Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 2 December 2021
Select Committee on Education and Skills
Estimates for Public Services 2021
Vote 26 - Education and Skills (Supplementary)
Vote 45 - Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (Supplementary)
Apologies have been received from Deputies Conway Walsh and Ó Laoghaire, who are being substituted by Deputies Tully and Ó Murchú, respectively. I remind members and officials to ensure their mobile phones are switched off for the duration of this meeting as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment, even though members and officials are participating remotely. The meeting has been convened to consider the Supplementary Estimates for Vote 26, education and skills, and Vote 45, further and higher education, research, innovation and science, which were referred to this committee by Dáil Éireann. I remind members of the constitutional requirement that they must be physically present within the confines of Leinster House to participate in public meetings. I will not permit a member to participate where they are not adhering to this constitutional requirement. Any member who attempts to participate from outside the precincts will be asked to leave the meeting.
I welcome the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, the Minister of State at the Department of Education with responsibility for special education and inclusion, Deputy Madigan, and their officials. I thank them for the briefing documents they have provided for the meeting. We will spend approximately one hour and a half with the Minister and after that we will spend approximately 30 minutes with the Minister of State at the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Niall Collins. I ask the Minister to make her opening statement.
I am pleased to be here this morning together with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan and officials from my Department. I would like to thank the committee for the opportunity to speak to members and for its consideration of my Department’s Supplementary Estimate for 2021. Following approval by the Government, my Department is seeking a net Supplementary Estimate of €267 million for 2021. This is a significant supplementary requirement from my Department and represents a variation on the Department’s overall net allocation for 2021 of some 3%. One of the main drivers of this requirement is my Department’s ongoing response to the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on our schools, for example, increased substitution, personal protective equipment, PPE, and additional staff. We have continued our broader programme of investment in our schools, such as our significant investment in schools’ information and communications technology, ICT. We have also continued to progress much-needed school building projects in light of the significant pressure on the schools building programme.
My Department has provided detailed briefing on this Supplementary Estimate for members but I will briefly outline the key elements for the information of the committee. There is an additional pay requirement in the school sector of €60 million under a number of subheads. For context, the pay allocation for the schools sector is more than €5.6 billion in 2021 and, therefore, this represents a variation of some 1%. Payroll for school teaching and non-teaching staff spans four subheads in Vote 26, three of which require additional allocations with one showing a saving. The overall excess is mainly due to the need to allocate funding for staffing resources in schools, in particular, for the new Covid learning and support scheme, CLASS. This scheme is designed to mitigate learning loss and support pupil and student mental health and well-being in light of the impact of school closures in 2020 and 2021. The scheme commenced in October of this year.
An allocation is also required to meet the 1% pay increases for staff in the sector from 1 October 2021, which were not provided for in the original Revised Estimates Volume, REV, and a range of other payroll subhead pressures that are being partly offset by a reduction in substitution costs arising from school closures in January to March 2021. An additional €8 million, which equates to a 0.6% increase, is required to meet the projected cost of superannuation for retiring school staff. The latest projected number of teacher retirements and the individual cost of pension lump sum payments arising in 2021 are greater than originally forecast. An additional allocation of €58 million is required to cover the cost of a further round of Covid-related capitation grants paid to schools in September. Members will recall that the REV included an allocation for such grants for terms 2 and 3 of the 2020-21 year.
Given the uncertainty surrounding Covid-19, it was previously flagged to the committee that an allocation in respect of term 1 would be made at a later point. I am pleased that schools have now received funding to enable them to replenish stocks of PPE and hand sanitiser and to meet enhanced cleaning and supervision costs for the current term. I can also confirm that it is my intention that a further such payment will be made to schools in early 2022 for the next term of the school year.
A significant additional capital allocation is also provided for in this Supplementary Estimate. A sum of €102 million of this allocation is by way of investment in ICT in our schools. A sum of €52 million is being provided under the national recovery and resilience programme for two projects in the education sector. One is to support learners in schools who are most at risk of educational disadvantage because of lack of access to appropriate digital infrastructure. The other strand, which has now commenced, aims to provide high-speed broadband to those primary schools where the national broadband plan, NBP, and commercial provision will not be in place to provide the required level of connectivity. The funding for these projects is being front-loaded by the Exchequer but will be reimbursed from the EU's recovery and resilience fund. Further ICT funding is included for schools. A Supplementary Estimate of €98 million in capital funding is being sought for my Department's schools building programme. The reason for the Supplementary Estimate requirement is significant budgetary pressure driven primarily by a strong spend and delivery in 2021 across the entire programme. This strong delivery has been facilitated by the continued progression of schools building projects during the Covid period to support the operation of the school system. This includes provision for an early payment of the minor works grants to all primary schools. This is particularly important in supporting schools to manage any ventilation issues at school level. A saving of €20 million on school transport is also being taken into account in this Supplementary Estimate. This projected saving is mainly due to the reduced costs arising during the school closures at the start of 2021.
An estimated additional €53 million in appropriations-in-aid in excess of the amount provided for in the original REV allocations is included in this Supplementary Estimate and will partly offset the expenditure pressures I have outlined. The bulk of this additional income is represented by increased pension contributions, with some additional funding having been received due to refunds by schools of unspent Covid grants.
I am happy to discuss these issues in more detail. I commend the Supplementary Estimate to the committee.
I thank the Minister for her opening statement. The first questioner up is Deputy Ó Murchú but, before I call on him, I wish to ask a question. The Minister is probably aware that the committee is doing a module of work on leaving certificate reform. We have had a lot of round-table discussion with various groups and organisations. It has been a very enlightening conversation for everybody involved, especially the members of the education committee. We would like to bring in the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, and the State Examinations Commission, SEC, but the NCCA report is with the Department at the moment. When does the Minister envisage being able to publish that? It will allow the committee to continue its work on reform of the leaving certificate. We would like to publish our report by December but we will be unable to do that now because it looks as if neither the NCCA nor the SEC will be before use prior to Christmas. When does she expect to be able to publish the NCCA report on leaving certificate reform? When do her officials say it can be published?
I acknowledge the great work of your committee, a Chathaoirligh, on an ongoing basis and in a variety of capacities, specifically on senior cycle reform but also on the myriad of other issues you pursue and your helpful co-operation and collaboration with my Department in that regard. As for senior cycle reform specifically, I acknowledge the enormous body of work the NCCA has undertaken, a body of work that took almost five years to complete and involved extraordinary engagement with a variety of stakeholders, including schools and students directly on the ground, and the widest remit of partners in education. I have met with the NCCA and received its report. There is a considerable body of work to be done in analysing the report, and clarifications might need to be sought. It is my intention to expedite that as a matter of priority. I will do that in the shortest timeframe possible. I appreciate that this will facilitate the work the committee wishes to pursue.
I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for making themselves available. I wish to deal with the issue of the guidance for mask wearing for children in third class and above. It is fair to say that the guidance was released at the eleventh hour. There was only 12 hours' notice. Kids were expected to be in school the next morning. I think there has been a difficulty with the language. It can be seen as being framed almost in the context of confrontation and an assumption of non-co-operation from parents. It puts schools in an invidious position. Schools will step up to the mark, I have no doubt, and probably a great many people at school level, parents and even kids will show calm heads and sense. As for the national public health emergency team, NPHET guidelines and the lack of clarity, it took an incredible amount of time before the narrative came directly from the Government. We have to avoid that into the future. Could I have initially a general commentary from the Minister on that?
I appreciate the Deputy's question. The education sector consistently and without fault has always followed the public health advice. I have said regularly that I hope that it has come as an assurance to parents and guardians and our students and our staff in the entire school sector that when public health advice becomes available, we have always followed it. The nature of Covid has meant that the public health advice changes at times. When it does and when it asks us to pivot in a particular direction, we do that. When we are asked to bring in additional measures, we do that. We have done that throughout the management of Covid. We received the strong recommendation and advice of public health that a short-term measure should be introduced. It is important that we acknowledge that this is viewed as a short-term measure. As a consequence of that, the Cabinet decided on Tuesday to accept the recommendations and advices of the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, and NPHET in this regard. The Department had to wait for the advice and expertise from the health protection surveillance unit, as we have always done, in respect of implementation. We received that late on Tuesday evening and, on receipt of that, the guidelines issued to schools. The guidelines always issue following the recommendations of public health.
I wish to be clear on the guidelines. This is not a position any one of us want to be in at this point. None of us wants to have to deal with Covid on an ongoing basis. We have an ever-changing situation that is in a constant state of flux. Notwithstanding that, we have to act on the public health advice. The advice was issued to the schools. Flexibility and discretion have been given so as to bed that down over the coming days with students. I wish to say-----
I thank the Minister for her answer, which I accept. I welcome the talk of flexibility. As I said, it is to be hoped we will meet with solution-oriented good sense on all sides.
I will move straight to my second question. We all hope that this is short term. There is an issue faced by hearing-impaired children who rely partly on lip reading. If the pandemic is to go on for a considerable period, we will need to look into mitigations for that and extra supports into the future.
Schools will be relied on to supply masks. There will be children from disadvantaged backgrounds, children from households without a great deal of money, and children from quite chaotic backgrounds where this will just not be on anybody's agenda. We will, therefore, need to rely on the schools. I have no doubt that they will step up, but they will need whatever supports are necessary.
With regard to required mitigation, we have had many conversations on ventilation and high-efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filters. At this stage, people are asking why the work in this regard has not been done and when we will get to where we need to be. Even where there are CO2 monitors, there are freezing conditions because windows are being opened and all the rest of it. We just need to do the due diligence on ventilation.
I thank the Deputy. There is clear guidance to the effect that where it is not appropriate for a child to wear a mask, which can be for a variety of reasons, he or she will not be required to do so. We are very clear about that. If there is a specific issue regarding which wearing a mask would disadvantage a child in the way the Deputy has outlined, such as an issue concerning speech or hearing, a mask will not be required. Principals have significant flexibility in determining what best suits the student.
Significant funding has been provided to schools. In excess of €57 million has been provided this term alone to meet PPE requirements and so on. I can confirm that this funding will also be made available for this coming term. There has never been a question of resourcing within the schools.
Specifically on ventilation, we have been told very clearly that natural ventilation is the best form of ventilation in schools. I recognise that there are specific difficulties in different schools. No two schools are the same but we have taken a very proactive approach . For example, an engineer’s report or an architect's report may be taken into account. We rely on the expertise of the Department. A technical team is available and is working with schools individually on the ground. If a vent or window must be replaced, that is done. If there is a different requirement, such as a requirement to install a filter, that will be acted upon. I want to quote the advice of the expert group on ventilation.
I ask the Minister and Deputy to have the manners to listen to the Chairman when speaking. I am going to try to facilitate everybody. I have curtailed the time. I ask members to have the manners to at least listen to the direction of the Chairman. I call Deputy Ó Cathasaigh because he must leave early.
I must attend a Business Committee meeting shortly so I thank the Chairman for facilitating me. I thank the Minister for the opening statement.
The Chairman referred to the large body of work we are doing on leaving certificate reform. That we are blind to the content of the NCCA report has made it more difficult to do the work in the comprehensive way that I think the Chairman wants it done. It would be of great benefit and assistance to the committee if it could see the report as early as possible. Similarly, in terms of the comhairliúchánpoiblí ó thaobh an Ghaeilge and the work that has been ongoing in that regard, we have heard, at meetings of the education committee and Comhchoiste na Gaeilge, na Gaeltachta, agus Phobal Labhartha na Gaeilge, the Irish language community speaking with one voice on the specifications for T1 and T2 schools. I would like the Minister to be cognisant of the worries of the Irish language community in that regard.
To turn specifically to the Estimates, could the Minister quantify the level of disruption in special educational needs, SEN, provision? A lot of it is due to the substitute shortage. In many schools. SEN teachers are being asked to substitute in mainstream classroom environments to cover for teachers with Covid. I am concerned about the scarring effect on children who require special educational intervention. Related to that is the budget line around for CLASS. It is listed as having commenced in October. Have we really been able to make headway in introducing it given the level of disruption in respect of substitution?
I wish to follow on from Deputy Ó Murchú’s question on the air filtration systems. I realise we should be thinking about ventilation rather than filtration necessarily, but has the Department costed in a meaningful way the introduction of filtration systems, with HEPA filters or otherwise? Has it figures on that?
I have a question about the pensions jump. It has come back as higher than anticipated. Given the composition of our teaching workforce is known, what is taking the Department unaware? Are teachers stepping out of the profession earlier than expected? Is that why there is a jump in the pensions provision? In a situation where we need all hands to the pump, is the Minister making sure she is doing all she can to guard against teacher burnout and teachers leaving?
My final question is on school transport. I noticed that €20 million in savings was realised. I understand the reason for that under-expenditure but hate to see sustainable transport moneys handed back. Could we not have found another way to use the money to drive the sustainable transport agenda at primary and secondary school levels, be it through the safe streets programme, the provision of a better bus fleet or otherwise? I will leave it at that. I thank Chairman for allowing me to contribute.
Specifically on the senior cycle, I appreciate the valuable contribution of the committee. It can be assured that the work will be expedited as quickly as possible.
On T1 and T2, the consultation concluded only two days ago, on 30 November. That will be part of the consideration. It is important that there was an opportunity to have the widest possible consultation in advance of a decision.
On the CLASS support, it is too early at this point. We will have a greater indication regarding the drawdown later because it kicked off only in the past few weeks. We will see a greater drawdown as the year progresses. The scheme is excellent because it provides additional support to schools for the teaching of students who have been disadvantaged due to school closures. It provides for academic teaching and learning, but also for the creativity, socialisation and well-being aspects. It is wide in what it encompasses.
On pensions, it is difficult to forecast on a year-to-year basis because there is an opportunity for people to make a decision at various times.
On transport, the issue was a consequence of school closures. The figure in question refers specifically to the savings on Covid-related costs of cleaning, PPE and all that. Moneys not spent in that regard must be returned. Significant work is ongoing. The Deputy will be aware of the review. It relates to how we manage school transport, particularly in our environment. There is an incredible body of work being done in that respect. The first interim report was received by me, and the work continues. I am very conscious of this. We are certainly working on it.
On ventilation, I reiterate that we work on a case-by-case basis while recognising that different schools have different difficulties that need to be addressed. We are following the guidance offered by the expert group, which has told us there may well be a place for these filter devices but that in the long term we need to look at making more adequate and more long-term provision within our schools. We are doing that, whether it is vents or windows or whatever the case may be. We are working individually with the schools. That work has taken place already. Specifically on the filters, the Department is-----
I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for coming before the committee today to discuss the Supplementary Estimates of €267 million. I support this and believe it is very worthwhile. I am conscious a significant portion of these Supplementary Estimates is for the purposes of meeting the challenges faced by the Department of Education with the ongoing incidence of Covid-19 in our community. I commend the Minister, the Minister of State, and the Department on keeping the schools open. It is essential we continue to keep the schools open for our children. I am aware public health advice is given very frequently to the Minister in the Department of Education, and I understand fully when the Minister, Deputy Foley, says that she is following public health advice. I would, however, like to see more coming from the public health advisers with information and advice on the importance of keeping schools open for children and the importance of attending school for a child's educational development, social development and personal development. I believe this type of development is an essential ingredient in public health and that children must attend school.
I was very pleased to hear the Minister's response to Deputy Ó Murchú about children in schools who have special needs. I received an email recently from a nine-year-old girl in my constituency who was very upset about the fact that masks were going to have to be worn in the classroom. Her concern was not about wearing the mask herself, but because she is deaf she is concerned. Because she cannot hear, she cannot understand others unless she can see their lips. I am very pleased with the Minister's response to Deputy Ó Murchú with regard to issues like that.
My only question to the Minister is about antigen testing in schools. I am conscious it only started last Monday, and I welcome that. How is that going to be assessed? Will the Department of Education provide updates as to how the scheme is operating or will the information come from the Department of Health? Although it is not a panacea to all of the issues that arise, like most other members of the committee, I believe antigen testing is a helpful tool for the Department of Education and the Minister to ensure schools continue to provide education to our children. Will the Department of Education or the Department of Health be giving these updates?
I thank the Deputy and I appreciate his comments. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and I are adamant that keeping our schools open is an absolute priority for us. It is a priority for the Government, and the Deputy is correct that it is a priority also for wider society. If we have learned anything through Covid, we have learned of the need to keep the schools open, and that children and young people are best served when they are actually in school and in the school setting. Notwithstanding the situations where there had to be remote teaching and learning, and acknowledging the enormous body of work done by the school community to facilitate that, the entire school community is of the strong view that children are best served while in the school setting. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and I are ensuring every possible support and every possible resource that is required is put in place in all aspects of education.
Specifically on the antigen testing, the Deputy will be aware it is a public health recommendation. It was advised by the Chief Medical Officer to be implemented by the HSE. It is a health implementation. Obviously, my Department co-operates fully with the Department of Health in that regard, but the evaluation of it is very much for the Department of Health. It began on Monday, and there has been extraordinary buy-in by parents and everyone concerned. We have seen the applications for antigen tests. There were significant applications on Monday, fewer on Tuesday and possibly fewer again as we go on. The co-operation from families has been extraordinary. Public Health has been very clear in saying antigen testing is just one tool along with all of the other infection prevention and control measures that exist within our schools such as hand cleaning, hand sanitising, personal protective equipment, additional supervision, reconfiguration of buildings and so on. It is a necessary tool. To answer the Deputy's question, it is a Department of Health and HSE initiative, and it is being managed by them, but obviously we will support that in any way we can.
I will start where Deputy O'Callaghan left off. I thank the Minister the Minister of State for the hard work they are doing. The fact that schools have remained open is a massive plus. It has been a major sigh of relief for parents that schools have remained open, especially for working parents.
I will start by mentioning substitution. Over recent weeks there has been a lot of talk about substitution, and once again I thank the Minister for the steps that she has taken, most recently with the block release of student teachers and with allowing people to work over their 22-hour contracts at second level. These are massive steps that will help to alleviate the concerns around substitution.
Some issues have been flagged to me by parents, especially in the area of buses and school transport. Some emails are coming in to me from schools with parents expressing concern about the turnover of buses and the sanitisation of buses between drop-off and collection. I want to flag with the Minister that this is a concern expressed to me by parents. Perhaps it could be taken up with Bus Éireann.
We are finding it quite difficult to get people as bus escorts for students with autism spectrum disorder, ASD. There are also issues where a couple of schools had to fund people privately. There is the case of Clogheen Kerry Pike National School in particular. I will flag that separately with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, in an email with regard to the funding of that ASD bus escort.
I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for the work they are doing. It is appreciated. I can follow up with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, offline with regard to that ASD bus escort.
I thank the Deputy. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, might like to come in here also. I acknowledge that significant funding is being made available for the hire of school transport and given the necessity for sanitisation and so on. We are very cognisant of the need for all of that to be implemented and to be implemented well in our systems. We have made the provision and it is up and running. It is working well. There has been extraordinary compliance and goodwill by all of our students and our operators.
Specifically on the work that has been done around substitution, I want to acknowledge the enormous co-operation from everyone to make that possible. There has been an extraordinary generosity on behalf of our students, which we want to acknowledge, and by the higher education institutions, which have been facilitating them. There has also been an extraordinary generosity on behalf of teachers who were on career breaks, teachers who were on job-share who can now work additional hours and can work them in a different school from their own school. Reference was made earlier to retired teachers and they can now work unrestricted to the end of this school year. There has been great generosity there. I know the Deputy has an interest in the 22-hour provision for those who have availability after their commitments in schools at second level have been completed. Those people are available as well. The Minister of State might like to come in at this point.
I thank Deputy Pádraig O’Sullivan. I can follow that up with him if he has a specific issue around the recruitment of a bus escort. We want to make sure we have transport for children with additional needs and if it means additional recruitment needs to be done then we need to facilitate that. I can speak with the Deputy on that if he wants to email me about it.
Children with special educational needs are among the cohort who we all agree missed out the most when school buildings were closed. They require additional support in school to make up for lost time. However, due to the substitution crisis many schools have had to deploy their special education teachers away from their teaching to cover mainstream absences. This is far from ideal but it is the reality. Last year schools could bank those special education hours to use in other times so that children with additional needs did not lose out. I do not understand why this banking option is not being reintroduced. While the substitution announcement last week is positive, special education hours have been and will continue to be lost without the banking system being brought in. Will the Department safeguard the educational hours while committing to bringing back the banked hours system?
I also have serious concerns with the levels of support that school leaders are receiving from the HSE. It was said that school leaders can still contact the HSE for help but that is not the same as bringing back testing and tracing to their previous levels. School leaders should not have to contact parents of close contacts and organise for antigen tests. They have enough on their plates and many of them are teaching principals. We need to bring back school-specific contact tracing teams but this has not happened. Will this happen? Leaving certificate students and their parents have been in contact with me and they are concerned about the loss of teaching hours due to teacher absences, which cannot be helped. I welcome the initiatives to try to find substitutes but students are missing out for weeks at a time. It varies from school to school and within schools from class to class. How will this be addressed when it comes to setting leaving certificate exams this year?
On the banking of hours, a number of families criticised the arrangement last year where special education teachers, SETs, could be used to bank hours because they felt their children were not getting the support when they needed it. There is no withdrawal of provisions; it just means that SETs will be used for the purpose they should be used. SETs should not be used for substitution purposes. As a last resort schools were allowed to use them where there were substitution issues and where there were teacher absences but hopefully with the success of the vaccine roll-out and the measures the Minister has put in place, that need should not be there in the same way it was in the past. Schools have been asked not to bank those hours because children with additional needs require the support there and then. Otherwise they are getting intensive teaching in a short space and time, when it should be done over a period of time. We acknowledge that there was a substitution crisis and I hope that has been resolved in the main.
I refer to some of the other issues the Deputy raised. In relation to the HSE and contact tracing in Dublin, he will have seen that is a public health decision. The public health authorities have made various decisions at various times on operational matters. They made decisions in late September on the operation of full contact tracing within our schools. At that point we had thousands of children who were excluded from school as close contacts because they did not have Covid symptoms and they did not develop Covid while they were stood down from school for ten days or more. There was a view at that time that it was not sustainable going forward that we would have such a large cohort of students out of school. Notwithstanding that, as I said that was a public health decision.
Another public health decision has been enacted as of Monday, which is on the roll-out of antigen testing. I want to acknowledge, as I said earlier, that there has been extraordinary buy-in from parents and guardians in that. We have seen that in the early days. I want to acknowledge that principals and school leaders have been hugely co-operative and positive in relation to its development for the schools. Many of them have been looking for antigen testing and the HSE has ensured that is in place.
Principals are being asked that when there is a positive case in a pod, that parent will inform the principal and the principal then informs the other five sets of parents within that pod. After that it is entirely a matter for parents. Parents apply to the call centre for the antigen tests, and as I said there has been an extraordinary buy-in to that in the last number of days. Equally, that is a measure for primary schools within the specialist schools setting as the Minister of State will detail. The contact tracing system remains in place. These are public health decisions that are implemented by the public health bodies. This includes contact tracing and antigen testing as we have pointed out earlier.
I have a number of questions. I want to follow up on what Deputy Jim O’Callaghan said about antigen tests and the importance of them. They might not be the silver bullet but I have no doubt that they would help the school community. Maybe the Minister of State could expand on that a little bit.
The other issue is the vaccine for the under-12s. I know this is not the Minister’s responsibility but a recent report stated that the Covid numbers in primary schools have rocketed in recent weeks. However, the numbers are not as high in secondary schools. That is the case even though secondary school pupils would probably be mixing more outside of the school than primary school children would. Has the Minister spoken to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, or the people within the Department of Health about this? Has the Minister’s had any conversation on vaccinating under-12s? They are rolling out the vaccine for under-12s in other countries and I am surprised and disappointed with the delay in Ireland. It should be more of a priority because we have all been saying that the vaccine is working and the proof speaks for itself. I ask the Minister to comment on what conversations she has had on that with the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, or that her officials have had with Department of Health officials or any other people within the area of health.
I confirm that antigen testing is a public health initiative and that we co-operate on it. There has been terrific goodwill and co-operation within the school community to make it operational. The call centre is running and it is my understanding from parents that they receive antigen tests very quickly after applying. As I have said previously, it is an additional tool. There are great learnings from Covid and one of the things we have learned is that a whole suite of measures are required at a variety of different times. This is an additional measure to complement all the other measures that are in place in schools, such as: hand cleaning; additional supervision; PPE; and hand sanitiser The co-operation of schools has also been crucial, including having staggered opening and closing hours and break times, etc.
It is an additional tool.
On the issue of the vaccination for the under-12s specifically, the Chairman will appreciate it has been approved by the European Medicines Agency, EMA. We are currently awaiting the approval of the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, for that here. In response to the Chairman's specific question, I have met with officials of the Department to discuss how they envisage that roll-out and how it will be managed, offered and communicated. In the first instance, they were clear to say they await the confirmation from NIAC. That is the first priority. Equally, in my communication I was very clear we await the information and the roll-out. I am conscious it is very much a public health matter. Public health officials are proactively organising in anticipation of the announcement of NIAC in this regard. They have a variety of different measures potentially to put in place to make it happen. I confirm I have met with public health officials and discussed the matter with them. As a Department, we will keep an ongoing communication with them, notwithstanding the fact it is obviously not within our remit as the Department of Education. I acknowledge, from my meeting and discussions with them, that they have done a considerable body of work on the anticipated roll-out. However, they are awaiting the decision of NIAC in that regard.
As I mentioned earlier, obviously we are supportive of every tool that can be made available to us in the education sector provided it is recommended by public health. Therefore, I appreciate where the Department is coming from, but it is important that NIAC is comfortable with the decision and that it green lights it, as it were. For our part in the Department of Education, we have always supported public health and its recommendations. We have implemented its recommendations and that has served us well in the education sector. It is important to say it has been a source of great assurance and reassurance to parents and the entire school community that we have consistently followed public health advice. It has ensured our schools continue to operate and will operate going forward.
From a personal point of view, I would like to see NIAC make that decision on the roll-out of the vaccine for those aged under 12 as soon as possible . I have one further question before Deputy Ó Murchú comes back in. On the leaving certificate and the arrangements for the sitting of the leaving certificate in 2022, what conversations has the Minister had with the Department, officials, the appropriate bodies and the school community? I hope we see the leaving certificate going ahead as it did in previous years and that we will be back to some form of normality. Does the Minister envisage students will have the choice of sitting the leaving certificate or getting an accredited grade, as in 2021? What are the Minister's plans and those of her Department?
I apologise to Deputy Tully for not getting that reply previously. I appreciate having the opportunity to respond on the issue now. On the leaving certificate arrangements for 2022, cognisant of many of the issues that have arisen previously for these students, significant accommodation has already been made in the examination papers. Schools were notified of the accommodation at the start of this term in August and September so that staff and students would be familiar with the layout of the papers and the accommodation that is being made for them. Equally, we have provided for a second running of the leaving certificate examination this year. That will be held as close as possible to the first and standard running of the leaving certificate.
I acknowledge the work of the advisory group on this issue. The advisory group consists of the Department of Education, the parents' representatives, the student voice - importantly, the teaching unions and the managerial bodies. They have done a considerable body of work in this regard. We have made an accommodation in the paper and we are providing for a second running of the leaving certificate in 2022. Obviously, we keep everything under review as the year moves forward. Schools have been advised of the accommodation.
I welcome the interaction with the Minister. I would like the language into the future to focus on flexibility and co-operation, as mentioned by the Minister. I hope the slowness that existed in relation to antigen testing, ventilation and the use of HEPA filters will change. That needs to happen.
I wish to follow on from the points made by Deputy O'Sullivan on school bus transport. I accept the concerns that exist currently given the high numbers of cases. I want talk about the issue more generally. We have an issue every year where people who are concessionary do not necessarily have access to school transport. There are anomalies related to where people live. A student may live in the middle of County Louth, for example, and there is not a huge difference between them going to school in Dunleer, Ardee, Drogheda or Dundalk, but they may just miss out. There are anomalies at the minute. I have spoken to the Minister about particular cases recently. We have heard the Taoiseach and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, speak about the need for the system to be able to deliver on climate change, as opposed to putting kids into cars when buses go on the same route. We need a sensible interim solution and a long-term solution. The issue is a farce we all become involved in every year.
I thank the Deputy. In terms of flexibility, I think if I have learned anything from my many years in the education sector, I have learned that enormous goodwill, flexibility and measured judgment is shown by schools on the ground in all respects. They have shown that in abundance throughout the Covid experience. I have every confidence they will do that going forward as well. A great deal has been achieved in education throughout Covid because of the co-operation of everybody in the education sector. I want to acknowledge that spirit of accommodation.
Specifically, in relation to school transport, as I advised earlier, a review of the entire school transport system is under way. The interim report, which I received in June, facilitated a new departure in school transport. For example, heretofore, students were entitled to transport to their nearest school, but now, as a consequence of the decision I made in June, the second nearest school is also included in it. That was a considerable and necessary step forward. As I articulated earlier, we are very conscious of the climate in which we live and the green agenda we need to have in protecting and nurturing the climate. That is very much part of the ongoing review we have. We are very proactively addressing issues in terms of school transport. I want to be very clear that everyone who was eligible and fulfilled the criteria as outlined received a place on a bus. Where there was capacity, concessionaries were also provided for.
Notwithstanding that, I did recognise, and it is for that reason the review is taking place, that there was a need for a review of the entire system. I have received the first interim report, and I am cognisant of the fact there will be other reports before the entire report is completed. We have taken very positive first steps on school transport. I acknowledge the Deputy's role in engaging with me on issues concerning school transport. I come from a rural constituency so I am very appreciative of the ongoing issues that have arisen for many years in the area of school transport. I appreciate the Deputy's engagement with me on those issues. Almost without exception, every Deputy and Senator within the Oireachtas is very invested in the matter. It is for that reason we are undertaking the review. I look forward to progressing it as a matter of priority
I have one further question. On the module work on Covid and school bullying, one of the key recommendations was the appointment of therapeutic emotional counsellors on site. This could even be done on a pilot or trial basis. I do not want to hear the Minister say it could be done in conjunction with guidance counsellors. The guidance counsellors have enough to do and enough responsibility in their own right.
We have had this conversation with the Institute of Guidance Counsellors at some of our meetings. Has the Minister or her Department considered this issue as I know that it has come to her attention outside of the work of the Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science? Has any research work been done on such appointments within her own Department for schools, even if this was on a pilot or shared basis between schools, or whatever? Definitely these people were required to be on site and it was a key recommendation for both modules of work.
I thank the Cathaoirleach very much for his question. I express my thanks for the work of the committee and specifically the issue the Chairman has highlighted there. He is completely correct in that we have counsellors in our schools and I am very pleased to say that we have had an increase in the provision of counsellors within schools as a consequence of the budget and a commitment to deliver on that for our schools. Therapeutic counselling, the committee will be aware, falls outside of the Department of Education and is a form of counselling within the the Department of Health. I want to state clearly that I have had extensive and ongoing engagement with the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, and this counselling falls within the remit of her portfolio. I acknowledge the excellent departmental co-operation between Deputy Butler’s Department and area of responsibility and the Department of Education. We are certainly working together to seek the potential and possibility even if this, as referred to by the Chairman, is on a pilot basis towards making an initiative like that available that would be supported cross-departmentally. I acknowledge that this falls within the portfolio of the Minister of State, Deputy Butler but she has an extraordinary willingness to work to see how we can advance that, going forward.
I thank the Minister for Education. As there are no further questions I thank the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and their officials for their constructive engagement today. I will suspend the meeting briefly to allow for the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, to attend before the committee.
I welcome now the Minister of State with responsibility for skills and further education, Deputy Niall Collins and his officials to the meeting. I also thank them for their briefing documents which were provided to this meeting. I ask the Minister of State to make his opening statement now, please, and members can ask general questions then on Vote 45.
I thank the Chairman and committee members for the opportunity to speak to them this morning and for the committee's consideration of the the Department for Further and Higher Education, Research Innovation and Science's Supplementary Estimate. I am accompanied today by officials from my Department and am conscious that I have only five minutes to deliver my opening statement. I will therefore just give a very brief overview of the 2021 Supplementary Estimate for my Department.
The allocation for this Department’s 2021 Supplementary Estimate was drawn up in recent weeks as part of the normal budgetary process. At a Cabinet meeting dated 15 November 2021, the Government agreed to a Supplementary Estimate for the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research Innovation and Science of €230 million. This increases the net voted allocation for this Department from €2,681,500,000 to €2,911,500,000, allowing for the funding of two items.
First, is a €147 million once-off injection of funding for university superannuation costs. There is a State obligation to fund university pension costs, arising from a legal undertaking by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Department of Education when taking over university pension funds in 2009 under the Financial Measures (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act. In recent years, the pension cost has increased in line with demographic demands. To address a shortfall on university pension schemes, my Department successfully negotiated in the 2022 Estimates process a once-off injection of €147 million in 2021 to decrease the pension funding shortfall.
Additionally, we successfully negotiated a €20 million rise to the base funding of university pensions from 2022. This will help to build a sustainable baseline for future pension costs, as well as helping to strengthen university balance sheets.
The second measure funded through this Department’s Supplementary Estimate is a €105 million package of support to prepare for a safe reopening of the third level sector in the 2021-2022 academic year. We are all well aware of the profound impact that Covid-19 has had globally. Due to the deteriorating public health situation in the 2020-2021 academic year, education provision in the third level sector remained online with very restricted on-site access to facilities and person-to-person contact.
This emergency online provision throughout the 2021 -2021 academic year has been recognised by Government and the sector as deeply disruptive for students and learners, staff and institutions in further and higher education and research. This has been particularly the case for vulnerable learners. Curtailment of pro-social outlets and developmental opportunities for young people is of potentially wider significance for communities and society at large with implications for wellbeing, social cohesion and solidarity.
Recognising that this situation cannot continue for another academic year, in July 2021, the Government approved a €105 million package of financial supports for the safe reopening of the third level sector in the 2021-2022 academic year, in compliance with public health advice and with appropriate protective measures. This funding will allow higher education institutions and education and training boards to safely and carefully maximise on-site provision of teaching, learning, research and other on-site activities. With thanks to efforts in the sector so far, we have seen approximately 400,000 learners return to on-site activity. There are currently no changes to arrangements for school attendance and on-site activities for further and higher education institutions. We continue to monitor the situation and the latest public health advice.
It is fair to say that in respect of Covid-19, the next few weeks, and indeed months, are uncertain and will be challenging. I wish to place on record my gratitude to all involved in ensuring the continued health and safety of our students, lecturers and researchers, and to those working on a plan to safely keep our institutions and establishments open.
As part of this Supplementary Estimate, this Department has also declared that appropriations-in-aid are forecast to be €22 million higher at the end of 2021 than originally anticipated. This income is largely in respect of rebates from the European Social Fund and from unitary cost contributions related to capital public-private partnership projects. This increased income reduces the Department’s overall requirement in the Supplementary Estimate, bringing the total Supplementary Estimate to €230 million.
I trust that this overview is of assistance to the committee and I am happy to discuss these issues in more detail. I commend the Supplementary Estimate to the committee.
When discussing further and higher education, I welcome the fact that the vast majority of students are back on campus. Hopefully, that is being done in a safe manner and I know that both the colleges and institutions will do as much as they can to ensure that. One of the issues that has been highlighted by Covid-19 is the shortage in certain professions. I was talking to the Minister about the shortage in teachers. This is an issue that predates Covid-19 because I was a teacher before I was elected in February 2020 and there was a shortage of substitute teachers in certain subjects, especially Irish and French, and after that maths and science, and so on. What is being done to identify and increase the number of students participating in different courses?
I am also spokesperson for disability. The children's disability network teams have been established. There is a shortage of occupational and speech and language therapists and psychologists. What is being done to encourage more people to take up and to qualify in these professions at third level and to go into the public sector given many speech and language therapists and psychologists go into the private sector?
Is there any plan to review apprenticeships? Due to Covid-19, much of the learning was done online. There is capacity to shorten the length of apprenticeships from four years to three, which might encourage more people to take them up. There is a shortage in workers in many construction trades and we need more people to take up apprenticeships as quickly as possible. I thank the Minister of State.
I thank the Deputy. I will make a couple of comments on apprenticeships. The committee will be well aware that we launched the Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021 to 2025 earlier in the year and it has a number of high-level targets in it to increase the number of new apprenticeship registrations up to 10,000 per annum by the year 2025. Within that also is a reorganisation of the apprenticeship space. We are establishing, as the Deputy will be aware, the national apprenticeship office. An interim director has been appointed in that position and that person will take up that role in the next number of weeks before Christmas. That office will then be supported by what is called the national apprenticeship alliance, which will be a stakeholder forum to support the office in its work. The national apprenticeship office will oversee the entire national apprenticeship landscape. We have approximately 62 formalised apprenticeships on the books. These are the traditional craft apprenticeships of approximately 25 in number. In addition, the remaining apprenticeships are described or categorised as a consortium of post-2016 apprenticeships, many of which are in new areas such as financial services, insurance, accounting technicians, and other areas of industry and society. There are approximately 20 more apprenticeships in development at the moment. Further to all of that, there are approximately 18 or 19 expressions of interest of bubble groups, which are also seeking to advance apprenticeships. These are not in development but are expressions of interest.
The national apprenticeship office will co-ordinate and oversee all aspects of apprenticeships, once it is established. There is also money in next year’s budget to support employers who take apprentices on. Equally, at the moment, the funding goes primarily to the craft apprenticeships to support employers for the period that their apprentices are off the job and in training. There is a great deal going on in that space.
We also have Springboard courses right across the area of skills, with many courses going on in our further and higher education institutions through the provision of Springboard funding. This is an advanced skill system to provide for lifelong learning and human capital developments.
The Deputy also mentioned people with disabilities. Within our action plan for apprenticeships, there are some key targets to promote more gender balance and diversification. We also have equality measures through a bursary for disadvantaged people in the apprenticeship area. There is much going on in that regard and we can certainly send some of that information on to her after the meeting. I thank the Chairman.
I wish the Minister of State a good morning and I thank him very much for appearing before us.
On the Estimates, there is the legal requirement identified relating to the pension fund for third-level institutions. The Minister of State referred to that as a one-off amount. If there is a legal requirement and why is that funding not coming then from central funds? That being said, one-off suggests that there was an issue. If there was an issue, was it a one-off? Could there be a shortfall in the future that would require another one-off figure to balance that particular pension book? On what basis is the pension fund held? Is it held centrally or is it an investment fund of some kind and what led to the shortfall?
As I described in the opening statement, back in 2009 there was an arrangement between the then Department of Education and Science and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to take over the liability for pensions in our university sector. Similar to any other civil or public servants when they retire, the obligation falls to have their pensions paid to them. Pensions are not funded, so there is not a pension fund per se. They, therefore, come out of current spending. The projected shortfall is approximately €147 million euros, which is also projected to rise by approximately €61 million in 2021 and €60 million in 2022, and to continue to rise. A deficit is building up if we do nothing.
We have negotiated this lump sum, if one can describe it as such, to distribute and this will be done by the HEA across our universities, institutes of technology and technological universities. We have also built an additional €20 million into the base of that going forward. There is a recognition and a commitment from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that this is a liability and responsibility that obviously has to be met and cannot be walked away from and not be paid.
That is fine and I acknowledge the Minister of State’s answer. I was not familiar with the 2009 legislation and it is before my time in the Oireachtas. Perhaps we can come back to that point at a later stage.
I refer to the measures that the Department has introduced in getting our third-level institutions open again, including the €100 million, the supports and the public health advice that has been given. It is fantastic to see our third-level institutions back up and running with the vast majority of students back in the classroom or lecture theatre. That is very welcome. As the Minister of State said, it is a great challenge to keep it that way particularly with the unknowns before us.
I want to focus, however, on apprenticeships and their significant importance to us. Deputy Tully also touched on this.
Flowing from the action plan for apprenticeship, as has been mentioned, the interim head of the national apprenticeship office is a massive ramp-up in a campaign to get this apprenticeship programme in the public domain more. I appreciate that the CAO process will put the programme front and centre in the awareness of students. I believe that in identifying any deficit in critical skills the apprenticeship schemes across the country will play an extraordinary role in plugging that gap. Will the programme be marketed to increase the number of people involved in the apprenticeship programme that has been put in place by the Department?
In terms of identifying skills and deficits in skills, there are seven regional skills fora and they are rooted in their regions. The fora are populated by employers and business and industry leaders in these regions. The fora are not sector-specific and cover all of the sectors. There is also a regional skills manager in each of the areas who oversees and co-ordinates. So that is part of the bottom-up collaboration and bottom-up information flow exercise that the Department operates to keep in touch with business and identify any needs or gaps.
The Deputy alluded to the CAO in the preamble to his question. Recently the Department has completely broadened the information and the provision of information and options on the CAO website in order that people can now access full information such as where and when to apply through the CAO options for further and higher education and apprenticeships. Built into that is the availability of guidance counselling. To give people information and direction, they can now explore course choices, career options and apprenticeship options. That is primarily what is going on in that space in terms of broadening this out.
In response to Deputy Tully, I said that there are 62 apprenticeships. There are 20 more apprenticeships in the formalised development process and a further 18 or 19 expressions of interest to advance those concepts through the process and, hopefully, categorise them formally as apprenticeships.
I thank the Minister of State. His remark highlights the important role played by guidance counsellors. This committee has also highlighted the important role that they play and will play in the education system in the years to come as the action plan is implemented. I cannot overemphasise the importance of that.
My final remark is on the public health guidance, particularly as it evolves over the coming months. I am thinking of exam halls in large third-level institutions that traditionally carry out Christmas and-or new year exams. How quickly can the public health advice provide third-level institutions with sufficient time to adapt such exams if we reach a point where the use of an exam hall might be something that NPHET would frown upon?
Earlier this year we published our safe return to on-campus in-person guidelines following extensive collaboration with all of the stakeholders in the sector, including students and staff unions. That provided a roadmap and a template to reopen in a structured manner given the public health climate and guidance. Right now universities, technological colleges and further education institutions are managing their exams subject to the health guidance, which is available. There is no barrier at the moment. Pilot antigen testing is being rolled out across the sector. At the moment the Department is thinking of going a little bit further on that but we are not in a position to say anything formally. We are looking at that as an added enhancement.
I would like to revisit some of the comments made by the Minister of State. I ask him to go into more detail about the regional skills fora. Am I correct that a general review has been done on the skillsets that will be necessary in the future?
There has been some commentary on the climate change targets and all of the rest. I mean that we have not reached the target that was set for hubs to provide training in retrofitting. I suppose that it is just a matter of expediting it so we get to that place and I ask him to comment.
We are very conscious of this matter. Housing for All is a massive house building programme that the State is undertaking. For that programme to succeed we need a pipeline of skilled workers.
We are also conscious of the State’s obligation in respect of climate change. There is a focus on green skills and the nearly zero energy building, NZEB, centres. I do not have the exact details here but we will let him know how many NZEB centres are being developed. Moneys have been provided in next year’s budget for courses on green technologies and retrofitting and we can supply him with information on where that money is being spent.
In terms of apprenticeships, we acknowledge that due to Covid and particularly due the lockdowns, a backlog built up in the off-the-job training in the craft apprenticeship sectors, which I think everybody accepts. We have provided specific moneys to fund SOLAS to clear the backlog.
Let me outline the amounts because they are big numbers and it is important such information be in the public domain. At the end of October, 10,333 craft apprentices were waiting for access to phases 2, 4 and 6 of their off-the-job training. Almost 6,500 of these were waiting six months or more. Actions taken by SOLAS, the HEA, and education and training providers, along with measures announced in the budget recently, will mean that 40% of those waiting will have access to off-the-job training in 2021 and the plan is to completely clear the backlog by the end of 2022.
We are very conscious of the backlog and it was outside our control due to the public health climate in which we had to operate. We have made clearing the backlog a big priority. SOLAS and the HEA, in particular, have put a lot of work into this matter. In addition, we have put a lot of resources into helping them to clear the backlog.
I appreciate that and I would also appreciate if I could get that information later. Clearing the backlog will be worthwhile. It must be ensured there is a consistent and constant review of the skillsets that are required. It is not always possible to forecast that but we accept that retrofitting and house building need to be nailed on to the apprenticeship programme.
We must do whatever we can to ensure we have the supply chain of people to do the business.
There have been significant moves in latter years regarding lifelong learning and apprenticeships. There have been significant moves in people's roadmap or pathways to education, whether by way of post-leaving certificate courses to progress to college or whatever else. Will the Minister of State give some detail on the general strategy around that? I accept what he said about equality and dealing with those who do not necessarily come from a place where they have a history of education and the supports that are required. There is probably a wider element of societal work that is beyond the remit of his Department, involving family and community supports to put more people into the space where they can avail of opportunities. I have dealt with the Minister, Deputy Harris, lately regarding the Redeemer centre in Dundalk, which is operating a project in this area at the moment and is concerned about continued funding. It offers certain modules in a community setting, where people may be more comfortable, before they move on to a PLC and wherever else that brings them. It is a vital piece of the jigsaw that we need to get right. I realise my questions cover a huge area but I would appreciate any detail the Minister of State can give.
We will forward information to the Deputy after this meeting. He asked about skills. I have spoken to people in the regional skills fora, including regional skills managers. There is also the National Skills Council, which is the umbrella group that sits above them. All of that is guided by the national skills strategy that runs from 2016 to 2025. As part of that, which is what we would describe as the broader skills ecosystem, we have the skills and labour market research unit, which is hosted within SOLAS. We also have the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs, which is hosted by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. In addition, my Department hosts the national training fund advisory group. There are many moving parts in the skills area, which help to inform us as to the deficits and needs within the labour market.
Approximately 35,000 learners will be able to avail of green skills modules next year. Throughout the country and the further and higher education providers, there will be provision for up to 35,000 places for people to access courses on green skills. We have also provided 2,650 course places on retrofitting and the NZEB expansion. I will get the Deputy further details on that.
As the Minister of State said, there are many moving parts. I assume he is the lead on co-ordination and the review of the skill sets that are needed. Beyond that, it is about ensuring the pathways are there, which involves discussions with third level institutions, employers, etc.
My final question concerns an issue I have raised previously with the Minister of State and on which I have also had some interaction with the Minister. I refer to technological university status for Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT, about which there are concerns at this point. We know DkIT is late to the dance but there is the facility under section 38 of the Technological Universities Act 2018. I am still hopeful in this regard but there is a need for reassurance. The Minister has agreed to meet with Oireachtas Members from County Louth in the near future to discuss the matter. We all must work together to deliver that because it is the only show in town.
This issue was raised in the Dáil this week on Question Time, during which the Minister told the Deputy and others that the institute itself must make an application, after which we will do everything humanly possible at our end to make it happen. The Minister will, of course, meet with Oireachtas Members from County Louth, as he has indicated. I am available to travel to DkIT in the new year.
I have a few questions for the Minister of State. As I am sure he is aware, the committee did a field trip to the extended campuses of the institutes of technology in Limerick and Cork last week. An issue that came up in both cases was the lack of resources and spaces in respect of apprenticeships. Both colleges could take on significantly more students but do not have the space, teaching capacity or equipment to do so. I very much welcome the announcements by the Minister of State and the Minister on apprenticeships. I expect that many more people will be willing to take up apprenticeships into the future because they are now seen as something worthwhile. I am not saying they were not worthwhile in the past but there is now more of an appetite for them and a clearer view of what can be achieved at the end of them. That should have been done years ago. Can the lack of capacity be rectified in the short term and funding made available to fast-track the process and enable institutions to double the number of places available? The Minister of State knows there is a shortage of apprenticeships for electricians, plumbers, carpenters and blocklayers. Across the board, there is a huge shortage of labour and apprenticeships and there is an appetite within the colleges to double their numbers. Will the Minister of State outline the work that is being done by him and within the Department to ensure there are enough spaces available for whomever wants to take up an apprenticeship?
I spoke earlier about the apprenticeship action plan, of which members are well aware, and the targets contained therein. Our primary role is to support SOLAS, aided by the HEA and the ETBs in the role they play in the area of apprenticeships. In the case of almost every apprenticeship programme, there is a basic requirement that there cannot be an apprentice without an employer, who is the sponsor. That is integral to the whole process. We have been supporting employers, particularly during the pandemic, by way of the apprentice incentivisation scheme, which has been extended to the end of the year. The number of apprenticeship registrations has surpassed our expectations this year as we emerged from the pandemic. That is good news.
In terms of creating the infrastructure and capacity at our TUs and ETBs, we have an extensive capital budget, which is voted through at budget time. The flow of that money goes from our Department to the HEA, which then manages the applications from ETBs, TUs and universities for capital funding.
The Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest, TUS, was used as an example from when the committee visited Limerick. It has a project at a facility in Coonagh, where it has bought a property, that it has advanced quite significantly. It is almost at a conclusion. Some minor details have to be wrapped up between it and the Higher Education Authority. It is a similar case with Munster Technological University, MTU. We have a significant capital budget to support all of those organisations with the capacity to provide the increase in apprenticeships we want to see.
I compliment both presidents and their staff in the technological universities, TUs, for they way they have emerged from being institutes of technology, ITs, and the ongoing work they are doing for the hospitality sector, in particular. It is fantastic to see the work on the ground. I speak on behalf of all the members of the committee when I say we were impressed by what we saw down there.
I am not sure whether the Minister of State has any information on the parochial end in terms of the technological university for the south east and the Wexford campus. What is he able to tell us about the Wexford campus and what work is ongoing in his Department? I know work is ongoing with Wexford County Council on this issue. If the Minister of State does not have the information to hand, that is no problem. Will he or his officials come back to me separately?
We will do so, if the Chair does not mind. Obviously, the TU project is a priority. That has advanced, thankfully, and it is the first for the region. The provision of a campus in Wexford is a priority for us all. We will get back to the Chair with an information note on where exactly we are.
Professor Vincent Cunnane is president of the TUS, the campus of which the Minister of State is well aware. We had the opportunity to visit the Coonagh facility, which is under completion and funding is awaited from the Minister of State's Department. Will he update us on the progress of the work ongoing at the TU in Limerick on that issue and the Coonagh facility? I have no doubt the Minister of State is very much aware of it, being from that constituency.
I referenced that in my earlier remarks. I am well aware of it. What I can say is TUS and the HEA have been engaged and we are pretty much near the end of the process. The final funding of which TUS seeks to avail is there, but the details of the drawdown are being finalised between the college authorities and the authority.
The work ongoing and the infrastructure between and connecting both campuses and the inner relief road is impressive. It will be an attractive place for any student to attend. I compliment all involved, including the Minister of State, because I know it is his constituency and he was complimented when we were down there on the work he was doing and his commitment to the campus.
I have a question on the student assistance fund. I am conscious of the moneys provided last year, in particular, and this year to support students getting access to online lectures and such, including hardware and Wi-Fi. I see an increase in the student assistance fund in this Estimate. Does the Minister of State see additional supports for students, especially equipment grants and so on, being sustained on an ongoing basis? Is the Minister of State aware of a proposal plan or any such measure in his Department to identify gaps in regional training facilities?
The short answer to the question on the student assistance fund is "Yes". It has increased significantly. It is our firm intention to keep it at least at the level to which we have got it, if not increase it. The purpose or rationale behind it is to provide for exceptional circumstances. If that is for the provision of hardware or IT support for individual students, that is fine. How it works is that each college and student receives an allocation. There is a process within each institution or college for the governance of the money in terms of how one applies and the assessment criteria, which are managed appropriately and locally.
We are reviewing Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, and we have made some changes to it. There has been a small increase in the rates, a minor increase in the threshold and a significant change in the distance for the non-adjacent rate, which will help many people. The review is ongoing. These changes were made prior to the review. I am not pre-empting the review, which I have not seen, but I am sure it will bring forward other recommendations. We have provided for an underspend in SUSI this year, which shows there is not a shortage of funding for eligible students. Considerable work is going on in that space.
We have ramped up the student assistance fund and we intend to keep it there. Will the Deputy repeat his final question?
If any training facility, whether it is part of SOLAS, an ETB, or an independent stand-alone, approaches us through the channel of the Higher Education Authority with a demonstrable need or a viable proposal, that is judged on its merits.
I represent north County Dublin. It is the fastest-growing community in Ireland and Europe. There is an obvious need, especially outside Swords and Tallaght, which is the biggest community with more than 50,000 people. The census will probably show it has grown even further. I would love to identify, through the Minister of State's Department, SOLAS and others, whether there is a need and try to implement and deliver on that for the community, because it is clear that north County Dublin, outside of TU Dublin in Blanchardstown or DCU, needs to have its higher and further education options enhanced. A training facility would bridge that gap. I am sure there are similarities in other communities throughout the country. I would love to see the level of training facilities provided through the Department and State agencies determined to identify whether it is needed.