Thursday, 14 January 2021
Covid-19 (Higher Education): Statements
It is an extremely difficult year for students. The Minister acknowledged that in his opening contribution, as have many speakers in today's debate. There are difficulties across the entire education system for students of all ages. I acknowledge that all the staff, teachers, lecturers and support and administrative staff in both the Departments of Education and Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science are working as hard as they can to try to bring some normality and quality of learning experience to students and I thank them for their work.
I want to ask the Minister about first-year students at third level. They went through a very difficult time last year with the leaving certificate and the uncertainty surrounding it and they are mostly sitting at home in their bedrooms on Zoom meetings. They are experiencing another very difficult year in their education. They are missing out on important aspects of their first year in college - the social aspect, making new friends, sports, and on-campus activities - the parts that help students adjust to a new educational cycle. First year is often less about the subject matter that one is studying than the adjustment to a new way of learning. It is nobody's fault that these aspects are not available now, and I hope the students will make up for it over the remainder of their degree.
However, in the best of times, first year can be a difficult year for students. That is evident in the failure rates and drop-out rates. There is often a realisation that a person may have chosen the wrong subject and he or she tries to change. I am very concerned, having spoken to students and parents, that we may have a higher drop-out rate this year than previously due to Covid and the real difficulty of trying to attend lectures and complete course work in one's bedroom. I note the Minister said there has not been a higher drop-out rate, but I ask him to keep a close eye on that because it tends to happen in the period after Christmas between January and April.
There are difficulties too for second-year, third-year and final-year students around project work, group work and placements. I am concerned that there has not been enough direct communications with students. The Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but from talking to students I get the feeling that a lot of them feel isolated. They feel they are on their own and they are the only ones having this difficulty when we know from the number of emails and contact we get that it is across the board. Many students are struggling and if they knew how many others were involved they would know that we are all in this together. I ask the Minister if he, the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, would communicate directly with students across the country to say to them that we know how difficult this is for them. We realise that they are under stress and have to work in ways that are not ideal. We can tell them that they are not alone. We should acknowledge that they need help and support and that we will provide it for anyone that needs it. We must assure them that a lenient and understanding approach will be taken to their exams or assessment, in whatever form they take place, given the difficulties they have encountered this year. These students have worked hard to get where they are and we need to make every effort to keep them in the education system. We do not want to let them drop out or to lose the connection with them. We must ensure they stay in the system and that when things return to normal it can offer them all the aspects they missed out on over the past 12 months.
My second question is probably for the Minister of State. It is about the apprenticeship opportunities for the highly ambitious and necessary retrofitting of our housing stock. We have a target in the programme for Government to retrofit 500,000 houses. This will bring thousands of job opportunities for long-term, decent, well-paid jobs in many trades. I refer to insulating our houses, making them airtight, improving ventilation, fitting heat exchangers, getting rid of the draughty, damp homes we have around the country, and creating a better quality of life and comfort as well as improvements to health, especially respiratory health. People's quality of life and comfort really improves when they have an energy-insulated house. There are opportunities to fit heat pumps and smart technologies to manage how we heat our homes, cut fuel bills and reduce harmful emissions, and in doing so we will also improve external air quality. We have seen poor air quality across Dublin in recent weeks.
The installation of solar photovoltaic systems and battery banks will allow us to produce our own electricity. A public consultation was launched today by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications on the fact that people will have the opportunity now to sell back into the grid. Microgeneration communities and farmers can create their own electricity, which can be fed back into the smart grid and they can earn money for it. There is also an opportunity with electric vehicles, EVs, as we roll out a fleet of electric vehicles. They can work in two ways. They can be charged from solar power or there is technology to allow them to feed back into the grid. That is how our future housing stock will be built and we need to ensure that we have the skilled workforce to meet the challenge to change 500,000 homes in Ireland to this standard but also to be able to build the 30,000 homes a year that we need to build. Could the Minister of State outline his ambition to create apprenticeships and training courses and how to encourage the take-up of these opportunities, in addition to how that should include mature apprenticeships and upskilling across all employment sectors?