Friday, 24 July 2020
Ministers and Secretaries and Ministerial, Parliamentary, Judicial and Court Offices (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
It is a great pleasure to present to the House the Ministers and Secretaries and Ministerial, Parliamentary, Judicial and Court Offices (Amendment) Bill 2020, which passed all Stages in the Seanad yesterday. This Bill establishes, for the first time in the history of the State, a Department focused on further and higher education, research, innovation and science. We will now have a Department whose chief remit will be the further and higher education needs of our economy and our people. While some people may view the new Department as one for universities or students, it is about much more than that. I see its establishment as an opportunity to shape our future. Our young people are our future and we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to remove the limits to their ambition. We have a chance to dismantle the barriers to third level education, real and perceived, and remove preconceived notions of what third level education is and should be. Crucially, we have a chance to ensure the experience of a third level education is available to all, regardless of age, gender or background.
There is an inherent bias in our system which presumes that tertiary education is for some and not for all. I want to change that. I passionately believe that we shut down conversations much too early in regard to the range of opportunities that are available to people to fulfil their ambition and realise their career goals. I see this new Department as an economic driver and an opportunity to future-proof the economy and build on the foundations in place. It will also provide a means to drive social inclusion and use education to better our country. We know what our challenges will be for the next decade and we need to equip ourselves to deal with them. We must offer the right education and the proper training and channel those skills into solving the problems not just of today but of tomorrow.
We have started well. This week we launched a €168 million package of supports for the third level sector and students. We published our reopening plans and announced the commencement dates for all first-year college students. These measures will help with the return of further and higher education in September and offer practical supports to students to address the digital divide, which is a major issue that is under-discussed and under-recognised in this country, and ensure nobody is left behind. I am pleased to inform the House that yesterday I met representatives from the Irish Universities Association, the Technological Higher Education Association and Technological University Dublin to discuss the reopening of our colleges. At the meeting, the three representative bodies confirmed that the induction of first-year students is a priority and that they are seeking to welcome those students from late September or early October, with the majority of third level institutions seeking to open for first-year students in the week beginning 28 September.
Today, as part of the July stimulus, I will be announcing a €100 million package to fund more than 35,000 extra places in further and higher education. I will also launch a special €12 million incentivisation scheme for employers to take on apprentices, the first time such an incentive has been offered, outside of the female bursary, for any employer to take on an apprentice. Under the scheme, employers will receive €2,000 up front for each apprentice they take on and, 12 months later, a further €1,000 if the apprentice is still on their books. The apprenticeship model in this country has huge potential. To be frank, our discussion around education has perhaps been too snobby in the past. Apprenticeships offer major opportunities to people in the crafts field and well beyond it. If we look at other European countries, a huge amount is being done to develop apprenticeships. I intend to bring forward an action plan on apprenticeships, in consultation with the Apprenticeship Council, early next year. I will update Government on that consultation process next Monday.
These measures are just the beginning. As part of the budget process, I will be working with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, to examine how we can reduce the cost of third level education over the next five years and remove some of the barriers to accessing it. I firmly believe that there is no policy more transformational than widening educational access and, alongside that, broadening our view of what education is. In my previous role, I saw at first hand how important innovation, science and research were in our response to Covid. I want Ireland to continue to grow in strength as a global centre of research and innovation. I want to give our research community the opportunities to foster their greatest skills and imagination in dealing with the biggest problems of today.
We have made a start in that regard with the new €5 million fund to examine Covid-19 and why some people are immune but others are not, identify antibody testing and rapidly deploy it. I wish the crew in Trinity College Dublin who are working on the project all the very best.
I wish to develop research centres across the country and invest in science and medicine. I have only been in this role for four weeks, but I am excited and energised by all those I have met and I very much look forward to working with all Members of the House. The Government and the Oireachtas have an opportunity to develop this Department into an engine to advance several of the priorities of Deputies across the political divide. I look forward to working genuinely with them in that regard.
The purpose of the Department becomes clear when one visits places such as An Cosán in Jobstown, as I did the week before last. I met people who are in direct provision and travel from Carrick-on-Suir to Jobstown to complete their studies. The Government wishes to shut down direct provision and come up with a much better model, but, in the meantime, community education is providing an opportunity for people in direct provision. I met a woman in her 60s who decided to go back to education having previously been a family carer. She completed her degree through An Cosán. People who were lacking in confidence have overcome that hurdle and many others through community education and flexible learning. I have no doubt that the sector for which I now have political responsibility has the opportunity to be transformational in every sense of the word for families and communities in rural and urban Ireland.
The name of the Department is long as we could not come up with a snappy title, but the Bill is short and quite technical in nature. It allows for the creation of the Department. It provides for the body of law which relates to ministerial powers and Departments to apply to the new Department. It also allows for certain orders to be made in respect of the new Department and my office as Minister. These orders include transfer of functions and alteration of name orders. As Deputies will be aware, the transfer of most legal functions into the Department will take place through transfer of functions orders from the Departments of Education and Skills and Business, Enterprise and Innovation. Work is under way on these issues with a view to an expeditious transfer of responsibilities. I hope most of that work will be completed before the House resumes after the summer recess.
It is a great honour to be the first holder of this important post. I am very excited by the opportunities we will have to make a difference and implement the ambitious range of measures relating to this sector which are outlined in the programme for Government. I and the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, look forward to hearing the contributions of Members and having an opportunity to engage substantively with them on the many issues in the areas of further education, higher education, training, skills, research, science and innovation.
I could do with longer. I and Sinn Féin welcome the establishment of the new Department. It certainly has a big job of work to do, both in breadth and in depth. I am pleased to be the Sinn Féin spokesperson on these matters. I look forward to working with the Minister and his team in a collaborative and constructive way. We have a significant job of work to do.
As I discovered in recent weeks, there have been many reports and a significant amount of analysis on the vital reform and investment needed for third level education. I refer to the Cassells report, the National Skills Strategy 2025, the further education and training strategy, the gender action plan, the Partners in the Recovery: Enabling Irish Universities to Support Re-booting Ireland document published in May by the Irish Universities Association and many other papers and submissions on what needs to be done. We do not need to commission any more reports. We have enough reports to pave a road from here to County Mayo. The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 was produced in 2011. Its preface outlines exactly what needs to be done in the context of new structures to better reflect diverse learning requirements, the critical mass that is needed in research capacity to develop world-class capability in higher value niche areas, the funding of higher education in a sustainable and equitable manner and the required structure changes in the higher education system to ensure greater effectiveness. It also refers to the need for co-operation and collaboration between the various institutions. It is all there. Now we just need to make it happen. It is time for rapid action and serious investment.
I truly hope that the establishment of a dedicated Ministry will mark a step-change in how third level education is delivered. There is a real opportunity for us to envisage an all-island approach to higher education and that very much excites me because I have always believed that students from the Shankill Road or east Belfast should have the same access to educational opportunities as those from Belmullet, my area. This is a small island. We have significant expertise in the education sector, but we need to work together better to ensure that there is access right across the island and, for those who choose to study abroad, beyond. If we are to truly share this island and cherish all of its children equally, there is no better place to start than with education. That is why I am delighted to be involved in this portfolio. Nelson Mandela stated that education is the most powerful weapon one can use to change the world. I believe in education. If we do this properly, we will be able to change the island on which we live. Our aim must be to provide an educational infrastructure that will enable people of all abilities and ages, as the Minister stated, to fulfil their potential and contribute to a prosperous and progressive Ireland.
I refer to people with disabilities and, in particular, people with autism. I have long believed that we are missing out as a nation by not investing in the acute and exceptional skills of young and older people with autism. I have encountered many such people. I very much wish to work with the Minister on that issue in order that we invest in it rather than treating it as a cost. We must invest in it such that it can contribute to innovation and science and everything we need to do. That will be my overarching ethos in my role as main Opposition spokesperson on further and higher education.
There have been many decades of underfunding in this area. We spend 50% less per student now than we did in 2008. I welcome the Minister's recent announcements regarding the extra funding that will be available. The Cassells report was published four years ago, but it has been ignored until now. It identified the need for a spending increase of €600 million in third level education by 2021, which is not too far away. Successive Governments have created what has been referred to as a ticking time bomb. I agree with that assessment.
Brexit and Covid have exacerbated the situation. I am glad that the dates are being finalised with the universities. I encourage the Minister to engage further with the Higher Education Authority as well. There is a need to consult the staff and students' unions of third level institutions regarding the guidelines and complying with medical advice.
The balanced regional development of third level education has often been at the sharp end of underfunding and that must end. We need real investment and vision to address the geographic inequalities that exist. Being from Mayo, I must bring to the Minister's attention the investment that is needed by the Castlebar campus of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. The Department of Education and Skills never really wanted that institution to be established. Through the years, it has done everything possible to make it fail. I am asking the Minister to challenge the official attitude towards the campus, to work with its president and her excellent team who, despite all of the obstacles put in their way, do everything possible to create a responsive and dynamic campus.
It is not just the institutions that are close to buckling under pressure. Students and their families are also struggling. That is no wonder, given that we have the highest fees in the EU. I ask the Government to consider these issues, including the fact that families are struggling with the high cost of third level. If the current situation continues, even more inequality will come into our education system and more young people will be excluded from certain forms of education. All forms of education should be equally valued. Everyone should have the chance to follow the path that best suits them. Improving access to further and higher education needs to be a priority.
The SUSI system needs to be reformed. That should be done immediately by the Department. The thresholds are too high and the amounts are too low. People with disabilities who wish to study part time are excluded. That must be addressed, as must the problem in respect of adults living away from home being excluded because they are assessed based on their parents' income.
I am glad to see attention being given to apprenticeships because they have been undervalued in recent years. I will work with the Minister on that because I absolutely believe in apprenticeships and what we need to do there.
The Minister stated that our recovery and future economic performance lie in a well-trained and educated population. That is all very positive. I was so looking forward to coming in here today and then I saw the amendment that came in at 11 o'clock on Wednesday night which provides for giving €16,288 to a super junior Minister who is already earning €2,384 per week. It is really repugnant to hard-working people of this State. To put in perspective the €16,000 bonus, in the real world, third level students and their families will say it is as much as the annual pay of an apprentice. It is the annual pay for a full-time PhD student. It is five times the full SUSI maintenance grant for a year, which is supposed to cover accommodation, food and travel. We want to work with the Minister to improve third level education and he has put us in the impossible situation whereby we cannot vote for the setting up of this Department today because he has thrown in that amendment. People throughout the State are looking at that amendment and saying surely to God €2,384 per week is enough for somebody to live on. They see all of the cuts. When I speak to parents who are trying to send their children to third level education and to the youngsters who do not have employment because their summer jobs are gone for this year, they are really concerned about how they are going to access education, yet we put this provision in with the setting up of this Department when we have all agreed to work together to make it work. That is why Sinn Féin is forced to vote against this. We have an amendment coming through on Committee Stage and I implore the Minister even at this late stage to back our amendment, remove that provision and work together in a positive manner. Let us work together and not try to pull the wool over people's eyes by putting in the extra €2,384 a week for a Minister of State when people across this island are struggling so much at this time.
I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate him on the establishment of this very important Department. The Department has to address some fundamental issues in the third level education sector very quickly. Key stakeholders in the sector have been calling for increased investment for higher and further education for many years now. Third level research is a fundamental part of our growth engine and is essential to our future prosperity. The Labour Party supported calls, which I reiterate, for a fully publicly funded third and fourth level system as per the Cassells report. In our recent manifesto, we committed to developing an implementation strategy to increase university funding for both teaching and research, building in the recommendations of Cassells. This will be needed now more than ever with the gaping hole left in our universities, given the funding situation and stresses that our third level sector is under in terms of the near-evaporation for the foreseeable future of fees that we could ordinarily expect from international students.
The Labour Party's July stimulus package calls for an immediate increase in funding for third level under the new Department, which should pave the way for a lowering of student fees. In addition, we called for enhanced student supports and increased SUSI payments to ensure that no one drops out of their studies due to Covid-19. We know how negatively impacted the under-25s in particular have been and we cannot sacrifice their education and prospects because of our experience around the pandemic and its economic impact. I hope the establishment of the new Department is a sign of a fresh focus on both the immediate Covid-19 related measures that are required and the long-term needs of higher and further education.
Now is the time to start a conversation on what the post-secondary and higher education sector should look like into the future. This not only includes universities but also the network of institutes of technology, which we have to develop, and the new necklace of those operations. I have been working hard with the various stakeholders in Louth, east Meath and across the north east to develop technological university status for Dundalk Institute of Technology, DKIT, and to develop those relationships that will make it happen with partner institutes. Post-leaving certificate courses, PLCs, apprenticeships, lifelong learning and adult learning will also play a crucial role. The Minister will agree that these areas have been left behind for far too long as a Cinderella service. In his previous statements, the Minister has acknowledged that they have been left behind with less of an emphasis placed on them. This leads to inequality and a certain snobbishness, as the Minister said earlier. Education of any description is no burden. We are all in a process of lifelong learning. We take up those opportunities when they arise and we need to go after them. We need to make sure there is an equality of treatment in terms of further and higher education insofar as we can achieve that. We now have an opportunity to have a national conversation about our collective vision for the post-second level educational landscape.
The Labour Party's July stimulus package also includes a strong youth guarantee that was at least by definition absent from the Government's July stimulus programme notwithstanding the fact that we do welcome commitments around apprenticeships, lifelong learning and further education which were announced yesterday. The youth guarantee would have given a guaranteed offer of decent work and meaningful training, whether through an apprenticeship scheme, voluntary placement in an appropriate community setting, in-work training and-or remote study for everyone under 25 not currently in an educational or training programme or in employment. It would have supported those young people I referred to earlier who have been the hardest hit by the economic fallout of the pandemic. Now, unfortunately, there is a very real risk of another generation being left behind. In addition, our focus on lifelong learning, one of the five key tests that the Labour Party has established around our judgment of the effectiveness of the July stimulus, would not only have supported workers through this crisis but also increased Ireland's shockingly low rate of in-work training. Compared with a rate of 33% in Denmark, in Ireland we have a shockingly poor level of consistent in-work training, coming in at about 5.5% of our workforce. The Labour Party stimulus package seeks significant investment in retraining, upskilling and lifelong learning to make sure people are ready for the jobs of the future and that their skills constantly evolve and update. We committed to tripling investment in State training services and schemes.
There is a real opportunity to reshape our economy and take the necessary steps to reorient our labour market towards even higher levels of productivity and value creation, which in turn will create higher paid jobs and address income inequality. Lifelong learning is critical to paving the path towards a high-road economy with a highly skilled, highly productive and highly paid workforce. The crisis has shown both the value and the risk of neglecting investment in our educational sector. During the Covid-19 crisis we have had the manifest benefit of researchers across a broad range of disciplines based in many of our higher education institutions contributing to our national effort to fight the pandemic. The NPHET group of experts has led us through these past six month or so and the bulk of them have come through our own higher education institutes. We are proud of the role they are now playing. They are not just the scientists and medical experts but also those specialising in behavioural change, economics, medical ethics and law. However, this expertise and our long-standing reputation for quality research has been at risk for some time now. Our previously world-class universities have plunged down the rankings in the past five years. This is unfortunate. The slide is directly related to concerns around inconsistent funding and so on. We really need that question of consistent funding and multi-annual envelopes to get over the line. That needs to be a priority for the new Minister and his Department.
I hope the new Department does not neglect the arts and humanities. The broader societal impact of the crisis needs to be assessed and understood across a wide range of disciplines, including cultural, sociological and historical ones. As the Minister knows, the arts have suffered greatly during recent months, yet live stream initiatives such as Other Voices, Courage 2020 and the Irish National Opera live streams as well as initiatives in my own constituency have provided free entertainment for people in their homes when venues have been shuttered.
Investment in the arts is called for. The national campaign for the arts needs to be included in this fresh approach to further and higher education and life-long learning. We have to be conscious of the function and role of the arts and creative industries in our economy. That cannot be neglected.
In the coming months and years, we need a collaborative approach to navigate our way through the uncertainty. Everything is subject to change but clarity and reassurance must be provided to all the stakeholders involved, including students, lecturers and others such as trade unions. Trade unions must be the fore in leading this change, as they want to be, and not left out in the cold as has all too often been the case in the past.
I wish the Minister, Deputy Harris, the best of luck in his new role and I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, on his appointment. I also wish the officials in the new Department well. It is an exciting to be at the helm of a new Department at this point in our economic situation. I hope that the engagement which the Minister plans to have with stakeholders is positive. That stakeholder engagement needs to be inclusive and we need to learn from what they have to say to us and to work in a partnership and collaborative way to make sure that we get bang for our buck while putting further and higher education at the centre of not just our economy but our society.
I echo the points made by Deputy Conway-Walsh. It is unfortunate that Government has seen fit to include an amendment in the legislation to provide for an additional allowance for an additional super junior Minister at Cabinet. This appears to be a move to keep all Government parties sweet. I recall a time when we made do with two super junior Ministers - a Chief Whip and a super junior Minister given a particular job at a particular moment in time on a particular policy matter. This proposal is most unfortunate to say the least. It does not sit well with the public in these very straitened times when families across this country are going through immense difficulties and facing a very uncertain and anxious future. Will the Minister confirm that we will not revert to the days of the largesse of Charlie McCreevy and Bertie Ahern when every junior Minister had a press adviser and a policy adviser costing millions of euro per annum to the Exchequer? We abolished that in 2011, as should be the case. There is, of course, an argument for it - I benefited from it myself during my spell as a super junior Minister. As a super junior Minister, I attended Cabinet and had particular responsibilities that required me to have advice and additional support but I do not believe a case can be made to provide additional special adviser support to Ministers of State in their roles, particularly at this time of economic constraints for our country. Can the Minister clarify that that will not be the case?
The Social Democrats welcomes this legislation and the establishment of the new Department. It is a good move. The guiding principle in regard to education across all levels must be seen as a means of achieving a fair society and ensuring that people have the opportunity to reach their potential. Everybody, regardless of background or means, should have the same opportunities for further and higher education. It is not just about equality of opportunity. The objective should be to aim for equality of outcome because as we know current levels of participation in third level by people from low income backgrounds are poor, with participation levels in some areas in single digit figures. Not a whole lot of progress has been made in recent years in those participation levels. There are many reasons for this. I reiterate that it is not enough to set equal opportunity as the objective. We need to be all of the time seeking to ensure, as much as possible, that we put in place the kind of supports necessary for people who for cultural or traditional reasons would not have participated in third level education. It is important to identify those barriers which prevent people from full participation and that we attempt to achieve equality of outcome. Opportunity in education and equality of outcome are central to a progressive and fair society. This has to be our objective. We know that education can be the gateway to a fair and equal society. It is about people reaching their potential, greater quality of life for people who participate in third level education, greater earning potential and a greater contribution to society and to the economy. We should be aiming to achieve this for all of our citizens. We should be setting that as a our very clear objective.
Currently, there are major funding challenges which pose a real threat to our third level institutions. This has been the case now for a number of years, as reflected in Irish universities slipping down the international rankings. Increasingly, our universities are seeking to supplement their income by taking in more international students, who are required, and are in a position, to contribute substantial fees. Sometimes that is at the expense of our own students in terms of disciplines being very competitive and Irish people not getting that opportunity. It is not a good basis on which to calibrate the funding of our universities. Increasingly, universities have been doing this but it has been very much impacted by Covid, which poses even greater challenges.
The Cassells report shows that significant investment is needed in third level education. As a small country in an increasingly globalised and competitive world Ireland's education system can be a great competitive advantage. It is fair to say that the high level education of many people who have gone through the education system in Ireland has given us a great edge and that has been recognised internationally. The third level sector needs strong Government support if it is to continue to maintain high standards. While planning for third level financing the Government needs to ensure that equal opportunity is the priority. This means funding third level predominantly through State funding, phasing out student fees, which continue to act as a barrier, and ensuring that Ireland never has to rely on income from students from abroad. We undoubtedly need to reduce costs and improve supports for students. We need to reduce third level fees by phasing out the student contribution charge and to reduce the no maintenance support for students' commute from 45 km to 25 km and to consider increasing funding to the SUSI grant scheme by a minimum of 7% and to eliminate delays in payments which cause significant stress and hardship for students. We should also reinstate maintenance grants for postgraduate students because, increasingly, postgraduate qualifications are seen as very important in terms of high level jobs. We need to reinstate maintenance grants for students to ensure that a postgraduate qualification is not seen as the preserve of those who are well-off. Postgraduate qualifications impose an even bigger burden on people coming from low income households. We also need to recognise the work of postgraduate research students and guarantee fair pay and working conditions for them.
On apprenticeship schemes, in my view, Springboard+ needs to be adapted to include school-leavers. We also need to promote digital apprenticeship programmes through initiatives such as the UK Tech Partners scheme. I would encourage the Minister to have a look at it. We have a high number of tech companies in Ireland. It is reasonable to expect those companies to start to run apprenticeship schemes.
If they do not manage to do that, or are not prepared to do that, we should consider the introduction of an apprenticeship levy to encourage major companies to contribute to a tech apprenticeship scheme. There is no doubt that greater funding for apprenticeships in State bodies and companies is also required. We need to consider ensuring improved participation in apprenticeships for women and for people with disabilities also.
In the whole area of research and development we know increases in this area bring in great returns - in fact, a twofold return on investment - with an increase in university staff and investment in basic research to balance applied research. That should be a priority.
Greater investment in Teagasc to support farmers in the changing world environment is required and needs to be looked at.
As a previous Minister for Health, the Minister is probably aware of the need to ensure that decisions on research funding are based upon the needs of broader society and the economy. Too often, because the main bulk of research funding has been controlled by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, the main criteria applied to decision-making in that area are the number of jobs created. That is very narrow perspective to have. We should be looking at what is needed in the health area and its priorities. Research should be based on those sets priorities rather than the narrow jobs perspective.
An area the Minister will be familiar with in health area also is the need for proper skills planning. Too often we identify the need for more staff in particular areas but when one tries to recruit those staff, they are simply not available. Skills planning is absolutely key.
The decision to include the salary increase for the super junior Ministers is a mistake. It is a negative in terms of what should be a very positive Bill. Will the Minister reconsider the inclusion of that unpopular move in this legislation? Will he consider putting that to the House on another occasion and not seek to include it in this otherwise very positive legislation, which I think the House would be very happy to support in its entirety were it not for that provision?
I will be brief and will focus my remarks on what is the scandalous inclusion of the extra €16,000 a year for a super junior Minister, on top of an annual salary of €124,000.
Before I discuss that point, I wish to make one point about higher education. There is a crisis of funding in higher education right now which is a consequence of a model of relying on non-EU students as a cash cow. Very quickly, the same sorts of pressures we saw for many years will come to pass again where universities will be rightly crying out that they do not have enough funding. The Government then, instead of investing to ensure they have the funding needed to properly run our third level institutions, will increase the so-called student contribution or will attempt to return to full fees. The student movement needs to have its eyes and ears very much open to this attack which could come down the line in the course of this Government and to prepare to resist and defeat it.