Thursday, 14 January 2021
Covid-19 (Higher Education): Statements
I wish the Ceann Comhairle and his staff a belated happy new year. I welcome the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Collins.
In July 2019 I attended a speech delivered by the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, who was then leader of the Opposition, in Dublin to the heads of universities and colleges in Ireland. He reflected on the theme of innovation and research in education in Ireland and its political roots in the ascent of Seán Lemass to the position of Taoiseach. During that morning he outlined his vision for higher education, research and innovation in Ireland and committed to establishing the first dedicated Cabinet position and separate Department of Government for higher education, research and innovation should he become Taoiseach. The speech was very well received on the day and, true to his word, on election as Taoiseach, Deputy Martin established for the first time in Ireland a Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science with a full Cabinet Minister and Minister of State. Deputy Harris is that Minister, and my able colleague from Limerick, Deputy Niall Collins, is Minister of State. Given the emphasis the Taoiseach placed on science, education and research, and given the critical importance he emphasises and places on this area of Government, it cannot have been easy when Cabinet allocations dictated that political oversight and leadership of that Department would have to be ceded to a member of a rival party. However, the overriding importance of the establishment of this Department rightly trumped any political partisanship.
Fianna Fáil is rightly proud of its pioneering role in education in Ireland. It is just one of the many areas of policy where we have left a positive, groundbreaking and enduring footprint. The establishment of a new education Department dedicated to higher education, research, innovation and science is a recognition of the vital work that is required to ensure that everyone, regardless of background, has a chance to achieve his or her potential beyond schooling and will be equipped to do so. It is also a recognition that without innovation and research, Ireland will fall behind in the world, lose its most talented and fail to harness the practical and intellectual genius of our people. With this Department Ireland can continue to be a world leader, to go boldly into new exciting areas of discovery and knowledge and to harness all our people's talents. The Taoiseach appointed Deputy Harris as Minister with responsibility for higher education. None of my colleagues serving with the Minister at Cabinet cross the boundary into his domain as Minister of this Department. He is a very bright politician and I believe he will do very well here. An emerging generation is depending on him for their very futures. He is also held in high public esteem for his stewardship of the health portfolio during the most challenging of times. Another occasion might allow for a robust interrogation of his tenure of that Department, but right now that is neither desirable nor necessary. No doubt leaving the Department of Health was a wrench for him.
However, for now the Department of Health has been entrusted to my party colleague, Deputy Donnelly. He is just six months into his first Cabinet position. While Deputy Harris, as Minister for Health, faced the enormous challenges of the onset of Covid-19, the Government was supported by all parties. Notwithstanding reservations around some communications, punches were pulled, people swallowed hard at times and lips were bitten. Why? Because the situation required it and the national interest demanded it. The challenges facing the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, are enormous. An unparalleled surge in the virus; an angry, frustrated, anxious, fearful and restless public is holding its breath for a vaccine; a baying Opposition; and the unprecedented logistical and practical challenge of ensuring the successful roll-out of that vaccine.
No Minister is perfect. Each has idiosyncrasies but once again the times require that Cabinet Government, in particular, stands united, acts collectively and supports one another. The national interest requires no more on this occasion than it did last year.
As the Minister is aware, this Government arrangement was not my first choice but it was the choice of the majority of my colleagues and for that reason I support the Minister in the challenges that he faces. He has the task of preparing a path for those students who have been stranded remotely for a year, missing out on much of the magical third and fourth level educational life.
Another challenge is to expand and promote innovation in the next chapter of apprenticeships in ensuring that we can deliver new homes and a green revolution, among other goals.
In returning to my original theme of the period of progressive policy innovation, I know that the Minister will agree that the period which was ushered in by Seán Lemass remains unmatched to this day. The bar was set high but we and all associated with this Government must aspire to surpass it. I support the Minister and his Minister of State in this Government as do all of my party colleagues. We want success for him in his position as Minister and our colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, deserves no less.
When we see Covid-19 in our rear view mirror, a period of sustained, pent-up, dynamic and frenetic activity awaits this country, if we are ready to meet it. The challenges are considerable. This is where the Minister’s leadership is necessary. If a fair wind blows against the virus and behind the vaccine in the immediate future, could third level students envisage any return this year to live college on-campus tuition? Can he inform the Dáil whether or not there has been an adverse impact to date on existing apprenticeship programmes? How are plans proceeding for the creative and innovative expansion of those programmes and when can students at second level begin to take advantage of them? Where and in what direction does the Minister see new apprenticeship programmes being oriented? How does the Minister propose to increase the awfully poor rate of participation by women in our programmes and what accounts for that lack of participation in the Minister's view? When will we be in a position to see dramatic increases in participation rates and apprenticeship offerings?
We talk so much these days about the cloud and I am proud to say that the cloud is in Tallaght and when Covid-19 is behind us the Minister is warmly invited to come out and see it at first-hand. Amazon Web Services, AWS, has developed amazing synergy with the local authority and the local hospital so that a child in Tallaght can now attend primary school, secondary school, attend Technological University Dublin, undertake a bespoke course connected and designed in conjunction with AWS and get a job right on his or her doorstep. The Minister might expand either in writing or down the road on what kind of other bespoke opportunities may be there.
The private sector has traditionally always been asked to lead on apprenticeships. During the crash, however, I often saw the potential of local authorities and particular Government Departments or semi-State agencies being able to offer to lead in this area. We can look at local authorities, for example, in librarianship, and there are State agencies like Teagasc and Coillte which should also bear responsibility for leading and innovating in that.
As to international experience, I am aware that different economies make different demands on their people but in Denmark up to 11% of the work force has come through apprenticeships. In the UK a commission was established, the objective and goal of which was that by the time it had completed its work every parent might consider the idea of an apprenticeship for their child, which might not necessarily be followed through on. Some 45% of apprentices in Denmark are women. One of the things that I was really excited about was that one could embark upon an apprenticeship at more or less any age of one’s life, up to the age of 60. What are the Minister’s ideas on this?
I would love to be Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. He has the opportunity to ride the wave of a post Covid-19 environment where there will be so much pent-up excitement, energy and dynamism just waiting to take off. It is an opportunity to set a blistering post Covid-19 pace that carries everyone along with it and leaves no one behind. I thank the Ceann Comhairle.