Thursday, 14 January 2021
Covid-19 (Higher Education): Statements
If the Minister cannot answer all my questions in the time available, he might respond to me in writing. What action will the Minister take to ensure the return of accommodation fees, which were paid in good faith at the start of the academic year, given that because of Covid-19 restrictions, the majority of third level colleges are carrying out lectures online and students are no longer availing of student accommodation and cannot attend college? What plans does the Minister have to provide a support package for struggling families and students who have paid significant accommodation costs to private providers and who cannot receive refunds?
We have been importing over 85% of our fruit and vegetables into Ireland, most of which could be produced here while providing much higher incomes for Irish farmers while reducing environmentally costly transport for those items from abroad. The recent potatoes for chips scandal before Christmas is only one such example of an over-reliance on imports and long-term mismanagement of the horticultural sector. I am told most of this stems from a lack of support and prioritisation at the higher education level for horticulture. Will the Minister please tell me what plans there are for higher education for horticulture and those opportunities for Irish farmers, especially in places like west Cork?
There may also be opportunities for student placement programmes, as certificates in agriculture at Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, levels 5 and 6, are due to come in shortly. I am aware a 16-week placement on a farm is part of a level 6 programme but in current circumstances, going ahead with such action in the midst of a serious pandemic would be both reckless and unwise. For the duration of this pandemic year, students should have the option to complete their placement on their family farm, thus eliminating risks to their health, the health of their family and that of the family where the placement would occur. Will the Minister deal with this extremely important issue with immediate effect, as the health and livelihoods of many farmers and the future generations of farmers is at risk if it is not dealt with?
What supports are in place for families who cannot access broadband, particularly when they have students in higher education?