Dáil debates

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Priority Questions

Third Level Funding

1:00 pm

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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Question 7: To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the terms of reference for the proposed study by the Higher Education Authority into the sustainability of the existing funding framework for third level. [14705/11]

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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I have changed the way in which the Department of Education and Skills will respond to questions. From now on, replies will be brief and to the point. This has been done to provide time for more questions to be answered and Deputies to ask more supplementary questions if they so wish.

The intention of the sustainability study to be undertaken by the Higher Education Authority, HEA, at my request is to assess the inter-relationship and tension between objectives for increasing student numbers in higher education, maintaining and improving quality and managing within overall funding constraints. The purpose of undertaking this work is to ensure that realistic and sustainable levels of growth in numbers can be supported and better informed choices can be made on policy options for future funding. In assessing this, the HEA has also been asked to consider the impact of more effective utilisation of existing resources, including through the potential of contractual changes under the Croke Park agreement. It will also draw on international comparisons and benchmarks in its work. While the overall study is a complex exercise, I have asked for preliminary findings by the autumn. The precise terms of reference are being finalised and will be published when agreed.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his innovative approach to answering questions. We have all experienced cases of Ministers reading out only half of a prepared reply because it was excessively long. I look forward to having a good dialogue with the Minister.

In his recent address to the Royal Irish Academy the Minister referred to the major challenges facing the education system arising from demographical change and, thankfully, the continued increase in the number of people participating in and accessing third level education. He also spoke fluently about improvements in the educational profile, the global rankings Irish universities have achieved through good management and significant investment of resources in recent years. Retention rates and the quality of courses are also good.

The Minister stated some months ago that the Hunt report needed to be dealt with urgently. According to the report, the third level sector urgently requires additional funding of approximately €500 million per annum. Why is the Government not acting on its recommendations? Is this not a case of kicking to touch another report? What additional benefits will the new report the Minister has requested from the Higher Education Authority bring to the debate?

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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The section on finance in the Hunt report called for further detailed analysis and study. In addition, the increase in funding of approximately €500 million is required over a lengthy period as opposed to the next couple of years. There are levels of duplication emerging which were not previously known. For example, approximately 40 different courses are offered in second level education teacher training in 21 different institutions. We must examine not so much institutional rearrangement, although that may be necessary should the institutions so decide, but the duplication of existing courses in centres that are in close proximity to each other. There is no doubt that net additional money will be required for third level education. Some of this funding could be found from savings within existing expenditure.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister referred to the need for better utilisation of existing resources. Does he mean human resources, personnel and the range of teaching facilities available at different colleges? The Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, will be familiar with a particular project with which he and I were associated in the past, namely, an alliance between Teagasc and University College Cork which delivers better utilisation and synergy in the delivery of courses and the drawing down of external funding, specifically from the European Union.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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By the end of the second decade of this century we will have to examine how we can get much more with less, in particular, how we can utilise distance learning and on-line participation through different institutions offering the same type of on-line activities. For example, County Meath Vocational Education Committee has developed a system of teaching applied mathematics from a single centre across the various second level VEC schools in the county. I recently visited Longwood VEC school which has, with the consent and co-operation of parents, supplied students with iPads in which all the books and written material they require are available electronically.

Given the resource constraints we face and with which the Deputy is more than familiar, we must find new ways of delivering as well as economies within the system. I do not wish to convey the impression that we can fund the additional growth through internal economies and innovations alone. We must find additional net resources, which is what I have asked the Higher Education Authority to identify.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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While I ask the House to forgive me for referring again to Teagasc, it has offered e-learning courses for some time. This is a practical option as it facilitates students who wish to work during the day and may not always be able to travel. Do the terms of reference for the HEA's study include the possibility of reintroducing student fees?

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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No and while my position on fees is well known, I do not have any prejudice in the matter. We will have to wait and see what the report proffers before we make any further decisions. No decision will be made until we have the report.