Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 24 May 2022
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
Future Funding of Higher Education: Discussion (Resumed)
I remind members to ensure that their mobile phones are switched off for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment. I ask that the witnesses put their mobile phones on silent mode.
Are minutes of the meeting of 17 May agreed to? Agreed.
The meeting between World Skills Ireland and the Minister for Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, is between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. The Minister will be before the committee at 1 p.m.
On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Michael Hourihan, official delegate, Mr. Ray English, official delegate, Ms Natalia Leane, 2021 cookery competitor, Mr. Mark McSherry, 2021 bricklaying competitor, Ms Megan Yeates, 2019 logistics competitor and Mr. Patrick Twomey, 2019 metal fabrication competitor. The witnesses are here today today to discuss the future funding of higher education. The format of the meeting is that I will invite Mr. Hourihan and Mr. English to make brief opening statements of five minutes each. They will share ten minutes. This will be followed by questions from members of the committee. Each member will have an eight-minute slot for members to pose questions to the witness and for the witness to reply. I therefore ask members and witnesses to keep an eye on the stopwatches which are below the television screens. As witnesses are probably aware, the committee will publish the opening statement on its website following today's meeting.
Before we begin, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House, or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed by the Chair to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction.
I thank the witnesses for coming here today. I hope that the discussion will be of a productive nature and that it will inform our members of the important work that World Skills Ireland does. I invite Mr. Hourigan to deliver his opening statement.
Mr. Michael Hourihan:
I thank the Chair and committee members. World Skills Ireland wishes to thank the committee for providing us with this opportunity to speak about the further expansion and funding of craft apprenticeships and new generation apprenticeships. This statement will give an overview of the current situation regarding the provision of apprenticeship training in Munster Technological University, MTU. The issues raised are common to all higher education apprenticeship providers. Furthermore, the statement will outline what World Skills Ireland does on a day-to-day basis and will give an overview of upcoming World Skills activities at national and international level.
Apprenticeships are central to the mission, remit and activities of the technological university and institute of technology sector. Munster Technological University is the largest provider of craft apprenticeship programmes in the country. Approximately 1,600 craft apprenticeships will complete their off-the-job phases in MTU during the 2022-2023 academic year. Craft apprentices in electrical, refrigeration, plumbing, carpentry and joinery, plastering, pipe fitting, metal fabrication fitting, motor, construction plant fitting, instrumentation and agricultural mechanics complete phases four and six of their apprenticeship in MTU. Furthermore, post-2016, MTU delivers consortium-led apprenticeship programmes, which offer university degree qualifications. Currently, more than 200 students are registered across programmes, in the areas of manufacturing and engineering, and engineering services management, among others. The flexibility and availability of online learning options provides blended learning opportunities which enable us to extend the reach of new apprenticeship programmes and to enhance the delivery of the craft apprenticeship programmes.
Apprenticeships are offered at all levels of the national qualification framework, from level 6 to level 10. It is a mode of learning that is built around an employer requirement, with the learning provided by both higher education and further education, depending on the level of the award. The level of engagement of the higher level community in apprentice provision is significant and therefore the level of annual and capital investment should be significant. With that in mind, the main challenges that are facing MTU and, indeed, most of the technological universities and institutes of technology, with regard to the delivery of apprenticeship programmes are the lack of facilities.
By facilities, I mean classrooms, laboratories, workshops and offices. Technological universities, TU, and institutes of technology, IT, receive capital funding for equipment when new curriculums are introduced but no funding is provided for new buildings or for the upgrade of existing buildings to facilitate the installation of this new equipment. Specific funding to upgrade buildings is essential for the successful delivery of both craft and consortium-led apprenticeship programmes. In the case of the Bishopstown campus of the Munster Technological University, MTU, there will be a requirement in the region of €30 million for the upgrade and development of buildings to facilitate the delivery of existing and new apprenticeship programmes.
Both MTU and WorldSkills Ireland fully support and welcome the new Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021-2025 and the establishment of the national apprenticeship office. It should be noted that the higher education sector and WorldSkills Ireland play a key role in the transition of current SOLAS co-ordinated craft apprenticeships to a consortium-led model, a process which will be managed by the national apprenticeship office. We look forward to the development of a single apprenticeship model, and both higher education and WorldSkills Ireland are well-placed to help and, indeed, lead in the development process to ensure the result will be a workable and world-class model.
I will hand over to my colleague, Mr. English, who is the technical delegate for WorldSkills Ireland, to outline activities in the WorldSkills Ireland organisation.
Mr. Ray English:
Ireland, through the Department of Education, joined WorldSkills International in 1956 and competed for the first time in 1957. We have competed in every competition since then, winning 65 gold medals, 53 silver medals, 81 bronze medals and 174 diplomas or medallions of excellence. With us in the room today we have a gold medal winner and also a medallion of excellence award winner from the previous competition in 2019 in Kazan. That really is a significant award level and it really goes to show that Ireland can compete on the international scale across a range of skills.
WorldSkills gives youths the chance to compete, experience and learn how to become the best in their skill of choice in what is known as the Olympics of Skills. From the traditional trades to multi-skilled technological careers supported by partners, industry, Government, volunteers and educational and training institutions, WorldSkills Ireland is making a direct impact on raising the level of skills nationally, ensuring equity of career perception and promoting skills careers nationally and throughout the world with the 89 member countries in WorldSkills International.
To outline some of the activities in which we are engaged, WorldSkills is tasked by the Department, which remains a member of WorldSkills, with organising a national competitive event. In 2019, for the first time, we brought all of these skill competitions together into the RDS arena. Senator Malcolm Byrne was certainly there at the start of it, which we remember well. We would have liked to have proceeded in 2020 and 2021 but, obviously, Covid-19 got in the way. In that first event, 12,500 students came through the door to witness 25 skill competitions over three days and also experience the exhibitors and training zone, recruitment zone and education and skills zone. Undoubtedly, it was a really successful event.
We are lucky that we are able to organise WorldSkills Ireland live 2022, again, in the RDS Simmonscourt arena from 13 September to 15 September, which will be Ireland's largest ever apprenticeship and skills event. We will have more than 25 competitions over three days, increasing the range of opportunities and the visual impact that young students can have. Members will obviously know competitions from the traditional skills and particularly apt, as Ireland is seeking to recruit into the construction industry zone, we have brick and stone laying, plastering, painting and decorating, plumbing and refrigeration skills. Additionally, on the side of that, we have also grown the competitions into areas such as ICT and cloud computing, in which Ireland was the first country in WorldSkills to run a competition, and building information modelling, which is now called digital construction. Again, Ireland led the way with WorldSkills in running the first competitions in that and they are both now WorldSkills International competitions.
Again for the first time, we are introducing a new competition we are calling digital infrastructure for sustainability, which looks at pre-building, that is, the groundworks, mapping and setting out of areas.
Again, it is about that move into digital and green spaces.
We believe we are being innovative in our approach. World Skills Ireland has always crossed the range of Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, skill levels. We have competitions from level 5 through to levels 6, 7 and 8. We cover further education, apprenticeships, traineeships and higher education. The committee will have seen the CAO offering but we have been ahead of that and have been doing that for a number of years. It is great that our offering will match what the State is looking for. When people come into the RDS in September they will see all those offerings and activities clearly displayed. They can try it, see it, believe it and become what they want to be. We have talked about "see it and be it" but for the first time ever we are actually presenting that to students. We are delighted that it is looking like there will be an increase in footfall compared to previous years. The morning sessions are completely sold out. The 12,000 sq. m RDS event space is now full and we cannot accommodate any more competitions. As the committee knows, the number of apprenticeships in Ireland has now grown from 27 when we started out to 67, plus 13 that are in development and a number of others that are being considered. If we are to increase our range of skill offerings and experiences in order to be that single event that will supply everybody, which we want to do, we also need to grow some of our funding.
There is also the international aspect. It is important that we have a pipeline of activities. World Skills Shanghai is due to happen in October 2022. In line with the Osnabrück declaration by the Department of Education, we are becoming members of EuroSkills, which will be held in Pozna in Poland in 2023. We will also be holding the general assembly of World Skills, bringing the 91 member countries to Dublin in September 2023. The story Ireland will be able to tell those other 90 countries involved is incredible and the opportunity to share our experience of how we have changed perceptions around skills and grown apprenticeships is important.
I thank Mr. English. We will now go to the members. First up is Deputy Conway-Walsh, followed by Deputy Jim O'Callaghan. If any of the competitors want to contribute to any of the questions, they can raise their hands.
I thank the witnesses for being here and for their opening statements. This is a good opportunity for the committee to talk to the apprentices so I will focus my first questions on that area. Mr. McSherry is a bricklayer apprentice. Is he finished his apprenticeship?
I can imagine it would be. I am delighted Mr. McSherry chose that particular apprenticeship because we have not had big numbers of new apprentice bricklayers entering the system. There were 473 brickie apprentices in the register in 2006 and only 56 in 2020. We often get the overall figures but we need to dig a bit deeper to be able to see what is going on. Why does Mr. McSherry think that number is so low? What needs to be done to attract more people into the bricklaying apprenticeship? What can we do?
Mr. Mark McSherry:
Bricklaying is not just all about bricklaying. You could be in footings up to your knees in water one day, and muck and glar and in the winter your hands are freezing and all that. It is not only about being up on scaffolding on a house doing a gable and all that. On top of that you also have to labour for yourself. You have to carry your muck to your muck boards and fill your muck boards, go get your blocks and your bricks and sort yourself out and then go and start building. There was a young lad with me not long ago and he did not like doing that part of the job. All he wanted to do was just lay the blocks and it was a handy number. He actually left because of that. It is hard work. When you see the building at the end of it all you can say, "I did that and it will not blow over in the wind".
Is there anything that we could do to attract more people to work as bricklayers? It is a huge problem for us as a country or economy. There are all these projections for building houses but if we have no people to build them we will be in dire straits. Are there things we could do to make it easier for apprentices?
Mr. Mark McSherry:
When you are in the college part you are too clean, if the Deputy gets me. When everyone is in college, they think that it is a great time. They are wearing shoes and the floor is nice and dry and then when they go back out to site again they think, "Ah, we are back to this crap". That was a big part for me anyway. I was too clean for six months and then when I went back to that it was hard.
Thinking of the last six to 12 months with inflation, the cost of living, accommodation and the extra expenses, have the witnesses noticed a difference in participation in apprenticeships? Is it getting more difficult having to put fuel in the van and so on?
Mr. Mark McSherry:
When I bought my van it used to cost €60 to fill it from empty. I put €120 in it yesterday and it was not empty. That is a big part of it. On the job we are trying to have less waste and work is probably slowing down a little. People are not building one-off houses any more in the countryside because they cannot afford it.
Have the others experienced difficulties with the cost of living and the costs associated with doing the apprenticeship? Let us take the fees for the off-the-job training or accommodation, for example. Are their apprenticeships near where they live or do they have to travel or get accommodation?
Ms Natalia Leane:
Getting to work costs a lot, for example. I have to go to college and then I have to go to work. I have the exact same distance from college to work. It is a 40-minute drive. That is not good. When I was going to college and work at the same time, that was six days a week. Getting petrol for six days a week is insane. I could see on the course that people did not have enough. There were only four of us in our class, which had dropped drastically. We started off with 20-something and we ended up with four.
Ms Natalia Leane:
Culinary arts in Munster Technological University - Kerry. I started on a full-time programme but I moved on to a part-time apprenticeship-type programme like Springboard. I was doing three days a week in the college. The idea was that if we did it part time, we had time to get a job. They helped us to get a job through work experience during the summer. We had a project to do about that and we were expected to keep on that job because a big part of our grade was from the project that we did based on the work experience. It was to get us into the workplace because they knew if we just did college we would not get the full experience so they really pushed to get us in to work as well as just college.
If we just went to college we would not have got the full experience, so they really pushed us to get us into work as well as college.
Ms Natalia Leane:
There is a stigma around chefs and bad kitchens, for example. That is why my course co-ordinator researched the places for us and he recommended workplaces to us, rather than sending us out and telling us to find ourselves a job. When he found a place that he thought was solid, he would recommend that we go there because it would give a better experience. It would show us that this is not a bad career to have. Some people refused to listen to his advice and they went to bad places. They then had bad experiences and they dropped out. I think that was a big part of it. It is a matter of promotion from the education providers.
That is interesting. I heard this morning on the radio about a restaurant in Lisselton that is closing down. There is such a demand for chefs and for kitchen staff. It is having a great impact on the hospitality sector. People are crying out for chefs. I hear what Ms Leane is saying about employers for apprenticeships during their learning experience-----
Ms Megan Yeates:
My background is slightly different to the others because I did not come through an apprenticeship. I came through the level 8 degree course. I have also experienced similar difficulties as them in trying to keep a part-time job while going through full-time education. I did four years of a degree course. Throughout those four years, I worked 20 or 30 hours per week. I was living in Kildare and I had to commute to Dublin. As I was not eligible for any grants or supports, I had to finance it all myself. I have gone back to do my masters and the same thing has happened again. I am in a full-time masters course but am trying to keep a full-time job. I am trying to keep the balance. I still have bills and expenses that must be paid. We do not all have the luxury of being able to dedicate as much as time as we would like to our education, because we still need to live. I can definitely sympathise with the others. It is a tough balance to strike. For many people, it just becomes easier to take up a full-time job and to drop the education aspect.
Mr. Pat Twomey:
I was lucky enough because I come from the Gaeltacht. There was a grant if a person could get employment in the Gaeltacht. I found it easier to get a job as well. Again, I was lucky because I was living at home. The challenge was in the costs of running the car, because I come from the countryside. There were no buses or trains for me to get to work. It was a bit costly to keep the car going. I had to go to college in Tralee for the first part. This was in the education and training board, ETB, centre. That is approximately an hour from home. That was costly enough. It was hard to keep the car going.
I thank the witnesses for coming in this morning and for their submissions to the committee.
I would like to say first to Mr. Hourihan that the committee visited the Bishopstown campus in MTU. The modern part was very impressive. Then we went to look at where the apprentices are being trained. The building seemed to be very old. It was probably unsuitable. Is that what Mr. Hourihan is talking about when he says that one of the requirements is that we should upgrade buildings like that, if we are serious about apprenticeships?
Mr. Michael Hourihan:
Exactly. That is exactly what I am saying. It is crucial, because young people are impressionable. They come in for the phase 4 and phase 6 of their programme. They expect to see top-standard, quality provision, equipment and facilities. They are not really getting that. The Deputy saw MTU and I am speaking for MTU. Mr. English is based in TU Dublin. There is a similar situation in most of the third level providers that are delivering apprenticeship programmes.
There seems to be much co-operation between what was required in the private sector and the apprenticeships that were being taught there. I think this is particularly the case for medical devices. While there was some highly impressive machinery there, it looked completely out of place with the old building. Could Mr. Hourihan remark on that?
Mr. Michael Hourihan:
It strikes me as a strange arrangement where State funding is provided for equipment, yet no funding is available to facilitate that equipment, or to develop buildings in the correct way that would facilitate the correct use of that equipment.
The equipment the Deputy is speaking about is very expensive machinery that we have in a small room. With a class of 16 apprentice students in that room, it is full. It is really not possible to deliver a class in there. It is a shame to have that equipment and public money tied up in facilities like that. It defies logic. I cannot understand how money can be provided for equipment and, on the other hand, we are expected to squeeze it into facilities that have existed for a long time.
Mr. English mentioned the Olympics of skills. One of the things this committee tries to do is to assess the importance of competitiveness or competitions within the education system. Does Mr. English believe it is important? Is it encouraging and improving the quality of apprenticeships for people to participate in very competitive arrangements like that?
Mr. Ray English:
Yes, we absolutely believe so. It is evidenced by the number of people from companies who come back and say they watch what happens at World Skills and people's positions. The last time we were placed tenth in the world, which is a really strong performance for our country. We are involved in a range of skills - traditional skills and new and innovative ones. It is the ICT and the green skills that are emerging. The twin track of sustainability and digitisation is really strong in what we do. The Deputy should not ask me; he should ask the two people present who competed in the competition what they got out of it and how it opened their careers. It encourages other people who are thinking that they can actually represent their country and win the gold, silver or bronze medal for it in their chosen career. That could be an electrician. We have had it in plumbing, automobile technology, aircraft maintenance, cloud computing and building information modelling. They go back into their industry and the invigoration within those communities is evident.
Mr. Mark McSherry:
I thought it was great. It was covered in The Anglo-Celtat home and the whole lot. There were people whose mortgages were being cancelled because their banks were leaving the country. They needed to get certain jobs done in the house to get the house signed off to get the drawdown on the mortgage. Many companies in Cavan would not bother doing a small job, such as a ramp or a backdoor that would only take a day or two, because it would not be worth their while doing it. People saw me mentioned in The Anglo-Celt. They might have known someone who knew me and got my number from them. Since I did that competition, I have been flat out working.
Ms Megan Yeates:
Yes. No one can ask for anything more than an international stage to be able to show what they are capable of doing. Mr. Twomey and I got great opportunities as a result of being over in Kazan. We got exposure to companies and to other professionals. After coming back, it was possible to use it as a foothold to publicise the industry. Being a female in logistics and transport is a very unusual position to be in.
Ms Megan Yeates:
It is very dominated. There is probably an 85% domination by men in the industry. I have often walked in and being the only female in the whole company within logistics. I have been able to use that to go back to younger people and create awareness of the opportunities that are available. Prior to my entering into a logistics degree course, I did not even know what it was. I just picked it blind off the CAO one day. I decided that it sounded like a bit of fun and that I would give it a go. That is the case for many people in the industry. They just stumbled into it. There is a significant skill shortage there. It is great to be able to raise that awareness.
My next question is for Ms Leane. One of the functions of this committee is that we try to ensure there are a number of avenues available for people in secondary education. Obviously, there are probably clear avenues available to students who are good at science or languages. When did Ms Leane's interest in cookery manifest itself? Was there an avenue available to her in school or was it simply her own decision to go down that route?
Ms Natalia Leane:
I was always interested. I wanted to be a baker when I was a kid and I went from there.
Secondary school definitely helped because I did the apprentice chef competition in MTU. A local chef and one of the lecturers from the IT run a cooking competition every year and they invite secondary students. It is essentially a smaller version of WorldSkills but just for cooking. That really helped me out because I got to see the facilities in MTU. That is honestly why I chose it because through that competition I got to go in and do another competition.
Mr. Pat Twomey:
Yes, on going to college. It was a massive opportunity and I have gained a lot from doing the apprenticeship but it was not pushed at the secondary level. A couple of lads fell into the trades and that was it. Everyone else went to college and unfortunately a few of them pulled out afterwards because they did not want to do their courses but they were kind of forced to fill out the CAO and go to college.
I thank all our guests for coming in. We appreciate it. There is nothing like hearing from people about their experiences to see what changes need to be made. I am quite taken with some of the responses our guests have given there. Ms Leane mentioned how doing home economics in secondary schools led her into something and Mr. Twomey mentioned how working in the area for an employer led him into it, as well as liking metalwork. The same can probably be said for all our younger guests and for the experiences one has in secondary school. Career guidance is importance and there is more funding being put into new career guidance teachers than ever before but how important is it to have more experiences of different things when you are younger and making those decisions in life? Mr. McSherry was talking there about how it is probably too clean and that is a critical statement he has made. Unless we have real-life experiences how are we going to go into careers like this?
We have done a report on reform of the leaving certificate. It is important to have more mentors, so it is not just somebody with a book telling us about all the courses that are available but that if you see it you can be it. What do our guests think we could change about secondary school to make it so there are more people like them, that is, more young people who say they really enjoyed the lesson the class had from somebody who came in and was a bricklayer?
Mr. Mark McSherry:
When I was in secondary school I hated it, to be honest. There was a man there who was the caretaker. When I was in transition year there was a leaving certificate vocational programme, LCVP, class. I could not qualify for that for some reason. For the LCVP class, instead of me sitting at the back of the classroom doing nothing and falling asleep, the teacher asked the caretaker would he mind taking me to give him a hand, because I was handy.
The same thing happened in fifth and sixth year. The caretaker and I fixed doors, hung pictures and did different small jobs. Such jobs allowed me to enjoy my time in school and I also realised that I wanted to study a trade. As my father was a bricklayer, I worked with him for two summers. Next, I became an apprentice to the fella for whom I work for now and I worked with him for two summers. I loved the work and have kept going.
Unfortunately, the reality is that many young people do not have a mentor. If any of the other witnesses wish to chime in a response then please do.
Ms Yeates mentioned women in her response. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Gender Equality. At the moment that committee is considering gender equality and gender norms in education. I think that one clear place where Ireland has fallen short is with apprenticeships. What does Ms Yeates think could be done to ensure that women go into roles that would not have been expected of them previously? I believe that men also should have opportunities that they have not had before. I want people to adopt the attitude whereby they experience a craft or skill set and even if they do not like it that they choose to do study something else that may not have been expected of me. I believe that every option needs to be on the table.
Ms Megan Yeates:
Yes, people definitely should jump in and I firmly believe, as has been said earlier, if people can see it then they can be it. One thing that I have always loved doing is sharing my story in order to inspire women to join the industry. I do so because the industry is very male dominated, very intimidating and has a negative image. Let me outline where I have encountered difficulties. I have approached schools and offered a completely free talk or presentation or even just to provide material on the opportunities and jobs in the sector but found that either you cannot find a contact or the schools do not want to engage. By contrast, official engagements arranged along with the Institute of Guidance Counsellors have been very well received. Therefore, we must find avenues. There are plenty of apprentices. A team of 17 apprentices travelled to Kazan in Russia with Mr. Twomey and myself and I know that plenty of us are willing to share our stories to help to show people the opportunities that are available whether that is through a level 8 course or as an apprenticeship. We would like to show the different avenues you can take to enter these careers. We must find ways to bridge that gap, which is why I think that the World Skills Ireland event at the RDS is a great opportunity to showcase careers. While that event is great for anyone who attends, the question is how do you reach the people who do not engage. Perhaps it would be helpful if we went to people. We must find ways to bridge that gap.
By the witnesses being here today they are doing some of that work. We appreciate their attendance. These are the things that go into our reports and go on the public record. We encourage people to take up that offer.
I wish to say to Mr. English that it is obvious that this initiative has been hugely successful. The young people present are a testament to the fact that these competitions put us on a world stage and puts them out into the market. Clearly, the initiative has paid dividends and needs to be continued.
Reference has been made to sustainability. There has been an obvious shift and we know that we need more people. I 100% think that education is about meeting people where they are and giving them possibilities for their own career but we also know that there is a skills shortage. Let us say the needs for a new skill is identified. Can Mr. Hourihan tell me how long it takes to create a course and train people?
Mr. Michael Hourihan:
The current apprenticeship system is employer-led and the new apprenticeship system is consortium-led. They are really the same because both systems are demand-driven. So first one must identify there is a demand.
Once that is identified and the process is in place, it must be ensured that a suitable programme is generated and set up. That takes time because one cannot rush into something like that. One must make sure it hits all the markers and does everything correctly.
Furthermore, one must get the employers onside. They must realise it is not just about getting young people on the job. There is an educational side to it as well. There is a theoretical side to everything. Putting all that together, one must get everything in line. A realistic answer would be that if we identified something here today and we had the people in the room who could get it up and running, it would take a minimum of 12 months.
Mr. Ray English:
I will try to answer some of the Senator's points. As winners of the Department's silver medal, we always consider Ms Leane, Mr. McSherry, Ms Yeates and Mr. Twomey national champions. We are keen to develop how those national champions go and engage with second-level schools and students. We would like to include that outreach from the schools base outwards in our work plan.
We also have longer-term plans not only to link the national competitions but to create junior school competitions alongside them. We can link second-level students into the junior school competitions and get junior school students to participate in appropriate competitions. Those students are then learning and feeding in, which will engage second-level students even more.
The third spoke in that wheel is that we are looking to develop skills packages from targeted industries for transition-year students. We must engage further with transition year. If we can supply materials to them that would engage them and if they look at the competitions available and the skills and careers packages, they might get a focus and become invested.
We must acknowledge the work of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, IGC. It is helpful to us in World Skills Ireland. We have created some videos for the IGC and it is distributing them through its networks. It is keen to promote apprenticeship programmes and particular skills. That should be acknowledged.
We are also involved in looking at the need for digitisation and its increase with one of Worlds Skills Ireland's partners, namely, Autodesk. We have set up, and are currently running, a series of online engagements for anybody who wants to come along. It is like a massive open online course, MOOC, for Fusion 360, which is used particularly in mechanical and manufacturing industries. We are inviting anyone to come along and engage with this programme and allowing them to get the first visualisation of what Fusion 360 looks like. Free certification will be provided for those who want it. This is something we are looking to add on. It has worked successfully. The first roll-out of the programme involved 75 people and in the first online training session, we are hoping to grow that and then expand into other offerings, such as building information modelling, that might lead people into the construction side.
To return to the Senator's point, we anticipate digitalisation will have a strong impact on the building industry. That might change perceptions. The industry is never not going to be noisy and it will never be totally clean because it is still using cement, etc. However, for gender balance, the digitalisation side is one that could work. Building information modelling is ubiquitous in Irish industry now and that should provide a pathway to gender balance in that career. We can look to promote that. There is a strong opportunity in that regard.
I have a range of questions aimed at our guests separately. I will start with my questions for Mr. Hourihan and Mr. English and ask about the funding model because that is the unit of work we are doing. Would they give a quick run-through of the cost of providing education of this type and where that funding comes from? How much is coming from the colleges and how expensive is it to run these courses from a college point of view? How much is coming from employers and how much is picked up by the students themselves? I am hoping for a quick sense of that.
Mr. Michael Hourihan:
The Deputy is asking about delivery as opposed to the competition. The model is reasonably straightforward. A figure is allocated for each apprenticeship class to the institutes of technology or technical universities.
That figure is processed and delivered through the HEA. It facilitates the equipment and the ongoing costs of delivering the block or course throughout the term.
To be clear on how apprenticeships are actually delivered, there are three 11-week windows for apprenticeship delivery. They run from September to December, from January to March and from April to June. All providers get an allocation of apprentice classes for those three periods. We get clarity on the numbers coming in approximately one month prior to the start date and we have to get all our cards in order and everything in place. The funding that comes in then goes directly into the financial engine of the institutions and is then pushed back out to the individual departments and sections that are delivering the apprenticeship block.
My next question is related and is directed at the apprentices here, all of whom probably have peers who are in the traditional college system and so forth. I had to work all the way through college. Were the apprentices here able to work within their sectors while studying? Were they able to earn as they learned? Was it expensive to embark on apprenticeship training? I ask them to elaborate on their experiences relative to their peers in college education and to compare and contrast the two. Was it a big decision, financially, to enter into apprenticeship training or was it easier than going to college?
Mr. Mark McSherry:
I did phase 2 of my training in Waterford, but I am from Cavan. I had to drive down to Waterford, stay for the week there and then drive back home. I was only on around €300 a week so by the time I drove down, that was a couple of hundred euro gone on petrol for the car. It cost me €150 to stay over and I had to eat for the week too so I was probably only coming home with €30 in profit. At the weekend, I might go out or do something and that would be null and void - I would be coming home with nothing. I had six months of that whereas all of my friends who went to college, in Maynooth, Dublin and Limerick, were all getting SUSI grants. Their college was paid for in that year and all they had to pay for was the commute. They were all working Saturday jobs as well so they were all better off than me for a long time. I am better off now, however, because as I learn, my money goes up every year. They are all still on the same amount of money with their part-time jobs but when they are qualified, they will probably be on more than me. I am only better off for a wee while.
Ms Natalia Leane:
It is a little different for me. I went into a full-time programme for my first year. Then I moved onto a Springboard course, which involves people who have been working getting back into education. I was in full-time education but because of the lack of interest, this was the programme that was running. I was integrated into a class that was on Springboard and it worked out really well for me. Many of my classmates would not have gone on in full-time education were it not for Springboard and the funding we got. We were paying €3,000 per year plus college fees for the first year we did. In the second year, we were paying around €300 to engage with the Springboard programme. We got uniforms on top of that and we got time to work. In my experience, the half-education, half-work system works out really well as long as there is backup funding to help students with college fees. If I were to pay the same college fees as I was paying in the first year and then only doing it part-time in order to work as well, that would not be to my benefit. The backup funding we got to do the part-time course meant that it worked out really well and we got to see the industry while we were there.
I believe it is fair to say, certainly on this committee but also in general, that there has been a significant change in people seeing how necessary these types of skill sets are. Are the apprentices present feeling that themselves? Do they feel things are changing in how valued their skill sets are, or are we still locked into a college-only mindset?
Mr. Pat Twomey:
I am aware that there is a big shortage there all right. I got planning two weeks ago for a home and as we move forward in building the house there are not a lot of tradespeople in the locality, never mind younger lads. They are not there for that kind of work. There could be more driven on to it. Having said that, the sister took up a trade. She is doing a sparky trade. It is kind of half and half but there could be more driven on to it to get more young lads going into it.
Two things jumped out for me. I have an abiding interest in the sustainable development goals. In the opening statement there was mention of linking the skills champions with WorldSkills development programmes in Africa in line with Irish Aid's priority areas, and to develop skills in line with the UN sustainable development goals. In the short time we have, will the witnesses put some meat on the bones of what that means?
Mr. Ray English:
WorldSkills International have a programme of development of skills in Africa, led by San-Quei Lin, the official delegate from Taiwan. His specific task is to look at development. This year, WorldSkills ran its first African national skills in Swakopmund, Namibia. That was attended by 12 countries. WorldSkills is looking to partner up, and we would like to partner up with WorldSkills and Irish Aid to see how we could use our national champions to raise skills in Africa, if such a programme would be beneficial. It is about that transfer of skills and that growth in knowledge and sharing. It would certainly be really useful.
On green skills, this year at WorldSkills we are hosting the World Plumbing Council, which is coming to Dublin for a meeting next month. It is very interesting that as part of the competition they now develop units that are self-sustaining. For example, in Kazan they developed toilet units and shower units that were then donated to a hospice. They were manufactured for the competition and then taken directly and installed as part of that sustainability agenda. We are very clear that we need to drive that way. We are really keen that all of the projects will look towards that and develop in that way.
Mr. Michael Hourihan:
If I may, I will clarify a point on the funding. The apprentices get a training allowance when they are in college. That training allowance increases each year. In phase 2 they get a training allowance, in phase 4 it is higher and in phase 6 it is higher again. That training allowance is monitored and organised through SOLAS. It is facilitated through the ETBs at the training centres. I just wanted to make that clear.
I thank all of the witnesses for coming in. It has certainly been very insightful and informative to have the apprentices here. It is very valuable because it is their experience and they are telling us what the gaps are. They are bringing to our attention what needs to change and the aspects that could be much better for apprentices. I wish all those present the very best in their careers.
Mr. Hourihan mentioned that there are 1,600 craft apprenticeships, if I heard him correctly, which is certainly very welcome. As somebody who has been very supportive of apprenticeships, I believe that we should be trying to get to the level that Germany has achieved. Ireland has serious gaps. Education and Training Boards Ireland is constantly raising the fact that we have serious gaps in apprenticeships. Unfortunately, there does seem to be a snobbery in the education system where people feel that the only education they should go through at third level is academic courses. It is shameful. I believe this needs to change. Craftsmanship needs to be valued and we need to promote apprenticeships in our education system. I am glad that is being done and some good work is happening It is very positive but we need more of that.
Mr. Twomey mentioned that in the schools the teachers might not raise or promote apprenticeships. That is where the change needs to happen, at second level, where it is presented as an option. I went to a vocational secondary school myself. Apprenticeships were very much promoted in the school, which did great work. It is lacking unfortunately in many second-level schools. We need to return to that and ask why it is not happening.
Mr. Hourihan mentioned that there is a need to upgrade facilities to get more apprenticeship courses in place. How much more funding does he feel is needed to upgrade the facilities to the level they should be at?
Mr. Michael Hourihan:
To go back slightly, I agree completely with what the Deputy is saying about the promotion of apprenticeships. She is quite correct. There is a certain level of snobbery there. That is what we in World Skills Ireland are trying to work on. We are trying to highlight the fact that apprenticeship is a viable, workable option that is really valuable. The only way of really learning something is to actually work on it. They talk about medicine and how it is pushed through and of course it is suitable for some people. However, after seven years at university a doctor is not allowed into an operating theatre to operate on you or me. They have to have practical experience. The apprenticeship model is what is used throughout. The snobbery end of it is reducing. We hope to be able to bring it down. The career guidance organisation we are dealing with is certainly open to that and has engaged with us. We are delighted it has done so.
I can be specific about the funding in MTU Cork. To bring those buildings up to spec we are talking in the region of €20 million to €25 million. That only one part of the building, however. The apprenticeship building in MTU Bishopstown campus was built in 1976. The throughput at that time was very low. It was a regional technical college back then and the numbers going though were relatively low. The building was fit for purpose at that point. It is certainly not fit for purpose at this point in time. The numbers going through are huge. Our facilities in the apprenticeship area are used not just by the apprentices but by the full-time engineering students as well. These students expect and are entitled to the best facilities. At this point we have the best equipment but we do not have the best facilities.
That is fair enough. My final question is for Mr. English. On the world skills competition, it is fantastic to see Ireland do so well at that level. We obviously have high-calibre skilled apprentices. Is this attracting companies to set up in Ireland? I sit in on many IBEC meetings and they always mention that there is a shortage of skilled labour and that this is an issue for employers. Are IBEC and IDA Ireland linking in with World Skills Ireland in any way? When we have these high-calibre apprentices achieving so much on the world stage, it would make sense to have collaboration and cohesion. Maybe that is happening. I am curious to know what the position is.
Mr. Michael Hourihan:
Certainly IBEC would be aware of World Skills Ireland. IBEC itself has developed a number of apprenticeships, which is really important as well. It would be more aware of apprenticeship and more involved in the delivery of apprenticeships. On IDA Ireland, when we developed the new cybersecurity competition for World Skills Ireland, the feedback was that it was absolutely brilliant because they could sell this to foreign companies, that the level of skills that are needed are actually in the economy. There is a shortage everywhere. Through promotion of skills we can encourage more people to come in.
We really have to step back a number of years and link those who are in second level now to get them thinking about what their career options will be. The developments in the formation of the National Apprenticeship Office are very interesting and important. The conversations that are starting between further education and higher education and the linking right the way through are also very important. The issue is to get over that idea which parents have that if one goes to an apprenticeship, one somehow stops at some stage. One must say, however, that it is absolutely wide open and the ability and options to return to further education, part-time or full-time, are fully there. It is important and we need to sell the idea that it is lifelong learning and it never stops.
The same way in which one can upskill in one’s career, one can equally upskill throughout one’s education. That is also a very important thing that we need to make clear.
I also say well done to Mr. English and Mr. Hourihan on all of their work and the very best of luck with the championships which are coming up. I thank and congratulate all of our witnesses on what they have achieved.
I will put this question to our four guests. We will have the Minister, Deputy Harris, coming before the committee later on today. What would be the one message they would like to give him around making apprenticeships more attractive? Perhaps we might start with Mr. Twomey and move through our guests from there.
Mr. Pat Twomey:
As I mentioned, it is a question of making people more aware of these opportunities at the secondary school level. Ms Yeates and some of the lads have suggested that we should go into schools, for example, and make them aware of it. Perhaps the secondary schools might have us in to have a chat with the transition year, TY, and leaving certificate students to make them more aware of the apprenticeships.
Ms Natalia Leane:
This also goes back to what Mr. Twomey just said about secondary schools. I was very lucky in the secondary school I went to because it was very trades-orientated and was a mixed school. We had woodwork, metalwork and home economics, but if one looked at the other two schools in the town, they were very gender-split. The metalwork and the woodwork were in the boys’ school and the home economics was in the girls’ school. Maybe we could somehow start from secondary school and have these subject available to all of the students and, from there, tell the students that they have done the subject and they can now move on to the apprenticeship. If the subject is not available, however, the apprenticeship is not going to come up for consideration. This would have to be a full, system-wide approach where the person can be aware that he or she is able to do this, if that makes any sense.
Ms Megan Yeates:
To jump in on Ms Leane’s answer, having attended many conferences, both nationally and internationally, what is interesting to note is that when we sit here and talk about the TY and the leaving certificate students, many of the European countries talk about this in respect of primary level students and entering second level. We leave it too late to approach the students. I remember being in fifth year and people had already set their mind on what they were going to do when they left school. If a career guidance or talk was given in sixth year, they were so closed-minded because they had already selected something that might not necessarily have been something that they wanted to do. They had made that decision and did not have to think about it further as they approached the leaving certificate examinations.
As Mr. Twomey said, going into schools and sharing those stories and opportunities sooner rather than later, and targeting students at a younger age, would be a good idea. Students would then have time to do their research and to really and truly think about what they might want to do in further education. That would be of a great benefit to the students.
Mr. Mark McSherry:
I know that school is the main focus but many employers do not want to take on young lads or ladies. I know a man who makes handmade kitchens on his own. He is flat out and works day and night, but will not take on a young lad because he is afraid they will mess up and will do something wrong. There are a good few boys around home like that. They would nearly take on a man of 50 years of age, near retirement, because they know what he is at rather than taking on a young lad.
Mr. Mark McSherry:
One has to learn from one’s mistakes.
If you own a company, it will not go your way all the time but the company will be making money. If someone messes up, the company is fit to put that money back in, sit the person down and show him or her how to do it right. I know from experience that when people do things wrong, they sometimes get the head eaten off them. The foreman or someone else gets on the phone to the boss to give out about your man, who is then docked his day's wage or whatever. He might leave the job because that tips him over the edge. Instead of taking that approach, one should just sit the person down, explain how to do it and promise to keep an eye out for the next time.
As regards Mr. English's experience, the World Skills Competition has been an enormous success. In the context of the competition, but also more generally, how can more young people be encouraged into apprenticeships? I know Senator Pauline O'Reilly raised some of the issues relating to MTU.
Mr. Ray English:
There are several things. There is a co-ordinated campaign through the national apprenticeship office and the work done by World Skills Ireland. The visibility of that campaign is important. It comes back to the Senator's earlier point. For us, it is a matter of resources. I am sure the committee hears that all the time. Mr. Hourihan and I, along with Mr. O'Halloran and Mr. Keys in the Gallery, make up the executive of World Skills Ireland and we all do this on a voluntary basis, as do all the examiners. Resource allocation really needs to be considered. It is about that funding allocation. The Senator is aware of what it was. It has not increased since 2019.
We have to grow the range of activities to engage people, such as using the champions we have available to go to schools. That is what that is about. It is about that connection. Ms Yeates is absolutely correct. It needs to happen much earlier. The information needs to be provided much earlier. We are trying to target transition year. It is that lag time. That is where we will make a difference.
It is about equity of skills and presenting all the skills together. It makes no difference to us whether a person is in digital construction or a bricklayer. We cover them all, from level 5 right through to level 8. That equity that one can be what one wants to be is really important. Promoting that to parents is key.
We are working on our next advertising campaign for the competition in October. It aims to encourage parents to come along, engage with the companies who will be advertising there and see what are the career opportunities. They can engage with the educators. Seeing the link between education and one's day-to-day career, and to where that can bring one, is key.
Mr. Michael Hourihan:
I agree completely with Mr. English. At our event in the RDS we try to allow prospective apprentices to get exposure to all the different trades, skills and options in the one place. They can talk to the education sector in respect of the education being provided for those different areas. Furthermore, they can see what is involved in each of the skill areas, which is crucial. I know plenty of people who have gone into employment - not necessarily apprenticeships, but any type of employment - with no idea what they were getting into. I am sure all present know such people. When they got into the job, they wondered what it was all about. Maybe they were delighted; maybe they were not. Everyone is entitled to be given exposure in order to allow them to make an informed decision in respect of their career going forward. That is crucial. It is what we are about at World Skills Ireland. We want any student, parent or career guidance person who is unsure about what exactly is involved to come in and see exactly what is involved in each skill area.
I thank our guests for their responses. It might be useful to write to the Minister, Deputy Harris, and, in particular, the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, to follow up on some of the recommendations that have been made. I refer to the idea of getting young apprentices such as those who are with us today to go to primary schools and speak to students.
Ms Yeates made the point that you are what you see from a very early stage. It would certainly be useful and helpful.
The issues mentioned there are key recommendations in the leaving certificate report. We will have the Minister, Deputy Harris, before us again and we can ask similar questions then. I call Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan followed by Senator Aisling Dolan.
I welcome all our guests. I may not have been in the room but I was listening upstairs in my office on the television so I have been following most of the debate. I will start with the four former apprentices in regard to their experience of the apprenticeships they did. My brother did an apprenticeship and he is a fabricator. I heard what he thought of it most days of the week. He also did in MTU, which was then Cork Institute of Technology. He did his placement too. I know his views but I am interested to know what the witnesses’ experience of it was in regard to the stipend or allowance that is provided. Is that enough for apprentices to get by on? Did the witnesses need to take out student loans? Did they have to depend on family or what way did it work out?
Mr. Pat Twomey:
I was lucky enough to be living at home and there was a bit of help from my parents. As well as that I come from a Gaeltacht and there was a grant for that to entice apprentices. However, money was a bit tight to keep the car on the road. Coming from the countryside, it was a bit tight in that regard. It was great to get the funding and that it progressed as we went along but the problem was that if we could not get into the likes of MTU or the ETB centres on time, that all slowed down. I was lucky enough, as were some of the others, to qualify pre-Covid-19. My course was to be four years but it went to four and a half. The courses are going on for longer than that now so when people keep getting put back and the money in that sense as well it can be annoying. That will definitely turn people off. If you know you are supposed to be finished in four years and then it becomes five years, it can be a bit annoying. However, as I said, I was lucky there was a bit of funding from home and from the grants.
Ms Megan Yeates:
Yes, I did a level 8 undergraduate degree for four years and was not suitable for any funding or any grant. Like Mr. Twomey, my parents paid my student fees for me, otherwise I would not have been able to attend further education at all. As I mentioned earlier, I worked 20 to 30 hours a week on top of my full-time course to provide enough to live on. I live in County Kildare and my course was in Dublin so I had to commute. On occasions I had to stay in Dublin. Like the others I have a car to run so I had to meet the cost of petrol and food. It all adds up very quickly. At times I had to sacrifice my education to pick up an extra shift in work, otherwise the bills would not have been paid the following week. As someone who did not qualify for any funding, it was extremely tough. Having gone back to education now to do a masters, which is again self-funded, even though it is a full-time masters programme I am still working through it to get by.
This discussion is on funding and there is a big debate about free education for all or targeting the resources where they are most needed, in particular to students from backgrounds that might not be able to afford to go to college otherwise. Where do the witnesses stand on that wider question? Would they prefer to see what funding is there targeted or should we strive for more, albeit that would come at a cost?
Ms Megan Yeates:
I can see the argument from both sides of the story. Because my parents could pay my college fees does not mean we were very wealthy or well-to-do. My parents had to scrimp, save and sacrifice things themselves to be able to put me through further education. I fell just short of the line to qualify. It is hard to say who deserves funding and who does not in that sense. It was very 50:50 whether I would have gone on to higher education or not. I could have fallen through the cracks and then I would have had to pick up a full-time job straight out of school, if we had not made those sacrifices. There are definitely people in that situation.
I was a teacher for 14 years, 12 of which were in a vocational school where it was promoted that kids would do woodwork, metalwork and so on. That was the culture there. I also taught in schools where that culture was not there. However, in the past few years in particular I notice that more girls are taking on those subjects in schools.
We had the president of Munster Technological University, MTU, here last week and he acknowledged that the uptake among females for apprenticeships is still quite low. How can we encourage greater female participation?
Ms Megan Yeates:
There is still a stigma which applies much more to females than it does males. There is much more of an acceptance that males will go on to apprenticeships and that there are enough college courses for females among which they should be able to find something to suit their fit. I have come through the full educational system and did not have the opportunity. The logistics apprenticeship did not exist when I was coming out of school. If I was given the choice to go back again, I would be more inclined to take the apprenticeship because I can see the benefits behind it. I was not qualified to work in my field until I completed my four years. While the guys in the apprenticeship get experience in their industry before they are even fully qualified, those of us in further education did not have that. It is very easy to do four years in the classroom but when one goes out into the working world, it is a whole different experience.
Mr. Michael Hourihan:
The Deputy is quite right. Significant promotion is going on at present with incentives for employers to take on apprentices and rightly so. However, there is still a backlog in some of the trades. Was it Mr. McSherry who said it would be five years by the time he was qualified? Promotion is great, but everything has to be in place to make sure that the throughput can run through correctly. That is very important as well. Numbers are a target but the whole apprenticeship system, or the traditional craft apprenticeship system in any case, is employer led. It is very difficult to put a number on targets or to put a target in place when one is depending on someone else to show interest and engage in that side of it. The bottom line is that the numbers will not be there if the employers do not want them.
Mr. Michael Hourihan:
It is more than financial. Financial incentive is certainly part of it. I think one of our apprentices mentioned earlier that it was down to experience as well. Sometimes, employers want more experienced employees. The guy doing the kitchen did not want to take a chance on a young fella. That problem appears on occasion. There is no doubt about it. All these employers need to think back. They had to learn too back in the day. We all had to learn. There is considerable work to be done with the employers to ensure that they will take on the apprentices and to ensure that the targets are met.
I heard Mr. Hourihan speak earlier to Deputy Nolan. I think he mentioned €20 million to €25 million for the refurbishment of the building in Munster Technological University, MTU. We did the tour there. I think I have done the tour three times in the past six months. It is clear the building needs more than just a lick of paint. I was an Irish teacher but I often found myself being timetabled in the woodwork class or the home economics kitchen. When we got the new building, we got language labs which were far more conducive to learning. Will Mr. Hourihan give us 30 seconds of a pitch about what he would like to do in MTU, if it were to get that type of funding?
Mr. Michael Hourihan:
That is an easy one. It is very straightforward. Our facilities are very limited. The building was built in the mid-70s and it was specific to the requirements that were needed then but things have changed. We need bigger workshops because the numbers have increased and we need more classrooms. We are doing some of our theory for the apprentice classes online, as we speak. We need classrooms and labs. It is very simple. That is the pitch. There is no point dressing it up. That is what is required.
We have been asked to take on more numbers and we are doing that. We are converting classrooms into labs and workshops. However, we are stuck with the footprint we have. Is there any way of fast-tracking the process by which funding can be made available for building works? It is as simple as that.
I welcome all of the speakers here today. It is great to have champions for apprenticeship programmes here, because that is what we want to see. We want people to be champions who will encourage and show many other students coming into the leaving certificate that there are other options out there.
I come from Ballinasloe and I represent Roscommon and Galway. Yesterday, I was at the Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board open day. All of the tutors were there. There were girls and people of all ages coming in, including people in their 30s and 40s, looking to do different courses. They were not just school leavers. Lifelong learning is very important, so I might ask Mr. Hourihan for a couple of comments on that.
Something that happened there really struck me. One of the girls who came in was a non-national who was doing her leaving certificate. I think she was under a lot of stress and pressure. She just said that she felt she came in with no hope, and after a half an hour talking with tutors and trainers there, she left with hope. There was a smile on her face. She wanted to do a particular qualification and if she could not get it through the points system, there would be another opportunity to do it through further education or apprenticeships. There is that sense of hope that the apprenticeship programme has to give.
With regard to World Skills Ireland, I have a few comments and questions for Mr. Hourihan and Mr. English on lifelong learning. Potentially, how do we encourage people at different age groups to consider apprenticeships or changing careers? What do we need to do on that? It was referenced in the opening statement as well. I think they have also probably spoken before about other European countries, in particular their apprenticeship uptakes. We heard last year from Norway, and I know Germany has a very high uptake of apprenticeships as well. What do they do that we do not? They spoke to us, but is there something simple we can do?
My next question relates to the buildings. In Fine Gael, we have been looking at how we use school buildings and how they can be used after school hours. We look at how we use premises in regional areas. For example, ETBs across the country sometimes have further education colleges that will not be in use potentially over the summer months until they start up their courses again in September. How are we working with our ETBs and our TUs to make the most of existing buildings? I understand that everybody always wants new buildings. That is the number one request. However, there are existing buildings there. When it comes to being able to develop and deliver classes, is there a way we can look at existing buildings and how we are working with the ETBs, which I think are quite integrated now with the TUs as well?
I have a few questions for our champions as well. I think Mr. McSherry is the competitor on the bricklaying side. Is that correct? When I promote apprenticeships, I get to hear from people. When I was getting the car washed, which is a treat, a guy came in behind me who was getting his car done too. He told me he was working on 40 housing units that are getting built in town. As I was chatting to him, he mentioned that he had met me before. He was from one of the villages in east Galway. I asked him if he had been in the leaving certificate class because I remembered he had been at that school, and he said he had been. I asked him if he was working now - it was only two or three years later - and he told me he had joined the apprentice programme and was doing plastering. I told him that was amazing and asked him why he thought we did not see more people doing it. He spoke about the hard work and everything else. He was a young guy. He said he did not know. I asked him if other people knew he had a nice car. It was his pride and joy. I ask Mr. McSherry how he tackles that when it is put back on the younger generation that it is not the same as 20 or 30 years ago. How do we combat that sort of narrative?
I ask the rest of our guests if they have any comments. There is a story that we have to tell about what apprenticeships are. We can see how successful they are in places such as Germany and Norway.
What is it we need to do as public representatives? How do we engage with the World Skills Ireland champions or similar organisations like that to promote the apprenticeship programme?
Mr. Michael Hourihan:
Okay. I thank the Senator and will take up a few of her points. The first concerned the building requirement and working with ETBs. I will wear my MTU hat for a moment, if I may. We have engaged strongly with Cork ETB, which is directly across the road from MTU Bishopstown campus. We are, indeed, sharing facilities.
Mr. Michael Hourihan:
We are using a lecture theatre in the ETB training centre. It works well in that it is literally across the road so it is a five-minute walk. It works. Furthermore, people from the ETB came to look at some of our workshops and facilities to see if there was any way we could work together. Again, we noted that most of the facilities are available from June to September and they have it in mind. We hope that might come to something. They deliver throughout.
Cork is a large county and Galway is second-largest county. There are many colleges of further education and different towns, so it would reduce transport costs for students if we could deliver some of that theory in different locations. I could imagine in locations such as Skibbereen in west Cork there may be a place where the ETBs could look to deliver education to apprentices.
Mr. Michael Hourihan:
Certainly. There is an anomaly in the system in that, for example, with construction plant fitting the Cork MTU campus is the only centre in the country delivering that to phase 4 and phase 6 apprentices and, therefore, if somebody is doing a construction plant fitting apprenticeship in Donegal, for example, the apprentice can only go to one place to do the phase 4 and phase 6 portions, and that is to Cork. There is no other choice.
Is it the case we must look at developing the expertise to deliver those programmes within each of our technological universities, as opposed to them being available in one? Is there a demand for the programme to be available in more than one?
Mr. Ray English:
The Senator raised a number of points. On the question of Germany and Norway, it is a real issue of equity. It is more than equality and they value apprenticeships in a totally different way and support them accordingly and more where they are needed. It is not a new culture and it comes from the longer term. We are starting that again and for us that journey might be slightly longer. It is the value that is really important. It is a collective value and it is really important to drive it on. It is also about visibility, which is really important. The more visibility we can get of young people, the better. Both Mr. Hourihan and myself are qualified tradespeople so we need to get to the younger people. It is really key to much of the outputs.
I will also take off my World Skills Ireland hat and put on my TU Dublin hat. We had Bolton Street and Kevin Street, although that building has been demolished and the programme has moved to Grangegorman. The building at Bolton Street is very old. In many cases, it is about the type of space that is available and it may not be a flexible space that allows for the new type of education we are seeking. As Mr. Hourihan pointed out, those facilities would be used both for undergraduate courses, research and apprenticeships. It is that combination that will give us the flexibility to grow that equity in everything we deliver. That is really important.
I am really pleased to hear Mr. Hourihan speak about collaboration with ETBs and the way forward is to use both premises. I welcome the capital funding available to the ETBs and I hope it will make a big difference. One of the biggest challenges is that we do not have the workshops and space, and we know that. We have a huge backlog. It would take a number of years to clear, even if a project could be approved tomorrow.
I asked the Minister to examine this aspect in respect of speeding up the procurement process and exploring what needs to be done in this context. I refer to the urgency in areas such as workforce planning and what we need to achieve there. Therefore, I hear loud and clear what is being said about the capital investment required. We also, however, need there to be proper collaboration. I wish to see the same outcome in this regard as the witnesses. I spent yesterday afternoon in Castlebar education and training board, ETB, centre and I saw the good work being done there. It is evident from the premises, though, that there has been no investment in the facility for years. In that regard, I would like to see the same type of collaboration with the Atlantic Technological University, ATU. This is the way forward. The committee will be fully supportive in the context of what was said.
Turning to the apprentices, how early in the secondary school cycle do people need to be made aware of apprenticeships and of the opportunities available in this area? Would it be in first year, second year, third year or at what stage should such an intervention be made? I ask this question because I sometimes feel it is too late by the time students are exposed to this information.
Ms Natalia Leane:
I would say first year. Based on my experience, we got a sample of all the trade subjects we could do in first year. We then had to pick about three of them that we wished to continue with. Going into them, we got a month's worth of experience in that one area and then we were moved on to another. If we got the opportunity to know what it would be possible for us to do if we continued with a subject, that would help. If we are shown a subject and we like it, we might take it on. It would be good, however, if we could know more about what we could do as a result of continuing on with a subject. Home economics, for example, is seen as a subject where people just do cooking. I am a chef and I am biased, but we also do a lot of financial work in home economics, as well as sewing. It would be possible to do many jobs as a result of having studied this subject, but when students experience it for one month and they make a curry, for example, they might come away from that experience thinking all they will be able to do in the long term as a result of taking on home economics is to take on a role as a chef. If it were to be explained to students what different apprenticeship programmes can be done based on the subjects taken, that would be great. It would especially be so in first year when students are picking their subjects.
That is great. I like the idea of Ms Leane and others being ambassadors for apprenticeships and going out into schools. Turning to Mr. English, how feasible is that if the proper, targeted investment were to be allocated to cover this type of approach in all the second-level schools in an area? Is it doable? How much of this type of endeavour happens now? I learned nothing more important about apprenticeships than what I learned from the floor this morning.
Mr. Ray English:
We have national champions and we would really like to be able to send them around the targeted schools and cluster them together. I refer to matching them to allow us to get a range of skills. There might be one person in the hard skills, the old traditional ones, and then someone else in one of the newer areas. We could send those people to a school and they would be able to talk about the complexity and range of skills. It is important, as I said, that potential apprentices are talking not to us but to their peers or near peers.
Mr. Ray English:
It could be done twice a year. The first time would be after the RDS event in September when all this information will be fresh in students' minds and the schools are back in place for the new term. Equally, that usually also coincides with the return of teams from the WorldSkills and EuroSkills competitions. Again, this involves the element of looking at how well we have done in such competitions. These are the Olympics of skills and people can represent their country in these events.
We are looking at student mobility across the island and the opportunities in that regard. Turning to such opportunities for apprenticeships as well in a 32-county context, how feasible would such mobility be? I would like to hear from the apprentices here with us on this question. Would they consider doing an apprenticeship, or part of one, in one jurisdiction and another part in a different jurisdiction? How valuable would something like that be?
Mr. Ray English:
It would be very valuable on the island. We are engaged in conversations with our colleagues in WorldSkills UK regarding how we can create competitions that could be run simultaneously on both sides. It is certainly a possibility we have in play now. Another aspect to be considered here is the expansion of the Erasmus and Erasmus+ programmes. Erasmus+ and Erasmus PRO are linked across all the WorldSkills members. We are trying to link WorldSkills partners to Erasmus programmes to encourage this transfer of skills and mobility. It is key.
Mr. Ray English:
It is interesting in that we have had long conversations and contacts with North West Regional College and South West College in the North and they are interested in coming down and participating. We are asking them to send some competitors where we will get that joint training together. We are very keen, for sure, as are WorldSkills UK.
The Chairman is very good, as Deputy Ó Laoghaire is not here. I want to try to establish the difference between the consortia-led apprenticeships and what it means to Ms Yeates. What is the difference in how she is learning given Mr. McSherry is doing his training in learning in blocks? Is she doing one or two days a week?
Ms Natalia Leane:
I did not do an official apprenticeship but did it through the Springboard programme, which is a very similar idea. I did a full-time course in first year but then moved on to Springboard in second year. I then ended up doing three days a week in college where I was working the other three days and had one day off. That worked better for me than being in college full time because even though we got to do stuff physically in college, I knew it was a set learning structure. When I got to learn my skills in college and then to go out to do the job as part of the other half of the course, I could see how the skills were being transferred from college to work andvice versa. Things I learned at work I could then use, for example, in my exams. That system worked much better than when I was full time in college in first year.
Is there anything that any of our guests would like to add that has not been covered today as this is the final opportunity for them to do so? Is there anything that we have missed out on that is very important?
Ms Megan Yeates:
No. To sum up, as has been mentioned multiple times, it is the issue of visibility and getting the message across. Before I even started the national competitions I had never even heard of WorldSkills and it seems to have been, at times, the best kept secret. It is a question of raising that visibility, no matter if it is through schools, employers, through the Oireachtas, or through any means possible to get the idea across. As was mentioned before, if the students cannot see it, they will not do it or be part of it. That is crucial.
I have a few questions now for Mr. Hourihan and for Mr. English and I will race through them. I am aware that they are both volunteers in the WorldSkills programme. Does the programme have any full-time permanent employees on the Irish side? No. it does not.
What Government or State funding does World Skills Ireland get to run the WorldSkills programme and similar programmes that they run? Do they receive Government support?
Mr. Michael Hourihan:
Basically, at this point in time we have two main activities. The first is the World Skills Ireland activities, which is ultimately the RDS event. Then there are the WorldSkills competitions that are run every second year.
The national funding comes from the HEA and industry. The HEA stipulates that whatever funding is provided through it, matching funding must come from industry, which at present is quite difficult, as one can appreciate. With the situation resulting from Covid-19, businesses are not throwing around sponsorship as easily as was the case in previous years. That is the model nationally.
For the WorldSkills competitions, which as I say happen every second year, we have WorldSkills activities throughout and both Mr. English myself would be heavily involved in those. Some of the funding for that comes from the HEA and some of it come from other State organisations, our own organisation, MTU, TUD and from other areas. Funding is always an issue, as I am sure the Chairman is fed up of hearing inside here.
Realistically, as Mr. English pointed out earlier, we are trying to expand our footprint. We have RDS Simmonscourt full at this point in time for next September and we would love to be able to add more skills.
There are two problems. The first is the area available in the RDS, where there are many other halls, and the second is the funding. It is as simple as that. This is where the whole thing is quite difficult. This past week we have had discussions on the cost of banners for our event in the RDS. We are speaking about relatively small money. This is the level we are at.
When the Irish team is successful on the WorldSkills stage there are organisations - I will not say they take credit - that are always out there to publicise and quite rightly so. What often annoys me is that in publicising it there should be financial resources in return for the work the witnesses do and the achievements of the apprentices. It is something I will definitely follow up with the Minister after this meeting. Now that we have a Department for further and higher education and apprenticeships, we should be looking at the funding model regarding what is received and where it comes from. It is a great programme and it puts Ireland on the world stage. We have many successes. What has been the biggest success that Irish apprentices have had in the WorldSkills competition?
Mr. Michael Hourihan:
We have had multiple gold medal winners. We have had silver medals, bronze medals and medallions of excellence. We have a gold medal winner here today in Ms Yeates and we have a medallion of excellence with Mr. Twomey. This is where we are at. It is all before the other two apprentices who are here. I cannot list them because I cannot remember them all but there have been multiple gold medal winners in various types of trades.
Mr. Ray English:
Of the team that went to Kazan, 12 received an award and we were in tenth position in the world. The Chair mentioned budgets. Our budget is a fraction of that in most other countries. We will consider training for ten to 12 weeks for Shanghai. Our nearest neighbour in the UK has been training for more than a year and a half. This is the difference in the levels of funding and the approach.
I was reading an article in a business magazine by the CEO of SOLAS, Andrew Brownlee. He states implementation of the national action plan for apprenticeships from 2021 to 2025 is well under way and excellent progress has been made on the deliverables. There are many more apprenticeships now and Mr. Brownlee mentioned wind turbine technicians and manufacturing data integration. Mr. Hourihan put it very well when he said there is a snobbery about apprenticeships. I have always said apprenticeships are not sexy enough for many people out there. He went further than I did with the word "snobbery". There is big snobbery towards apprenticeships. Fair play to the witnesses. In ten years, many of the apprentices before us will be earning an awful lot more than those who frown upon them. Mr. McSherry could be earning €3 or €4 a block and maybe even more. Fair play to them. They are putting in the work in the apprenticeships to do this. Does Mr. Hourihan believe there will be more pressure for wind turbine technician and manufacturing data integration apprenticeships? They might not be as tough as the apprenticeship Mr. McSherry did and they might not have as long hours as Ms Yeates and Ms Leane are doing. Does Mr. Hourihan believe there might be a fallout for fabrication, bricklaying and chef apprenticeships from many more apprenticeships being introduced? Does Mr. Hourihan understand the question I am asking?
Mr. Michael Hourihan:
I do. The Chair is quite right. There is no doubt that there will be a spillover. An example I can give is the electrical apprenticeship, which is the strongest apprenticeship in the country as we speak. There are approximately 6,000 or 7,000 electrical apprentices in the system. Plumbing is the next highest with 2,000 or 2,500 apprentices. The apprenticeship numbers then drop significantly.
There is a perception that certain jobs are cleaner, easier and pay better money. People will argue that block laying is very lucrative but it is a tougher gig. The more apprentices that we introduce then the greater choice and, therefore, there definitely will be a battle for numbers in a number of apprenticeship areas.
Mr. Twomey has appeared before the committee before. People experience a financial strain when they try to do an apprenticeship and keep a car on the road, and pay for accommodation and associated costs. In Dublin there is a greater financial pressure to pay for accommodation than down the country although I think that rent is nearly the same all over the country in the past 12 to 24 months. Do Mr. Twomey and Mr. McSherry believe that more people would undertake an apprenticeship if they qualified for grant assistance, etc. in the same way as third level students?
Mr. Mark McSherry:
I am a bricklayer and people think the only tools a bricklayer needs are a trowel and a level. An apprentice chippy or carpenter, electrician or plumber need a lot more equipment than I do to do their job. One does not get equipment as one gets on. I mean one's tools might get more expensive as time goes by if one decides to upgrade but the bare minimum amount of equipment still costs about €1,600. So, to pay for equipment, and to have a car and run it means that €250 a week does not go far. I am lucky that my father was a bricklayer who had just retired when I started my apprenticeship and, therefore, I did not need to buy my first set of power tools, a concrete saw or consaw etc. because I inherited his tools. However, as I progressed I had to put my hand in my pocket and buy more equipment. If I had a grant then I probably could have bought the equipment at the time.
I worked in the construction game before entering politics so I know quite a lot about the industry. An awful lot of block layers never did an apprenticeship or anything like that. Their apprenticeship was simply starting work at 17 or 18 years of age. Can Mr. McSherry tell me if he knows of many people around his age who ditched an apprenticeship but are now doing what he is doing? I know that he is far better skilled and qualified to do this work but does he know many bricklayers who learned on the job?
Mr. Mark McSherry:
Yes, there are a lot of boys doing that. They decided not to undertake an apprenticeship simply because they earn more money by not being an apprentice. Many employers want an apprentice because they can drop them straight back down to a wage of €250 a week at the start no matter what the age of the apprentice.
I thank Mr. McSherry and I will bring him back in later. Can Mr. Twomey answer the same question on whether the availability of grants and supports similar to what is available to third level students would make apprenticeships more attractive?
Mr. Pat Twomey:
Yes. A lot more lads out of my class learned their trade on the job but would have become an apprentice if grant funding had been available. My parents were not well off by any means but put some funding together to get me by in the trade; many families could not have done that. The likes of them still went away and fell in with someone. I know from the unit behind the factory that I work in that there are lads who learned welding or fabricating on the job but they will not get the same rate as me. They could be better than me but as they do not have a bit of paper because they could not afford to go back on €250 a week or that kind of thing, then they are not going to get the same rate, which is unfortunate. They could still be in the trade 20, 30 or 40 years but they will not get the same rate as me and I was lucky enough to get a certificate.
In terms of people emigrating after completing apprenticeships, most nurses, teachers or whatever go abroad for one, five or whatever number of years for work experience.
Are there many in this cohort who emigrate after doing their apprenticeship and what is the reason for that? Chefs are sought all over the world. There is a scarcity of them here and the Restaurants Association of Ireland has said so almost on a daily basis. Have many of this cohort of students emigrated afterwards?
Ms Megan Yeates:
I am in logistics, freight forward and transport and one of the benefits of going to the WorldSkills competition is getting the international exposure. The flip side of that is many of our guys get offered international opportunities that are so lucrative it is very hard to turn them down. As Mr. English and Mr. Hourigan will be able to tell the committee, many previous competitors have taken up those international opportunities. That is something that may be lacking at National Skills - the employers coming in and seeing the potential and making those job offers. I was in my final year of college when I did National Skills in March. I was coming out of college in May. There was plenty of opportunity to be approached by an employer and have that opportunity. It comes down to the packages they are offering. Those international ones are that bit more lucrative than those at home.
Mr. Ray English:
I have just a couple of points. Wind turbine will feature in the RDS in September, which is really interesting. One of the new ones, Kerry college, is supporting that.
The Chairman raised a really interesting point on recognition of prior learning for people who may have the skills but maybe have not got the paper work and how that might be fitted into the national agenda in bringing people back into the construction industry. It is perhaps something that could be looked at. It comes up for us every so often and we assist people where we can in doing that. They generally do some practical work if they can convince that they have the theory side done. It is an interesting observation.
Something the guys have not touched on is the legacy of pro ratafees for apprenticeship, particularly in the TU sector. They must pay one third of the equivalent of a full-time student, which is approximately €1,000, per block, which is a slight inhibitor when one does not have to pay it in phase 2 in the ETB sector.
Mr. Michael Hourigan:
Picking up on one little point that was mentioned earlier as regards doing an apprenticeship as distinct from not doing an apprenticeship and just working away in the trade, this is dangerous territory. My advice to anyone would be make sure that he or she gets qualified and completes his or her apprenticeship correctly. I have had dealings with a person of my own vintage fairly recently who was in the electrical game and he had to get out of it because he was not qualified. He was not in a position to come in and do what was required of him, that is, the theory element of the apprenticeship. That is an important message.
There are a couple of people I would like to thank. I thank Ms Yeates, Mr. Twomey, Ms Leane and Mr. McSherry for today. They came in here on short notice and we really appreciate that, as I know the committee does. I want to acknowledge two colleagues in the Gallery, Mr. Donal Keys and Mr. Tim O'Halloran, who could very well have been sitting here and dealt with the issues as capably as, or, they might argue, better than, we did.
Finally, I formally invite all members of the committee to our event in the RDS from 13 to 15 September. If a formal invitation needs to be sent, I can send that on. I have the contact details.
No bother. If Mr. Hourigan sends that on to the secretariat, we can arrange transport at the committee together or whatever the story is.
I thank Mr. Hourigan, Mr. English, Mr. McSherry, Ms Yeates, Ms Leane and Mr. Twomey for appearing before the committee this morning. I can tell Mr. McSherry that there are plenty of jobs in County Wexford. There is a scarcity. I have horror stories. In any case, Mr. McSherry might get more in Wexford than in Cavan.
It has been a very beneficial round-table discussion. The four are a credit to themselves, to their families and to their tutors.
It is not easy to come before an Oireachtas committee and to give an account of oneself and to talk about one's personal circumstances, finances and so on. The witnesses are advocating on behalf of a great many other students, and I hope other apprentices will appreciate their appearance before the committee. As Mr. Hourihan said, there is a bit of snobbery towards apprenticeships. There are fellas who went to college for six or seven years and who have never appeared before an Oireachtas committee, so the witnesses should be very proud of themselves. I thank them and Mr. Tim O'Halloran and Mr. Donal Keys, who are in the Public Gallery, for being with us this afternoon.
We will suspend until the Minister, Deputy Harris, appears.
I thank the committee for the invitation to discuss our plans for the sustainable future funding of the higher education sector, the major reforms of technological universities and other important initiatives under way in our Department. I previously stated to this committee that the Government will not be found wanting when it comes to addressing the question of sustainable funding for higher education. It has profound impacts for our economy, society and the citizens we all serve. The review sponsored by the European Commission Directorate General for Structural Reform Support was undertaken in early 2020 and I recently brought the report to Government for approval and publication.
I publicly thank the European Commission and the independent consultants for their extensive support and work in developing this comprehensive assessment. It provided a clear and detailed economic assessment to the funding options presented in the 2016 Cassells report, requested formally by this committee in 2019. On that note, I thank this committee, current and former members, Peter Cassells for his work, and everyone for their collective drive and ambition to see a sustainable model of funding for higher education, a truly important strategic national asset.
I am delighted to be with the committee to discuss our policy response and the decisions we have made, as published by the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and me on 4 May. As colleagues will be aware, I also published the review of the student grant scheme, fulfilling a key programme for Government commitment.
Funding the Future is the Department’s landmark policy document which settles the question of both the funding model and the funding gap. I want to be clear about what the Government decided not to do in Funding the Future. We have ruled out the possibility of introducing student loans into the system. We believe they are unfair and do not work. We have decided that the higher education system will have a multi-funded model, through additional Exchequer investment, because higher education is a public good, and through ongoing but not increased employer contributions to the national training fund. The student contribution will be retained but will be reduced over time.
We have put in place a twin-track approach. A funding gap of €307 million has been identified. There is a plan on how to fund higher education with a reform process. In the interests of time, I will not go through my full statement, but this is the exciting part. Now that we have identified the funding gap of €307 million, this enables a conversation to take place about what sort of education system we want to create. Up until now, legitimate conversations have been legitimately stymied by people saying that they cannot do more because the core funding has to be provided. We have now identified the core funding and the Government is committed to delivering it. We have to continue with the reform discussion.
How do we create an education system in Ireland that can meet the skills needs of the country now and in the future, and is accessible to all, flexible and recognises that students come to the education system at all stages of life? Not everyone can come in for a four-year degree, pack the bags, and move to another town or city. I am particularly passionate about creating better pathways between further education and higher education, so there is not a singular focus on rote learning, leaving certificate points and the CAO. This is a common ambition that we share across the political divide in this House.
We cannot talk about core funding and a sustainable plan that works for the universities without talking about a sustainable plan that works for families. While we can have a legitimate debate about whether we should reduce the registration fee or student grant fee first, or a bit of both, I will be clear that it is the Government's policy position that the cost of education for working families must be reduced. My Department only has two levers at its disposal to do that: the registration fee and the student grant. The Government has stated in a policy document that it wishes to see the student grant system significantly improved and that it wants to reduce the registration fee.
While maybe it is wonky and part of a process, I think it is exciting that, every year, in advance of the budget, we will publish a cost of education paper that will set out all the options. What options are available to the Minister or Government and why did it choose one over another? I think this will provide a focus on what options the Houses of the Oireachtas have to reduce the cost.
The student grant scheme review involved significant work. I thank colleagues for it. More than 9,000 people participated in the consultation. We have begun to implement some of the actions, including changes to the adjacency rate and the first increases to the grant and the income threshold in ten years. There is no doubt that we have much more to do. I hope and expect that we can make more progress on that in the budget.
We have established an implementation group to deliver the Funding the Future model. I am delighted I will be co-chairing it with Professor Anne Looney and Professor Tom Collins. I want to thank them both for their leadership. The inaugural meeting will take place tomorrow. We do not intend to lose any time in getting on with the agenda. The group membership is comprised of enterprise voices, student voices, societal voices and, of course, Government and agency representatives. I am very excited about the work we will undertake. As the members are aware, there are fives strands to the work of the group. No doubt, there will be an opportunity during questions and exchanges to address that.
I was also asked to touch on the issue of technological universities. Every application for every technological university has now been delivered. There is a gap in the north-east that we need to work together to address, but all technological university applications received by this Government have now been progressed. All the technological universities which sought status are now open and functioning. We are excited about the next stage of their journey. I can get into that during the questioning.
Before the Minister came in, he met some of the apprentices. We really need to hear what they have said. Their contribution was very valuable in informing where we need to go with apprenticeships. I thank them for that. Saint Brendan's College in Belmullet asked me to pass on its thanks to the Minister for the message. My son is in the leaving certificate class there.
We have had several conversations about the Funding the Future policy in the Dáil, and we agree with the sentiments of where the Minister is trying to go with it. We need some timeframes on delivery in terms of the reduction of the fees and the other things mentioned in it. If many of the changes recommended in the Cassells report are not introduced until 2026, that will be ten years after the publication of the report. We are in an ever-changing environment. My concern is we are going to be playing catch-up all the time. People want to see timescales on where we are going both with the SUSI reforms and the deficit in third level education. I know the Minister agrees we are reaping the negative effects of the deficit and the austerity in the third level sector in terms of our workforce planning. We may be faced with the situation again this year where students with the maximum number of points cannot get places on high-demand courses. I do not know if the Minister has any further information on the extra places on high-demand courses that were discussed last week. If the Minister has that information, I ask him to supply us with it.
I also want to raise the issue of the borrowing ability of technological universities. When will the technological universities be in a situation where they can borrow?
I also want to make two points that are relevant in the immediate term. Due to the cost-of-living crisis we are experiencing and ever-increasing inflation, is there any way the SUSI grants can be provided earlier this year? On the timing of the student assistance fund, we often hear it is October or November before students receive their funds. Getting a place in college involves stresses and strains and upfront costs. Is there a way that we can make the assistance more accessible earlier because of the cost-of-living crisis we are in? I will leave it at that. I want to give the Minister time to respond.
I echo the Deputy's comments on the apprentices. We need to hear more from apprentices. We hear a lot from agencies that represent good people, but the voice of the apprentice needs to be heard. It is good the committee invited them to attend today.
On timelines, the Deputy's question is a valid one. We now have a shared understanding across the sector, and I think across the Dáil and the Seanad, as to what needs to be done. The €307 million figure has not been disputed. There is a good technical paper that explains how we got to that figure. It is about getting on and delivering it.
People reference the Cassells report. I think it is important to state the review found a lot has happened since the publication of the Cassells report. One of the myths circulating was that Cassells did his work, which was very good work, from 2014 to 2016, and then the report sat on a shelf. That Cassells report mentioned a figure of €1 billion. Looking at the technical report, that figure is now €307 million. That shows that there has been a lot of movement, particularly post 2016 and onwards.
The honest answer is we are starting the work now. The Deputy mentioned a delivery date in 2026. I am talking about starting now, in budget 2023. On the pace at which we can deliver it, out of respect to all my Government colleagues and the collective we form, it is matter for the Estimates process. However, I wish to highlight there are three budgets left, all going to plan, in the lifetime of this Government.
Given the €307 million figure, we should be able to significantly close that gap during those three budgets. I think that is a shared ambition across Government. I do not think I am speaking out of turn in relation to that. We can make an awful lot of progress on that €307 million figure in the three remaining budgets before the next general election.
I do not have any more information on extra places but am finalising a memo to Government and expect to bring it to Government very shortly. We will try to provide, as I said to the Deputy in the Dáil last week, 1,000 additional places or thereabouts. It is different from previous years in that, as the Deputy has called for, we are targeting it in areas where there is high demand in terms of students looking for it as well as a skills need, specifically medicine, nursing, engineering, environmental areas and medical scientists. I will be happy to share the information with the Deputy once I have briefed Cabinet.
On the technological universities, that provision exists so we have clarified that the Housing Finance Agency is in a position under legislation to borrow. That is not the same thing as saying the structures are in place or the tradition in the sector is in place but legally it is possible as of now.
The Deputy made a fair point on the timing of the student assistance fund, considering the immediate pressures students can face at the start of a college year. I will reflect on that and see what we can do.
The Minister is welcome and I thank his officials for joining us. We have heard from many students that the cost-of-living crisis is impacting on them. I agree with the level of funding the Minister is proposing and he has support across Government but there are some areas where we need to accelerate things. For those struggling around SUSI grants, the expansion is welcome. Will the Minister comment on areas that are essential to get right immediately? We have a global cost-of-living crisis.
We have had people in to us saying we could have accelerated programmes around apprenticeships to develop skills quickly and bring a workforce on in areas, particularly around retrofitting and building, which is what we really need. Those things will get us out of the global crisis.
The previous witnesses spoke about the challenges they face around the infrastructure and funding they require to ensure they can train people. Does the Minister have any comments to make around funding that could be made available to technical universities to bring them up to a place where they have all the necessary resources, physical and otherwise? I would be grateful for that.
I thank the Senator. On the cost of living, there are measures the Government needs to look at specifically for students and their families. A number of the measures we have taken as a Government benefit students. In fairness to the Senator's party leader, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, one of the most impactful has been the change brought about in public transport costs. They have reduced for everybody but overwhelmingly reduced for people under the age of 24, many of whom are students, by up to 50%. That is an example of a whole-of-population measure with a specific targeted element that will benefit students above and beyond the rest of the population. We need to look at clever ways to do more things like that. The electricity credit will benefit students in student accommodation as well.
There will be a budget in October and we want to do much more on student supports, but from September we will see immediate improvements for students. They include the €1,000 extra a home can earn and still qualify for a SUSI grant, the first income threshold increase in a decade. The grant will go up by €200 for all students. That is the first time in a decade. That does not tell the full story because we have changed the adjacency rates. One had to live 45 km or more from college to get the higher grant. That goes down to 30 km from September, meaning many students will see their grant increase by more than 25%. That is thousands of euro of an increase.
We are eager to do more. As I said to Deputy Conway-Walsh, we are eager to see, in terms of the timing of that, what more can be done in the coming academic year as well. We will work through that in the Estimates process.
One group of students that I would like to see prioritised in the SUSI is postgraduate students. The cost of doing postgraduate education in Ireland is particularly high. We made improvements to the level of support through Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, in our first budget as a Government. There is a shared view across Government that we would like to do more in that space as well.
On the accelerated programmes, I agree fully with Senator Pauline O'Reilly. I do not mean the following in relation to the Senator. We all, including me, use the term apprenticeship sometimes as a catch-all phrase for upskilling and reskilling. What I saw yesterday when I opened a new retrofitting training centre in Limerick was that there are many accelerated programmes where somebody can access a piece of training, that might only take three or four days, to get the green skills that he or she needs to retrofit somebody's home. For an unemployed person with no construction background, a month in a retrofitting training centre can get him or her probably back into a decent well-paid job with lots of work to come. I am eager that we broaden the apprenticeships, and we are doing so. We have 65 now and 17 more in the pipeline. I am also eager that we look, as the Senator says, at traineeships and shorter courses as well.
On capital, I will make a couple of points. The sector has been starved of capital for a long time. That changes now. We have €450 million to spend between now and 2024, which is a big increase. Forty-five per cent of that will be spent on further education and apprenticeships. As we speak, SOLAS, is assessing applications with others and we expect this summer to be able to start announcing projects in the technological universities. In addition, we have also through the European Research Development Fund ring-fenced funding of €80 million specifically for research in the technological universities, TUs. Only the TUs will be able to apply, which should benefit them.
Apologies, I ran over time.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. I thank the Minister for his time here, and with his team as well.
I note that the goal of that €307 million will be to reduce our lecturer-student ratios and to make sure that the universities can compete at a world-class level. We have such excellent talent but it has to be acknowledged the numbers that are attending third level now are up to 240,000 to 245,000.
I am interested in the mention of the National Training Fund around the employer contributions and acknowledge the work that has been done around SUSI. The Minister stated that he engaged with more than 9,000 people. In my own local area in Galway, the Minister held webinars with people there to find out what was needed. It will be important looking at that postgraduate element, as the Minister mentioned. The reduction of the travel is crucial and also the public transport side of things. Public transport is very important for travel if the students are going longer distances.
The Minister might comment as well on the one-stop-shop now that it has been started up in Maynooth University for the third level students coming from Ukraine.
If I may, on the implementation group for funding and reform, the Minister mentioned the cost of education report that he will do prior to the budget. Are there perhaps one or two areas there that the Minister will be looking at specifically around what that would be? Second, on the implementation group with Professor Tom Collins and Professor Anne Looney, does the Minister envisage that will be an annual report with that group or is it a case that there will be certain targets they will complete each time? I thank the Minister for his time.
I thank Senator Dolan for all her work in these areas. I am glad the Senator reminded me because one of the key objectives that I want to see from the €307 million of additional funding into the sector is that we do not talk about it as €307 million. What that roughly means to people is we are spending much more on everybody's education every year. That will achieve more staff in the universities and an improvement on the student-staffing ratios which, in Ireland, are somewhere between 19:1 and 20:1. The European average is in or around 15:1. It is not done in the rigid way that a pupil-teacher ratio in a classroom is done. Students are used to large lectures in universities, and technological universities in due course, but overall the ratios of staff to students need to improve in the sector. That is a key aim that we want to deliver on.
On the SUSI review, I thank the team in the Department which worked hard on this. It is a really good piece of work and a key commitment in the programme for Government. It was done efficiently and also comprehensively in terms of the breadth, as the Senator acknowledged, of consultation.
The encouraging aspect is that much of what the review said is what we had begun. I am not suggesting we have done enough - we have not - but the review basically says we must ensure we increase the rates. We have started that. There is much more we need to do. The review said we must reduce the adjacency-non-adjacency rate. We have done that and need to do more on that. The review pointed to postgraduates in which area we need to do more. One area I must be honest about is that we have a piece of work to do is around part-time education. At present, we do not provide SUSI for part-time education. We need to bottom out. The Senator might ask what I mean by that.
I do not mean this in a flippant way. What do we define part-time education as? How long a period of education does it have to be? Where does it fit on the qualifications framework? We need to do work to get moving on that. We cannot have the policy contradiction of telling people that studying part-time is great and then not providing them with support. I feel strongly about that.
The one-stop shop for Ukrainian students, researchers and staff is going well. I thank Maynooth University for hosting it, but it is very much a cross-sector initiative. I thank the admissions offices of universities which have seconded people to this facility. It has provided a phone line and an email address. The higher education system can be difficult for anyone to navigate at the best of times, so it could be especially difficult for someone coming here from a war-torn country. The idea is that people will have an individual conversation with Ukrainian students, researchers or staff members about their stage of education in Ukraine and how that can work in Ireland, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that everyone can continue their education and research. I am pleased that we have been working on this at a European level. I thank Commissioner Mariya Gabriel for her work on this.
There are many ways to deal with the cost of education, the cost-of-living crisis and ways to support students outside my Department's remit. My Department only has two levers to address it directly, which are the student registration fee and the student grant scheme. The student assistance fund helps to a degree. The Government paper states that we will look at the options relating to both in each budget. In one year, the Minister might decide to use one over the other, another Minister might decide to do a little of both in the next year, and in another year, the Minister might decide it is not possible to do either. There will be a focus on it on budget day every year, just like we do with the pension. We have a debate every year, as we should, about what the pension should be. No one is begrudging people getting an increase in the pension. We do not have that discussion every year. That changes for students and their families. The cost of education paper will give us a seat at the table and provide focus to these issues.
I will take a scattergun approach here because I have a number of points I want to raise. I will start with the last of them. The Minister referred to the debate we have on the pension every year. I disagree with him. I would prefer if we did not have a debate on the pension each year and it was instead benchmarked so that we have certainty about the future and are sure it is keeping pace with the rapidly changing cost of living. All of the figures here are welcome. We need to disambiguate between what the different pots of money are doing. There tends to be conflation in the public consciousness. Some €307 million is for core funding. It is about driving research and student-teacher ratios. We have €450 million in capital funding. There is a pot of money for technological university research, which is extremely important. The Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, was in the Walton Institute with me on Friday. We saw a range of extremely exciting research. The difficulty for staff working in the technological university and the balance of teaching hours versus research hours, which makes it difficult for them to compete directly with the university sector, was discussed. We might need to work on that.
I have heard clear figures about capital funding and capital. I am not really hearing figures about how we tackle the costs for the student and the end user. That is important and we need to have a discussion. The Minister talked about the two levers available to him. We need to discuss how we balance universal interventions with more targeted interventions. In this context, we see the SUSI grant as being more targeted and the reduction of fees as being more universal. We need to have a proper public discussion about which way we want to go.
On the bigger picture, we have repeatedly heard about how Ireland spends a lower percentage of its GDP on higher education than other OECD countries, in particular. I know GDP is a frothy figure in Ireland so we might prefer to use GNI or GNI*. We do not compare favourably with other OECD countries. I would be interested in hearing about the Minister's vision and the global overview. Do we intend to shift the needle on that percentage spend? We need to have that conversation openly and publicly.
If we are raising tax, we have a responsibility to talk to the public about how that tax will be spent and explain the decision-making behind it. I am glad we have turned our face against student borrowing. We heard different points of view during this unit of work we are doing on student borrowing. I think student borrowing would present a mountain to climb for families from particular socioeconomic groups, so I am glad that the Minister has set his face against it.
Those are the things I would like the Minister to dig down into. What specifically are we talking about in terms of funding that we think is going to get to the student?
In terms of tackling the cost of living, I accept the changes that have been made to SUSI grants in terms of eligibility, adjacency etc. All of those things are very important but I think we would all accept those are running to stand still in terms of chasing the cost of living. I would like to hear from the Minister what it is in particular and specifically we want to do to tackle that cost.
The point I was making about the annual debate and pensions and the like was that it seems to me peculiar that we went through a period of austerity and then a period of significant economic growth, and many areas saw improvements and upticks in terms of supports, grants, reductions in Government charges, yet this area did not. Up until the previous budget the grants did not increase, and up until now we have not talked about reducing registration fees. That is wrong. I do not know whether it is a subconscious ageism within our political system but it is stupid and short-termist in terms of investing in human capital. We talk a lot about investing in capital, but investing in human capital is so important. Every other measure that was brought in during the austerity era seems to have been eased or improved but the grants did not increase and the registration fees stayed up. That is not passing the buck. We were in government. This is a genuine and honest discussion about how we must have a much more policy-focused approach to the cost of education and investment in education, which needs to happen annually. Education cannot be the poor relation in any discussion. To be fair to this Government, I believe we have applied, from the Taoiseach down, a level of focus to these issues.
The Deputy specifically referred to the technological university of the south east and to research and research time for staff, which is a core piece. If our new technological universities are to succeed, which they will and we want them to succeed, the work we are doing with the OECD around a new academic contract is key. We expect to bottom-out that work this year in our engagement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the like. I hope to be in a position to start talking publicly about this matter in more detail shortly. It is a really key moment. It is not about imposing contracts or anything like that but more about offering, after a period of consultation and engagement, new contracts to people to work in a new way that is reflective of being in a university, which I believe could be very exiting and transformational for the sector and probably for some of the people whom the Deputy and the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, met.
Deputy Ó Cathasaigh is entirely correct in what he said about universal versus targeted in terms of the cost of education, and I could not agree more. I argue that, as a Government, we tend to do both. The Minister for Health brought a proposal to Government recently that recommended the removal of the cost of hospital care for children. He did not bring a proposal suggesting an increase in the income threshold and giving medical cards to more children. We as a Government made a decision, in line with the idea that we should have a universal healthcare system, that every child should be able to access healthcare without paying. We did not decide just to tweak the income thresholds for the medical card. We did not say we would just improve a financial grant for some. We decided that as we value our kids' health, then healthcare was going to be free for everybody. That is an example and there are other measures we take in health that are targeted. It is never either-or when it comes to universal and targeted and it annoys me when people - I do not mean the Deputy because he did not do so - try to make the debate binary, because it never is.
On energy, and the Deputy and his party, along with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, have led on the issue, we have done targeted measures on the fuel allowance and we have done universal measures on the energy credit. Why would education be any different? We obviously need to target proactively those most in need. There is no doubt in the wide earthly world that we are already doing so, with €42 million spent on targeted measures from what we call the Programme for Access to Higher Education, PATH, initiatives, which include bursaries of €5,000 to increase diversity among teachers and increasing the SUSI grant, which is a targeted measure. However, we must recognise also that if a person has two children going to college at the same time and each is doing a four-year degree, it will cost that person €24,000 in registration fees. I believe that would have cost about €1,500 in 1997.
It has to be about where we want to get to, and I do not want to dodge that question in any way, shape or form. The good news about the work the European Commission did is this will bring us to the average level of spending in Europe. This will fund our university system roughly to the same level as the Swedish.
We will go from being below average to being in line. I can get the Deputy more details on that.
I thank the Minister for his presentation. I start by welcoming the positive developments and changes to make things easier for students availing of grants, with the travel distance being cut. More students can now qualify for a full grant. The maintenance grant has been increased by €200, along with the income threshold being increased by €1,000 for the standard grant. They are all welcome measures. The cost of living is affecting everybody, including our students. We all know that quite well.
I have raised my main concern with the Minister before, which relates to the student earnings cap of €4,500. I feel this is posing difficulties to students, who cannot work many hours. They want to work and do not want to have the burden of their education fall on their family who are also grappling with the cost of living. It would be good to increase this cap incrementally. I know it cannot be done all at once. It has not been increased since 2016 and I think it needs to be done. It is possibly a lost opportunity. I made a submission on this issue to the steering group review. I know the Union of Students in Ireland also feels strongly about this issue. It said it is an obstacle. I have met many employers in the hospitality sector. They cannot fill job vacancies because they cannot source enough students to fill the vacancies because of the cap. The cap affects the employer and the local economy too. It would be progressive to incrementally increase this in budget 2023. I called for this when I spoke during Leaders' Questions last week.
I acknowledge the long overdue positive developments with apprenticeships and traineeships. We have a serious gap in apprentices to fill. In order to initiate change at second level and make sure that apprenticeships and traineeships are valued, especially apprenticeships, is there a plan to roll out a programme to bring everybody on board, including career guidance teachers who, through no fault of their own, were focusing more on the academic side than on apprenticeships? It would be beneficial. We have listened today to some fantastic young students who were apprentices. They certainly gave us insight. If those young people went into schools to interact and talk with students, it would be a positive development. We should bring the whole school community on board, including teachers, especially career guidance teachers. It would initiate a change in our way of thinking about what constitutes education. Craftsmanship should be highly valued, as it is in Germany. Apprenticeships in Ireland should be no different.
I think I agree with everything the Deputy said. I thank her for welcoming the positive changes that have been made. I would be the first to acknowledge that they are a start and there is much more to do, as the SUSI review shows clearly and comprehensively. The good thing about the SUSI review is that we now know what we need to do. For the first time, we have identified the real cost of education in further education and training, at an undergraduate level and at a postgraduate level, and looked at how our grant system compares. The long and short of it is that the SUSI grant system was largely fit for purpose when it was introduced ten years ago, but the cost of living and the cost of accommodation have changed in that time. We are working to respond to that.
The Deputy made a fair point about the earnings cap, which comes up a lot. The earnings cap recognises that a student in full-time education is in full-time education. At the same time, everything has changed and the €4,500 figure seems low compared with when it was set. As the Deputy rightly said, it has not been reviewed in a long time. We will look at it in the pre-Estimates discussion. My gut feeling is that it could be increased without having any unintended consequences. It would be welcomed by students, by parents and, as the Deputy says, by sectors of our economy that want students to work part-time.
I am grateful for the Deputy's submission on that. On second-level change, we started a process with the CAO now having the visibility of apprenticeships and further education. A number of our schools are rolling out apprenticeship taster courses, as it were, at transition year level. I think we will have 30 being rolled out with ETBs through Solas. I will get the details for the Deputy. I am aware that KWETB does that. Of course, there is a really important piece around senior cycle reform and the exciting agenda the Minister, Deputy Foley is pursuing. That can help broaden the discussion around education and skills and maybe allow for more flexibility between what was the traditional leaving certificate and the leaving certificate vocational programme. We are very eager to do more on CAO reform. That website and process has narrowed the discussion too much in Ireland. I am absolutely determined that we change it. When I talk about future funding, that is going to be a key ask of ours. There has to be parity and visibility at the very least for students around all their options. It is not accidental that we have shortages in the construction, hospitality and green skills sectors. We need to fix that. I will send on some details on those taster programmes to the Deputy.
I thank the Minister and acknowledge the leadership he provided on the development of the technological universities and also in getting the funding debate really out there. Even though we may have some disagreements around some of the priorities, the fact that it is back centre stage is important. I have a very specific question I will ask the Minister before moving on to other points. The €307 million has been identified to deal with the current hole in current funding. One of the points the Minister made is around the provision of additional places in higher education in specific skills areas. These obviously include programmes like medicine where over the full six-year course we are talking about a full economic cost of something in the order of €100,000. It has been flagged in some of the media that up to 1,000 additional places are going to be provided in medicine, climate-related programmes and those where a skills shortage has been identified. Can the Minister give us an assurance that they will all be fully funded? I appreciate his point. If it is 1,000 places, and particularly in respect of the medical places, will all of those be fully funded?
Yes. I will not take up the time but the Senator is entirely correct. The €307 million is to fill the core now and get us where we need to get to. It does not include demographics or some additional pension requirements and it certainly does not include additional places.
I appreciate that. An issue that has been raised here with us on a number of occasions is that the funding model differs between what we might call the traditional universities and the technological universities. I do not know if the Minister can give us a commitment in terms of ensuring that in the funding model going forward, all of the higher education institutions will be placed on a similar footing.
The agreed policy direction of Government is to move from whta is often referred to as the two pot model to the one pot model. For example, in Limerick we have the Technological University of the Shannon and the University of Limerick. It cannot be right in one city to have students attending two universities where one university is getting more than the other. In terms of sustainable funding, it will be moving from the two pot to the one pot model.
That I cannot, truthfully, because the implementation group is meeting for the first time tomorrow, chaired by Professor Anne Looney, Professor Tom Collins and myself. No is the honest answer. It is something I would like to move on. I am talking about the progress we can make over three budgets. It is something I would not like to be isolated from that progress.
The Minister is right that there are a number of costs and levers some of which are not entirely within the control of his Department. Arguably the biggest cost for students is accommodation. It is far greater than fees or anything else. I realise this is an issue between the Minister's Department and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. What measures can be put in place in terms of allowing the TUs to borrow for their own student accommodation? How can we incentivise higher education institutions to provide more on-campus student accommodation preferably?
The Senator and I agree on much more than we sometimes like to pretend. He is factually entirely correct. Student accommodation is the biggest cost that students are facing. The SUSI review shows this. On borrowing, to be clear, I want to thank the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien for working very closely with us on the whole issue of student accommodation; the borrowing framework can now be accessed by our technological universities through the Housing Finance Agency. Of course, as I said in answer to an earlier question, for obvious reasons they do not have a lot of experience in drawing this down so we need to build a collective sense of confidence around it. There is no legal impediment today to that and we are very much open.
I delivered this message to a technological university yesterday in the context of receiving applications and pilot projects in terms of student accommodation for technological universities.
On the Senator's broader question, my view and, I believe, that of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, although I will not speak for him, is that we need to come up with a new model for student accommodation. It is very tricky to come up with a new model but we need to do so. We have many planning permissions granted to build on-campus student accommodation. The challenge is that they are not being built in a way that is affordable and, therefore, in some cases they are not being built because they cannot be built and rented at an affordable level. My officials and I are considering several matters in very close work with the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, and his officials. There are exciting ideas in the pipeline. An example of that relates to the Government announcement in respect of helping people to build apartments and whether there is a variation of that which could be used to help bridge that funding gap for some of our institutions. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, and I are hoping to bottom out some of these options in the coming weeks.
The Minister referred to part-time student funding. I know he has an interest in this issue. Unfortunately, many students cannot access this funding. With the rapid pace of technological change, however, we will all be required to upskill and reskill and most of those who are in employment will have to do so on a part-time basis. There are very good initiatives such as Springboard+ but there will be a need for wider provision. What funding measures can the Minister put in place to support that learning but also for the individual learner?
There are two ways of doing this. One relates to whether we can open up student grants to part-time students. Let us be clear that the legislation allows for that to be done. That section of the legislation has not been commenced. On foot of the SUSI work, my Department will do a piece of work in respect of defining the rules and criteria applying to part-time students and, therefore, the eligibility of part-time students for SUSI grants. There is a further piece we need to do. We have asked the OECD to do a piece of work - it is in the field now - in terms of the skills infrastructure of the country, but specifically looking at lifelong learning. As the Senator is aware, participation rates here are below the UN and OECD average when it comes to lifelong learning. The Government agreed at Cabinet last week to a proposal from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to significantly increase those rates by 2030, from approximately 40% to 60% of people participating in lifelong learning in any one calendar year. Does that mean one funds the citizen or the business or a bit of both? How do we crack that model? We have asked the OECD to specifically come up with policy proposals we can consider as a Government. It is due to complete the work at the start of 2023 but we hope to get an indication earlier than that of some of the levers we can pursue in the context of lifelong learning.
I wish to follow up on the funding gap of €307 million that was mentioned in the context of Funding the Future. I understand that numerous commentators have stated it is desirable that the gap be addressed within the lifetime of this Government. Will that be achieved within two years or three years or will it be further along the road? I ask the Minister to clarify that.
I refer to the comments of USI. It welcomed some aspects of what was published but was critical that there was no information on what kind of reduction was going to be due, as well as of the fact that contributions will continue to be part of the funding stream. I ask the Minister to address or clarify some of those concerns.
To follow up on the issue of student accommodation, as Senator Byrne stated, it is probably the single biggest concern of third level students. I refer to the inability of technological universities in particular to raise their own funds, borrow, etc. Will that be addressed?
The answer to the Deputy's final question is "Yes", the technological universities do have a legal ability to now access the borrowing framework. That is important. It is a new space for that sector to become familiar with and on which we can work with it. We have a clear message to the sector, however, that we are now in the business of receiving ideas and pilot projects in this space. I have been personally delivering that message in recent days.
As regards the comments of USI, I largely welcome them. A students' union would not be doing its job if it was not agitating for the Minister of the day to do more and do it faster. That is its job. The USI is a constructive partner and has been very helpful in addressing many student welfare issues and needs through a very difficult period with Covid. It will know, however, that no Minister, no matter what portfolio he or she holds, can ever say that grants will be increased by X or fees decreased by Y outside of a budgetary cycle. Government does not work like that. I point out to the USI and to students that we now have a Government policy that clearly states that, over time, we want to reduce the contribution fee and not just increase the student grant, but also improve how it works.
I hope to show form on this in the budget in October. The budgets we have delivered since going into government have seen increases in student supports and student grants each year. We want to build on this. To ask how quickly we can reach the €307 million is a very legitimate question. I have heard the Irish Universities Association state it would like to see it done in two budgets and no more than three. I would not expect the association to say anything else as it has been waiting a long time to get to this point. It is on the implementation group, as is the Technological Higher Education Association and others. It is a matter for the budget but if the Government goes the full term, which I hope it does, then three budgets remain in its lifetime. We could make significant inroads and huge progress in delivering on this figure during three budgets. The three parties in government would be collectively disappointed if we did not achieve this.
The Deputy has previously raised with me the issue of a seat on the National Skills Council for the Higher Education Colleges Association. There is merit in this and I have asked the officials to look at it and revert directly to the Deputy.
Senator Byrne raised the 60:40 divide between funding for TUs and traditional universities. The Minister said it would all go into one pot. Are we to take from this that it will be based on the number of students? Many colleges are oversubscribed at present. Many TUs have been very generous with their intake over the years. They have far higher numbers than perhaps even they would have liked. I assume there will be no catch and that it will not be capped at a certain limit. Does the Minister envisage this type of restriction?
No, we are not trying to catch out anyone or set traps. We are trying to make sure that students are treated equally from a funding point of view. We are trying to apply a weight to issues such as access, research and engagement. It is about taking a consistent approach regardless of whether a university is traditional or technological. This is the destination we want to get to. How we get there and how we agree the funding model is the work of the Department and the Government but it will be steered by some of the work of the implementation group. We want to get to the point where we treat all students equally when it comes to the level of investment the State is making, regardless of what institution they attend.
I had a question in the same vein as that of Deputy O'Sullivan on the 60:40 funding divide. Will the Minister comment on the TUs being able to borrow for student accommodation? When does the Minister think TUs will be able to borrow for student accommodation?
Legally they can borrow now through the Housing Finance Agency. There is no legislative reason they cannot borrow. The officials have done work on this to clarify it. The legal position is they can access the borrowing framework. As I have said, and I say this for a reason, these are new institutions and potentially large capital projects. They need to build a collective sense of confidence with regard to an ability for us to collectively deliver on this agenda. I do not mean this in a pejorative sense and they would say it honestly too. It is something we are working our way through. My message to technological universities is very clear. We are open for business in terms of pilot projects and ideas for student accommodation. It will be a very important component of making sure TUs reach their full potential. There is no moment in time in terms of legislative change required to begin these conversations.
We have been very fortunate in this country with the calibre of people who have applied and become chairs of technological universities. The breath of experience they have between them is an important resource, not only individually to their institutions but to the Department, the Government, the sector and the committee. There is a lot of sense in what the Chair has said.
Before the Minister arrived, we had apprenticeship students before the committee. One of the biggest issues they raised was their finances as they go through the apprenticeship programme and how pressurised they are in paying for accommodation and putting a car on the road. Is there any way they can be included in the SUSI format? We want to entice and encourage more apprenticeships.
In the context of SOLAS, we have proposals to encourage more apprenticeships in the years from 2021 to 2025. Is it envisaged that participants in these programmes could become eligible for SUSI grant funding? Is that a runner?
I was delighted we had the apprenticeship students in with us and I wish them well in the WorldSkills competition. I look forward to meeting them properly before they head off, hopefully, in October.
I am conscious that apprentices are not in any way immune or insulated from the real impact of the cost-of-living challenges faced by everyone. A National Apprenticeship Office has been established and much good work is under way to review how apprenticeships work, how off-the-job training is done and the improvements that could be made in this context. For the first time, we have the voices of apprentices at the table in this regard. This is important and, therefore, we will be happy to look at how we can support apprentices. However, the situation is not directly comparable with the SUSI system for several reasons. Students on the apprenticeship model are paid and earning as they go. There are also additional payments if students are travelling some distance and other similar aspects. In many ways, therefore, the earnings of students on apprenticeship programmes would well exceed what would be paid through SUSI. We would not wish to do something that could end up having an unintended consequence. How we support apprentices as a distinct group is a matter we can examine, though, and if the committee is asking us to do that, we can ask the National Apprenticeship Office to undertake this endeavour.
As mentioned, I understand that all students have to buy materials, etc., but an apprentice blocklayer told us this morning that he had to spend up to €5,000 on tools and other equipment. That is a fair cost, in addition to the expense of accommodation, travel and everything else.
That is a fair point. A record number of people registered for apprenticeship programmes last year. We want more people to continue to register for these programmes and for the number of apprentices in training to increase to 10,000 or more by 2025, so we never want there to be barriers in people's way in this regard. Now that we have a National Apprenticeship Office, there is a chance to begin examining all these aspects.
The other issue raised, and the Minister touched on it, was the WorldSkills competition. I asked how this undertaking is funded and the answer was that the finance comes from the HEA and private enterprise. The witnesses said it is getting more difficult each year to get buy-in from private enterprise. Perhaps this funding aspect is something the Minister's Department might be able to examine, because this is a fantastic programme. We have had some fantastic results. I point this out in the context of the unfavourable comparison between what we are putting into this undertaking and the funds allocated to it by other countries, as well as the lead-in time allowed here for preparations for the WorldSkills competition. I would appreciate it if the Minister would examine these elements.
I will. I am pleased the Government is able to support our participants in WorldSkills through the HEA. I am saddened to hear it is getting more difficult to secure matching private support for this undertaking, considering industry reaps such great benefits from these endeavours. I am due to meet with our WorldSkills forum people and I will certainly discuss this aspect with them on foot of the Chair's comment.
I thank the Minister and his officials for coming here today for this discussion. It has been productive. I apologise that it has been cut short. The Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, will also attend the next meeting of the committee.