Friday, 24 July 2020
Ministers and Secretaries and Ministerial, Parliamentary, Judicial and Court Offices (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage (Resumed)
The point I was making was that a return to fees or an increase in the so-called student contribution charge could be on the agenda in the course of this Government and the student movement needs to be awake to that and needs to be prepared to mobilise to defeat it, as has happened in the past. We have a situation where the student movement has been on the front foot and has demanded correctly the scrapping of this nonsense of a student contribution charge. Commitments have been given by various political parties in the past about that but then, when in power, they have done nothing about it. We need to be fighting for free at-the-point-of-access education at all levels to be properly funded by progressive taxation.
I will speak now on the scandalous decision to include in this Bill the provisions for an extra €16,000 a year for a super junior Minister, who is already on a salary of €124,000 a year. This is happening at a time when one in four people in this country is currently unemployed, and at a time of great crisis. As a socialist and as a general principle, I would say that all elected representatives, Deputies, junior Ministers, super junior Ministers, senior Ministers and the Taoiseach, should be on the average wage of the people they are supposed to represent as opposed to living lives that are different and separate from the lives of the people who vote for them. On top of the whingeing and campaigning by various Deputies looking for an extra €40,000 as a junior Minister or an extra €80,000 as a senior Minister, it really adds insult to injury to have a situation where an extra €16,000 is going to be provided to a super junior Minister, someone who is already going to be extremely well-paid. People asked on social media, very appropriately, whether a clap would not do. Would a round of applause on a Thursday night not do it? It is meant to do it for our healthcare and Debenhams workers, and from the point of view of those who are facing potential eviction.
It says a great deal when one looks at the actions of this Government and of the majority of Members of this Dáil over the past week or so. There is the decision to go ahead with cuts to the pandemic unemployment payment to people who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and whose incomes will be further cut in a series or progression of cuts over the next six months or so. There was a vote yesterday by the majority in this Dáil - Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party - to effectively gut our motion to support the Debenhams workers. There was another vote yesterday against the provision of affordable childcare and there was the miserly decision to only extend the eviction ban to 1 August.
Presumably, if the Chief Whip can get enough people to vote for it, the Government and the majority of Members of this Dáil will vote through a pay increase of €16,000 for an already very well-paid person. This goes to the heart of the priorities of the Government and who it represents. It is outrageous and mind-boggling to people who see this crisis and the unfolding economic depression and then see the Government voting to pay itself more money.
There is an added layer of gross hypocrisy with Fianna Fáil's position in this. Fianna Fáil did very little in the previous period in government, when it pretended to be out of government but was actually in government. Occasionally, it would pick an issue to make a stand on to show that it was different to Fine Gael. On one issue, when Fine Gael was in government in 2017, Fianna Fáil decided to make a stand on an important issue. The press release on Fianna Fáil's website was titled: "FF Will Block Any Effort To Fund Additional 'Super Junior' Position – Byrne". It continued: "Thomas Byrne TD has confirmed that his party will block any attempt by An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to introduce salary top-ups for another 'super junior' position". Fianna Fáil took a principled stand that it would not stand for another super junior being paid.
Yesterday or the day before, the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, who is a member of Fianna Fáil, drafted or had his Department draft the relevant section to say that they will get the extra money. What is different? It is who has their snouts in the trough. Fianna Fáil now has access to this money. One of the three will be from Fianna Fáil. It therefore wants this to go through. It is the kind of thing that rightly makes people deeply cynical about politics. They are right to be deeply cynical about establishment politics. Fianna Fáil is capable of opposing one thing when in opposition and making out that it has a principle against it, then when it can benefit from it, it is not just willing to vote it through but positively drives it through to ensure that all three super junior Ministers get not just €124,000 a year, but have it topped up to €140,000 each year in a time of global economic crisis, mass unemployment and so on. It disgusts people and, assuming that the Government goes ahead with this, people will take note. In the grand context of the global budget, Ireland's tax haven status and so on, €16,000 is not much compared with the many billions held by the very wealthy, but it will be seen as an emblematic example demonstrating the approach of the Government, its out of touch nature and what its priorities are.
I will be sharing time with my colleagues, Deputy O'Donoghue and Deputy Michael Collins, if one of them arrives.
I congratulate the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and wish their well on their new roles, as well as their whole teams. Education is so important from the cradle to the grave. I know we are dealing with universities here but it is still important. I hope the funding for this area and the new innovative section in the Department will do well. I am glad to have got news in the last hour that the Taoiseach has said there will be a Cabinet decision on Monday about all schools reopening. They are all expected to reopen, which is wonderful, because it has been a trying time for families, students, teachers, boards of management and parents' councils.
We dealt with a Revised Estimate relating to education last week with the Minister, Deputy Foley, and there was not a shilling in it for the Covid provisions. That is a significant worry, as a person who has served on boards of management at all levels of education, including a naíonra, a national school and a second level institution. They worry because of the shoestring budgets, and I welcome the funding last night for the minor works schemes for all schools. There are always jobs to be done in schools, and the boards of management are faced with decisions about how they can spend money or are not able to spend money. They should not have to worry about basic repairs. It should be done by the Department of Education and Skills.
I want to ask the Minister of State about the new role. The Minister, Deputy Harris, was on my local radio this morning in Clonmel. He mentioned some health projects that he was involved with. We set up a third level institution 20 years ago or more, the Tipperary Rural and Business Development Institute. That has since been moved into Limerick Institute of Technology Tipperary. We are the tail. We are not getting the recognition, supports or investment that we deserve in Tipperary. There were promises with the amalgamation but they are not happening. We have difficulties with relocating from the present site. The building was built in three months and is not suitable. It would be more suited to being a farm or an industrial building than a university. We hope to move to the old site at Kickham Barracks in Clonmel. The present site and the bypass can be used for many other things. We need to have proper leadership. I have paid tribute in the past to the lecturers and people who do great work there. We need to have the supports. We have a brain drain of lecturers and such. When there is not a proper emphasis and focus on having the Tipperary section of LIT being equal, people will vote with their feet and move to where there are the resources, recognition and so on. We need to be acutely aware of this.
There are many issues that debar people from going into third level education. Being from rural Ireland, people are at a significant disadvantage. I thank the people who handle SUSI grants. They have been helpful after being thrown in at the deep end to run it. Students are often disqualified because of 1 km or because of how the travel distance is measured for access grants and travel grants. There are significant anomalies and it is unfair on the students who want to go to third level education. Their parents want to send them there and the community and country need them to have these degrees and the education, but because of sheer financial constraints, they cannot do it. We need recognition that people in rural areas are just as entitled to have a third level education as the people in cities. I do not begrudge people in cities with all the choice and the transport services that they have. We do not have the transport services and we have a meagre grant system to give them assistance to go half a kilometre. It is often measured differently and there are disputes about it, then they are ruled out. This is a substantial setback to students who want to further educate themselves and to play a part in our ever-growing economy. That anomaly needs to be sorted out because it is putting significant pressure on parents, especially if they did not get the grants.
I addressed a matter earlier in my comments to the Minister for Health about student nurses, whether they are general or psychiatric nurses, who came out to join the front-line services in this crisis and have not got funded. They have received some belated funding at assistants' rate of pay, which I recognise, but they are also losing out, as are students in all colleges this summer, on Easter work, summer work and evening work, because everything is closed down. Significant pressure is placed on parents, especially parents who do not take any grants to try to pay and support their children in college. There is significant peer pressure too. It is awfully frustrating. The stimulus fund could not deal with that but we need to have an education fund announced next week or when we come back to Revised Estimates. I am surprised that the Minister had not included the Covid fund in the Revised Estimates because they need to be supported, because they will go back to college empty-handed in September, if they do go back to college in September, which we hope they will. Students cost a lot of money when they are at home and cannot get out to work, because they are an extra expense on the family home. It is well known from surveys that they spend more when they are off and they have to eat and to live when they are at home. It is not free.
I hope and pray that the Minister of State will deal with the matter of apprenticeships in an aggressive fashion. In the aftermath of the so-called crash and the recovery and the boom, we no longer have apprentices. A school building programme is being rolled out and there is funding for minor works but small builders cannot get the carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers or electricians - or sparks as we call them. It is the whole range, and we need them badly. Teagasc must be brought in, as stated earlier, to deliver courses in mechanics for machinery operators, for example. There is a huge problem in the contracting business because one cannot get skilled operators. The mechanisms in tractors are computerised now and a person would need to have a third level degree to drive and understand them. We need apprenticeships. The contractors of Ireland have been looking for a number of years to get people back into that. Not all people will be working behind a desk or at a computer. We need people also to work on machinery, on construction sites and with construction equipment, and we need to understand that.
Teagasc needs a total revamp. I hope the Department of Education and Skills and Teagasc can link with each other to spend the money more prudently and wisely. We have to be new and innovative, and we must challenge ourselves and our young people. No one relishes a challenge more than young people. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí is the old adage. I am not saying that they are all young but younger people are going into business. We need those people in research and development and we need them in all kinds of positions.
I received a CV from a young man in Tipperary who attended Trinity College and who was looking for an internship or some temporary work. His CV was mind-boggling in terms of the number of extracurricular courses he took and degrees he was awarded when in Trinity College. He had also done various jobs in the students' union with student representatives, summer work and placements. He excelled in all of them. Employers value these students and know they want to learn and get ahead.
As I have said, Teagasc must be completely reformed. Agriculture is ever-changing, especially now in light of the green economy. Young people and young farmers are up to the challenge. Farmers in general have been up to the challenge of dealing with carbon issues and so on, but they need the supports. I put it to the Minister of State that, like it or lump it, this is one of the many issues in the area of education.
We now have three super junior Ministers. There was a furore when this happened back in the 1980s, and a more recent furore when one super junior was appointed. Now there are three, and one of them is not even a Member of this House. I am aware that the particular location in which we find ourselves is only a temporary home, but I am referring to the Dáil. One of the new super junior Ministers was appointed to the Seanad. While there is scope in the Constitution to do this, attempting to insist on a higher salary sticks in the craws of people who are trying to survive. It sticks in the craw of those people we have spoken of who want to send their children back to college and who are under enormous pressure because the children could not get the summer or night-time jobs they would normally have had. This is a major issue. We might think it will all be lost in Covid payments and everything else, but we want to show example to the people who are suffering out there, people who want to engage in and embrace the change during these new times. We must be very careful with this. It is just not fair or right. I will not single out who she is, but she is a member of the Green Party and a Senator, and along with the other two other super junior Ministers at Cabinet, she will receive an increase of more than €16,000, which does not sit right with me, my constituents or the people.
I congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment. I look forward to working with him in his role in the new Department which is the subject of the Bill and which will be known as the "Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science". This title reflects the importance of the new Department.
I fully support the Bill and I do not see a reason to amend any of the sections as proposed. What is important is the work the Minister of State and his Department colleagues will carry out. In his statement when he was setting up this new Department, the Taoiseach said: "The single most important decision in delivering progress for modern Ireland involved a decisive move towards expanding educational opportunity." I fully agree with him. It is in this context that I want to raise with the Minister of State the progress towards the setting up of the various technological universities across the State. The one I wish to specifically speak about relates to the Connacht-Ulster alliance, which comprises a number of campuses across the north west, and the colleges of Sligo IT, Letterkenny IT, and GMIT. I have raised this issue with the previous Minister for Education and Skills, and I have raised it with the Taoiseach.
It is important to reiterate that I agree fully with the Taoiseach's statement that the single most important decision in delivering progress for modern Ireland - and for the regions that make up modern Ireland - involves a decisive move towards expanding educational opportunities. This is under way and one of its manifestations is the setting up of the technological universities. If we read the programme for Government, we can see the commitment to these technological universities. We can also see that the technological university in the south east is specifically mentioned. When I read through the programme for Government I got a fright when I saw that it was mentioned a second time. Yes, the technological university in the south east is very important and I wish them success and luck but it sends out a strong message that this technological university is the priority. There was no mention whatsoever of the Connacht-Ulster alliance. The only other third level college mentioned in the programme for Government is Magee. I will come back to that matter later. There is no mention in the programme for Government of any of the campuses that make up the Connacht-Ulster alliance. The previous Minister of State with responsibility for higher education, former Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, allocated a multi-annual fund of €90 million to assist the progression and development of the technological universities. I have a question for the Minister of State to which I expect a written response as I do not need to hear it today. How much of that fund has been allocated to the individual consortia that make up the different technological universities?
I am fully supportive of the enormous work and real progress by all involved, including Sligo IT, Letterkenny IT, and GMIT, in progressing the Connacht-Ulster alliance and in their progress towards meeting the criteria. This is a process and there is, rightly, an independent assessment as to whether or not the applicants meet the criteria. It is not a political process, it is an educational one. I have read the process and criteria for designation as a technological university. For the preparation of the plan to meet the criteria it states: "The establishment of a technological university requires the consolidation of two or more institutions." This means that if all the three colleges I mentioned are not in a position by autumn to apply for technological university status then two out of the three can proceed. I understand that the third college can join up at a later stage when it meets the criteria. I want to put on the record of the House that I absolutely and fervently hope that all three institutions will meet the criteria by the end of this year.
I was privileged to represent that entire region for 15 years in the European Parliament. I know this is not a parochial issue and that it is an issue for the region.
In the unfortunate circumstances, however, that this is not the case and only two of the three colleges reach the criteria, it is absolutely crucial that those two can proceed and the third college can link up when it is in the position to meet the criteria. Again, if we goes back to the process, once the application is submitted, a decision will be made within six months. However, if the application is rejected because it does not meet the criteria, then there is a five-year wait. That simply cannot be allowed to happen.
The reason I emphasise this is because I do not want any chance to arise that the Connacht-Ulster Alliance would not go ahead successfully in its application by this autumn. In my time as a politician, I have seen too many important issues slip off the agenda. There has been an economic gap between the regions with a consistent underspend in the north west, year by year, sector by sector. That underspend is across the board. It is documented in the Northern and Western Regional Assembly report from several months ago. It occurs in health, education, roads - national and local, as well as research and development and fewer jobs created. All those figures are per capita.
We are looking to the future, however. I do not think anybody set out to have this happen. It just happened by default or by the fact that people were not as proactive as they should have been. I want to ensure that our higher education institutions can make the application and play an important role in the educational, social and economic growth of the region.
Earlier I referred to Magee College. I would be delighted to see cross-Border collaboration between the Connacht-Ulster Alliance and Magee College. This would be vital because cross-Border collaboration is important. However, the Connacht-Ulster Alliance must go ahead under its own steam. It will provide us with a centre of excellence, innovation and one that will be able to respond to the needs of the entire region.
The Northern and Western Regional Assembly has provided statistics that show that between 2013 and 2018, the level of general capital funding provided per undergraduate student in the north west was €141 while the State average was €197. The spend in the other regions was much higher. That is why I want to ensure that the Minister and the Department are aware of this, that it does not continue, and that we get our fair share. Part of that process will be about ensuring a successful application for the Connacht-Ulster technological university.
I congratulate you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, on your election. It was certainly a turn-up for the books that you secured the vote against the odds. I wish you well in your position. I have no doubt from watching you in the Committee of Public Accounts and doing temporary Chair that you will do an excellent and fair job.
I congratulate the Ministers on their appointments because this is the first opportunity I have had to speak in the Dáil since they were appointed. I wish them well in their various roles and the work they have to do on behalf of the State.
It is unfortunate, however, that the section which does not refer specifically to universities but to Ministers of State and their payments should be taken in this Bill today. The Bill itself is a positive step forward. It is one that needs to be fleshed out and debated properly without having the drawback of having to pass also the section of the Bill which relates to Ministers of State. It is unfortunate in a second way because there is a need for a full debate on the appointment of Ministers, Ministers of State and super junior Ministers. It would not be in a negative way but in a way that would give a greater explanation and depth of understanding to just exactly what goes on in the various Departments as well as the work that has to be undertaken by modern governments which expands right across the spectrum of activity in society and in the economy in a much deeper way than before.
The cry before the appointment of Ministers is always about needing a special Minister for one thing or another. Why do people feel left out when they do not have a Minister for a specific sector? That greater debate should be undertaken on another day so people can have their say as to what a small or big Government looks like and what it costs. There is a cost to democracy but we have to be extremely careful that it is not excessive and can stand up to scrutiny.
A previous speaker mentioned the university for the south east in the context of the next up-and-coming recognition of a regional university. There was a meeting earlier this morning, which I could not attend because I was here, about progressing that particular project and bringing it to fruition to the benefit of not just Waterford but all the counties that make up the south east. The south east is an area which has been held economically and socially in terms of its development. Its qualities may be recognised but its true ability to move forward and what it has to offer have not been given the appropriate recognition in the State.
It is not today or yesterday that we have spoken about the university for the south east. It dates back in history with the proposed university for Kilkenny covered in a book written by Michael Conway. In more recent years, Mary McAleese, before she was President, began the conversation about having an outreach from Armagh based in Kilkenny to further the interests of universities in regions around the country and making them more accessible to people. To make them accessible, it is not just about geographical location. It is about funding, ensuring that the courses are meaningful and the qualifications are not dumbed down but beefed up. It is about everyone having the opportunity to attend university and to better themselves educationally, regardless of age or from where they come. That is important because education and furthering education through university is a great way of breaking that cycle of people being kept at a particular level in society, as well as ending poverty traps.
As legislators we need to do everything we possibly can to ensure that not only the financial aspect of this is pushed out to support others but the structures are there to ensure easy access. The Minister needs to look at the strength of a region when considering universities. I hope that the university for the south east is established soon. I encourage Waterford and Carlow institutes of technology to come together quickly to avail of the €90 million which is available to ensure they can complete their application and move the project forward to the delivery stage.
Any delay in the project whatsoever will delay possibilities for people. We cannot allow that to happen.
Regarding the strengths of the south east, I have always put forward the view that we should build on what we have in terms of education and tourism. I encourage the Minister of State to take the lead in each region and, in the south east in particular, to consider the possibility of Norman studies within the university. It would be a specific draw for the university, given that Norman studies is a major subject across Europe. There is also a significant tourism aspect to this. A Norman museum and study centre for Kilkenny city would not be unusual. Instead, it would be a proper home for such a project and could be attached to the university under discussion. It would not be alien to the location either. There is Kilkenny Castle and various monuments around the city, the county and the south east. The knowledge of that period of our history that people bring with them will inform us and perhaps give us an understanding of where we have come from and how it formed. It is essential that we develop this type of approach to our educational establishment and what we deliver. The €90 million for the project is there and the Minister of State needs to encourage the speedier and appropriate use of that money in order to conclude the application process and get it started.
Regarding what apprenticeships might add, we are losing quite a deal of our history in terms of how our built heritage was constructed and maintained. I am referring to stonemasonry and the use of limestone and various other materials. We are losing knowledge about that part of our history. The apprenticeship scheme should be undertaken by the OPW. The Minister of State should encourage that. The OPW has a range of fantastic in-house skills and it should ensure that they are passed down to the next generation through the apprenticeship scheme. This would supply qualified people who understood our built heritage and would be in a position to pass on their knowledge and skills to ensure that it is maintained. This is an essential part of the apprenticeship scheme.
The scheme must be used constructively within the agencies of the State where there is a basis for its usage. That would be important. The Minister of State could easily link up with the OPW to ensure it happens. For example, the weirs on our rivers form part of our built heritage and are an essential part of the River Nore. They could be reconstructed and put to proper use. That is a skill in itself. Mr. Alan Sullivan, who assisted the OPW in the building of a weir in Kilkenny, used a technique found in Germany, but professionals with the skill sets necessary to build weirs are few and far between. These skills are essential. There is considerable opportunity to address such issues.
I will turn to legacy issues in universities. Critically, there are financial issues in all universities and they were often discussed by the Committee of Public Accounts. They arose and were not resolved. For example, some related to companies within universities needing to be accounted for properly, to be transparent and to form part of the reconstruction process that is under way in terms of this Bill and the work of the universities and the Minister. There are also HR issues that need to be addressed. For example, there are outstanding whistleblower cases in CIT, which were raised by Deputy MacSharry, Deputy Kelly and others, including me. We asked for them to be addressed so that legacy issues attached to the university's status could be concluded.
Given the new Department and the two new ministerial positions, I suggest that we now have an opportunity to have legacy issues, in particular the one that I referenced, dealt with comprehensively and immediately so that established technological universities can move on in a positive way without having to look over their shoulders because they must account for past issues.
Will the Minister of State take note of what I have asked and deal with the issue as soon as possible? Will he do all he can to ensure that the application for the south-east university is made and is progressed quickly?
The next slot is Sinn Féin's. Is Deputy Gould or Deputy Doherty offering? No. I will move on to Deputy Lawless. He has ten minutes. I do not wish to interrupt Members, but we will proceed in this way. At 3.53 p.m., I will stop the Second Stage debate and we will move on to Committee Stage.
I am proud to see a Government led by a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach initiating a new Department of higher education and research. Actually, I believe the Minister has renamed it to the "Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science". It follows in a tradition. I am proud of my party's history in this area, in particular higher education and research. In 1940, Eamon de Valera, another Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, established the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, DIAS. People like Seán Lemass and T. K. Whitaker opened the door to foreign direct investment, FDI, in the 1960s and Donogh O'Malley opened the door to secondary school education in 1969. The Lemassian FDI economy that opened up the doors for the first time to newcomers and economic expansion, coupled with Donogh O'Malley's investment in second level education, drove on the next wave of our economic activity and success in what I call a graduate pipeline, in that we began to develop the school leavers and third level graduates who would go on to work in those FDI centres. This helped to attract to our shores multinationals and investment in technology, pharma, electronics and many other sectors.
No more than now, the DIAS was established at a time when dark clouds were gathered around the world. We were on the brink of the Second World War. Now, we face the Covid pandemic. The parallel is that a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach took the initiative to invest in a research centre as well as research-driven activity and incentivisation at a time when there were economic pressures and competing demands for that money. Then as now, it showed foresight. I hope that our foresight now will bear fruit if we follow through on it.
I will trace all of that through to the creation of Science Foundation Ireland in 2001 or 2002. I pay tribute to the former Minister, Mary Harney, who was involved in that development. That began to move us from a graduate pipeline for multinationals and new technology firms to the next level in terms of higher end activity, research and innovation. The higher up the chain we go, the more added value we create and the more difficult it is to offshore, reshore or move around such activities and the more embedded they become.
When I proposed the idea of this Department to my party leader, now Taoiseach, two years ago, I was delighted that he took the baton and ran. It was part of Fianna Fáil's manifesto, was a pivotal part of the Government talks and if today's motion passes, it will be part of the Government programme.
When I was Opposition spokesperson for science, technology and research, I was intensively engaged with the universities, agencies and research sector. I was struck how despite early advances, the lack of attention given to the sector in the last decade had seen it suffer. Statistics can be trotted out to suggest that Ireland is in the top ten or top five of various things which different agencies do. There is some merit in those claims but some of the rankings are based on long-term activities and some of the citations represent the tail end of the investment in the early 2000s and before that. Were the decline in the channelling of funding to the research sector to continue, in five or ten years we would see the rankings trail off, indeed this is something we are already beginning to see. Our universities' plight is at the centre of that. In the last two years, no Irish university occupies a place in the top 100. That is an awful indictment on the land of saints and scholars. We had two or three at one stage, with UCD and TCD ordinarily in the top 50 until recently. Trinity College Dublin is at 101 and hopefully it will get over the line again. Those rankings are indicative of the decline. Statistics tell one story, the community will tell another.
It is also the case that the funding that was available in recent years was channelled in a particular, narrow way. Funding was targeted at things that could generate jobs and that had a short-term economic potential. That is an important part of the strategy but should never be the be all and end all. The pursuit of knowledge is a public good in its own right but it is also the foundation of a successful society and nation and will drive longer term dividends.
The last time there was a programme for research in third level institutions, PRTLI, was in 2010 when, at the height of the fiscal crisis, the then Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, committed over €350 million into the broad-based fund that went across all the centres across all the higher level institutions to allow the renewal of labs and libraries and the bread and butter type activities. That fund is yet to be refreshed. I asked for that several times during the last Dáil without joy. I strongly suggest that the new Ministers examine PRTLI or a similar successor to channel into the sector. We need to fill that funding gap.
I mentioned the economic implications for Ireland to compete on the world stage. Ireland has gone from an agrarian economy to a post-industrial one in about 20 years through the Lemassian initiatives about which I spoke. Our direct economic rivals are not the BRICs, the Brazil, Russia, India, China economies, or the United States. We are part of the EU block, and I suppose part of that is our competitor, but our competition is the small advanced economies, such as New Zealand, Denmark, Israel or South Korea. Those are states that invest heavily in research and development, R&D. The last Government's R&D target was 2.5% of GDP but got nowhere near that; the height of it was 1.45%. If we are to compete on the world stage in the knowledge economy, which is where we should set our sights, we need to get to 2.5% and far beyond it which is where states such as New Zealand, Denmark and Israel are already. It is no coincidence that those are the states that were also seen as being successful in the pandemic. Presumably they had the science to back things up.
There are huge opportunities in the area if we do things right and capture them correctly to build value added activity. Life sciences, pharma, tech and Internet have many firms that are already here and many more will invest. Most importantly, indigenous firms will rise and spring up because we have the talent. We have no shortage of brainpower and raw talent, but we need to reward it, prioritise it, invest in it, foster it and keep it on these shores. We need to couple that with our existing strong position as being attractive to foreign direct investment. Our membership of the European Union, English-speaking population and tax regime have been strong points and are crucial to our economic offering, but it will be crucial to the recovery because we are looking to a digital recovery. It also ties in with the green recovery, with new technologies and digital methods of doing things.
Beyond the economy, it is important that we fund research across the board. The best discoveries happen by accident, not when someone is tasked with a lab report to find, say, a new strain in 12 months, but when people are sent into a lab or library to see what they can get. That is how they can go and discover, like Newton in the orchard discovering gravity, Euripides discovering volume in the bath or Tim Berners-Lee in CERN discovering the world wide web in the 1970s. These kinds of globally changing, epoch making initiatives happen because someone is curious and they are given the tools to satisfy their curiosity and then to build on that.
I referred to CERN. We need to engage internationally. We are members of the European Space Agency. In the last term we joined the European Southern Observatory, something I worked with astrophysicists to ensure happened. These may be small in their own sectors but they have massive ramifications and great opportunities flow from them in way of tenders, study opportunities, jobs and the ability to collaborate. There was cross-party agreement on CERN at the all-party enterprise committee in the last Dáil. I hope that continues into the next stage by the Government. It is a very obvious win.
As Opposition spokesperson in the last Dáil I found myself asking questions of up to five different Ministers. There was a Minister of State for higher education, Mitchell O'Connor, John Halligan, with whom I worked with on many issues, had responsibility for innovation and there were senior Ministers in two Departments and another Minister of State, Deputy Breen. Occasionally there were answers from the Department of Finance, or from the Department of Justice and Equality if a data protection issue arose. It seemed as though the responsibilities were scattered across multiple Departments. The Department of Education and Skills is squeezed and under pressure, particularly with the pandemic, and it is all about the schools. It makes perfect sense that such an economically and strategically critical part of the nation and society should have a home in its own Department and be centralised where it can build excellence, and to have one point of responsibility. This is what we are working towards with the new Department. I wish it every success. It is badly needed and it is an important part of the jigsaw that had been neglected until now. I hope the Department does come to fruition, as I am sure it will, and I am sure that it will with the passing of this legislation. I look forward to the huge opportunities to put Ireland on the world stage, elevate us and build our economic and intellectual potential and our knowledge base in the decades ahead.
I welcome the establishment of the new Department. I particularly wish to emphasise the area of apprenticeships and having a co-ordinated strategy to engage with people and get more people to take up apprenticeships. In the past, Governments have allowed the private sector and some local authorities to manage apprenticeships in an ad hocfashion, depending on the market. I am looking for a constructive plan to be put in place by the Department to give apprenticeships their place in the educational system. The system in Germany and the number of apprentices that are trained across all sectors is something we should establish here. I hope the Department takes that on board.
One of the Department's key jobs will be to encourage those who do not have traditional third level backgrounds or families without a history of going to third level.
Sometimes the supports are not in place, in either the schools or colleges, to make that transition possible. I did not go to third level when I left school. I went straight to work after I did my leaving certificate in the North Mon and a month later I had a job. That was the road I went down. It was not until I was in my early 30s that I went to Cork Institute of Technology, as a mature student. Even in the case of my wife, Michelle's, family, she and her brothers were the first generation to go to third level. When she went to college, she gave up after four months. We were talking about this new Department and she made the point that when she went to college, she had no friends there and did not know anyone. She felt lost and alone and she did not think the appropriate structures were there. When she gave up college after four months, no one ever checked up on her to see why or what had happened. In light of her and my experiences, we want the Department to ensure that no one will be left behind.
My wife, Michelle, went back to education ten years later, to University College Cork, where she graduated with an honours degree. She felt she was older, more mature and better able to do that at that stage of her life. She is a teacher now. She made the point to me that some young people do not feel they are good enough and they need that extra support and encouragement. Every person in this country should have the right and ability to go to third level if that is what he or she chooses. That is why this Department has major work to do to encourage that and to help accomplish it.
Accordingly, I really want to support the Department, but the problem is the increase in super junior Ministers' pay by €16,000 each, or €48,000 a year, which will be €240,000 over the lifetime of the Government. In the area of Cork North-Central, which I represent, there are significant issues with getting funding for different projects. People have contacted me, and will continue to do so, to ask how the Government can justify this at this time. I stood here last night and asked the Minister for Health when the increase in medical card limits will be rolled out. There is to be an expansion of the eligibility to anyone over the age of 70 and an increase in the limits, which will mean more people will be entitled to a medical card. The Minister could not tell me a date. People will see that a date for that cannot be given but that a date can be given for an increase in the salaries of super junior Ministers.
My constituency of Cork North-Central has seen the closure of dental clinics, both at the Cope Foundation in Montenotte and on Harrington Square. We are facing the closure of the Mount Cara residential house care setting in Redemption Road. There are considerable issues in Cork with traffic-calming measures because the northern ring road was never completed, which means articulated heavy-goods vehicles drive through residential areas. I have taken part in campaigns in recent months with many groups that deal with such issues, such as in Knocknaheeny, Killard, Garranabraher and right into Glanmire and Blarney, who are seeking traffic-calming, speed-reduction measures and signs. The money is not there to provide them, but now we are able to find this kind of money for the super junior Ministers.
I have been on the picket line with Debenhams workers for more than 100 days. They have been looking for just two weeks' pay more than is provided by statutory redundancy, but the Government cannot do that for them or support them in that. This week a motion tabled by Solidarity-People Before Profit to support the Debenhams workers was voted down, while the Government tabled an amendment that killed our motion last week, which sought to support maternity leave and childcare. These were good proposals that would make a real difference to ordinary people. It sends out the message that the elites can get additional money but ordinary people have to suffer on. To me, that is not the message we should send out from the House.
In my area of Cork city and my constituency of Cork North-Central, there are considerable issues with housing maintenance, with Cork city and county councils not having enough funding. There are also significant issues with trying to find funding to get derelict and vacant houses returned to use as quickly as possible. We want to support the Government’s Bill, but as long as the increase in ministerial pay is tied in to it, we cannot do so. We think it is not right. What started as a good, positive idea for everyone, with the setting up of a new Department, should have been left at that. It should have been constructive. As our leader, Deputy McDonald, and our party have stated, we will work with the Government when we think it is making the right decisions. The setting up of this Department is a step in the right direction but we are really disappointed that the Government has chosen to add this pay component to it.
I hope the Minister will take on board the points we are making. Young people from communities I represent want to go to third level. I hope the Government will take on board the challenges they face, in terms of both the isolation issue and the financial issue, and the challenges regarding apprenticeships. There are significant issues with youth unemployment at the moment, and proper apprenticeship scheme would help us to get more young people involved in education and training. That is what the Department should be all about.
I am sharing with Deputy Carroll-MacNeill. I congratulate the Leas-Cheann Comhairle on her accession to her office and wish her a very satisfactory time there. I have no doubt she will discharge her duties with the usual distinction.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this very important legislation. Education is always important but particularly so in the present times, when there is severe competition for places in both the manufacturing and services sectors, all of which require a higher standard of education than in the past. It is also a very competitive time insofar as job location is concerned. To judge by the debate earlier, some people seem to believe we should not encourage jobs here at all, or that people should come to invest in this country of their own goodwill or for charitable reasons. It does not work that way in the marketplace, unfortunately, nor has it ever.
We have the option, therefore, of attracting jobs here or going abroad to find jobs. In the present climate, given the circumstances of Covid-19, there are very few places one can go. What we have to do is provide expertise in education here and be able to locate global services here. The opportunities are very significant.
In past recessions, we had the option of going abroad but that option is not there any more. Everybody is in the same loop and we have to accept what goes with that. I welcome the emphasis on third and fourth levels because, as time goes by, the requirements are getting greater. In my hometown, Professor Nolan has been chairing a special group on Covid in recent times. He and his colleagues have done a tremendous job in scientifically examining the circumstances that presented themselves and expertly guiding the country towards a better place. We owe him, his team and everyone involved in the Covid crisis a great debt of gratitude.
In past booms, on the other hand, there was a tendency for young people to go to where the money was. During the boom before the previous crash, many young students went for the money that was attractive and readily available, and left the opportunity of going for further education, which, when the crash came, was very important. Unfortunately, this limited them in the opportunities that were available to them.
The Department will lay the foundations in a different way. It is very positive and welcome.
We need to emphasise the opportunities that will be available, including those in education in the both the technical and academic areas. When we invest in education, we must do it in the clear knowledge that we are investing in the country's future and that of our population, young and old. Every euro we invest will be repaid at a later stage.
We must also recognise that our population is growing. We have a bigger population now that is almost double what it was in the 1950s. This is positive and most countries cannot say that. Of course, this country was decimated by generation after generation emigrating because doing so was the only means of getting opportunities. It is great to be able to see opportunities arising at home now, and long may that continue. With the proposed investment and the emphasis being placed on education in this Bill, we need to review our targets and raise our sights. Incidentally, the Covid-19 emergency has affected the confidence of our younger generation to some extent, certainly those in primary and second level. We should recognise that when discussing third and fourth level education. We must ensure that any required incentives are provided in order to encourage this coming generation of students to go in the right direction in order that they can get the opportunities both they and the country need.
I thank Deputy Durkan for sharing time. I draw to the attention of the Minister of State the importance, in establishing this new Department, of remembering those people with intellectual disabilities and their participation in third level education. They should be given the same opportunity to participate as everybody else, which in turn can lead to full participation, where it is appropriate and wanted by somebody with an intellectual disability, in the world of work.
The Minister of State is almost certainly already aware of the excellent centre in Trinity College Dublin for people with intellectual disabilities. It may be a gold standard for that model but it is certainly something that is capable of being rolled out in other universities. It offers a two-year certificate programme for people with intellectual disabilities. They are full students of the college and have student cards like everybody else. They undergo an appropriate series of courses and preparation for work, including internships. That process is expanding. The internships are with commercial organisations, including law firms, CPL Resources, Ernst & Young and aircraft leasing companies. They offer the young person the chance to experience work and the employer is given the opportunity to work with Trinity.
The process is set up in a structured way in order to minimise concerns or questions that may arise about the supports provided to the young person coming into the organisation. It provides a pathway, as so many other apprenticeship opportunities do, for the young person with an intellectual disability to come full-time into the world of work. In many cases, the positions are translated into permanent jobs. They might be five days per week or three days per week but they are appropriate to the ability of the person concerned.
This is a model of true inclusion where somebody can have the dignity of work. People can grumble about paying tax or working on a Monday morning, and they can have a badge and lanyard like everybody else. This structured model within the university gives confidence and appropriate preparation to settling into the world of work, not just with regard to the functions to be performed in the work environment but also just being in the work environment with colleagues, having had the benefit of a university experience before that.
In recent decades we have treated people with intellectual disabilities in a truly exclusionary and tragic way. This goes back to our shameful past of institutionalising people with intellectual disabilities. There was no reason for that. I appreciate there is a spectrum and not everybody will be able to or want to participate in the sort of model I describe, but for those who do, it should be available. There should be an automatic consideration for those who are interested in, able and want to participate. There are too few avenues for people with intellectual disabilities to real participation both in the third level educational experience and in getting long-term, inclusive employment.
This will be a measure of the new Department and it will be included in its remit. As a society we must ensure that we are really including people with intellectual disabilities as a matter of course. I commend the commercial organisations that have already embraced this model. It is something that adds so much to an organisation, including its culture, and I invite others to participate in the process. I congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment but I ask him to look into this at the earliest possible opportunity to see what might be done to take this model, or one very like it, to the other universities in the country so that they can provide supports, education and really inclusive opportunities for lifelong dignity for people with intellectual disabilities in this State.
This legislation will create a new Department with responsibility for further and higher education, research, innovation and science. From a rural perspective, the support it would provide is vital in assisting not only the promotion of study in sustainable agriculture but the transition of rural students into highly populated university campuses and further research academies. The social and cultural experience of rural and ethnic minority students heading into third education is only one area in which I hope this new Department will take the lead.
We should note that with the higher education courses in agriculture available, in 2019 over one in two students in highly rural or remote areas applied for the SUSI grant. Over 12,000 students sought counselling in 2019, a 50% increase since 2010. I look forward to the publication of the higher and further education roadmap. It is about time we had a Department solely dedicated to governing the future of our higher level education system. All students need to feel safe and secure during these unusual times.
Why are students from agricultural colleges currently excluded from the €15 million Covid-19 education fund? Was this an oversight and does the Minister plan to include them in the fund? It was established to enable students to purchase laptops and tablets and obtain Internet connectivity fit for remote learning. The 6,000 students attending Teagasc colleges in Pallaskenry, Gurteen and Mountbellew have the same technology needs as students in universities and institutes of technology. Broadband in some rural areas is insufficient for remote learning, and that is why the national broadband plan must be expedited.
I have often said we must incentivise the farming sector. Looking at what has been published, it seems the farming sector, and students in that sector, are again being excluded. I hope this is an oversight that will be corrected. All students in every learning sphere should be welcomed and incorporated in all types of learning. The Internet services are not available in rural Ireland, including rural areas of Limerick. This must be addressed immediately. These colleges will not have the ability, if social distancing is implemented, to accommodate all these students, so rural and remote learning must be used. We must address this.
The Minister of State is from Limerick. I am delighted that we have two Ministers of State from the area. It is about time we all worked collectively to get what we need for Limerick. We must get the infrastructure, including rural broadband, in place by working collectively on behalf of Limerick. That collective response has been needed for many years. The Ministers of State are now in a position to make things happen. I look forward to working with them.
Ar dtús báire, gabhaim buíochas le, tugaim aitheantas do agus déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle ar a ceapachán úr. Chuir sí ionadh mór orm inné. Tá caidreamh maith agus dearfach againn thar na blianta agus muid ag obair ar son na Gaeilge, na Gaeltachta, na hoidhreachta, agus an chultúir. Táim cinnte go mbeidh sí iontach féaráilte, mar a deir daoine san iarthuaisceart, i dTír Chonaill, agus í sa Chathaoir.
Chomh maith leis sin, tugaim aitheantas do agus déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Aire Stáit úr, Teachta Niall Collins. Bhí mé ag labhairt leis inné. Táim cinnte go mbeidh a phost iontach tábhachtach amach anseo ó thaobh an chéad ghlúin eile. Beidh rudaí nua de dhíth. Beidh sé freagrach as rudaí a bheidh tábhachtach don chéad ghlúin eile, mar shampla, scileanna agus oideachas. Caithfimid breathnú ar bhealaí úra agus ar na poist nua a bheidh ann sa todhchaí. Déanaim comhghairdeas leis arís. Táim cinnte go mbeidh sé gnóthach sa Roinn. Gúim ádh mór air sa phost sin.
In 2011, the Canadian Government signed off on 10,000 visas for Ireland at a time when there was a mass exodus of young men and women from these shores. Many of them went to Canada, Australia, England and other parts of the world. They were certainly a lost generation. Many of them have not returned home. Some came back to set up lives here but, to concur with my colleague, Deputy Durkan, in the times we are facing, the safety net in terms of access to employment will not be available in the future for the younger generation. There is a question mark over whether that will happen. I believe that not only will we be looking at new opportunities and different pathways for young people, we will also see them moving back here from some of the destinations I mentioned, be it Australia, Canada or wherever.
With regard to where we will be moving to in the period ahead, this is a critical time for the third level sector in the context of upskilling, retraining, empowering and building capacity for our young people. We have to be not just graded in our thinking, we need to look at this in a way in which we have not looked at it previously. If we look back to the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and 2011 in terms of the Canadian visas, we see a pattern of emigration because we were unable to provide the necessary avenues for young people at home. We have to reflect on the disadvantages and the feeling young people had of being let down over decades. We have to face into an uncertain future. Every country is grappling with that but we have to look at what we have and what we have done. As he gets into the job and gets a feel for it, the Minister of State will see the proactive measures that have been taken in post-primary schools. He will feel the energy and see the different pathways and the different inter-relationships between guidance counsellors, for example, and local companies and the various apprenticeships that are offered. There will be an energy and a welcome for him but now, more than ever, we should grasp that opportunity. His party was very much involved in ensuring the addition of guidance counsellors but we cannot stop at that. We have to move further in that direction. That speciality will be very much needed in the future.
At a juncture such as this, when we are faced with this pandemic and the economic crisis, fear can sometimes become the backdrop to every conversation because we do not know what life will be like in the future but what we will have, in an enormously positive way, is that energy coming from our younger generation.
We must look also at the work that has started at a pan-European level whereby universities across Europe, including those in Ireland, are working together. If somebody from New York travels across the United States to get a job in California, that is not seen as emigration; it is seen as someone moving to get a job. We have to look at the opportunities and pathways that exist and at what we can do to link with universities in different countries because there are many opportunities in that regard.
That is at a policy level but the bottom line for many parents is that they are anxious to know what will be the next step for their son or daughter in terms of their education and the opportunities that will be available to them. We must always reflect on the fact that there will be confidence issues for many young people, and many parents, in terms of feeling secure about the future. We have to continue with the empowerment process and the good work happening throughout our schools sector. I have no doubt that the Minister of State will tap into that energy. Again, I wish him and his officials well in that regard.
While we are talking in this very modern building in the capital city of Dublin, life as we know it is changing on a daily basis. People are making decisions, possibly in respect of the work they will be involved in and where they will live. As a politician who represents Donegal, I will continue to focus strongly on the opportunities available at a local level and it has to encapsulate all Departments. There is no point in talking about what we can provide for young people in Donegal without providing the proper resources and the capacity in the third level sector or in terms of facilitating young people to build a home on land in their own county if that is what they wish. We need a clever, creative and nuanced debate about how we can facilitate and keep our young people at a local level. That is why the new Connacht-Ulster alliance is such an important venture. The presidents of IT Sligo, GMIT and Letterkenny IT have been working very hard and are united in ensuring that they will submit an application on behalf of the Connacht-Ulster alliance later this year. I have no doubt that the Minister of State will be keeping a very close eye on that matter. Not only do we have that opportunity of a university on the west coast, we also have the great opportunity for the cross-Border alliances. I refer to the reference to the Ulster University Magee Campus in the programme for Government and further collaboration with that institution also.
I reiterate that we are in a new place and that the Oireachtas has to be responsive to what people are thinking and planning for the future. If we do not respond to that, we will be failing another generation of young people. We have to ensure that they are given the most advantageous opportunities in the future.
Arís, gabhaim comhghairdeas don Leas-Cheann Comhairle agus í ag obair ar son ár n-oidhreacht, ár gcultúr agus ár teanga amach anseo. Tá mé cinnte go mbeimid ag obair ar na nithe seo trí chúrsaí oideachais, an tríú leibhéal fásta. Nascadar an dara leibhéal agus an tríú leibhéal agus tá an nasc sin iontach tábhachtach don chéad ghlúin eile. Ag éisteacht le daoine atá freagrach as na bunscoileanna agus na scoileanna dara leibhéal, tá an nasc sin iontach tábhachtach agus go mbeidh acmhainní ar fáil do mhúinteoirí agus na daoine eile a luaigh mé.
Congratulations again , a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, on your victory. I welcome the establishment of a Ministry responsible for higher education and research. It is a very positive move. If the importance of investing in research in medicine and other areas needs to be underlined, one need look no further than the lessons of the pandemic itself. There is clearly a deficit in these areas, but we have a lot of skilled and talented young people, graduates, postgraduates and so on. We need to invest in them and in research that will really benefit our society. I hope that lesson is more obvious than ever after Covid-19.
The purpose of this Ministry should be to ensure that access to higher education is as wide and unfettered as possible. One key aspect of that should be the elimination of all fees for students entering third level education or undertaking postgraduate degrees. They should not have to suffer some of the highest fees in the European Union; a €3,000 registration fee for undergraduates and a €6,000 fee for people doing masters degrees. That is completely unacceptable. It was unacceptable before Covid-19 and it is entirely unacceptable now. Many of the opportunities for undergraduates to take summer jobs to earn money for their fees are gone. Their parents may have suffered reductions in income or loss of employment. If we really see the importance of education and want to open it up, we should remove all the financial obstacles and eliminate all fees to provide the widest possible access.
Of course, people will say the socialists believe there is a free money tree and we do not have the money for that. Let me point out that as a proportion of GDP, our spending on education, health and just about every other key public service is among the lowest in Europe. Investing more in public services and in key areas like education is not a radical idea. It is standard across Europe. The problem is that we redirect resources away from higher education and third level education towards tax breaks for research and development available to wealthy multinational corporations that pay a pittance in tax. Rather than invest money in research in our public universities, we give nearly €1 billion a year in research and development tax breaks to some of the wealthiest corporations in the world. It seems to me that they have enough money. We should close those tax loopholes. We should redirect the €700 million or €800 million a year that goes to a handful of multinational corporations into our universities to remove fees and invest in more research and greater access to higher education.
I might have left my points at that and welcomed this Bill, but there is a big difficulty. This Bill and the setting up of this new Ministry are linked to something absolutely scandalous, namely, the plans to increase by €16,000 the already high salaries of Ministers of State, as if €124,000 is not enough. Last night, when I asked the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, how he could possibly justify this, he said it was fair to expect pay equality around the Cabinet table. I thought about this for a minute and realised the Government believes in pay equality in the public service. That is why people earning €124,000 could not possibly work beside other Ministers who are on higher salaries though they do the same job. They must be given a €16,000 increase. It is only fair. We must have equality.
Then one remembers that apparently the same principle of equality in the public service does not apply to teachers, who are on a fraction of that salary. It is okay for teachers entering education after 2011 to earn a substantially lower starting salary than the teachers doing exactly the same job beside them do. Inequality is okay there, but it is not okay between Ministers around the Cabinet table. It is also okay for lecturers in higher education to earn a starting salary of €38,000, though those who before started before 2011 earned €42,000. That pay inequality is okay, but we cannot possibly have pay inequality for Ministers on €124,000. We have to give them an additional €16,000.
That is a scandalous double standard. Those double standards will be felt by our nurses and front-line health workers more than anyone. They were the ones who protected us and continue to protect us at great personal cost during the pandemic. What did those health workers get as their reward from the State for losing their lives and suffering the highest Covid-19 infection rates of health workers anywhere in the world? They got a round of applause. They did not get a pay increase or pay equality. I suggest we save the cost of this pay increase by just giving the Ministers a round of applause, the same thing they gave the nurses who protected us. That is hollow thanks for the workers on the front line who protected us.
Ministers must have pay equality and they must get €16,000. The double standard is frankly nauseating and it will not be lost on people. I have just come from a meeting of the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response which heard from taxi drivers who are financially on their knees. How will students who cannot get summer jobs pay the fees they are now being charged for attending lectures one day a week? They are still being charged some of the highest fees imaginable. Workers in the arts, music and entertainment industries have seen their incomes decimated but the Ministers of State must have a €16,000 pay increase on top of a €124,000 salary. It is absolutely shocking. We would like to support a Bill to create a new Ministry for an important area like higher education and research, but how on earth can we possibly support a pay increase for junior Ministers with already massive salaries? If they need pay equality around the Cabinet table, why not reduce the pay of the senior Ministers? That would be a better way to achieve pay equality. It would be a bit fairer. It would send a better signal to the people who are suffering because of the economic fallout of Covid-19. That is my suggestion. Let us give the Ministers of State a round of applause instead of a €16,000 pay increase.
I begin by congratulating the Leas-Cheann Comhairle on her election. I wish her well in that office. As she said in her few words yesterday, it is historic.
She is the first woman in the history of this Parliament to hold the office of Leas-Cheann Comhairle. It is a fabulous achievement and I wish her well.
We initiated this Bill yesterday in the Seanad, where a number of issues were raised by a range of speakers. I thank all the Deputies who contributed to the debate today. Several of the issues they raised were also raised yesterday in the other House. As my colleague, Deputy Lawless, pointed out, the inception of a new Department was an idea of the Fianna Fáil Party and the Taoiseach, who was previously Minister for Education and Science. My party adopted the proposal as policy while in opposition and I am very happy to say it was actively engaged with by Fine Gael and the Green Party as part of the talks leading to the formation of the Government. The legislation to enable the establishment of the new Department with responsibility for further and higher education, research, innovation and science is now before us. It is very important that we have a dedicated Department with responsibility in these areas, for the many reasons articulated by various speakers. It is important even for practical reasons. At budget time, for example, which will be coming up later in the year, the Minister, Deputy Harris, and I will be able to make presentations to the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and seek funding and resourcing for the higher and further education sectors on a stand-alone basis. We will not be seeking those resources as representatives of a larger Department, as was the case previously, dealing with other parts of education which are also very important. We will have a dedicated focus on higher education, training, research, science and innovation.
A number of speakers referred to the need for sustainable funding for the higher education sector. That is without a doubt one of the biggest challenges that will face this Department. The Cassells report was published more than four years, has gone through the Oireachtas system and is now with the European Commission. Decisions will have to be made in regard to the future funding of third level colleges, as was rightly pointed out by several speakers, especially given the significant drop-off in the international student base that will be experienced this year.
I welcome the funding of €168 million announced earlier this week to support the third level sector. I also welcome the indication from higher and further education institutions throughout the country that they will be ready to open in September and receive first-year and other students. They are preparing for that and have confirmed to the Minister that they will be in a state of readiness for that date. The Government has stepped up to the plate and given €168 million in recognition of the contribution of the sector to the national front-line response to date, and to resource and equip institutions to make their campuses ready, make themselves digitally ready and prepare themselves for online learning. A sum of €15 million is being provided to resource students to purchase laptops, tablet devices and Internet connectivity. The student assistance fund has been doubled from €8 million to €16 million. An allocation of €3 million is being made available for student mental health, which is hugely important. In addition, €2 million is being given to the fund for students with disabilities and marginalised students, including those from the Traveller community. Research has not been forgotten, with €48 million allocated to fund ongoing research, which has been impacted by the Covid pandemic.
I want to be clear that the new Department will have a very strong focus on further education. Agencies like SOLAS are charged with driving, through the education and training boards, ETBs, the delivery of the further education and training provision which is required throughout the country. It is not all about institutes of technology and universities. Further education, training and apprenticeships will be an acute focus of this Department. We will shortly publish an apprenticeship action plan that will address the many issues around apprenticeships, including the need to broaden the range of apprenticeships on offer, address the gender imbalance in participation, resource apprenticeship programmes and make sure we do everything in that space to deal with a changing Ireland and the changing demand for skills in many sectors up and down the country. The need for action in this regard was recognised in the July stimulus.
I conclude by echoing what many speakers noted in the context of the evolution and development of this country over the years. We have such a strong foreign direct investment base, which provides gainful employment to people in every community throughout the country, not only because we are a member of the EU, we have a common law system and we have an attractive taxation policy, which has been part of a larger debate in the context of the Apple tax judgment, but also because of our research and innovation skills and capabilities and the skilled workforce which has come through our education and training framework. I thank Deputies for their contributions and commend the Bill to the House.
Cathal Berry, Colm Brophy, James Browne, Richard Bruton, Colm Burke, Peter Burke, Mary Butler, Thomas Byrne, Dara Calleary, Ciarán Cannon, Joe Carey, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, Jack Chambers, Niall Collins, Patrick Costello, Simon Coveney, Barry Cowen, Michael Creed, Cormac Devlin, Alan Dillon, Francis Noel Duffy, Bernard Durkan, Damien English, Alan Farrell, Frank Feighan, Joe Flaherty, Charles Flanagan, Norma Foley, Brendan Griffin, Marian Harkin, Simon Harris, Seán Haughey, Martin Heydon, Emer Higgins, Neasa Hourigan, Heather Humphreys, Paul Kehoe, John Lahart, James Lawless, Brian Leddin, Josepha Madigan, Catherine Martin, Steven Matthews, Paul McAuliffe, Helen McEntee, Michael McGrath, John McGuinness, Joe McHugh, Aindrias Moynihan, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Eoghan Murphy, Hildegarde Naughton, Malcolm Noonan, Darragh O'Brien, Joe O'Brien, Jim O'Callaghan, James O'Connor, Willie O'Dea, Kieran O'Donnell, Patrick O'Donovan, Fergus O'Dowd, Roderic O'Gorman, Christopher O'Sullivan, Pádraig O'Sullivan, Marc Ó Cathasaigh, Éamon Ó Cuív, Anne Rabbitte, Neale Richmond, Brendan Smith, Niamh Smyth, Ossian Smyth, David Stanton, Robert Troy.
Chris Andrews, Richard Boyd Barrett, John Brady, Martin Browne, Pat Buckley, Joan Collins, Rose Conway-Walsh, Réada Cronin, Seán Crowe, David Cullinane, Pa Daly, Pearse Doherty, Paul Donnelly, Dessie Ellis, Kathleen Funchion, Thomas Gould, Johnny Guirke, Gino Kenny, Martin Kenny, Claire Kerrane, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Mattie McGrath, Denise Mitchell, Imelda Munster, Paul Murphy, Johnny Mythen, Gerald Nash, Cian O'Callaghan, Richard O'Donoghue, Louise O'Reilly, Darren O'Rourke, Eoin Ó Broin, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Ruairi Ó Murchú, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Thomas Pringle, Maurice Quinlivan, Patricia Ryan, Róisín Shortall, Bríd Smith, Duncan Smith, Brian Stanley, Pauline Tully, Mark Ward, Violet Wynne.