Thursday, 11 March 2021
Young People and Access to Further and Higher Education: Motion [Private Members]
I ask colleagues to consider what is the essence of the Minister's remarks and his key line of argument. In effect, he is saying that we are all in agreement in this House on these issues and we are headed towards the same place. We are agreed on the goal, according to the Minister, and the only debate is over the speed at which we travel. The facts contradict what he is saying.
According to Universitas 21, which measures government expenditure on third level education as a percentage of gross domestic product, Ireland was 46th of 50 countries measured recently, which is a fall of 29 places since 2017. According to Mr. Jim Miley, director general of the Irish Universities Association, State expenditure per third level student is down more than 40% since 2008. The Minister points to an increased budget for mental health services in third level institutions, giving a figure of €5 million, but from what base is that starting? In University College Cork, UCC, the year before last, there was one counsellor for every 2,340 students, compared with a recommended best practice ratio of one for every thousand students or, at most, 1,500. The situation at Cork Institute of Technology, CIT, is considerably worse than that. In UCC in 2019, there was more money spent by the college on flights for staff than on mental health services for its tens of thousands of students.
What is the Government doing this year? It is pitting leaving certificate students against each other in a battle for a limited number of third level places. That would be unfair in any year and it is especially unfair and wrong in a pandemic year. There are 61,000 leaving certificate students, most of whom are part of a cohort of 80,000 CAO applicants for approximately 55,000 places at third level next year. It is scandalous in a pandemic year that students would be forced to compete with each other for a limited number of third level places. The Minister said that he attended a virtual meeting with students in Cork and he spoke about how wrong it is that there is an obsession with the points race etc. He is one of two Ministers in this Government with responsibility for education and he is in charge of a machine that is forcing students to compete against each other this year.
The Minister can wring his hands and say it is wrong but he is implementing it by not having a policy of open access to third level. From the first week of January to the week after 17 February this year I had Zoom calls with leaving certificate students. They practically all spoke of their experience every day during the leaving certificate crisis. Mental health was the issue to the forefront in so many conversations. The crisis pressed down hard on each of those 61,000 students. Many were impacted themselves or knew a friend or classmate who was being impacted severely. They organised, campaigned and fought back. They forced the Government to climb down on the position that there was to be a forced leaving certificate for each student. I do not believe that the predicted grades model is a solution precisely because, like the leaving certificate, it pits students against each other in a battle for a limited number of places.
After that leaving certificate crisis and in the context of the pandemic, it is time to stand back and review the position. The State could not organise a traditional leaving certificate last year or this year. Next year there will be a need for many changes. It is a good time to do a review. We maintain that this examination is outdated. Even in non-pandemic times it is, from a mental health point of view, negative. It is an outlier in Europe in terms of the level of pressure it exerts on young adults. It is riddled with class bias. Most obviously, if a student can afford grinds, that student has an advantage over a family that cannot afford grinds for their children. It is biased against young adults who are not neurotypical. It is time for this examination to go.
More than 50 years ago, the primary certificate was a big thing in Irish society. When the doors were flung open to second-level education and people were invited in and places made available, the primary certificate became a thing of the past. The leaving certificate and the pressure that goes with it could go the same way if the doors are thrown open to third level. The ballpark is 25,000 places. If the Minister says he would need fewer, then there is less of a mountain to climb. There may be 10,000 or 15,000 new jobs. The Minister will not have difficulty finding the staff to recruit because there are already 11,200 part-time or short-time staff or staff on insecure contracts in the third-level system. We can have blended learning next year. We can digitise the libraries and provide third-level students with information technology equipment. We can have a period of two or three years to put the investment in, build the buildings and put the physical infrastructure in place that is necessary. It can be done in other ways next year.
People may ask how in hell it would work. A key would be an omnibus entry operation. Dr. Áine Hyland produced a report for the Higher Education Authority in 2011 on the leaving certificate and college entry. She strongly recommended the idea of omnibus entry. Broadly speaking, in year one there is a general course or courses and the students have examinations at the end of the year. From that point, people go on to second year or other courses to which they are more suited and they become more specialised.
Let us be clear. This would not come cheap. This would cost a great deal of money, perhaps billions - we are not saying anything other than that. However, the wealth is there in society to pay for it. The 300 richest in Ireland own and control €93 billion in wealth. Irish society has 17 billionaires, whose wealth increased by €3.3 billion during the pandemic year. We need a steeply progressive tax system. The starting point is serious taxes on wealth in Irish society.
There is one final point I wish to make. Open access on its own is an empty formula unless we combine it with a living grant for every student, the abolition of fees and decent accommodation for every student who needs it.
We had a scandalous situation last year where we had student accommodation centres run by big businesses, international consortium interests etc. They tried to grab thousands of euro, in some cases five-figure sums, from students. They maintained the students had signed up for a year and, even though there was a pandemic, the students were off home and so the landlords were free to take the money and run. Students fought back, spoke out and campaigned. In most cases, they forced these exploiters to give the money back. However, they could try the same con tomorrow and they are legally entitled to do it. That right should be removed from them. The Bill that the Union of Students in Ireland is backing provides for this to be outlawed and is an important part of this discussion as well. We need accommodation for students which is on the basis of need rather than for profit. It should be publicly built with reasonable rent rather than extortion, as in so many cases at the moment.