Thursday, 19 November 2020
Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science: Statements
I thank the Minister for the update. I welcome the €250 being made available for each student. It is important the Government recognises the difficult circumstances many students have been facing. Despite the amazing efforts of third level educators and staff, as well as students' unions and what they have done throughout the country, remote learning has had a negative impact on the quality of the service provided. I raised with the Minister a couple of weeks ago the concerns I have about blended learning and the impact that has. I am afraid of the drop-out rates it might lead to. It is regrettable that the Government has brought forward this as a once-off payment. We have the highest fees in the EU and SUSI supports need to be increased, which will still be the case next year.
I welcome the review of SUSI that is taking place and I would like to see it completed it sooner rather than later. There are things we can do now, in terms of the communication between SUSI and the Department of Social Protection, to make it easier for students to access support. Improvements can be made even without looking at the threshold fees and everything else that needs to be done around the reform of SUSI. We certainly will work with the Minister on that. We have much very valuable information, which I have submitted before, that comes directly from students.
In regard to postgraduate students, will the Minister consider asking the universities to compensate them for the move to online teaching? Irish universities have confirmed in recent weeks that they will not be offering face-to-face teaching before next summer, with the exception of some laboratory and practical sessions. Graduate-entry medical students at University College Dublin are withholding their exorbitant fees and the university's Smurfit business school students are lobbying for a 30% reduction in fees. We are talking about students who have handed over €10,000 to €18,000. The experience they are getting online is not the one for which they signed up. If we look at the colleges' prospectuses, marketing campaigns and open days, they describe the student experience as something really valuable. Those students have paid for something they are not getting. Will the Minister see whether something can be done in terms of compensating them?
I want to raise the issue of student accommodation. While the €250 payment is very welcome, thousands of euro have been paid out by students and their families, either for on-campus accommodation or private accommodation, and they are not getting that money back. The Minister said on the previous occasion in which we discussed this matter in the House that five of the seven universities had agreed to refund students for on-campus accommodation. Since then, however, I have been contacted by a number of people who have been denied the refunds which their university supposedly agreed to issue. My office has been in contact with the Minister about these cases. It is unacceptable that public institutions continue to deny students these funds, particularly when the Minister has made a commitment to the Dáil that refunds would be made.
There is an ever greater issue in respect of private accommodation providers given that some 90% of student accommodation is provided by the private sector. Private landlords are telling students that if they get somebody to take their place, the landlord will consider giving them their money back. That is not good enough. A clear message should be sent from Government that any student accommodation provider who fails to provide funds for unused accommodation will be denied access to any future financial supports or tax reliefs, whether related to the Covid-19 crisis or otherwise. If emergency legislation is needed to give the Government the power to act, then it should be brought forward. It is not good enough for the Minister for Housing, Local Heritage and Government to say there is nothing that can be done. That is a complete abdication of responsibility. We are talking about the most basic social solidarity at a time of public health emergency.
The situation of student nurses and midwives must be addressed. The Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister for Health need to work together to resolve it. Student nurses and midwives are working on the front line during the pandemic and they need, and deserve, to be paid accordingly. Many of them had to give up part-time jobs due to the dangers of cross-contamination, and rightly so, but they were reliant on that income. Not only are they not paid and unable to earn, they are expected to pay €3,000 in fees. We are telling them to give up their jobs and work for free but they still must pay the highest fees in the EU. It is no wonder we have problems retaining nurses when this is how they are treated. This issue must be dealt with as a matter of urgency.
On the issue of apprenticeships, I acknowledge what has been done and what the Minister is trying to do in this area. However, it is blatantly unacceptable that only two out of all the universities and institutes of technology and fewer than half of local authorities offer apprenticeship places. It is important that the Government instruct educational institutions, councils and public bodies to play their part by employing apprentices. We were told there would be more than 100 different apprentice programmes to choose from but, instead, there are only 58. While I look forward to seeing the Minister's plan to address this situation, what we really need is action. I thank the Minister for what he has done but there are real problems in this area that need to be addressed.