Dáil debates

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science: Statements


4:00 pm

James O'Connor (Cork East, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for being in the House to speak about the ongoing work he is doing in the new Department. It is critical for so many young people and those engaged in further education throughout the country. I am conscious that I am the youngest Deputy in the House to speak about this issue. I care deeply about it and I have worked in this area in the past, as the Minister is well aware.

A particular issue I raised in the House this week was the library system in Ireland. I have been engaging with officials in local government in Cork and elsewhere on proposed library developments in individual communities. Something that has been discussed much in Dáil Éireann in recent times is that so many students engaged in higher education and studying at home find it incredibly challenging to get a proper broadband connection, which is having a severe impact on their studies. My constituency office is inundated, and I am sure other Deputies have a similar experience. A potentially very good solution would be for the Department, along with the local authorities, to invest in our library systems. The Department is new, and I am sure the Minister is looking for new ideas and ways he can improve higher education throughout the country to make sure there is balance nationally for urban and rural areas. I spoke about the multidepartmental approach required for this because we need funds and we need the Department of Education and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to focus on the importance of projects such as those I have outlined.

In many areas, students who are at home and struggling to get proper broadband connectivity to engage in their studies would be able to go to their local libraries. There are many planned developments throughout the country. There are two in my constituency, in Midleton and Youghal, that are ready to go but need funding and back-up at governmental level in support of local authorities. This would transform people's ability to study and learn from home, with potential savings of thousands of euro for those who may be considering studying in cities such as Dublin or Cork, where accommodation is incredibly expensive. We could potentially save those families the cost and expense of this. They could put their SUSI money to good use in other ways to improve their studies.

Many students are from certain backgrounds or may be in unfortunate financial circumstances and they find themselves in a situation where they have to work many hours that could otherwise be dedicated to their studies. This is one route we should explore.

I welcome the news about the top-up grant of €250. I know this will come as an enormous benefit to many students who are stuck for money and financial support. I hope that, in the medium term and while the Covid situation evolves, we would consider such measures for next year as well.

I welcome the Minister's news that he will work to improve SUSI. I have outlined to him before in the House my sincere concerns about people fulfilling the SUSI criteria, particularly those Irish citizens who moved abroad and then returned home to Ireland. I have raised individual cases with the Minister where people were locked outside the criteria. It is an incredibly daunting task for them to go through appeals to try to obtain funding for their higher education, and this could potentially be the deciding factor in whether or not they are able to pursue their studies. This is wrong. We should be able to provide them with the supports they need. The Minister has been working with me on an ongoing basis on that issue but perhaps he could put a renewed focus on it in the coming months.

I wish the Minister well and thank him for all the work he has done so far.


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