Thursday, 14 January 2021
Covid-19 (Higher Education): Statements
I thank the Ministers for their attendance. I have questions for both of them. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the impact the pandemic has had on the higher education sector. As we have heard both in this session and in the earlier session, Covid has had a devastating impact on the education sector as a whole. Lectures and tutorials have gone online. Events and sports events have been cancelled and students and staff have had to work from home. I had a conversation recently with a group of third level students who were envious of the second level students in the latter half of 2020 because they were in school. This has had a great impact on the well-being of students and academic staff alike. That must be recognised. While restrictions are justified, I look forward to everyone being able to return to some degree of normality as soon as possible, as I am sure my colleagues do as well. In the meantime, the Government must continue to support students and the higher education sector. One positive initiative in budget 2021 was the Covid-19 once-off emergency grant for students. Could the Minister provide an update on the progress of the roll-out of that?
SUSI has a key role to play in grants. I ask the Minister to take any necessary steps to ensure more flexibility is provided to that organisation. Concerns have been raised with Deputies about SUSI and Springboard over the summer. I tabled parliamentary questions to him in that regard. I hope that these issues are resolved and that the system will run smoothly from next September.
Turning to the class of 2021, as I mentioned in the earlier session with the Minister for Education, this year's leaving certificate students have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19. Not only did they miss three months in their fifth year, but they missed at least a month this year, owing to the restrictions. I hope the situation will be such that they can be offered the opportunity to sit the leaving certificate. However, some would prefer the option of predicted grades. The Minister has a key role in easing their anxiety in his comments and statements. Third level institutions could ease the pressure on Central Applications Office, CAO, points by producing more general entry programmes and increasing the places, where possible. I note the Minister's comments in that regard. This would take significant pressure off those students and I hope it can be considered. Could he give an update on those plans?
I wish to ask about the capital programme for education and training boards, ETBs, and further education colleges. The Minister might come back to me with a written reply. Many of the colleges are in older buildings and they need investment. I would like to hear his thoughts on the matter.
The Minister of State mentioned apprenticeships in his opening remarks. He has done fantastic work in that regard. The apprenticeship incentivisation scheme provides a €3,000 grant for employers. I understand 1,358 employers took up that offer, with 2,350 apprenticeships. He might send me the breakdown by sector of those figures.