Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Monday, 26 April 2021
Seanad Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union
Responses to Brexit in Further and Higher Education: Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science
The agenda for today's meeting includes a discussion with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris. We are looking at the mutual recognition of education qualifications between the UK and Ireland, third level supports available for Irish students in the UK, students from Northern Ireland availing of third level opportunities in the Republic of Ireland, and access to the Erasmus programme for students in Northern Ireland.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment or make charges against a person outside the Houses of the Oireachtas or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I also remind members that they are only allowed to participate in this meeting if they are physically located on the Leinster House complex. In this regard, I ask all members to confirm they are indeed on the Leinster House complex prior to making their first contribution. We will hear questions from members once the Minister has given his initial opening statement. I call the Minister to make his opening statement to the committee and thank him for his time this afternoon.
I thank the committee for providing me with the opportunity to update it on a number of key Brexit matters which fall within the scope of my Department.
It is really important that we continue to have Oireachtas committees scrutinising such issues. We are five months into post-Brexit implementation and while it no longer occupies the day-to-day level of political and media attention that it did in the run up to 31 December last year, it very much remains an ongoing focus for all in government and consumes a lot of time and energy in all Departments, including my own. The Irish Government has always been very clear that there are absolutely no winners when it comes to Brexit but I can assure the committee that we have been determined to do all we can to minimise its impact, not just for people living in the Republic of Ireland, but also for people living in the North. The actions and responses taken by my Department to date have been very firmly informed by a determination to protect the rich tapestry of collaborations between further and higher education institutions North and South and indeed, east and west.
I will now address the four specific topics on today's agenda, the first of which is the important issue ofrecognition of professional qualifications. I would like to place this process in context for committee members and anyone monitoring these proceedings. Prior to Ireland and the UK joining the EU, there was already mobility of professions. We can all recall how many qualified Irish doctors and nurses headed over to the UK to work in the NHS, based on their qualifications. Over time the EU, which both countries joined, developed a series of directives designed to support one of its key freedoms, namely the freedom of movement. One of these directives specifically dealt with the professional qualifications of doctors, nurses, physiotherapist, architects and veterinary surgeons, among others. As these professionals moved from one member state to another, it ensured that their qualifications as listed in this directive were recognised, which facilitated labour mobility and the provision of service. That last point, provision of service, is very important as it brings the EU Single Market into play and the EU Commission has sole competence in this area. In parallel, the number and type of professions increased over the years. Essentially, where there is a regulation to determine entry for any profession or trade, these also fell within scope of EU directives. For example, Ireland has regulated entry into the security industry which limits any person working as a security guard. A QQI Level 4 qualification is an essential requirement, among other things. This trend of expanding qualifications has resulted in some 190 professions in Ireland being regulated by 44 competent authorities or regulators. This is a massive body of work.
Clearly, the departure of the UK from the EU means that this directive no longer applies. This is particularly challenging for Ireland. One only has to think about mobility of teachers and medical professionals who have been routinely working on either side of the Border over the past number of years or people who may work on both sides of the Border on a daily or regular basis. Furthermore, the impact also must be reconciled with the Common Travel Area, where Ireland and the UK sought to protect mobility of citizens between both jurisdictions.
In common with many actions, back in 2018 officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade engaged with the EU Commission to see how mutual recognition of professional qualifications between Ireland and the UK could be reconciled within the EU Single Market. The Commission’s view was that the Irish and UK Governments could only conclude a bilateral intergovernmental agreement if Ireland secured a derogation from the EU Commission. While this remains an option, the process to secure a derogation in the midst of very intensive EU-UK negotiations would have taken too long and would have diverted diplomatic resources from other priorities, the most obvious and well known being the Northern Ireland protocol. The next best option available to Ireland was to pursue an arrangement based on Irish and UK regulators engaging with each other to agree processes for the continued recognition of professional qualifications.
In late 2019 a working group was set up, chaired by an official from my Department who co-ordinated the work of eight other relevant Departments. Each Department was asked to ensure that all of its regulators put processes in place to ensure that Irish and UK professionals could continue to have their qualifications recognised. This work was concluded, with Irish and UK regulators adopting varying approaches in line with what worked best for their profession. Some, like engineers for example, put a memorandum of understanding in place while others such as the Teaching Council and Medical Council adjusted their third country qualification recognition policies. At the same time, my Department worked very closely with our UK counterparts in the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to ensure that similar activity was being pursued by their regulators. I am pleased to report that this relationship continues and since January of this year, there have been three bilateral meetings to ensure any glitches are addressed and resolved. We have made significant progress on this and while it seems to be working very well, it is something that requires constant minding, updating and monitoring by both Governments.
It was not possible to do everything by administrative arrangements. It required legislative change in some areas. For example, we needed to legislate for the recognition of the UK equivalent of the construction Safe Pass certificate. Where legislation was necessary, we legislated and where administrative solutions could be found through regulators working together, that was the approach we took.
I am satisfied that Ireland and the UK have taken whatever steps they can to ensure that there is continued recognition of professional qualifications for their citizens. It is also important to note that this is quite a distinct process from practising one's profession. Members will understand that one's qualification recognition is a step along the path to practice. For example, to enable a UK citizen to teach in Ireland, he or she must have his or her qualification recognised but there are also other hurdles that need to be cleared, including Garda or police vetting. That has always been the way. Recognition of qualification in its own right does not guarantee the right to practice.
Things have moved on and the publication of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement provides a framework for the restoration of mutual recognition of professional qualifications. This would require the consensus of all member states, including on a sectoral basis, to agree the qualifications structures with the UK. These are similar provisions to the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. Using that as a benchmark, that process took five years. While work continues at EU and UK level, it was important that Ireland moved ahead, considering we were so uniquely impacted. While other member states are only starting, Ireland has completed a process. There is no complacency in my Department on this and we remain engaged on this matter, including continuing contact with our counterparts in the UK. Our general view is so far so good and a significant body of work has been done.
I refer to Erasmus+ and Northern Ireland. As colleagues will be aware, the Government has decided that arrangements should be made to enable students of relevant institutions in Northern Ireland to have continued access to mobilities under the Erasmus+ higher education programme post Brexit. While a number of options were presented to the Commission, it was finally agreed that this Government decision would be achieved by the temporary registration of a Northern Ireland student with an Irish higher education institution. During this period of registration, this would facilitate a Northern Ireland student's mobility in a higher education institution in another member state that has an existing agreement with the Northern Ireland higher education institution to which the student belongs. Once the mobility was complete, the student would return to his or her parent higher education institution in Northern Ireland, along with the required certification and other academic documentation. The Northern Ireland higher education institution would recognise the period of study abroad as it would now under Erasmus+. Officials in my Department have been working intensively with higher education institutions, North and South, to put the structures in place following the Government’s decision. I am pleased we will not be required to provide funding for this coming academic year, due to unspent moneys within Northern Ireland in the Erasmus+ programme. However, we are ready to go with that and we will be in a position to support that from when it is required, which we believe will be the start of the academic year commencing in 2022.
It would also be timely to refer to the Turing scheme that is being introduced by the UK Government. My officials have made it clear to the NI higher education institutions that there is no exclusivity in the Government’s decision. Its objective is to offer an opportunity to Northern Ireland students which they originally sought. Should they opt for mobility under the Turing scheme, that is their choice. It is not an either-or situation. I want to make sure that should these students wish to head to Paris or Munich under Erasmus+, this option is also open to them. I want to give the committee some new information in that I want to go further than just higher education on this. I want to put in place similar arrangement for further education students in Northern Ireland. I have asked my officials to work on this and I hope to bring a memorandum to Government within the next few weeks, as well as engaging with the Commission on this. I have also undertaken to keep my counterpart in Northern Ireland, Minister for the Economy, Diane Dodds MLA, apprised of developments as the operational details are finalised. We are fulfilling a commitment that there was a cross-party consensus for delivering in our country. I thank my officials who have worked so hard on that.
I refer to support for access for students in the UK. On the issue of supports for students in the UK, members will recall that, in May 2019, the Irish and UK Governments signed an overarching memorandum of understanding on the common travel area, which committed to the maintenance of access to each other’s education systems on an as is basis. My Department has been working with counterparts in the UK to elaborate on this commitment by developing a memorandum of understanding specifically for the education sector. The draft has been agreed between both jurisdictions, and my Department is awaiting legal advice from the Office of the Attorney General. All going well, I intend to bring a memorandum to Government to sign this memorandum of understanding in the coming weeks. We have already taken all of the measures to make sure that students from the UK studying in Ireland can still access the supports post Brexit that they could before Brexit and vice versa.
A UK student would still retain access to the SUSI scheme should he or she wish to study in Ireland. This means that 1,260 Irish students and 200 UK students eligible for SUSI supports can continue their studies without any financial interruption.
The common travel area also afforded Irish students an additional protection, however. In 2020, the UK announced that EU students would be treated as international students and, as such, would be liable for higher fees. I am pleased to say that under the common travel area, this does not apply to Irish students. They will be charged the same as British students.
I cannot leave this topic without referring to the fee situation in Scotland, on which it is worth commenting. Under UK governance, higher education policy is within the sole remit of each devolved administration. As many members will know, Scotland chose to pursue a policy of not charging fees for higher education for what they determine home students, while at the same time charging fees of up to £9,000 for students from the remaining devolved administrations. It had secured a derogation from the EU, provided it treated EU students on the same basis as Scottish students. With the departure of the UK from the EU, the treatment of EU and UK students fell within the scope of UK domestic equality legislation, meaning that the free fees regime for all EU students fell away.
While Irish students in Scotland will be treated the same as other British students, they will not be in a position to be treated better than other British students and therefore fees will apply for Irish students going to Scotland, just as they would for English or Welsh students. This does not affect any current registered Irish student; it is for new students. I met with the Scottish Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science on two separate occasions and with the Scottish Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, John Swinney, also on two separate occasions. We are looking at new and innovative ways to try and put more supports in place for mobility between Scotland and Ireland. This includes being asked by the Taoiseach and Government to look at the idea of scholarships that could perhaps be put in place for Irish students studying in Scotland and Scottish students studying in Ireland. I see that as innovative and creative way to get around this issue. There is an election on in Scotland at the moment but Deputy First Minister Swinney and I have committed to trying to progress some form of scholarship scheme. I will be very pleased to keep the committee up to date on this.
I apologise for the long statement but I am trying to get through the various matters as they were put to me. The final issue on the committee's agenda from my point of view is that of Northern Ireland student mobility to Ireland. In that context, I really thank the committee for raising this issue. We are not talking enough about it. All of us here believe in education not just as an educational benefit but also as a chance to build interpersonal relationships, good faith and an understanding of people from different communities and backgrounds. I hoped for a chance to travel to Northern Ireland on many occasions but Covid has put a stop to that since I have taken up this role. We have much work to do in this space. For the five years from the 2013-2014 academic year, the number of students coming to Ireland from all devolved administrations in the United Kingdom has fallen from 2,113 to 2,030 in 2017-2018, a fall of approximately 4%, which is a slight drop but a drop nonetheless. The corresponding figure for Northern Ireland is a drop of about 0.5%. There were 660 undergraduate students from Northern Ireland in the Republic of Ireland in the academic year 2013-2014 compared with 657, three fewer, in 2017-2018. The small decline should not preclude any review of these trends and I have asked my officials to engage with the higher education institutions.
I believe that, post Brexit there, is now a real need to redouble our efforts as regards educational opportunities and co-operation North-South. The Taoiseach feels very passionately about this. We had a number of meetings on how we can work more with his shared island unit. In the research space, there are opportunities for North-South research projects and all-island research centres. There is an opportunity to look at how we can work together in a pragmatic, non-emblem or flag-waving way. I have asked Universities Ireland, which represents all the universities on the island of Ireland, to come to us with proposals about how we can do more together, not with politics at the core but with pragmatic approaches on how we can co-operate more on education. I will give the example of Letterkenny IT, which I hope will be part of a technological university. It is so close to the Magee campus, which is part of Ulster University. There have to be more opportunities for partnerships there just as we have in so many other areas, such as healthcare.
I met with Professor Ian Greer of Queen's University Belfast to discuss opportunities for students to transfer from the North to the South for part of their degree. Students from Queen's could go to Dundalk and students in Dundalk go to Queen's. There are also opportunities to do much more around further education and training. I am very pleased that Ireland's PEACE PLUS programme specifically includes a skills programme for the first time ever.
I want to work more on education by the Irish Government around Border communities. As we form our new international education and research strategy in my Department over the coming months, I want the committee to know that strong North-South, east-west relationships must be at the heart of it. We need to reset and somewhat turbocharge our relationships North, South, east and west post Brexit. Education provides a significant opportunity to do that. It is not just my own view but is held right the way to the top of Government, and it is a view strongly held by our Taoiseach.
Brexit was never going to be easy. It has always been about taking steps to minimise the impact. The relationship between Ireland and the UK has changed and will continue to change. My Department has a particular responsibility to protect further and higher education. It does not stop there since we also have a responsibility for research and innovation. The longer I spend in this Department, the more I see every day the close links that exist between our economies and our research ecosystems, North, South, east and west. The well-being, socially, professionally and personally, of all on both islands will also be linked. I genuinely believe that this new Department can play a constructive role in working with this committee to see what opportunities we can find in a post-Brexit world to build more links, North, South, east and west.
I thank the Minister for that comprehensive statement. He covered a lot of ground and it is nice to have a positive meeting about Brexit and talk about opportunities and look to the future. That is the right space for us to be in. A number of members are offering, so if it is all right with the Minister, I will take questions and then go back to him.
I thank the Minister. I pay tribute to him and the officials in his Department, and indeed the HEA and the higher education institutions, which I know have been dealing with many of the challenges that have resulted from Brexit. We need to come up with the least worst option and where we can avail of opportunities, we should do so. I welcome the Minister's reference to further collaborative arrangements, North-South, but those east-west relationships are also important. In the context of the discussions that will be had with the devolved administration or with the UK Government, we have to build on those existing strengths in the bilateral funding initiatives. The British Irish Chamber of Commerce has been strong on this. I welcome that the Minister has been talking about exploring ways of doing this. This has to be about more than talking about a North-South research centre. I would like to see us talk about funding for early career research. As the Minister was suggesting, it might cover researchers from here, not just going to the North, but to Scotland, England and Wales, and vice versa. The more we can explore that, the better.
The all-Ireland higher education dimension is important. I welcome the fact that the Minister talked about the Connacht-Ulster technological university and that it would partner not just with Magee but with Coleraine. It will, I am sure, be one of three technological universities that we will see early next year. It should not just be something that is seen as being for those Border institutions but has to be on an all-Ireland basis.
The Minister might comment on those matters but I have a number of questions specifically about the Erasmus+ programme. The Government's initiative is positive about allowing for Northern students to take part in the Erasmus+ programme. As I am sure he will be aware, approximately 800 students from the Republic of Ireland participate on the programme in the UK every year. Many are in the hotel, catering and tourism sector. Many might go to a top hotel in London and hone their skills there. I ask the Minister that, as part of the UK's Turing initiative, there be strong and close collaboration so that this close relationship can continue. The UK will be dying for early partners as part of the Turing scheme. If we can involve those from Ireland who would have gone to Britain under that Turing partnership, it would allow that to continue. I would like to hear the Minister's views on that.
Brexit presents challenges but it also presents opportunities. We have long identified Erasmus+ as a major opportunity but there are challenges in both increasing the number of Irish students availing of the programme and also now that the UK is no longer part of it.
Ireland is an English-speaking country with a progressive higher education system. We are an ideal destination and even if only half those who would have chosen the UK seek to come here, we would still be looking at 8,000 to 10,000 students per year. There would be student accommodation challenges and so on but I would like to hear the plans made by the Department for Ireland to be able to attract all those additional students coming from Europe and all they can bring or contribute to our system now that the UK is not an option for them.
I thank the Senator. We will deliver three technological universities and we will definitely deliver one for the south-east. I can assure him of that and thank him for his leadership on the matter. I look forward to engaging with him intensively this week on it.
I sincerely thank him for his kind words about my officials in my Department and the HEA, which I echo. In particular, I thank Mr. Ian McKenna in my Department, who has done much work on this. As complicated and as challenging as this is - Brexit solutions will always be imperfect - I can only begin to imagine with dread how much worse things would have been were it not for the work of Mr. McKenna and his team. I acknowledge that.
I agree with the Senator that this is about east and west as well as North and South. I probably dwelt more on North and South in my opening statement but to be really clear, Ireland, particularly the Government and the higher education sector, wants to not only do the same amount with the UK post Brexit but to do more. It is why I have been engaging actively with organisations such as the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, which has brought together many partners and stakeholders. I met the UK universities minister as well and we are trying to sign a new memorandum of understanding with Scotland. We will shortly meet our Welsh counterparts as well.
The Senator made a point about research. The news about Erasmus+ is bad and I cannot fathom why the British did not opt in but that is their business. At least from a research perspective they have decided that they wish to remain a part of Horizon. There is some detail to be seen on how that will fully bottom out but this at least provides a mechanism to continue to formally engage. I am happy to share a note with the committee but I can see the embedded relationship between Science Foundation Ireland and its counterparts in the UK, which is really strong. Brexit or no Brexit, politics or none, the relationship is so strong that I genuinely feel very positive about the future in that regard.
As the Senator alluded to, there is no mechanism for me to enable Irish students to go on Erasmus+ to the North or the UK. Nobody else can go on Erasmus+ to those destinations either. I echo the Senator's point and I want to find ways for Irish students to continue to be able to avail of mobility opportunities in the UK. This is beneficial in an educational sense but it is much more than that. It is a cultural part of the relationship between these two islands and the progress we have made. I will not box in Ireland but we are very interested in exploring opportunities relating to the UK's Turing scheme and any other mechanisms that may take place. I have made that clear to some of my counterparts in the UK.
I am interested by one of the Senator's questions. To be blunt, Ireland is the only English-speaking country within the Erasmus+ programme and I think we will do very well with more students wanting to come here. As we prepare our new international education and research strategy for later this year, we will address how best to deal with that. To be honest, I am a bit more concerned about increasing the number of Irish students going on the programme abroad. Sometimes, in coming from an English-speaking country, there is a tradition of fewer students going abroad than other students coming to English-speaking countries. We saw this with the previous relationship between the EU and UK with the Erasmus programme. This needs to change. We are very proud members of the EU. We want to be at the heart of it and there is political consensus around that in our country. We need more of our students getting educational experience within other member states, with benefits from learning languages, etc., where we are not doing as well as we should.
Our new international education strategy will address both Erasmus+ students coming in and benefits to Irish institutions. Equally, it will consider how to get more Irish students to go out. To be blunt, that will require more funding. I expect Ireland to do better with increased funding from Erasmus+ programmes but the Government will be required to do more too. Looking at the level of support we provide, it is good for some students but for a student from a socio-economically disadvantaged background, it is not yet where it needs to be.
I know it is a view shared across Government we want to work our way through.
I thank the Minister for a comprehensive opening statement which ensures we do not have to get into too many detailed questions, as he has set out many of the answers. I am little concerned about a couple of areas, the first of which is the restriction in the movement of students brought about by changes to the cost of education in the UK. That does two things. First, it reduces the number of students interacting east-west, which is unfortunate, because if we are to break down the barriers, try to get peace on this island and work beyond the conflict which has bedevilled it for so long, we have to get a better shared understanding between the two islands as well as North-South. To some extent that has had an impact. Second, if fewer of our students go to the UK because of the increase in fees or go to Scotland, which was zero fee based, as the Minister rightly identified, it will put a burden on our educational peace. I know the Minister indicated there will be an increase in places here but does he think this is adequate or do we need to fund more places?
The student population is rising, more young people want to go to college and there is the pandemic. The Minister and I discussed the issue of the potential for dropouts from college this year. What are we facing into in terms of the best-case scenario coming into August and September? How does the Minister view our college places? Do we have enough, when one takes into consideration everything that has happened?
Is there any way or model other than Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI? SUSI has its own income limit thresholds. Before this, those who went to Scotland effectively had free fees. Obviously, there were other auxiliary costs but there were no fees. Does the Minister have any ideas or thoughts around funding students, other than through SUSI, who would choose a Scottish university?
In relation to going to the UK to study or a UK student coming here, I am pleased that as a result of the common travel area and agreements between Britain and Ireland, there is no change to the cost of going to college in the UK, with the exception of Scotland. That is-----
It is 10,000. The Scottish thing is a significant change, there is no two ways about it. Before Brexit, as an Irish student, I could head to Scotland and avail of the Scottish free fees initiative. I cannot now. The short answer as to what other supports are available is that I am pleased and grateful to the Scottish Government for allowing access to Irish students to some of its loan support schemes that are available only to its own students. It has opened up access to low interest rate Scottish financing usually available only to Scottish students.
While I certainly do not speak for the Scottish Government, I do know from extensive engagement with it that it wanted to extend this to Ireland. It did not want to change in relation to Ireland, but it got caught out, for want of a better phrase, by the legal advice which gave it no wriggle room in terms of UK domestic equality legislation.
The way we get around this, and I use the phrase loosely, or the way we move forward is through the scholarship scheme. I chatted to the Taoiseach about it. We have a Scottish-Irish partnership in which we try to work together on many areas. There is no reason we should not try to get to a point at which Irish students go to Scotland and avail of scholarships and vice versa. That is the sort of the space I am trying to be in, but-----
That would be very welcome because, as the Minister will know from his previous ministerial role, the one area that worked well was where students went to Scotland to train for nursing, and the Minister knows better than me about the shortage we have in terms of nursing. Is he looking at other ways of increasing nurses spaces? I am aware this is difficult because of constraints in hospitals, so Scotland provided a good outlet for us.
I agree with that. The Government, in the previous budget, funded 4,000 additional college places this year compared with the current year. Every year, we grow quite substantially the number of college places. In fairness to Government, the Minister, Deputy McGrath, and others who provided funding in this regard, as a result of the pandemic, we have significantly grown the size of the higher education sector. That is only good in terms of long-term educational benefit.
I set up a little group in my Department which will report back to me at the start of May in terms of what more we can do.
I am not going to put a precise figure on it now but I believe we can provide further additional places in the low thousands. I am due to bring a memorandum to Government on that in May. The metric that-----
I am sorry to jump in but is that sector-specific in terms of where we need to be? Of course, if one looks globally, we have to find extra places. Sometimes, however, sectors of society need particular disciplines, whether it is engineering, medicine or that very specific area of nursing, which is where we hear about the difficulty. When we are trying to enhance the roll-out of various different health services, we are continuously told by professionals within the HSE that the difficulty in finding nurses is really acute.
Absolutely. There are three parts to the work the Higher Education Authority, HEA, is doing with my Department. One is identifying what more the colleges could do with current resources. The second is what more they could do with additional resources while obviously trying as much as possible to benefit from the CAO data in terms of where the demand is.
The third part is trickiest but the Senator is entirely right to highlight it as it is the most important. If my Department funds additional places through Government, is it possible for people to find the matching placement that is required? We are talking hypothetically but let us say that the higher education institutions could create 100 more nursing or medicine places this year. In that case, we would need the Department of Health to find the matching placements. Similarly, in teaching terms, it would be the Department of Education. A body of work is, therefore, going on to try to match that and see if we can allocate extra funding to get a college place where the Department of Health can provide extra capacity to find a placement. Good work is going on in that space. We are looking at those three parts of the work.
I consider a metric, though, which I believe is fair and I am happy for us to be measured against. Pre-pandemic, every year, on average, approximately 50% of students who applied to the CAO got their first choice. Approximately 80% got one of their top three choices. The commitment the Government is making to leaving certificate students this year is that we want to see that ratio maintained. Covid or no Covid, there is no year in which every student gets his or her first place. The year before last, for example, 15,000 students applied to do various health subjects, for which there were 5,000 places. Every year, therefore, more students will be applying for places than there are places available. When it comes to the question of fairness, can we keep the metrics the same in order that the same ratio of students get their first choice and the same ratio get their top three?
Not to go off on a rant, but I believe the bigger body of work, which we kicked off with the Government last week, and on which we need to do much more, is the integrated tertiary education system. The provost of Trinity College Dublin has talked a lot about this idea that we have created a points race and quite an elitist attitude to education.
The Senator spoke about the dropout rate. A person is statistically much more likely to finish his or her degree in university if, perhaps, he or she does a year in further education first. As for the apprenticeship route, the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and I are working on these things. At the moment, we are trying to introduce measures to grow the sector, which are good and welcome. To see the full benefit, though, we have to create the integrated tertiary education system and effectively replace the CAO form. We must show students all the options and have greater links between further and higher education. If there is to be a purpose to my new Department, and I certainly believe there is, that is a key body of work we must get done. We are determined to do so, starting next year, and building on it over the three years.
I thank the Minister very much. I will conclude on this. He is absolutely right about that pathway towards a career rather than just an entry based on whatever misguided views a person had as he or she approached his or her leaving certificate. Perhaps it is a good job for all of us that the title "politician" is not on the CAO form.
Overall, from a whole-of-government perspective, is the Minister content that enough work is done to effectively look at the number of places versus the opportunities that exist, particularly within our health sector? We all get lobbied on an ongoing basis about the difficulties of being unable to fill funded positions. We hear about nurses who are in Australia. I understand from a practical point of view that nurses, when they are trained, will spend some time in Australia, and healthcare professionals will go to Canada. That mobility is really good, forward thinking to get the best education. In terms of our output, however, we hear about it in dentistry, orthodontics and medicine generally. Is the Minister, therefore, content that we are training enough professionals to meet the demands and projected demands?
This country is often talked about as being short-sighted when it comes to forward planning. For forward planning purposes, we will know based on population growth and on medicine generally what the expected number of various different professionals will be. Are we doing enough work at third level, or maybe even at second level, to get that trajectory right?
The short answer is that we are not but we have really started on a lot of it over the past couple of months. I will give the Senator two examples related to the most difficult area. I refer to the work of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth on child protection and welfare and the work being led by the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, on disability. We all know, from our constituency emails and offices, of the huge unmet need where disability services are concerned. We all know that successive Governments will announce more and well-intentioned funding for that area. However, we also know we are not training enough speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and physiotherapists. I do not profess to be an expert on all of this but there will always be an issue with medical mobility and there is something to the process of doctors going abroad and coming back. However, particularly in the area of social workers and people working in disability services, we must ensure we are training a hell of a lot more people to ensure we have the supply pipeline, for want of a better term. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has, to her great credit, published the disability capacity review. To be honest it is a very difficult read because it shows the level of unmet need. My officials are currently participating in working groups set up by the Minister of State. What we must do now is map out that if the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth wants to ensure it can deliver on commitments to people with disabilities and children with disabilities, it needs to do A, B and C but we need to train X, Y and Z.
We are full and very willing participants in that process. In fairness to the Minister of State, she has turbocharged this since coming into office. There are other areas but disability is a good example of where there is a need to join up the public service need with the number of training places. Sláintecare, and health more broadly, is another example. If we want to deliver on Sláintecare targets, we will need to dramatically grow the healthcare workforce. In order to do that, more people will need to be trained. We are therefore involved in these discussions. Those discussions need to be led by their parent Departments to an extent. Departments must tell us what they need from our sector and then I have a responsibility to deliver those places. The work we are doing with disability is a good example of that.
I welcome the Minister to the committee. Like my colleagues I recognise the energy, proactivity and reforming approach he has brought to his Department. I might get back to it but the pathway system, namely, the integration of apprenticeships and everything else into the CAO process is revolutionary, necessary and very good. I digress only a little but we need a situation whereby someone can enter life as a mechanical apprentice and ultimately end up with a PhD in electrical or mechanical engineering. Either ladder should work.
The first aspect of the Minister's presentation that I would like to address is cross-Border interaction. I noticed from the statistics the Minister gave that in the past five years there has been a levelling or almost a tapering off or small reduction of students going north and going east. As I know the Minister is committed, this is as much a comment as anything else but I would love to see real links between all the third level institutions along the Border and close to it and their equivalents in Northern Ireland, as well as links further south. I would love to see a situation where students would freely cross the Border for educational purposes. That is the correct thing to do from an educational standpoint but it is also important in the context of our tentative discussions around unity and a shared island experience. If we are to achieve unity, it must be unity of hearts and minds. Obviously, the way to do that is to have educational institutions interacting, co-operating, pursuing joint programmes and possibly periods in each college for students. All sorts of interaction could be achieved. I have recently been talking in the House of the need to extend the great multitude of grants we have at the moment, such as the sports capital grant and so many others.
They should have greater compulsion in their terms for interaction north of the Border. This is a vital area. I commend the Minister and I would welcome another comment from him on how he sees it developing. The potential is enormous and if professional educated people were interacting and getting to know each other and working together, it would build bridges, which is very important. This is an important facet of the Minister's presentation and I applaud him on it. I would like to hear him speak even more about it. The Minister made a virtual visit to our excellent post-leaving certificate college in Cavan recently. There is no reason it should not be a feeder college for institutions in Northern Ireland, and its equivalent in Northern Ireland be a feeder college for institutions here.
The Minister's comments on Scotland were interesting. As he said, it is a retrograde step that we were not able to achieve the old situation of free fees. Senator Dooley referenced nurses going to Scotland. My recent experience has been that many occupational therapists are going to Scotland. It seems to be quite a trend in my area. The college in Cavan prepares people for such a route. It is a victory that the Minister has succeeded with the Scottish Ministers to get access to finance there. I ask the Minister to clarify whether it is a loan system. It is good that the SUSI system will exist for the rest of the United Kingdom, if I have understood the Minister correctly.
The Erasmus programme is very good. The Minister said students in Northern Ireland will be facilitated with an Erasmus programme. I presume and hope he is not just speaking about our students in Northern Ireland but that all students there can use the Republic as a vehicle for Erasmus and can use our system to go to the EU on the Erasmus programme.
The committee heard presentations on professional qualifications at previous meetings. I ask the Chair to correct me if I am wrong but I believe we were told that 14 professions had achieved mutual recognition of professional qualifications, that the number was growing and that the two Governments were engaged on it. The Minister gave this priority in his statement. How does he see the timing unfolding? The obvious traditional area for this is medicine in professions such as nursing. We would like to have mobility and mutual acceptance of qualifications in a gamut of professions. Both jurisdictions are English speaking with similar universities and similar systems, and we were all in the EU until very recently working under the same directives. One would think this should make it fairly readily achievable. I would like to hear the Minister's comments on this.
The new Pathways to Apprenticeship programme is exciting and something for which we have all been hoping for a long time. Could that dovetail into a Northern Ireland relationship? Could the Minister see relationships with Northern Ireland built into this pathway system? As somebody who lives in the Border area, I am very conscious of this but I believe everybody on the island is now conscious that we have to build personal relationships and normalise relationships, and that anything else is a bizarre approach to any talk of ultimate unity.
I thank Senator O'Reilly for his questions. As a Border politician, he is particularly conscious of the North-South issues. To be very clear, we are exploring, and will be proactive in exploring, every possible opportunity to do more on a North-South basis. I have had many interesting political meetings on this. I had a very good meeting with the leader of the SDLP, Colum Eastwood, on some of the practical issues. I have met my Northern Ireland counterpart, Ms Dodds. I have also met Professor Ian Greer, the president of Universities Ireland.
Universities Ireland is an important vehicle because it takes the politics out of it. This is the representative body of all of the universities on the island of Ireland. In the current political climate in which we live - we have got to be realistic about that - that is a much more pragmatic way of achieving progress. We should ask the educational experts what more should we be doing and we, as politicians, then support them in terms of that.
I and the Taoiseach expect to be in a position to show good faith on a number of North-South initiatives over the summer months as well to try to build good faith through that shared island unit and I look forward to coming back with more details of that. For example, I note the relationship between Dundalk Institute of Technology, IT, which is not too far from Senator O'Reilly, and Queens University and others. There is nothing to stop those institutions, and similarly, Letterkenny and Magee, today deciding to do more together informally and I am certainly trying to encourage that. We will not leave Dundalk IT behind just because it was a little late in identifying someone to partner with. If we can get a technological university for the north east, that will provide real opportunities for an educational and investment powerhouse for the north east that will also be able to interact across the Border.
We must look at the opportunities in further education for cross-Border co-operation. These are even more plentiful. They are under-explored and under-harnessed. The education and training boards - there is an excellent one I know well in Senator O'Reilly's region - can be partnering more on skills provision programmes. Why cannot we have people taking digital literacy classes, regardless of which side of the Border they live, jointly? This has to be about building trust and knowledge of each other as people. That is how one brings people closer together. That is how one embeds peace. Further education has a massive role to play.
I am particularly excited that in the draft programme for PEACE PLUS, the special EU programmes body, we have for the first time in an application of that programme made a provision of €35 million for skills initiatives. We are not there yet. We have work to do in terms of engaging with the Department of the Economy in Northern Ireland and submitting our proposals to the Commission but we should be in a position towards the end of this year of being able to formalise a skills programme for the Border counties that I think will be able to do good work on both sides of the Border in terms of further education, training and skills provision.
On student universal support Ireland, SUSI, in case I was not clear enough, students going to Scotland can still access SUSI as well. Any Irish student going anywhere in the UK can still access SUSI. It is merely, in addition to that, that the Scottish Government has also extended use of its loan facility, which I appreciate.
I am pleased Senator O'Reilly brought up the issue of Erasmus for students in Northern Ireland. It is not a green or orange issue. It is open to anybody living in Northern Ireland regardless of whether he or she considers himself or herself Irish, British, Northern Irish, or British and Irish. It is available for everybody and anybody. It is fulfilling a commitment of Government and the Oireachtas that we would not leave Northern Ireland students behind regardless of Brexit.
On the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, all I can say to Senator O'Reilly from my conversations with officials as recently as today is that this seems to be going well. It is going well through a tapestry of different ways of doing it. In the absence of having an overall EU framework or a derogation for a specific British and Irish agreement, each profession has had to do it in a way that works for it. Some of it, around the safe pass in the construction industry, has required legislative change in the Oireachtas. Others have required memoranda of understanding. Some have required - the Senator referenced nursing - regulators changing their understanding of third party recognition. The Medical Council did that. That Teaching Council did that. As of today - I am touching wood because we are never complacent around this - this is working well. We have that working group, which has already met three times this year and is continuing to monitor the situation well.
Finally, on Senator O'Reilly's point on apprenticeships, I feel strongly on this. The way the Senator described the pathway for the mechanic to the PhD is exactly right; we all learn in different ways. There is a specific reference in the action plan on apprenticeships, that we published last week, for the development of cross-Border apprenticeships. That could be another way that we could extend the hand of friendship, both North-South and South-North. Apprenticeships on a cross-Border basis is a key action in the new plan.
I have a couple of questions. All members who indicated have contributed at this stage.
In terms of the Erasmus programme, to follow on from what the Minister was saying, there seems to be quite a focus on educational mobility and encouraging students to avail of opportunities, be they within Ireland or abroad. I would agree with the Minister that we need to encourage more students to do that. Certainly, it would have been the preserve of more of the affluent families that would have been able to afford to fund a student to go abroad for a semester or a year.
I would like to hear how we might make Erasmus more financially accessible for students. It should become a realistic opportunity for students, particularly those availing of the SUSI grant or those who fall between two stools because they might not qualify for the grant and would certainly would not have the means to fund even a semester abroad. We should look at how we can make it more accessible.
I agree that we will probably see more students from other member states coming to Ireland to avail of the opportunity to speak English as a first language here. There might be some concerns around that. While it is great that we are providing additional third level places, do we have the capacity to deal with this potential influx of students from other member states? Would that have an impact on Irish students accessing places here? The accommodation issue has been raging for the past decade and getting accommodation is a challenge for students. Many of the students coming from other member states can probably afford to take that hit and pay a little more for accommodation. I would have some concerns that this might have an impact on Irish students trying to get access to what is already quite a limited resource of student accommodation. How might we address that issue?
The matter of SUSI again flows from making education and third level accessible to all students. My experience of SUSI in the past number of years is that it has been difficult to access because the income ceiling per household is quite low. Many students are falling between two stools as they just do not have the means. Accommodation is becoming more expensive and the registration fee, while reasonable, is significant. I worry about the effect that, coupled with there not being as many jobs in retail and hospitality, will have. When I was a student, I worked in hospitality all the way through college because there was the option to get a part-time job. I am concerned that those part-time jobs may not be there in the same abundance this coming academic year as they would have been in previous years. SUSI may need to be a little bit flexible to make sure third level does not become the preserve of those who have the most money to spend. Those are just some of my thoughts. I again thank the Minister for his time.
I thank the Chairperson for her questions. Speaking bluntly, the point she made about Erasmus is correct. My Department needs to make the case - and we will - that there are additional costs for Irish students accessing Erasmus abroad in comparison with students who live on the Continent. If I lived somewhere in mainland Europe, I could connect with universities and institutions in other countries using trains and the like. Here, because we live on an island, the cost of accessing Erasmus can be more prohibitive. I do not want to get ahead of conversations with Government colleagues but I will be looking at what more Ireland can do, including through moneys from the European Social Fund, ESF, to supplement the level of provision we are providing for Erasmus students, in order that anybody can go on that programme, regardless of economic background. We talk about wanting to be an international island and we are one. We are very much at the heart of Europe. In the post-Brexit context, as we want to build closer and deeper relationships with other European countries, there is a very strong argument to be made that we need to invest more in Erasmus, from a strategic point of view. It makes sense and that view is shared across Government. The ESF could be a way of doing more in that space. I am just sharing some honest thoughts with the committee and I have to do a little more work on this.
The other issue the Chairperson raised is a very fair one. It comes up a lot. If we see a significant increase in Erasmus students, what knock-on effects could that have on Irish students in what is already, quite frankly, a very competitive points race? I reassure students that the number of Erasmus places is ring-fenced and finite and it needs to stay that way. The conversations I am having with Government colleagues about how we can increase the number of places for students sitting the leaving certificate this year are separate to the those relating to the number of Erasmus places for students coming in, and must remain separate.
On the issue of student accommodation, I will make the following point, although it is not a short-term solution. I am thinking of the Chairperson's own part of the country. We have ambitious plans around technological universities. Her county will become a university county, and Castlebar a university town, as we develop the Connacht-Ulster technological university.
So far, however, we have been developing technological universities without building one student accommodation bed. I have been working with the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA, the representative body for this, on how that borrowing framework works. One of the things I saw during the pandemic - and I am sure the Chairman saw it in her constituency office - was that where a student had accessed student accommodation, at least the Government had a lever to pull in trying to make sure that student got a refund when something went wrong in terms of Covid. Where we were reliant entirely on private operators, it was not simple and we were pitting students against hard-pressed families for a limited number of accommodation units. I have started very exciting conversations with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, about how if we want to tackle the housing issue, student accommodation is a key part of it and we need to get to a point at which, from a policy point of view, we want to build more college-owned and technological university-owned student accommodation. That is a conversation we will have across the Government.
As total of 44% of students in Ireland, not an insignificant number, are currently availing of SUSI. Nearly one in two of our students is getting some financial assistance from SUSI, whether that is the registration fee paid in full or in part or a maintenance grant. We have seen by any metric access to higher education increase over recent years, but the point the Chairman made is very valid. The income threshold has not increased in a decade and, as a result, many families are falling between the stools. We have the SUSI review under way, the public consultation has just closed and we have set up a steering group that has student representative bodies, the Department of Social Protection and others on it. It is due to come up with some interim findings this summer, which I hope will be able to inform the Estimates process, and a full report by September. As a new Government we have shown good faith on this. We have already doubled, almost, the postgraduate grant and the income level you can have while availing of the postgraduate grant. I would like to see three areas focused on in the SUSI review: one, the income threshold point the Chairman makes; two, the fact that students who live in rural communities and who have to commute face much more costs than those of us who live in the commuter belt, who can get a DART, bus or train to college and go back home in the evening; and, third, the fact that currently we do not provide any financial support for part-time students, despite telling more and more people they can access education part time. I would be happy to engage with the Chairman further on that SUSI review, but that is an indication of where I would like to see it go over the coming months.
I thank the Minister. The SUSI review is really welcome. I was not aware that 40% of students were accessing some level of support. That is quite good, actually, and higher than I thought. Some of the pressure comes on when, having qualified for a full or a partial grant, students are reassessed annually and it can sometimes make it difficult to take up part-time employment because it can go against them for the next year. One of the things to look at may be some of the barriers. If they qualify for a grant, they should not be thinking "I cannot get a part-time job" or "Am I working in excess of what I am allowed?". Maybe a bit more flexibility could be given to students to be able to work as much as they want and still hold onto their grant. That would be a big relief to many families. Many students will work during the summer to try to save enough money to keep them going throughout the year, so that would be something to look at.
Regarding college-owned accommodation, it is really welcome to have designated college accommodation. It is really important. I would attach a caveat in that we need to make sure that our third level institutions do not use that as a way of funding the institution by charging extortionate rents. We know they are doing that now because we still have that undecided debate, on which we do not really have agreement as to how we fund third level. I have strong views. I do not want students burdened with colossal debt coming out of college but I appreciate that the money has to come from somewhere. That is a debate. The Cassells report has not been actioned and a decision has not been taken by anybody, so student accommodation is being used as a kind of sticking plaster by universities and colleges to fund their operations. Again, it just means that the wealthier students get to live on campus and get to have an easier college experience, and then the more disadvantaged students may be living quite a while away from college and busing it or cycling to campus. It is a different experience. Perhaps we could make sure there is a cap on what colleges can charge and that it is genuinely affordable to the average student.
The issue of funding is an important one on which the Taoiseach and I are engaging intensively. We had the Cassells report in the previous Oireachtas. In an interesting decision, an all-party Oireachtas committee decided there was a need for another report. That work is now under way with input from the European Commission. It is due to land in the next quarter, and what I can tell the Chairman - and I know I speak for all of the Government when I say this - is that we will settle the question of adequately funding third level in a sustainable manner. I agree with the Chairman's view. Not to pre-empt the report, but I will tell her what we will not do.
We will not be doing what they have done in Northern Ireland, where students are burdened with student loans. That is the case for two reasons: first, students end up having to take on a lot of debt and, second, I think it is a barrier to entry for some. We know, statistically, people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more averse to taking on debt for a whole load of logical and understandable reasons. I have my own strong views on it too. They may not be that different to yours, Chair. I will not pre-empt the report, but we are going to settle the question about how we properly sustain and fund third level education. Considering that the Taoiseach decided to establish a Department dedicated to it, I am confident that we want to properly sustain and fund higher education. I think we will see very significant progress on that in the latter half of this year. The idea of student loans for college courses at undergraduate level will not be a direction we will be going in.
It is a relief to hear that because a significant number of people were advocating to go down that route. I think the Minister is correct that it would become a barrier to people not just from disadvantaged backgrounds but from ordinary backgrounds.
It is a lot of debt to take on. We already need to think about people getting into homes, so we do not want to have extra barriers. The Minister is correct: the decision was probably delayed for lots of reasons, but it is about time that, collectively as a Parliament, we made that call.
I am conscious that we were due to talk to the Minister specifically on Brexit-related issues, but that we have moved to a broader range of questions. I welcome the fact that the Minister is addressing the borrowing framework issue. I also welcome the indications from what he said about student access and the income thresholds for student grants. One of the biggest challenges is for middle income families that are just above the threshold. It is important that is a priority.
I want to return to the Brexit-related questions and Erasmus. The Minister mentioned Horizon funding and some other areas. We have not always done perhaps as well as we could have in accessing European funding. I know the Minister indicated previously that, especially in a post-Brexit scenario, we would look at targeting European funding to a greater extent, including greater Irish representation in Brussels to be able to engage, to develop partnerships with the European agencies and with other European institutions but also to look at ways whereby we can deliberately target drawing down European funding and building those partnerships. Could the Minister elaborate further on that because it does present opportunities for us post Brexit?
I welcome the fact that the Government is going to pay for mandatory hotel quarantine for Erasmus students who may have to come back. My understanding is that, as of now, none has had to avail of it. My personal view is that we should spend the money giving grants to students to spend longer in continental Europe to hone their skills rather than spending it in a hotel in north Dublin. Hopefully, by June we will be in a very different scenario and we will not see Erasmus students having to quarantine. It is not just about the message for Irish students coming home, it is equally for those international students who will be arriving here over the summer. Perhaps the Minister might be able to give us some assurances for those.
On Horizon 2020, the precursor to Horizon Europe, we did very well in the end. We have drawn down more than €1 billion, but we are ambitious to do even more. That is even more essential now because science, research and innovation is going to be our future economic and societal well-being. We have seen that during the pandemic. We see it in all the international debate going on about taxation. With more and more focus on talent, skills and ingenuity, research will come to the fore.
I had a meeting with Enterprise Ireland, our lead agency on this, last week. It does the work for us in terms of our network contacts. Let us just say that I am putting plans in place to try to increase our presence in European organisations. Given that we have a Cabinet Minister, once we are allowed travel I am also trying to use my own office to build up those links as well and to do everything I possibly can to help promote Irish participation in Horizon Europe.
I saw the Senator's statement on mandatory hotel quarantines - he will be pleased to know I read his statements - and I take his point. Where I was coming from was twofold. First, Erasmus is different from a student deciding on his or her own to head off. We have a duty of care to these students. We have effectively sent them abroad, we have perhaps paid for their flights and we have a duty of care to get them back safely.
My second reason was probably similar to the Senator's point, in that I did not want students panicking and rushing home. I wanted them to stay where they were, do their exams and enjoy their Erasmus experience insofar as anyone could enjoy anything in a global pandemic. If mandatory hotel quarantine is still in place in respect of their Erasmus countries when they are due to come home, they will not have to worry about finding the €1,800 because we will do that for them. The Senator is right, in that I am not aware of anyone having availed of this provision yet. I am not expecting it to be a large burden on the Exchequer. Far from it. It is a measure that makes sense from a public health point of view, as it saves people from dashing back to the country, and from an educational point of view. Some people on Erasmus are not due to come back until August or September. I believe there are five Irish students in Italy who are not due home until September. I have a month-by-month list. I hope that by the time many of these students return their countries that are on the mandatory hotel quarantine list today will not be then. Mandatory hotel quarantine is a necessary but short-term policy measure. I was pleased to hear the Taoiseach's comment on this. It should not be seen as a medium-term objective. We do not want to cut ourselves off from the world.
Regarding international students more broadly, one of the reasons I spoke up and felt so strongly about fully vaccinated people not having to go into mandatory hotel quarantine was that I had spoken to a number of university presidents and others in the education sector, and they spoke about how quarantining would have been bizarre for someone from, for example, the US who had been fully vaccinated with an EU-approved vaccine for a number of weeks. It would have sent a message to the world if that student had to stay in a mandatory hotel quarantine facility despite being fully vaccinated. The changes that the Minister for Health has made on the basis of medical advice sends a message to other countries, in particular the US where vaccination is going well, that this situation will evolve. As people are fully vaccinated, it can give us a great deal of confidence about the ability of international students to come to Ireland again and, more crucially, the ability of students to return to campus. Rapid testing, the vaccination programme and increased investment are the three legs to the stool that will see a much better college experience for our own students as well as international students in September.
I will begin by apologising. I was extremely delayed coming to this meeting. Committee Stage of the Criminal Procedure Bill was in the Seanad and we were dealing with many amendments, restricting me to the Seanad Chamber.
I am sure colleagues have already done so, but I welcome the Minister and thank him for engaging with us on these issues. I am not alone, but he will understand that I have a particular interest in them and was keen to have him attend. Since I do not expect him to hold the entire meeting for me again, I will be concise and be sure to read back over the exchanges thus far.
The Minister will know that students from the North encountered several problems in recent months when acquiring SUSI grants. The problems seemed bureaucratic, for example, the requirement for PPS numbers, which they obviously did not initially have when applying. I wish to alert the Minister to this issue again so that it can be tidied up as we move along.
Regarding what students in the North can avail of under the Erasmus scheme, is a plan in place, or does the Minister envisage there being a plan, to inform them of how to get into schools and secondary level education and to tell them that the scheme is available to them? The Brexit experience has been particularly depressing for young people in a general political sense but also in terms of the entitlements and rights that they have lost. Here is an entitlement that they have maintained, which is welcome. What plans are in place? Is there a marketing or communications strategy that will let citizens and others in the North know about this scheme, for example, parents and guardians who can direct their children towards it?
Those are my two questions at this stage.
I will be sure to read over the debate and if there is anything further, I will engage with the Minister's office on that going forward.
I think the Senator was instrumental in my being invited here. I think he had a Commencement Matter a few months ago on professional qualifications and mutual recognition. I went into it in my opening statement but a significant amount of progress has been made due to very pragmatic, intensive and painstaking engagement by many regulators - probably more than 40 - to work our way through this. The overall view is "so far, so good" but there is a need for a watching brief on this. My Department remains actively engaged in a working group.
I will follow the issue of SUSI grants for students in Northern Ireland. I am very pleased and proud of the fact that despite Brexit, we have managed to make sure that educational supports that were in place for people in Northern Ireland remain in place. I very much want that to continue to be the case. I would not like any student in the North to face unnecessary bureaucracy in that regard. Obviously, there must be the normal checks and balances that we all have to go through but I would not like there to be any barrier, perceived or otherwise, so I will certainly follow that up. I am more than happy to engage and correspond with the Senator on that.
In terms of North-South and Erasmus in general, I said at the start of the meeting that we have announced very clearly our intention to do this in respect of higher education. It now seems it will not be required for the new academic year because there are unspent funds in the North but we are ready to pick up the baton when it is required the following academic year. I have also just indicated that we would like to expand to further education and I intend to talk to Government colleagues and bring a memorandum to Government on that in the coming weeks. It will require engagement with the European Commission so we are not there yet but it is a body of work we will do. It would be really good if we could get all of that over the line.
In terms of how we get the message out, I have had a conversation with the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, which does great work on an all-island basis, about the need to have a conversation with students on the island of Ireland, North and South, about how we can co-operate more on educational matters. Based on this conversation, I will pick that up again. We have a very exciting agenda when it comes to North and South be it all-island research centres; cross-Border research projects; the commitments that the British and Irish Governments have made under New Decade, New Approach in terms of Magee, the ability to do more between Letterkenny and Magee, which I referenced, and between Queen's University and Dundalk; the fact that we will now have a PEACE PLUS skills programme for Border counties; and the shared island unit and the Taoiseach's desire to do a lot more and viewing education as a big part of that shared island unit. Officially, the answer to the Senator's question is the message will be put out through higher education institutions and it will be for them to tell their students. The broader political question concerns how we engage and make it very clear to students in the North that they will not be left behind and that the Irish Government wants to continue to engage and do more regardless of Brexit. In our messages North, South, east and west, we want to do more in respect of co-operation in higher and further education, research, innovation and science and we are not going to let Brexit get in the way of that. I might pursue a conversation with USI about how we might usefully be able to engage. When Covid allows, I very much look forward to going to the North and engaging directly with students and higher education institutions there.
I cannot commend the spirit of what the Minister said enough. If that is his approach and what he hopes to deliver, he has a cara sa chúirt, as they say in Irish, in this particular Senator. I think he may have talked himself into a wee bit of additional work. Given what he has just outlined, I would be keen to have the Minister appear before the Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement to talk specifically about the issue of Magee and New Decade, New Approach. We could involve some of our MP colleagues from the North in getting that information, which would be of great use to them and feed in very naturally with what we are trying to do around everything outlined by the Minister. I will get to work on that at my end and I thank the Minister for the update.
I have to get out of that bad old habit of over-talking. I tend to do that at the end of every meeting. I get too relaxed and start to say too much. We have a lot of work to do with regard to Magee. The British and Irish Governments have made a commitment in respect of Magee. I and my officials have had meetings regarding Magee. We have met with people in Magee and Ulster University and I have met with the British ambassador. I have had a lot of engagement with regard to how we will fulfill this commitment, which is a solemn commitment from both governments. I am being very honest. We do not yet have a clear plan from the institution as to what we could appropriately fund. I am saying this in the spirit of friendship and to be constructive. We have a lot of work to do there and I would very much welcome a chance to tease out some of that.
Speaking on behalf of the Irish Government, my message to Magee and the University of Ulster would be to come forward with proposals that both Governments can consider funding to fulfil our commitment. I am very happy to discuss that at the other relevant committee.
The Minister now has an extra job to take away with him. There is no better man than Senator Ó Donnghaile to come forward with some suggestions on that issue.
All members who have sought to contribute have done so. I thank the Minister for his time this afternoon. It has been a most interesting engagement and we have covered many topics. We definitely went beyond the scope of the agenda. I thank the Minister for facilitating that. When we have a Minister in front of us, we tend to go off target a bit, but the Minister has been really candid in his responses and has given members a lot to think about. Certainly, the discussion we have just had will form part of the report which we will publish before the summer recess.
If there are no other issues from members, I propose to bring our meeting to a close. The next public meeting will be on Monday, 10 May and will commence at 3 p.m., when we will be hearing from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Revenue Commissioners and the HSE about their work at our ports and facilitating access due to Brexit. I thank the members, the Minister and members of the public.