Thursday, 11 March 2021
Young People and Access to Further and Higher Education: Motion [Private Members]
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Private Members' motion and I thank the Deputies who have brought it before the House. It raises some good points that the Government needs to address in a constructive manner. In the main, I fully support the motion although there are aspects of it that are aspirational and would not be workable.
I come from the Dundalk region of County Louth and the Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT, is on my doorstep. DkIT is, without doubt, one of the most recognisable landmarks in the region and is home to more than 5,000 full-time students. I see at first hand the enormous benefits that the college has brought to the north-east region. Not only does it support 5,000 full-time students, but it has worked with local industry on joint projects to benefit not only industry, but the region itself.
I will speak about some of the points raised in today's motion. The financial hardship that many families face as a result of children going to third level education is simply unacceptable. I note from the motion that Ireland has the highest registration fees in Europe, with amounts ranging from €3,000 to €7,000. It should be noted that those fees are per student per year. Let us take an example of a family with three children attending third level, each of whom completes a four-year term. The cost to the family is €36,000 in registration fees alone, without taking into account the cost of books, travelling and accommodation expenses and so on. When we talk about free education, it is clear that it is not free but a heavy burden on many families. My firm belief is that every person should be given the opportunity to better themselves through education and that financial hardship should not be an obstacle to a third level education. The sad reality, unfortunately, is that financial hardship is a barrier to third level education and needs to be removed.
I agree that we need to take the approach that was taken in the late 1960s when access to secondary school education was extended to all. Now is the time that the same approach should be taken to third level educational opportunities. The present Covid-19 pandemic has caused great difficulty for students, among others. I have always worked very closely with this generation and taken a keen interest in the mental health of young generations. What I have seen during this pandemic has, quite frankly, frightened me. I have seen the mental health of students deteriorate during this period. They have lost out on a full year of social interaction with their peers and the impact that will have on their future development must never be underestimated. The Government must provide whatever hope and support is needed to support students during this most difficult period. I have spoken to many students and heard the same stories over and over again.
I am also being contacted by the parents of students who are extremely worried about the mental health of their children. It is not natural for students of this age group not to be socially active. I fear for the long-term consequences and, in that regard, I totally agree with the call in the motion for free access for all students and apprentices to counselling and personal education services at the point and time of need.
I agree with the motion that for students affected by the Covid pandemic and whose classes were held online, a substantial amount of their fees need to be refunded. I acknowledge that the Government has repaid €250 to students but, in all fairness, that is not nearly enough. I call on the Government to look at this matter again and put a more realistic figure on it. I suggest that a rebate of at least 50% of the fees paid should be refunded to third level students for any years of their courses that have been affected by the pandemic.
The motion before the House seeks to abolish the leaving certificate examination. While I do not agree, I am of the opinion that the leaving certificate is an unnecessary stress for young students and not always a good guide to a student's real ability. I believe that the leaving certificate needs a major overhaul to bring it up to date. The leaving certificate has become a rat race for access to third level education. That is wrong and places too much unnecessary stress on young students. One of the reasons for the rat race is that demand is outstripping supply. There are 80,000 students chasing approximately 52,000 third level places and that is unacceptable. If there are 80,000 students seeking to advance to third level education, then there should be 80,000 places made available for them. Successive Governments have failed in that regard.
The Government is very fond of using statistics when it suits it but if we look at the statistics on Government expenditure on third-level education then we have a different picture. The Government spends less than 6% of gross domestic product on third-level education. When we compare this with other countries, unfortunately, we are nearly at the bottom of the pile. We are 46th out of 50 countries. That is a fall of 29 places since 2017. We need answers on the reason that has happened. Why have we fallen 29 places on expenditure on third-level education in less than four years? The Minister must address this as a matter of urgency.
Returning to the leaving certificate, we must start a conversation on it, as it is out of date and needs a major overhaul. We must ask the difficult questions and get the answers. Has it now become a rat race for CAO points or is it serving a different purpose? If we remove the barriers to third-level education, then the leaving certificate must go. Second-level education could help develop students more for life in general and prepare them better for third-level education if we removed the rat race of CAO points from it. We must develop more resilience among the younger generations so that they can cope better with the demands of modern living. I firmly believe that second-level education can play a major role in the development of young people and produce a more resilient and resourceful student in third-level education, which in turn will better prepare them for the demands of modern life but this can only be done if we remove the CAO points rat race.
I find it frightening that the statistics showed that, on average, one in six students drop out of university in the first year. That needs to be examined to understand the reasons for the alarmingly high drop-out rates. Is it because students have chosen the wrong course and, if so, why has that happened? Do they get enough guidance on the selection of courses? Do we need to look at career guidance at second level? It is obvious that something needs to be done. It is unacceptable that there is a such a high drop-out rate among students in their first year at university.
I acknowledge that the Government has recognised that apprenticeships still have a value in the education system. The apprenticeship scheme has a major part to play in developing students in careers that are financially worthwhile and offer a high job satisfaction rate. I call on the Government to make additional funds available to support apprenticeship schemes. They will play a major part in the post-Covid era. We must be more creative with apprenticeships and not just think of them in a traditional manner. There are many people today who still think that apprenticeships are only for electricians, plumbers and carpenters. We must raise awareness of the many valuable apprenticeships that are available.
I thank the Deputies for bringing this motion to the House. I support many aspects of it, but I cannot support all of it. I call on the Government to look again at refunding fees for students whose courses were affected by Covid. I acknowledge the refund of €250 in respect of fees paid, but this did not go far enough. I call on the Government to refund at least 50% of fees to students whose courses were severely affected by the Covid pandemic. I also call on the Government to drastically increase its annual budget for third-level education so that we are not bottom of the pile when compared with our European neighbours. I further call on the Government to explain why we have slipped 29 places in the space of four years when it comes to spending on third-level education.
I urge the Government to support the motion in respect of giving access to third-level education the same priority it was given in the late 1960s when access to second-level education was made available to everyone.