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

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

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.