Dáil debates

Thursday, 11 March 2021

Young People and Access to Further and Higher Education: Motion [Private Members]


5:10 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

“notes that:

— the establishment of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is a clear demonstration of the strength of the Government’s commitment to deliver on the far-reaching goals for the entire tertiary education system strongly articulated in the Programme for Government - Our Shared Future;

— at the heart of this commitment, as set out in the recently published Statement of Strategy 2021-2023 for the new Department, is the objective of ensuring that Ireland’s further and higher education and research systems support everyone, regardless of their age, gender or address, in achieving their full potential;

— the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives of young people but, in general, both young people and students continue to respond superbly, adopting new approaches that ensure the continuity of their learning and demonstrating high levels of attention to public health guidance to ensure their own safety and that of their friends, families and communities;

— a comprehensive crisis response has been implemented across the further and higher education sectors, involving a partnership between the Government, educational institutions/providers, staff and students;

— continuity of education and research has been maintained throughout the pandemic with provision primarily online other than where onsite attendance is essential;

— in summer 2020, the Government provided a €168 million package of supports for further and higher education institutions and students, to cover costs incurred by institutions during the 2019/20 year and to provide further supports for the current academic year;

— this includes expansion of mental health supports through the student counselling service, a doubling of the Student Assistance Fund and provision of devices and other equipment to assist disadvantaged students;

— additional supports were provided in Budget 2021, including a financial contribution of €250 to each full-time undergraduate student in publicly funded institutions costing €50 million, an €8 million Mitigating Educational Disadvantage Fund for the further education and community education sectors, enhanced Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) grant supports for postgraduate students and increased support for the Programme for Access to Higher Education (PATH) access initiative to increase participation in higher education from the most economically disadvantaged students; and

- for the 2021/22 SUSI scheme, the fee grant for postgraduate students will rise from €2,000 to €3,500 and the income threshold for eligibility for these grants will increase from €31,500 to €54,240; and

furthermore, notes that:

— a review of the SUSI scheme has commenced, as committed to in the Programme for Government, which will consider issues such as grant rates, income thresholds, adjacency rates, postgraduate supports and part-time provision;

— the State currently provides very substantial financial support to undergraduate students in higher education towards the cost of their studies and this commitment is demonstrated through the Free Fees Initiative under which the Exchequer currently contributes €340 million to meeting the tuition fee costs of eligible undergraduate students in higher education, and in addition, the Exchequer pays the student contribution of €3,000 per annum in full or part, through SUSI, for approximately 44 per cent of students at a cost of over €180 million;

— a comprehensive economic evaluation of the funding options presented in the report of the Expert Group on Future Funding for Higher Education entitled ‘Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education’ is underway, supported by the European Commission Directorate-General for Structural Reform Support programme, and this review is expected to be concluded over the first half of this year and will support an informed debate on the future planning and funding of higher and further education provision;

— significant progress has been made under the third National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015-2021 and work on the development of a new national access plan for 2022-2026 is already underway;

— a National Student Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Framework is in place to address issues of student mental health and an additional €5 million in funding for student mental health supports was provided last year, and the Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education in Ireland (PCHEI) partnership through Text 50808 (a free 24-hour text service) allows students who are suffering from distress or mental health issues to speak with counsellors and access supports, and also a Student and Learner Wellbeing and Engagement Working Group has been established to monitor student wellbeing arising from the pandemic, review the implementation of existing measures and identify further initiatives;

— the Government is fully implementing ‘Sharing the Vision: A Mental Health Policy for Everyone’, including its comprehensive approach to improving the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS);

— actions taken to support the provision of student accommodation include: — legislation to extend rent predictability measures to students residing in student-specific accommodation in rent pressure zones and to bring student accommodation under the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB), giving students access to the RTB’s dispute resolution procedures;

— empowering the Housing Finance Agency (HFA) to lend directly to higher education institutions for the development of new student accommodation, with a total of €157 million in loans for higher education institutions approved by the HFA; and

— the active engagement by the university sector on accommodation refunds, with all universities confirming that students who opted to leave their university-owned student accommodation as a result of reduced on-campus activity will be offered refunds or rental credits; — the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is finalising its report on reform of the Senior Cycle, and this review will encompass the wider purposes of the Senior Cycle including the aim that it should continue to educate the whole person and help every student to become more enriched, engaged and competent as they further develop their knowledge, skills, values and dispositions in an integrated way, reflecting the fact that higher education is just one of the pathways that students follow after completion of the Leaving Certificate;

— the Government strongly recognises the value and benefit of an integrated tertiary education system with the availability of diverse pathways for all learners and is committed to promoting the complementary roles of further and higher education and facilitating enhanced information for school-leavers and for all seeking learning opportunities, providing a wider choice at transition points and enabling progression pathways across and between different institutions;

— the Government continues to invest to provide additional student places in higher education, with €18 million provided in Budget 2021 for this purpose for the academic year commencing September 2021, resulting in overall investment of nearly €80 million to address demographic pressures since 2018, ensuring that a higher proportion of Central Applications Process (CAO) applicants secure a place on one of their top three CAO options, and these places to meet demographic need are in addition to the 1,330 additional places commencing in 2021, funded through the Human Capital Initiative Pillar 2, which will be on undergraduate courses in areas of priority skills needs;

— the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is working with the Higher Education Authority (HEA), higher education institutions, Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) and professional regulators, to identify further interventions that may be required to assist with additional places, and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science will update the Government on this in April;

— the Government will shortly finalise an action plan on apprenticeships, promoting uptake in a growing range of apprenticeships as an attractive educational and career choice for increasing numbers of young people;

— a Researcher Career Development Framework has been introduced by the universities and Budget 2021 provided funding for increased opportunities for early career researchers and a 16 per cent increase in the Irish Research Council’s Postgraduate Scholarship Programme stipend;

— the Minister has advised the House that his Department is engaged with the HEA and sectoral stakeholders, to gather information on the teaching duties of PhD students and relevant funding arrangements and consideration will be given to this matter by a sub-group of the National Advisory Forum for Ireland’s National Framework for Doctoral Education;

— the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are currently updating the Employment Control Framework within which individual higher education institutions manage their staffing;

— legislative proposals to reform the Higher Education Authority Act 1971 will be brought forward, to ensure that the higher education sector is enabled to meet the vision for an excellent higher education and research system which is innovative, adaptive and inclusive and which contributes to social, economic and cultural development; and

— this comprehensive programme of reforms clearly demonstrates the Government’s ambition for a high-quality tertiary education system which supports everyone to achieve their full potential.”

I am sharing time with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. I welcome this debate. I genuinely thank Deputy Boyd Barrett and his colleagues for putting down this motion. We have had an opportunity to discuss these issues in the House today and yesterday. I would guess were it not for the Deputy seeking that time, and I acknowledge that, but perhaps also if we did not have a dedicated Department, we may not be having this level of focus on the issues. I genuinely welcome that.

While we may not agree on everything in terms of how we get there, I do share the ambition in terms of removing barriers to access to further and higher education. Deputy Kenny made a fair point. The following is not a political point because I was not in government at the time. We have seen a lot of progress made in our country over recent decades in terms of access, but we do have a lot more to do. Deputy Boyd Barrett said he wants to see a radical overhaul in this area; so do I. I genuinely want to see a radical overhaul of how people get from second level to third level.

Yesterday, the issue of why we are debating further education and higher education and why we do not have an integrated tertiary education system was raised. That is what I want. I accept there is an onus all of us, me included, to, in the Deputy's words, "flesh out" the plans and policies that will help achieve that. It is okay to debate that and to have different views as to how best to do it and sequence it. I am united with the Deputies on the purpose of radically overhauling the system.

I also take a lot of interest in what has been said about the points race. It is wrong we have created a culture where there is an obsession now with the points race. There is huge pressure. I have just come from a virtual meeting with a group of sixth year students from three schools in west Cork. The idea of the points race and students' anxiety around getting points is one I accept. In terms of what I have done this week, I have tried to begin to change that by talking about having an integrated system, a broader CAO system where people see all of their options. It was mentioned we would need approximately 25,000 additional places to meet the demand, but that is if every student chose to go the higher education route. If we got our act together on apprenticeships as a real alternative, a pathway and an equally valuable way of getting to where one wants to get to in life, and in regard to further education, and we got each of those systems talking to each other, I do not believe we would need 25,000 additional places in higher education. We are having a conversation with students about the name of the university they want to go to before having the conversation with them about what they want to do in life and then offering them the four or five different routes of getting them there. I have seen this in my own constituency. We need to make it easier for people to move from further education to higher education.

We need to embed apprenticeships not just in the private sector but the public sector. The public sector needs to step up too. There are only 300 plus apprenticeships in the public service. Later this month, along with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, I will be publishing a detailed action plan to set specific targets for all Departments, county councils and State agencies in that regard. This week, we launched the first statement of strategy for my Department. We will publish it on Monday. It is an ambitious plan of reform, which is about building collaborative connections. It will tackle inequality and barriers which prevent people entering third level. We will ensure everyone has the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential through access to education and training. The statement of strategy was not dreamed up by civil servants and a Minister; we engaged extensively with stakeholders, including students and wider civic society. We listened and, as a result, we do not just list the challenges. We also look at the opportunities to try to address some of the challenges in that statement of strategy. I hope we will have many chances to take elements of it and debate them in this House.

We have published 36 specific actions we want to get done this year, including a review of the student grants scheme. I will be attending a virtual meeting this evening with students, parents, guidance counsellors, teachers and principals in Longford to talk about how we can make the SUSI system much more comprehensive. I accept that it needs to be radically overhauled to take account of issues like part-time learners, adjacency rates and non-adjacency rates, and income thresholds. We will have the output of that review this summer, which will give an opportunity to consider it in advance of the budget.

I have talked already about the CAO reform process. I had a very good meeting yesterday with representatives of the CAO on that issue.

We also need new legislation to reform higher education governance. We are putting €1.83 billion a year of taxpayers' money into universities and higher education and we need to be able, as Oireachtas Members, to see that we have fit-for-purpose, 21st century governance. Legislation on that issue will be brought forward and, I hope, passed by the Houses this year.

I firmly believe in the importance of an integrated and connected third level system. I am passionate in my view that there must be diverse and progressive pathways into education. There cannot just be a right way of doing it and a wrong way of doing it. There must be multiple ways that work for learners of different ages and from different backgrounds. The CAO system works effectively in taking people from secondary school to university but it leaves out whole swathes of opportunity. We need a single portal through which students can apply for further education opportunities and apprenticeships, for which the points system does not apply, and for higher education as well.

In regard to extra places, we have already set aside €18 million in the budget this year to provide 4,100 additional places, having already grown the third level sector last year. I accept that the scramble that had to be made last year to try to find those places was a little unedifying. That is why I have set up a working group, now that we have clarity on the leaving certificate examination, to see whether we can do even more in this area. The point Deputy Gino Kenny made in this regard is a really interesting one. As a former Minister for Health, I know only too well the shortages there can be in nursing, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and so on, and the challenges they can present for the delivery of public services. One of the issues we are looking at is that if we want to train more nurses and doctors, we need to match each of them with clinical placements. That will involve sitting down with other Departments to see whether if we create an extra university place here, they can create an extra clinical place there. I hope to have that work done by Easter and to update Cabinet and the House on what more we can do, above and beyond the 4,100 additional places. Last year, I gave a commitment that we would maintain the ratio of students who got their first choice or a choice from their top three. That is my intention again this year.

In regard to funding, it is important to say that the Exchequer currently contributes €340 million a year to meeting the tuition costs of students in higher education. It is also important to say, and very few people say it, that some 44% of our students have their registration fee covered in full or in part by SUSI. The idea that everyone is paying €3,000 is not correct. As we improve the SUSI system, I hope fewer people will pay that registration fee. It is also important to point out that the OECD's latest Education at a Glance report, which is based on 2018 data, indicated that this country is investing more per full-time student than the EU or OECD average. As we know, funding for third level has increased further since 2018. I look forward to the up-to-date data being reviewed.

Having said that, we need to have a really honest conversation about funding. In fairness, Deputy Boyd Barrett is being honest about it in saying that he wants to follow the Donogh O'Malley route, that is, the concept that access to at least an undergraduate education would be free as part of a natural extension of the education system. There is serious merit in that proposal. We will soon have the economic evaluation from the European Commission of the Cassells report. The last Oireachtas was a bit cowardly, quite frankly, in kicking that report down the road and into another review. That was done on an all-party basis. There was an attitude of, "Sure, is there anything to be said for another review?" That other review is about to come to an end, in quarter 2 of this year, when we will have the final report on the options set out in the Cassells report. Let us then have a very honest debate. I instinctively want to see any barriers removed to students being able to access undergraduate education. The Deputy is right that Donogh O'Malley was told back in the 1960s that he was mad and wrong and he could not do what he proposed to do. As we know, he went ahead and did it anyway. Let us have that debate this year.

In regard to access, it is a personal goal of mine to make sure that the third level education system is more diverse. When we look at it, it should be like society looking back at us. That is not the case and it needs to be more diverse. We are currently working on our third national plan for equity of access to higher education, identifying groups that are currently under-represented in higher education. The consultation for that has begun and I would appreciate Deputies' support in order that we can have the best plan possible. More than 79,000 students were assessed by SUSI in 2020, up from 71,000 in 2019. We have increased the postgraduate allowances, which were paltry, and I want to do more on that issue. In addition, we have doubled the student assistance fund.

The past year has been a really difficult one. I do not have time to get into all the challenges for students, but I know it has been difficult for them. They have sacrificed and suffered a lot. I want them to know that we are working on making sure they have a more meaningful, on-site college experience in the new academic year. We have set up another well-being and engagement group chaired by students to look at what more we can do in this area.

Deputy Paul Murphy referred to the difficulties being experienced by postgraduate students. I will meet with them to discuss the allowance for postgraduate workers. I apologise that such a meeting has not taken place so far.

Education is a great leveller. We should be ambitious and we should use this new Department to drive an ambitious programme of reform. I am really excited about what we can get done. It will include reforming the CAO, creating an integrated tertiary education system, overhauling the SUSI grant system, making big and brave decisions on a sustainable funding model and bringing forward new governance legislation, an adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills plan, and a new national access plan. We have lots to do. The debate today, importantly, puts a focus on a number of those important issues. I look forward to continuing to work with colleagues on them.


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