Thursday, 19 November 2020
Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science: Statements
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to these statements. I note with appreciation both Ministers appearing before the Oireachtas committee recently to create their Department so I express my congratulations on that point. I believe it has to be formalised by the House but that will be a great day for both of them. I know they will be very pleased to formally have a Department in which to work.
I want to cover a few issues within the higher education sector. I will start with the expansion of apprenticeships, which is very pleasing to hear. It is a critical part of the training and third level offering from this State. Seeing it prioritised is very pleasing because third level education is not for everybody and it is all the more important for us to ensure that we have a diversity of third level education available across all sectors of society. If it is not recognised as a form of higher education perhaps it should be but its promotion as an alternative to further education is welcome.
I have discussed previously in committee with the Ministers the knock-on effects of the pandemic on third level access in terms of courses. I was very pleased to hear that the additional course places that were made available this year will be made available next year also. I certainly hope that with a variety of issues arising in the near future such as Brexit and, hopefully, the exit of the situation we are in currently in terms of Covid-19, the third level institutions and the Department will be responsive to the necessary changes that most likely will arise in terms of third level choices and, as I mentioned, apprenticeships.
That leads me to a point I made in committee, which is an important one. Both the Department of Education and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science need to work collaboratively on what a leaving certificate that does not involve sitting a summer examination in the future might be because that conversation needs to be had by all the various parties involved. It is worthy of having a conversation at this point given what Covid-19 has caused in terms of the class of 2020 and 2021. I feel very sorry for the poor fifth year, now sixth year, students but at the same time they have a burden in this process also.
I want to briefly mention the new literacy, numeracy and digital skills strategy the Minister has launched. I look forward to getting more information on that but it is a worthy area for him to focus on given the 500,000 people who are estimated to be struggling on that front. We need to support the work of the National Adult Literacy Agency, along with all of the other partners, in respect of ensuring that the policy is a success because additional adult education is crucial. We see it in communities up and down the country and it would be worthy to spend some time on that.
Colleagues have already mentioned the student supports that are available, some of which are in the positive category and some in the negative. I want to recognise the gestural support the Minister has given to students up and down the country with the announcement of the €50 million package, which will involve each student receiving approximately €250. That is worthwhile in recognising that students will have additional costs associated with learning from home. Also, the digital access scheme is crucial in assisting those students and catering for third level education at home.
I touched on it previously but the retraining and upskilling element of the Minister's Department is important in terms of recognising the change Brexit and Covid-19 will bring, the diversification that our jobs market will need to take and how responsive the third level institutions, and his Department, will be in dealing with that change and diversification.
I look forward to further engagement with the Ministers in committee. I am fortunate to be on that committee under the chairmanship of Deputy Paul Kehoe.