Thursday, 11 March 2021
Young People and Access to Further and Higher Education: Motion [Private Members]
The socialists are extremely well organised. We are also trying to be ahead of the curve with this. It is sometimes frustrating in this place because there is great interest in the barneys and the Punch and Judy show. However, there is not so much interest when Deputies are trying to put forward what I would consider in this motion on higher and further education to be positive proposals for a radical overhaul of the way in which people can access higher and further education and apprenticeships.
The proposals we are making would be important at any time but they are even more important in the context of Covid-19 and the huge suffering, hardship, stress and anxiety that huge numbers of people have suffered in recent times. The people who have suffered most are those who have lost loved ones. Those who are working on the front line to deal with the pandemic have maybe suffered the greatest stresses. Coming quickly after those are a cohort of, mostly but not exclusively, young people. For them, the question of education relates to: the leaving certificate; access to further and higher education and apprenticeships; and doing masters and postgraduate work. I also mention people who, for example, may have lost their jobs or livelihoods, possibly permanently as a result of Covid-19 and who may wish to go back to education to reskill and retrain in order to find a way forward, a new livelihood and a new future in the post-Covid era.
What the Department does in this area of education, particularly in access to further and higher education and apprenticeships, will be critical in the post-Covid future although it was always important. If much of the rhetoric we have heard across this House about learning the lessons of the pandemic and moving to a new future are to be taken seriously, they have to be fleshed out in meaningful plans and policies that will make life better for people and that will pay them back and reward them for the sacrifices, stresses, anxieties and hardships they have endured during Covid.
That is not the case for many of those people. Let us think of a few of them. The leaving certificate students have been through hell, to put it bluntly, and they are still going through hell. That stems from the fact that we have an exam which was putting extreme stress on young people long before Covid. It was a winner-takes-all and one-size-fits-all system which is completely inappropriate for the world we live in and which puts extraordinary stress on young people, to little purpose that I can see. If that was true pre-Covid, it is doubly true now. All of that stress mostly revolves around the fact that there are not enough places in higher and further education and apprenticeships.
Therefore, they are forced into the CAO points race in order to move to the next level of education. I raised this matter with the Tánaiste and he basically said that it was a nice idea, but not really practical. I do not buy that for a minute. I want the Minister and others to ponder this because sometimes we do not see the wood for the trees. We find all the excuses for not doing things. Excuses are still made in the North about things like the 11-plus which is an horrendous barrier to put at the end of primary school and determines what type of secondary education a student gets. Any decent progressive person would say that it is horrendous to have a hurdle over which a student must jump at the end of primary school which may determine their entire future.
It is equally horrendous that not so long ago, it was expected that children in some sections of our society would just go to primary school and would not go to secondary school, and that secondary school was some sort of privilege. Later, the expectation was that large numbers of people would drop out at the age of 16. Donogh O'Malley decided that we needed to open up secondary education completely and make it free for everybody from 1969. I am sure there were naysayers then, as there always have been.
It makes no sense in the world we live in, especially when we think about the stress our leaving cert students are experiencing as a result of the exam and the Covid pandemic, to give them a hurdle to jump over to access the higher and further education course or the apprenticeship of their choice. The only reason for that rationing is that there are not enough places. Some 80,000 people have applied through the CAO system, but we only have 55,000 places. What do we need in order to remove that stress from young people that takes such a serious toll on their mental health? We need 25,000 extra places.
We also need to remove the financial obstacles preventing people taking up those places. Ireland has the highest fees of anywhere in the European Union now that the UK has left. The fees are €3,000 and €7,000 for many. The fees for some postgraduate courses are shocking. It costs €15,000 for graduate entry in medicine, pharmacy and other areas. For other postgraduate courses there are incredibly high fees, stipends that are not living stipends and, in many cases, postgraduates working for free. All these people are suffering the extortionate high cost of accommodation because of the lack of affordable student accommodation. There are high drop-out rates as a result, with one in six people dropping out of college in first year. There are very high levels of mental stress, mental illness and depression. A survey by the NUIG students' union found that one third of students in NUIG said they were suffering in that regard.
I will conclude now but will come back in later. We are saying that all the barriers should be removed. The fees should be scrapped. The leaving cert should be scrapped because it represents a mechanism for stopping people from getting into higher and further education. The Government should support our students financially and in every other way to reach the highest level of educational achievement they can achieve.