. I am looking at a way of supporting them, be it through a credit note, rebate or other option. I need to tease those things through, but the direct answer to the Deputy's question is that it is not just a scheme for students in receipt of SUSI grants. We aim to support all full-time students in higher education at undergraduate level, and I am also looking into whether we can also do something at postgraduate level. We will have further details of that next week.
I thank the Ministers. As we are tight for time, I would like to raise two issues.
It is desirable and the objective is that where possible, students should be in publicly funded accommodation on campus or adjacent to campus. The problem is that much of the accommodation provided by third level institutions is through arm's length companies, which have taken an enormous financial hit in recent times. While students might have a contrary view, those companies often believe they need to increase rents. Many of them are financially unsustainable. Moreover, my understanding is that universities are at least discouraged, if not prohibited, from cross-funding these arm's length bodies. That is already a problem and I suspect it could be a growing problem. If these companies come under increasing pressure, rents could become increasingly higher putting them even further beyond the reach of students.
I have raised the issue of apprenticeships previously. While some public bodies are good, many of them are not the best at taking on apprentices. That needs to be looked at. I particularly highlight local authorities. Again, some are good, and some are not so good. The same is true of universities and other third level institutions. I was contacted by a tradesperson - I will not make him too identifiable - in one of the major universities. He has been trying to get an apprenticeship programme running in that university for some years. He has met resistance and would love to bring it on because the skills involved would be very particular and diverse. That issue needs to be examined in public bodies, including universities.
I will comment on the student accommodation and will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, to comment on the apprenticeship issue. I will level with the Deputy here and I am sure he will remind me of these comments in the future. I do not think our policy on student accommodation is working. I do not think it is robust enough and the State does not have enough levers to pull. I am frequently asked about what I am going to do to support particular students. I look at the legal options available to me and they are often not there.
I believe we need to devise a funding model that enables particularly our institutes of technology, now to be our technological universities, to build student accommodation. Technological University Dublin, the largest higher education institution in the country, is unable to build student accommodation. We will shortly discuss the Munster technological university in the Deputy's neck of the woods, which is in a similar situation. We will continue to open technological universities.
While I am not the Minister for housing, this is a housing challenge as much as an education challenge. Students are competing with families with two or three children for the same house. I do not think the strategy between the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and my Department is adequate. I will be working with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to come up with a better plan. It must involve, as part of the building of technological universities, the building of purpose-built institution-owned student accommodation.
I would genuinely be interested in working with the Deputy and this committee on it. I could say we are going to get all our colleges to give refunds to students who are in college-owned accommodation. They largely do so when issues arise, but that does not affect most of the students. I would be very happy to have a session on this with the committee and would welcome members' ideas. The challenge is to find a funding mechanism that we can get through the whole of Government.
I thank the Deputy for his question. We are acutely aware of the hit and miss approach to apprenticeships by local authorities. Dublin City Council offers them, but my local authority in the mid-west does not. We think it should be carried out on a uniform basis. I have sent a note to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on it. It is under active consideration as part of the apprenticeship action plan. About 60 submissions on that have been received and they are being actively considered. That is also a component of it. We are acutely aware of the issue.
The Deputy is right. For example, Irish Rail and ESB offers apprenticeships. State entities and State companies in other areas are actively engaged in offering apprenticeships and employing people through apprenticeships. There is no reason not to have a uniform approach through our local authorities.
I appreciate what the Minister said about housing and we can return to that.
He probably knows what I am going to ask about. I am interested in the €8 million fund for education disadvantage. I am very excited about the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and about the Minister and Minister of State who are working in it.
Some 17.9% of Irish adults are functionally illiterate. Are people aware of that statistic? Do they know what functional illiteracy means? How we can grasp this issue as a country and drive it down? Making our people literate is a major challenge but it is even bigger when people do not even realise the problem exists. That one in six of Irish adults are functionally illiterate should set alarm bells ringing. I am greatly encouraged that the Minister has been to the forefront of raising the matter. He is trying to find solutions and funding mechanisms to tackle it. I ask the Minister to expand on that. Along with other members of this committee I am determined to work with both the Ministers to achieve improvements in that area in the period of this Oireachtas. Many people in all age ranges have that severely debilitating issue, which minimises their capacity to fully engage in Irish society. It is truly crippling. I will continue to ask the Minister how we can work together to highlight it and hopefully resolve it.
I thank the Deputy for his leadership and many years of work on the issue, about which I feel very passionate. One of the reasons for people not knowing about it is the institutionalised stigma that exists. We talk about destigmatising illiteracy and the likes, as we should, but we as leaders are not talking about it enough because we are rightly busy promoting our country as being a knowledge-based economy. We ask companies to come and invest in Ireland because we have a great workforce. While all that is true, it should not take away from the fact that a significant number of people are being locked out of economic and social inclusion. The Deputy knows as well as I do about the intergenerational effect of it.
In the first instance I am determined to use the role I am honoured to hold to support initiatives. For example, I recently spoke at a graduation ceremony in Portlaoise Prison for six students who had trained as literacy tutors. Not only had they tackled their own literacy issues, they will now tutor other people in the prison. I had a very good meeting with representatives of the Irish Prison Service and others about the intergenerational deprivation that often results in somebody ending up in prison. Whatever about the person in prison today, how can we ensure we get to his or her children at home to provide them with the gift of educational literacy to break the cycle of deprivation?
Tomorrow the National Adult Literacy Agency, NALA, and others will launch the consultation for our adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills strategy. I will send details of that to the Deputy. Obviously, a literacy consultation needs to be inclusive. It cannot just be sticking something up on a website, which would be utterly ironic. We need work out how to take it on a Covid-safe roadshow to engage with all our communities and organisations. I will be relying on and I know I will receive the Deputy's help and support in that regard.
SOLAS has about five or six months to come back with our literacy strategy. That will be a big piece of work for it to deliver in 2021. I am very encouraged by the group of people working across Departments on this. They are passionate and committed, as is NALA. Much of this is us talking about it and encouraging other people to talk about it and to know that people are not alone in having literacy issues. As NALA explained to me, literacy is not like riding a bike, it is like a muscle that needs constant exercise. I look forward to working with the Deputy on it.
I welcome the establishment of the new Department.
It is a great addition, specifically for higher education and third level. Has the Minister found a permanent residence yet or is he still hunting for space for headquarters for the Department? It is important because setting up a new Department is difficult. Will he update us on that?
I do not want anyone thinking I am getting a residence out of it. I proudly live in Greystones but the new Department is currently based temporarily in Leeson Lane in the Department of Transport. That is where we are squatting and the Office of Public Works, OPW, is trying to identify some physical accommodation. The fact that the overwhelming majority of people are working from home in line with public health guidelines has worked so far. I am eager in terms of creating an entity and a sense of belonging that the accommodation issue is sorted. The OPW is engaging with my Department on that but we do not yet have permanent premises identified.
The Minister raised the issue of accommodation and I have a question in light of his meeting with the presidents of the universities next week. He told us that five of the seven campuses were going to do refunds. They are not doing refunds. There is a particular problem with the University of Limerick, UL. It is separate in terms of Sligo, but there is a problem there as well. Perhaps the Minister will raise the problem of refunds with UL. Has there been any progress on University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin in relation to on-campus accommodation refunds?
I think it was Dublin City University and Trinity but I will check that. I will follow up what the Deputy says on UL and Sligo. It is my clear view that if it is university-owned or institute of technology-owned campus accommodation, they should be providing refunds or coming to an alternative flexible arrangement. I am disappointed to hear that. After I meet the presidents next week, I will provide the Deputy with a written update.