Thursday, 11 March 2021
Young People and Access to Further and Higher Education: Motion [Private Members]
I am sharing time with my colleagues and would appreciate being cut off after eight minutes. My thanks to Solidarity-People Before Profit for bringing forward this important motion. While it might contain some things that we have differences on, I wholeheartedly support the vast majority of it.
The first point arises in terms of removing the barriers in place. I hear the Minister talking, I hear students talking and I hear tutors within colleges talking, but it simply does not add up for me. The first point is in terms of removing the barriers. I know the Minister agrees that we have to remove the barriers to education. I know he realises they are there - the first being the fees charged. I know the Minister would say those entitled to a Student Universal Support Ireland grant do not pay fees and so on. However, we charge the highest fees in the EU. We cannot stand over that and Governments cannot continue to stand over that. Vast fees are charged for international students and post-graduate fees. Yesterday, I spoke about medicine graduates. One young man outlined to me that he will have to end up paying €100,000 to be a doctor. We are a country that is crying out for doctors and we go around the world looking for doctors. Yet, we do not invest in our own in the way we need to. We desperately need more clinicians. The Minister outlined some of them himself. We need to join the dots. We need to ensure that we are investing. We are not looking at the cost of education. We need to be looking at the opportunity cost if we do not invest money where we need to in education, especially third-level education.
We spoke about Donogh O'Malley in the 1960s and commended what he did. However, we know now that for many jobs we need third-level and further educational qualifications. That is what is needed for people to be able to access that type of employment or the type of enterprises we need in this country.
I know the Minister is well-intended but one thing will really show us and the student population if the Minister's intentions are genuine. Let us consider the USI legislation around accommodation. We know students have been fleeced in the past year. Hard-pressed families, some of them single-parent families, are really struggling. It is unforgivable the way they have had to pay over money for something only for us to say they cannot use it. It is like going into a shop and compelling a customer to pay over her money but insisting that if she leaves the shop she cannot bring the goods with her.
That is wrong on many levels. The Minister can show that he is genuine about addressing this problem by supporting the USI's legislation, which I introduced in the Dáil and which 58 Deputies have already signed. That needs to be done quickly. When students return to education in September and October, we must ensure that they are not exploited as renters. Just because they are students does not mean they can be fleeced. If this were not a pandemic year and restrictions not in place, students would be outside the gates of Leinster House. I thank them for not doing so. I thank student unions across the country for their Trojan work over the past year in trying to protect and defend students' rights.
A picture is being painted of everything being okay, but the Minister knows it is far from okay. Some 90% of students have told us that they are suffering from stress, loneliness and isolation and that they feel disconnected. Our production of human capital has been mentioned in this debate, but we must consider education and address issues holistically. We have an opportunity. Deputy Harris has the privilege of being the first Minister of a Department of higher education. He will be judged in that light. I hope that he will be judged kindly and on the basis of what he makes happen for students and their families, not for the reports he commissions, and addressing inequalities. If we continue with an education system that feeds inequality, everyone will pay the price. That is why we must have an education system that is treated as a public good, is invested in and ensures equality and integrity and to which we expand access through Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, whose thresholds are too restrictive.
Since I did not get an opportunity to do so yesterday, I will focus on apprenticeships. The Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, is present. I welcome the Government's apprenticeship strategy and the addition of apprenticeships to the Cental Applications Office, CAO, system so that everything is handled through a single portal. However, there are immediate problems with apprenticeships that we must address. Apprentices have been left in limbo by the Government. Currently, 6,928 apprentices are waiting to access their off-the-job training. That is more than one third of all apprentices. Their practicals and exams have been put to one side continually, with no end in sight. We must engage with apprentices and show them their training pathways. Most apprenticeships last four years. They cannot be allowed to last six years with people not obtaining the qualifications or earning the incomes they need. This matter needs to be taken in hand. The Government has missed even its modest targets. Regardless of the strategy for the future, we need to deal with the here and now. SOLAS needs to engage with apprentices and employers so as to ensure that the issues are addressed.
The situation of student teachers in terms of Gaeltacht courses and grant aid not being extended to those whom we have pushed into getting qualifications from private colleges must also be addressed. The grant needs to be extended.
I could speak about many more education matters, but I have run out of time. I will hand over to my colleague, but I think the Minister gets my drift.