Dáil debates

Thursday, 19 November 2020

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


4:50 pm

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Deputies for their constructive and valuable contributions. My plan, and that of the Minister, Deputy Harris, and my Department, is to work in collaboration with our stakeholders, Oireachtas colleagues and many others. I look forward to our continued engagement. Nobody has to be reminded that education is not just primary school followed by secondary school, followed by going to college. There are a number of paths in life. It is up to me and my Department, working with others, to provide the kind of education a person wants, where he or she wants it. In that regard, my focus as Minister of State is on skills development, including apprenticeships and further education. Ensuring that everyone, including those groups that have been disadvantaged historically, has access to educational opportunities is vital.

For example, we know that in Ireland, participation by members of the Traveller community in higher education remains far below where we want it to be. The most recent data show only 61 Travellers are in higher education. Approximately 1% of Travellers have third level education.

Earlier, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, spoke about inclusion and equity of access, as have other Deputies this afternoon. Our record on Traveller participation in further and higher education is not good enough from my perspective. My Department has a plan to address this in partnership with the Traveller community. I am pleased to say that as part of the plan we have secured €300,000 in dormant accounts funding to safeguard Traveller participation and mitigate against the long-term damage that Covid-19 has caused. The funding will be used to support technology and study spaces that people may need and to address any caring responsibilities or health and social impacts of the pandemic.

In addition to this funding, there is also a once-off Covid-19 emergency fund of €1.9 million to support the delivery of access and support services to vulnerable students from target groups. The funding will assist access officers in educational institutions to implement supports to meet the needs of particularly vulnerable students. Priority will be given to the national access plan target groups who have been most impacted by Covid-19. The socioeconomic groups which have low participation in higher education include Travellers, first-time mature students, students with disabilities, part-time flexible learners, further education award-holder entrants, lone parents and ethnic minorities.

All students have suffered as a result of Covid-19 but it is clear some face greater challenges than others. We must ensure we do everything we can to help students stay in college during this difficult period. The funding is part of the €10 million access support package under the overall €168 million Covid-19 funding package that is supporting return to education. The overall goal is targeted measures in support of implementation of the national development plan for equity of access 2015-21 and the programme for access to higher education, PATH. The objective is to attract and retain students from target groups. We need to safeguard progress towards targets by ensuring successful transition to, and retention in, higher education during the Covid-19 period.

Our students are our future and many of them are at a formative stage in their lives. As we face the extraordinary challenges arising from the pandemic I am confident that each of them will rise to their current challenges as we work through the days and months ahead. We must play our part to ensure that the student experience will help them to blossom by giving them confidence that the supports are available when they need them.

It is not only students who access education who must be safeguarded. We have a healthy apprenticeship programme in Ireland and it too must be accessible. It is important that people know apprenticeships are for everyone no matter what age. There is no age limit. If a person has a disability, this can and will be accommodated. Education and training providers offer learning and other supports to apprentices during their training. Many employers also provide accommodation in the workplace to apprentices with disabilities. Currently, a total of 535 apprentices have reported one or more disabilities. They are receiving additional supports, as is appropriate.

In line with the programme for Government, a new action plan for apprenticeships is in development to cover the period 2021 to 2025 with a target of 10,000 apprenticeship registrations per annum by 2025. The plan will also set out how the apprentice population will more closely reflect the general population and offer targeted supports for under-represented groups. Focused and detailed work on developing the plan is under way in my Department through a strongly consultative approach. Over 60 submissions were received from stakeholders and are being supplemented with feedback from small and medium-sized employers through the regional skills fora and through feedback in the region from 3,500 apprentices through an online questionnaire. All of this feedback as well as the review of the current position of the pathway findings and recommendations will be used to inform the new action plan to be finalised by year end.

I am mindful of the challenges students have faced in respect of accommodation this year due to the financial pressures and the blended learning format of the 2020-21 academic year. In recent months my Department has been engaging with representatives from the higher education sector to address the many challenges faced by students at this difficult time. My Department, in consultation with key stakeholders, will continue to monitor the situation relating to student accommodation closely. Refund or cancellation policies for student accommodation should be set out in the licence agreement signed at the beginning of the academic year. In the first instance, students should engage with their accommodation providers to see if an arrangement can be reached with regard to a refund. If it is not possible, under the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2019 students have access to the dispute resolution services of the Residential Tenancies Board. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, and I have asked our higher education institutions with accommodation to try to show flexibility in terms of its use for the coming academic year as well as flexibility with regard to cancellation and refunds. I hope the private providers will show some flexibility. However, it is not within my power or that of the Minister, Deputy Harris, to issue instruction relating to the private rental market.

I am acutely aware of the impact the pandemic has had on our students and I am keen to ensure the safety of our students and staff in further and higher education. The majority of college will be online for this semester. We are providing financial assistance, as the Minister, Deputy Harris, has outlined through the once-off €50 million fund announced today.

Finally, I wish to outline the supports provided to institutions to deal with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. This year my Department has brought the total devolved capital grant for higher education institutions for the 2020-21 academic year to €40 million, a significant increase from the €10 million annually provided in recent years. This additional funding will help our colleges invest in additional works to help protect students and staff as we continue to fight this pandemic. It will also support institutions in upgrading their campuses and equipment for the long-term. The funding is expected to advance the development of high-end skills in the technological sector as well as facilitating building improvements to support health and safety works, information and communications technology equipment renewal and energy related upgrades. The funding forms part of the ongoing capital investment in the higher education sector under Project Ireland 2040. The 2021 allocation for infrastructure development in the further and higher education sectors, excluding research, is €224.4 million. This represents an increase of 53% on the €147 million allocated for 2020. The flexible funding provided through the devolved capital grant by my Department this year complements other large-scale capital investments in the sector and will help expand availability of student places and transform campus infrastructure in the coming years.

I wish to speak briefly in respect of funding allocated to the University of Limerick, Mary Immaculate College and the Limerick Institute of Technology under the additional 2020 allocation. Funding has been ringfenced for access services to assist higher education institutions in responding to the emerging challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Higher Education Authority has provisionally allocated to UL a Covid-19 support package of more than €4.5 million. Mary Immaculate College has been allocated more than €300,000 and LIT more than €1 million. These allocations will cover mental health and well-being, ICT support for disadvantaged students, research extensions and a Covid-19 contingency fund for access services for each institution. This funding is in addition to the recurring funding that each institution receives. This year the figure for the University of Limerick is at least €77 million, the figure for Mary Immaculate College is at least €21 million and the figure for Limerick Institute of Technology is at least €32 million.


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