Thursday, 19 November 2020
Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science: Statements
I very much welcome the opportunity to update the House on some of the work of the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science just under five months on from its creation and the formation of the Government. I very much appreciate the support and interest from all sides of the Oireachtas for a new stand-alone Department to place a renewed focus on the further and higher education sectors and enhance and develop research and innovation.
The new Department has an annual budget of more than €3 billion, the sixth largest budget allocation of any Department, and it is responsible for more than half of the Government's total expenditure on research and development through Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council and the Higher Education Authority. In Ireland, we have 23 higher education institutions, including our universities, and a network of further education and training facilities throughout the country providing learning opportunities to more than 360,000 people every year. The opportunity to enter education and training or to retrain or upskill has never been more important as we face the challenges brought on by Covid-19 and the future world of work which the pandemic has brought very much into the here and now.
I want to provide an update on some of the key areas which will be of interest to colleagues. They are our work in further and higher education and training to provide places to meet the challenges of Covid 19; the apprenticeship and centralisation scheme; the development of a new adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills strategy; the priority of research, innovation and science during Covid and for the future; supports for students; and plans for the next semester at third level. I will arrange for a copy of my speech to be circulated to Deputies.
In regard to our work in further and higher education to provide places to meet the challenge of Covid 19, budget 2021 built on the July stimulus by providing funding for 50,000 further education and training places in 2020-21 and for the extension of the apprenticeship incentivisation scheme for the first half of 2021. The total package of €118.5 million to upskill and reskill people directly responds to the impacts of the current pandemic and areas of key skills priority, in particular the climate agenda. This includes additional places and skills to compete for those who have lost their jobs and in skills to advance for those in employment need to upskill or reskill.
Skillnet Ireland is showing real and tangible results in the areas where we need to see progress, with more than 40,000 people now enrolled in online training and education programmes since the emergence of Covid-19. In excess of 200 candidates have enrolled in the new future in tech programme, providing skills pathways for those transitioning to the ICT sector, since its launch in September. More than 1,000 people from in excess of 500 companies nationwide have undertaken Skillnet's clear customs training, which is a key element of getting Ireland Brexit ready in responding to the growing skills needs of Irish businesses and complementing other Government initiatives to facilitate smooth and efficient trade flows.
Recently, I announced more than 14,000 free or subsidised higher education places, funded in the July stimulus, which includes 11,597 places on short modular courses and 2,555 postgraduate places. The postgraduate places are available in courses in a wide range of skills areas, including data analytics, environmental sciences, engineering, tourism and hospitality, ICT, and health and welfare, including medical technology. Modular courses are short and focused and will be offered in a flexible manner, allowing people to gain important skills without taking a considerable period of time away from labour market. Each module will be stand-alone so that participants can gain skills and put them into practice immediately in the workplace. Modules are also accredited in such a way as to provide building blocks to a full qualification. This is exactly the kind of approach we need to deliver tailored courses to suit the needs of enterprise and lifelong learning. Details of these courses are available on hea.ie.
The apprenticeship incentivisation scheme is showing a very strong uptake, and I can share with the House that the latest figures show that 965 employers have submitted claims in respect of 1,667 apprentices. Apprenticeship registration figures for October show an increase of 196 new registrations compared with October last year, demonstrating the effectiveness of this approach and the value of extending the scheme, which I expect will support another 4,000 apprentices next year.
While we have a long-standing relationship with apprenticeship programmes in this country, what is less well recognised is the rapid change in the system over the past five years. When we think about apprenticeships, we often think about important and traditional craft apprenticeships such as carpenters, plumbers and electricians. While these programmes still exist and are still successful, there are now more options than ever before available for apprentices, including access to education and training in partnership with different employers across the economy. There are 58 different apprenticeships, ranging from two to four years in duration, and leading to qualifications at level 5 to level 10 in the national framework. Some 33 of these were launched in the past five years and another three are due to launch by the end of this year. They are in new and growing areas such as cybersecurity, wind turbine maintenance, technical artistry, accountancy, supply chain management, international financial services and insurance. The first level 10 apprenticeship was also launched over the summer, leading to a principal engineer professional doctorate qualification. We are working on a new plan that will see 10,000 new apprentices register every year by 2025, and we have recently completed a survey of apprentices as part of this consultation process. We will launch by the end of this year our new action plan on apprenticeships.
In planning for the future and working to meet the challenges of the shift to remote and blended learning, we have a lot more to do to ensure that no one is left behind.
I am genuinely worried about this. Many people in Ireland are locked out of society and our economy, and one of the reasons relates to literacy, numeracy and digital skills. One in five adults in Ireland struggles with reading everyday texts such as a paracetamol box, one in four struggles with using numbers, perhaps in comprehending an electricity bill, and one in two struggles with digital skills. We cannot genuinely call ourselves inclusive and talk about a knowledge-based economy if we do not face up to these facts. We need to talk about this much more. We keep saying equity of access for all but these numbers are stark and worrying and should be a cause of concern. We need to ensure we do everything possible to assist and improve those skills for people, which is why I have asked SOLAS, the further education and training authority, to lead in the development of a new ten-year adult literacy, numeracy and digital literacy strategy. I announced a consultation process last week, which is available on the SOLAS website, and I ask all Oireachtas Members to help take this consultation into their communities and give us their feedback. We do not need a glossy document; we need practical steps as to what we can do to get on top of this issue because it will leave people locked out of society and the economy if we do not get this right.
I wish to pay tribute to our research community, which has worked over recent months to support national and international responses to the challenges of Covid-19. I know that colleagues will join me and agree the importance of research, innovation and science has never been in such sharp relief. The sector has played a key role in our response to the pandemic and the sector itself has not gone unaffected. That is why I was pleased we were recently able to announce €47 million to support contract researchers and research students, whose work has been seriously disrupted by the pandemic. The establishment of the new Department comes at an exciting time for research, innovation and science, as we develop successors to central long-term strategies for the sector that are coming to conclusion.
My Department will take charge of the implementation of Innovation 2020, which is due to conclude at the end of the year, and its successor. Its overarching vision is for Ireland to become a global innovation leader driving a strong, sustainable economy and a better society, with a focus on talent, excellence and impact. It is important to acknowledge we have achieved much in respect of Innovation 2020. We are now the ninth most innovative country in the European Union and just a few weeks ago, our researchers reached the historic landmark of winning €1 billion from Horizon 2020. We now have the opportunity to take a fresh look at the pivotal role that research and innovation play, and will continue to play, in addressing the key economic and societal challenges we face, including climate change, digitisation and public health. We need to see research as an opportunity to provide the answers to some of the big societal challenges we face. The new strategy that my Department will deliver next year will reflect this.
I am very much looking forward to my continued engagement with the sector as we seek to build on the additional €29 million secured for research in the budget to support research responses to Covid-19, early-stage research careers and career pathways, excellent leading Irish investigators, scaling up and competing internationally, and building research partnerships. Crucially, it will be an opportunity for greater North-South collaboration, which I see as vital.
Immediately on the establishment of the Department, we began putting in place a major support package to assist the further and higher education sector and training support sector through the Covid crisis, along with new supports for students, including a doubling of the student assistance fund from €8 million to €16 million, and providing 17,000 laptops to students throughout the country who may require them. Students have had a particularly hard time, considering the impact not only on their studies but also on their personal lives, their lives overall and their income, with many losing their jobs or not being able to access a part-time job. I am also conscious that students may have had to buy additional equipment, such as a webcam, a desk, a chair or a computer, while experiencing a reduction in their income.
I am pleased that the Government this week approved a €50 million once-off fund to support students, which we flagged in budget 2021. This fund will ensure that students who avail of the SUSI grant will receive a €250 top-up to their grant before Christmas, while students who do not avail of the grant can reduce their contribution fee payments by €250 or receive a €250 credit note for their institution. If a student is in receipt of a SUSI grant, he or she will get a €250 payment before Christmas, but if not, and if the student is a full-time EU student in a publicly funded higher education institution, he or she will get a €250 credit note. That can be used to knock off any outstanding registration fees that are due for this year or it can be used for the next academic year's registration fees, or as a credit note for some of the costs experienced in college life. We will write to each of our higher education institutions to put in place that detail and to communicate directly with students. This is only a small step - I do not suggest it is any more - but I hope it will go a small way towards helping life a bit easier for people. I am grateful to the dedicated staff of my Department, the Irish Universities Association, the Technological Higher Education Authority, Technological University Dublin, SUSI and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, for all their assistance in bringing this much-needed support to students.
In addition to this funding and the doubling of the student assistance fund, we have increased the level of funding for the 1916 bursary refund to €5 million per annum. This will provide an additional 200 bursaries, bringing the total number for 2021 to 1,000 bursaries for the most disadvantaged students in our country. We have secured an additional €20 million in funding for SUSI next year to cover an increased number of applications to the scheme and allocated €6 million to enhance SUSI support for postgraduates. These supports were really taken back during the previous recession and need to be replenished, and this is the first step. We have put in place the digital support scheme of €15 million and, crucially - I am excited about this - for the first time ever, we have established a dedicated ring-fenced fund called the mitigating educational disadvantage fund of €8 million, given to SOLAS, to engage with community education. SOLAS will go out into our communities, through the education and training boards, and examine how it can support people who are providing education to learners at the greatest risk of disconnection from our education and training system.
Crucially, we have increased the amount of money being spent on well-being and mental health by an additional €3 million in recognition of the impact of Covid and the general need to improve those services. I recognise, however, that it is important also to consider more widely how we can facilitate learners in different circumstances. That is why I have announced a review of SUSI. SUSI has done great work but it is not fit for purpose in many ways. It does not recognise part-time learners or the cost of crèche fees. We need to have a conversation about this. The review is almost under way and will commence this year. It will report back to me next year in advance of the budget, and all Deputies, as well as students and everybody else, will have an opportunity to make their views known.
Everyone in the House will be aware of the significant efforts made by students, institutions and staff in dealing with the impact of Covid-19 on the further and higher education sector. The majority of semester one in further and higher education has been online for most people, although there have been exceptions for people who need to do practical work. We have kept open our libraries and laboratories, as well as classes for people who need face-to-face teaching for a variety of reasons. I am concerned that the necessary move to online and blended learning has been very difficult for some, particularly those in the first and final years of their courses. We are now preparing for semester two and the new year. Any decision we make will, of course, be made in consultation with the Chief Medical Officer and the Department of Health and in line with the best public health advice available to us. The Minister of State, Deputy Collins, and I met the presidents of all our higher education institutions today and we will meet student representatives and union representatives tomorrow. Our priority going into the new year will be to increase on-campus activity as much as and as safely as possible. I would like to see more onsite activity for first and final-year students in particular. These discussions are taking place with the institutions in my Department and I intend to provide certainty in respect of this next week. Our priorities will be continuing programmes and activities that cannot take place online but this conversation needs to be about more than education. It has to be about welfare, well-being and the first-year student sitting at home at the kitchen table or in the box room of a house who has not been on campus. If it is safe to get such students there for some activity and engagement, there would be a great benefit, although we have to manage it carefully and do so in line with public health advice. I heard a real enthusiasm and leadership from the presidents of our institutions in that regard today. It cannot be impossible to see an improvement in the situation and that is what I am committed to doing too. We want to create new ways to promote small-scale in-person contact, especially peer engagement, for new entrants to further and higher education. That is important. We need to do it in a way that gives our institutions flexibility and we cannot be overly prescriptive on it. The safety and well-being of students and staff will be at the heart of all our decisions.
I have tried just to touch on a small number of areas. There are many others, in particular the exciting agenda for technological universities throughout our country. I look forward to providing further updates to the House on these and many other matters in the coming weeks and months.
I thank the Minister for the update. I welcome the €250 being made available for each student. It is important the Government recognises the difficult circumstances many students have been facing. Despite the amazing efforts of third level educators and staff, as well as students' unions and what they have done throughout the country, remote learning has had a negative impact on the quality of the service provided. I raised with the Minister a couple of weeks ago the concerns I have about blended learning and the impact that has. I am afraid of the drop-out rates it might lead to. It is regrettable that the Government has brought forward this as a once-off payment. We have the highest fees in the EU and SUSI supports need to be increased, which will still be the case next year.
I welcome the review of SUSI that is taking place and I would like to see it completed it sooner rather than later. There are things we can do now, in terms of the communication between SUSI and the Department of Social Protection, to make it easier for students to access support. Improvements can be made even without looking at the threshold fees and everything else that needs to be done around the reform of SUSI. We certainly will work with the Minister on that. We have much very valuable information, which I have submitted before, that comes directly from students.
In regard to postgraduate students, will the Minister consider asking the universities to compensate them for the move to online teaching? Irish universities have confirmed in recent weeks that they will not be offering face-to-face teaching before next summer, with the exception of some laboratory and practical sessions. Graduate-entry medical students at University College Dublin are withholding their exorbitant fees and the university's Smurfit business school students are lobbying for a 30% reduction in fees. We are talking about students who have handed over €10,000 to €18,000. The experience they are getting online is not the one for which they signed up. If we look at the colleges' prospectuses, marketing campaigns and open days, they describe the student experience as something really valuable. Those students have paid for something they are not getting. Will the Minister see whether something can be done in terms of compensating them?
I want to raise the issue of student accommodation. While the €250 payment is very welcome, thousands of euro have been paid out by students and their families, either for on-campus accommodation or private accommodation, and they are not getting that money back. The Minister said on the previous occasion in which we discussed this matter in the House that five of the seven universities had agreed to refund students for on-campus accommodation. Since then, however, I have been contacted by a number of people who have been denied the refunds which their university supposedly agreed to issue. My office has been in contact with the Minister about these cases. It is unacceptable that public institutions continue to deny students these funds, particularly when the Minister has made a commitment to the Dáil that refunds would be made.
There is an ever greater issue in respect of private accommodation providers given that some 90% of student accommodation is provided by the private sector. Private landlords are telling students that if they get somebody to take their place, the landlord will consider giving them their money back. That is not good enough. A clear message should be sent from Government that any student accommodation provider who fails to provide funds for unused accommodation will be denied access to any future financial supports or tax reliefs, whether related to the Covid-19 crisis or otherwise. If emergency legislation is needed to give the Government the power to act, then it should be brought forward. It is not good enough for the Minister for Housing, Local Heritage and Government to say there is nothing that can be done. That is a complete abdication of responsibility. We are talking about the most basic social solidarity at a time of public health emergency.
The situation of student nurses and midwives must be addressed. The Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister for Health need to work together to resolve it. Student nurses and midwives are working on the front line during the pandemic and they need, and deserve, to be paid accordingly. Many of them had to give up part-time jobs due to the dangers of cross-contamination, and rightly so, but they were reliant on that income. Not only are they not paid and unable to earn, they are expected to pay €3,000 in fees. We are telling them to give up their jobs and work for free but they still must pay the highest fees in the EU. It is no wonder we have problems retaining nurses when this is how they are treated. This issue must be dealt with as a matter of urgency.
On the issue of apprenticeships, I acknowledge what has been done and what the Minister is trying to do in this area. However, it is blatantly unacceptable that only two out of all the universities and institutes of technology and fewer than half of local authorities offer apprenticeship places. It is important that the Government instruct educational institutions, councils and public bodies to play their part by employing apprentices. We were told there would be more than 100 different apprentice programmes to choose from but, instead, there are only 58. While I look forward to seeing the Minister's plan to address this situation, what we really need is action. I thank the Minister for what he has done but there are real problems in this area that need to be addressed.
I begin by acknowledging the experience of our third level students this year. It has been an extremely difficult time in their young lives, when what should be their first taste of freedom is being spent locked away from the social life and contact they normally would have. The vast majority of them are behaving brilliantly and doing their bit. They are a credit to themselves and their families. Unfortunately, they do not get any credit from those who hold their nose and criticise young people while enjoying coffees and drinks in the evening with their friends and families in mixed households.
It is likewise hypocritical that in a country which prides itself on its commitment to equality, that this equality should not include the poor. A survey conducted by my party colleague, Deputy Conway-Walsh, found that many families are having to put themselves in debt and deeper poverty to give their children the chance of a third level education. This year, many families are experiencing further hardship by being forced to fork out outrageous rents for accommodation their children are not even using. Deputy Conway-Walsh mentioned that there are many students in private rented accommodation who have been refused refunds.
Too many families are excluded from or penalised by the SUSI grant system because its assessment criteria do not reflect the reality of the income available to households. That has to change. One might imagine that in a so-called republic of equality, a student from a poor background would have the same chance of accessing third level education as one from the leafier parts of the country. That is simply not the case and this lack of equality will deteriorate further as a result of the severe economic impact on families of the Covid-19 crisis. Maynooth University is in my home town and we are very lucky to have it. It is, by any standards, an outstanding university that is doing its utmost to tackle the innate inequality inherent in third level education, including through the provision of opportunities for part-time study. My party and I believe that grants should apply equally to part-time study. Such funding should not be viewed as a cost but as an investment in our people's future and the future of the State.
The Covid crisis has shown us the need for, and given us an opportunity to, reflect on our third level system and the urgent necessity to institute not only equality of access and support for the duration but additional supports and incentives for those who are struggling financially. There is no place in the 21st century for 20th century thinking on educational opportunity. It perpetuates a social and educational wrong whereby students from a poor background have to achieve twice as much to do even half as well as their better-off counterparts. It is damaging and degrading for the people concerned and, indeed, for the State.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, to the House. I wish them both well in their important work. I recall the occasion, in 2015, when President Higgins gave the Edward Phelan International Labour Organization, ILO, lecture on the future of work. I was at that lecture, which was held in the Royal College of Surgeons in St. Stephen's Green, as was Guy Ryder, the head of the ILO. The President is an academic of long standing, having worked for many decades in NUI Galway. In his lecture, he observed that, years ago, if an academic wanted to study the phenomenon of precarious work, he or she would have to leave his or her desk and do a field trip. Now, it is not necessary for academics to leave their desks or their departments because the phenomenon is evident all around them.
The Minister's attention will have been drawn to an analysis carried out by Noteworthy recently on working conditions in the third-level sector. It backs up other evidence published in recent years which shows that precarious or casual work in the third-level sector amongst lecturers and researchers is endemic. In fact, it has been normalised. The Noteworthy work suggests that we have over 11,000 lecturers working on temporary or casual contracts. Last week the case of an assistant lecturer in Technological University Dublin was brought to my attention. I do not mind naming the institution. The lecturer has been there since 2007. Those who joined the organisation in the mid-2010s are leapfrogging him now because of changes to the incremental scale for them. He has been making applications to make sure he is converted to a lecturer position. He should be converted to such a position but this has not happened. There is a deep unfairness and inequity in that. This is not a unique case. I use the case to illustrate a broader point. This is a real issue in our third-level sector.
This week ten years ago, everyone in this House will not need to be reminded, was the week that the troika came to our shores. We all know about the stringent conditions that were attached to public funding and the resources available to us to invest in third-level education and other public services at that time and for a few years afterwards. That lost few years of investment has very much impacted on our third and fourth level sector and has created what one might describe as a generation gap too. There are many thousands of very experienced academics, lecturers and researchers who are tenured, who are in permanent positions and who enjoy a degree of certainty and security in terms of their pay and conditions, but many of the younger generation of academics do not enjoy the same terms and conditions. We cannot build the kind of economy that I know the Minister wants to see and that I want to see, and the kind of society we want to see, if we ignore this problem and if we do not invest to retain and value our best researchers, lecturers and academics.
This is about funding, which is a nettle we need to grasp. Funding is the key. No reference has been made in recent times to the Cassells report and the options contained in it. To the best of my recollection, it was published in late 2015. There are a number of options in it. In my view, the clearest and most sensible option is to publicly fund our third-level institutions and to ensure that access is provided to everybody. Making access available to everybody is the only way that we can create a decent, fair and, indeed, entrepreneurial society to make sure that everybody can achieve his or her ambition on a level playing pitch.
I was the first ever member of my extended family to attend university and I had that opportunity because the State invested in me. In the early to mid-1990s, the State decided that everybody should have such an opportunity, thanks to a decision made by Ms Niamh Bhreathnach as Minister for Education at the time that there would be free fees. University gave me opportunities that my parents and grandparents did not have. It is not that they would not have been capable of going to university but they did not have the opportunity because of financial circumstances. Financial circumstances should not dictate who gets to university and who does not. Making education free and affordable is a big question we will have to tackle in this House over the next period of time but it is an investment that is worth making in our society and economy.
I support the remarks made about supporting our student nurses. This is a running sore that needs to be addressed. Tackling the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, question and a review of SUSI is important because SUSI, as it is presently constructed, does not properly capture the reality of working lives, employment conditions and how income is made up for so many families in this country.
First, I welcome the establishment of the Department. I wish both the Minister and the Minister of State well, as I have done in the past. I believe it is a step in the right direction to give as much access to third level as possible, particularly to those in the regions and those who do not have the wherewithal to attend third level. It gives them the opportunity. It also allows the Department a greater focus on what is required to bring greater numbers into the university sector.
I also welcome the developments in relation to the technological universities. Carlow and Waterford should move ahead quite quickly under the guidance of the recently appointed Mr. Boland and should reach recognition in January 2021. I look forward to that. The south-east region has suffered badly economically because of the lack of university status within it. I know from experience that companies that wish to come and set up in Ireland look at the educational system and what is available, particularly the universities. I have no doubt that the south-east region will benefit, not only Waterford and Carlow. I know that Kilkenny is part of the plan for future - a campus of some sort there. There is great opportunity.
I am glad that Deputy Nash raised the issue of publicly funded education because we must look at a model that will give greater public funds to those who wish to attend third level. As I finished my leaving certificate, it was not possible or affordable for me to attend third level. In a sense, at that time it might not have had the same impact as now.
Given the digital economy we are creating and the world as all of the markets merge, it is important that we have highly qualified people who can go into that marketplace, develop a footprint for Ireland abroad and attract the companies that will create a critical mass of employment in Ireland. That can only be done through education. I would support any move the Minister makes to increase the input of public funds to support students attending college. Some of the really bright students often cannot get to college and yet, through their own initiatives, manage to rise to the top. However, it is a battle when one does not have the qualifications behind one.
I also welcome the amounts of money the Minister is giving to the universities to establish the newer ones and to keep funded the well-established universities as they move along in time. I am positive about their development but we have to learn from the past. The Minister stated that he met the presidents of the various institutions recently. My concern is that we have had the universities before the Committee of Public Accounts on numerous occasions. They have been late in submitting their accounts. They have been less than spectacular in how they have described their expenditure and in many instances, there were controversies and scandals that were swept under the carpet by the State. There was a cover-up in terms of how those issues arose within certain universities. I am not painting them all with the one brush, but there were issues and those issues, by and large, were not addressed. They were certainly ignored to facilitate the ongoing work of a university or, indeed, to facilitate individuals to progress in their jobs and get out the other side. No one was found guilty, as it were, of the terribly poor governance that existed in some universities. No one was found to be short in his or her delivery of protection for the employees of universities and yet there were many whistleblowers in the University of Limerick, Cork Institute of Technology and elsewhere. I brought a case to the Minister's attention. The Minister has taken much of the baggage from the Department of Education but, historically, there are issues. They are not resolved.
I am deeply disappointed that even as we debate this positive move in terms of third level, there are legacy issues from the past that the players at management level within some universities are simply not willing to deal with.
We passed legislation in this House about whistleblowers. We offered them protection. Some of them came forward in good faith, wanting to improve the work ethic around them, their work environment generally, or to report directly a wrongdoing. They have been vilified. They have lost their jobs. The individual named at the Committee of Public Accounts lost her job. To this day State money is being used by that particular institute to drag the person through the courts, to deal with her in a very bad way and not to acknowledge at all the rights the person has as an employee of the institute in question.
There is something we can do in real time in that, where we see money being wasted, it is important for the Minister to step in, call the university or institute out and ask what they are doing with the taxpayers' money we are giving them. Some institutions have been funding highly paid solicitors, barristers and senior counsel to defend a position that is indefensible and to railroad someone in light of the legislation we passed in this House giving protection to whistleblowers. They are making their lives absolutely impossible, taking their jobs from them, bringing on poor health, forcing them into a situation where the institutes are actually breaking the law by asking them to do certain things people simply should not be asked to do because it is illegal to do so. However, because they have the power of the State behind them and a bottomless pit as far as resources are concerned, they are able to do this to individuals.
I am asking the Minister, as I did before, and the Taoiseach as well, to call a halt to it, not to be afraid to say that enough is enough. Unless the Minister or someone senior does so, if he does not take them out and make an example of them, they will continue to do it under the new arrangements for universities and institutes of technology. Vice-presidents or presidents are not beyond accountability, and they have to be told that. They have to be told that it is taxpayers' money that is keeping them in their job. Those of them who are Accounting Officers or heads of finance and governance should be challenged on the quality of control they have in their finances or challenged on the quality of governance that they have.
If we as legislators do not keep them on their toes through the Comptroller and Auditor General, who else is going to do it, rather than any of us standing back from a position and not taking on the system in favour of a whistleblower or someone who we know is truthful and honest and has done nothing wrong? If we do not do it, who else will? Those individuals cannot afford to go to court. They take a huge risk in doing so and yet they set out with the right intentions to do right by the State and the institute that they respected. Nobody should be allowed to play with public money in the way some of the institutions do, and the Minister must find some way to empower the Comptroller and Auditor General, who himself knows all about the background to education, because I understand he was part of the audit in his previous position. All I am asking from the Minister is, on matters of governance and accountability and in legacy cases, that he not be afraid, that he has the power of this House and his position behind him to resolve the outstanding issues that the vested interests simply will not.
I will start by putting on record my absolute delight, congratulations and best wishes to all the students of Athlone Institute of Technology who are due to graduate over the next couple of weeks. In the interests of full disclosure, my daughter is one of them. They may be graduating at a time of great uncertainty, stress and anxiety, but their cap and gown in the kitchen or sitting room means just as much as any other one who has gone beforehand.
I raise the case of two young men who live in my constituency. Their names are Fionn and Phelim. They are 18 years old. Through an interfamily arrangement, they have lived with their grandparents since they were 16 years old. All aspects of their lives have been formalised through their grandparents. They have registered for medical cards based on their grandparents’ State pensions. Their Revenue account is based at their grandparents as well the details required by their GP and bank. This is the case with everything they have. This year they received 423 and 444 points. They are bright lads, to say the least. One is now studying psychology, the other commerce. One of them actually attends college through the Disability Access Route to Education, DARE, programme due to sight loss.
An exceptional result and elation at their points was followed swiftly by devastation from SUSI, which told them that their application was being denied. Evidence submitted to SUSI included a letter from the local community Garda sergeant detailing his knowledge and awareness of the family arrangement and how long those lads had been living with their grandparents. For some reason this was not deemed adequate. The boys have appealed and that is due to be heard on 4 December. However, their fees are also due to be paid at the end of November. Solicitors’ letters followed detailing the arrangements and still this was not classed as being sufficient. These young lads were 18 when their application was submitted to SUSI. There is no way they could have gone to court to get the guardianship SUSI was demanding. This is a huge loophole that is grossly unfair and is causing huge distress.
These young lads cannot be the only people in this position in this country. I refer to a reply by the Minister to a parliamentary question which states, "Cases of genuine estrangement are relatively rare and almost always will involve exceptional circumstances unique to a particular family...". I put it to the Minster that while "relatively rare" is somewhat of a broad base, what he will actually find is that the family courts involvement in cases like this is what is actually relatively rare, not the estrangement. These young lads have ended up in this position through no fault of their own. Their grandparents are doing their absolute best for them. This is the reality of their lives, yet because of SUSI their grandparents, who are elderly people on State pensions, are now looking to take out a credit union loan to put their grandchildren through college. These young lads have been through enough in their lives so far and this is something that really needs clarity.
The Minister’s reply goes on to state, "The scheme does not stipulate precisely how an awarding authority satisfies itself." That is not really good enough. We understand there must be flexibility and a level of common sense, but surely if these young lads have provided everything they have been asked for and done so willingly, then that willingness should be met at the other end as well rather than additional obstacles being put in front of them. I want to reference something my colleague, Deputy Conway-Walsh, brought up earlier. I cannot be the only Deputy in this House who has had constituents contact them to say there is a problem with the Revenue Commissioners and SUSI speaking to each other. Whether it is P21 details that have been double-counted or whatever the case may be, that lack of communication not only adds extra workload to SUSI but causes huge distress to families at a time when stress is already high.
I am stepping in for her at short notice on this occasion. I thank both the Minister and Minster of State for attending today wish them the very best in what is an incredibly important portfolio. Some of the issues I will raise have already been touched on so I will try not to overlap and will try to develop some of them in my own way.
I welcome the once-off Covid payment of €250 for full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students. It is very welcome and will alleviate some of the stress on some of the students, but I recognise it does not go far enough in some instances. In particular, there has been an omission in respect of part-time students who do not avail of it, and I would like to see if we can potentially address that. Perhaps the payment should not be a once-off and the Government could add an additional €250 in the second semester, which again would go some way to alleviating a lot of the burdens which have been placed on third level students at the moment.
On the issue of SUSI, which has been touched on quite well already by some of my colleagues, the Minister has committed to reviewing SUSI and I very much welcome that news. What plans are there for the scale of the review and has any consideration been given to the engagement of students in it? I am speaking not only of students who have successfully gone through the SUSI process but also those who contact our offices having not had such a positive experience of SUSI and who may not have been successful in the process.
Their voices are necessary. I am contacted quite regularly by students, as I am sure other Deputies are, on various issues related to SUSI. I acknowledge the team on SUSI is absolutely fantastic and in our engagement with them they are always quick and prompt in their responses, and probably more so than most other Departments, I am guaranteed to speak to someone in SUSI who will get back to me and I commend this. However, a lot of problems remain and they are legislative problems that we can address through working collaboratively in the House. I will bring forward legislation in this regard in the coming months.
SUSI has no ability to classify as independent students under the age of 23. This creates a lot of issues for people who contact me. They may be 22 and parents themselves. They may be estranged from their parents. I cannot ask SUSI to consider them as adults in their own right. This is an omission. This is further exacerbated by students not being able to be reclassified as dependents at any age unless they break their education for three years or re-enter education after a five-year break. This is a flaw in the system and we can work together to address it.
The legislation assumes that all students have family supports, such as a stable place to live, and it fails to acknowledge cases where students under the age of 23 may not live at home for positive reasons or negative reasons such as estrangement. It actively discourages students from becoming independent. The burden of providing proof of a change in circumstances for students, such as one parent leaving the home, can be incredibly confusing to navigate and places an emotional and financial burden on students. An example has already been given of solicitor fees. This is a little bit embarrassing for the students who come forward with it and we can address this.
My colleague, Deputy Nash, raised a Noteworthy publication but I might develop it. Noteworthy published a three-part article stemming from a six-month investigation by journalist Maria Delaney that revealed more than 11,200 lecturers are on temporary or casual contracts in Ireland's IT and university sector, in precarious employment with poor pay. As is too often the case, this is not only a worker issue but a gender issue. Only this year was the glass ceiling broken when the University of Limerick appointed Professor Kerstin Mey as its new president. Professor Mey becomes the first woman to be appointed head of any Irish university, breaking a 428-year tradition. While this is progress and welcome, at the same time the gender equality gap in our higher education sector is increasing and not decreasing. In 2019, 71% of women worked in part-time temporary academic jobs in universities and the figure for institutes of technology was 63%. Over the course of the pandemic, there has been an increase in papers authored by men, a repercussion of female researchers having to juggle other responsibilities, potentially childcare and the housework of academia as Dr. Theresa O'Keeffe, the head of sociology in UCD, pointed out, to describe duties such as academic teaching and administration, which is disproportionately given to female students.
I want to highlight several issues that we might be able to address quickly. Anyone who has worked, as I have, in higher education access and outreach education, knows that the burden of getting paperwork associated with the higher education access route and the disability access route to education is often cumbersome. During the pandemic it will be especially difficult. We need to work with higher education institutions to alleviate this and provide some degree of flexibility if we can.
I welcome today's announcement of €50 million as a once-off Covid payment scheme for third level students. I acknowledge this funding, in addition to access support and additional supports for well-being and mental health, is very important. We can all agree students have experienced significant upheaval as a result of Covid-19 and this funding will provide some much-needed security at this difficult time. I also welcome that a review of SUSI has been announced. Many Deputies will agree the review is long overdue. I have seen it throughout my constituency work in recent months where people have been left frustrated with the process. Many students through no fault of their own have to leave home at 18 and often SUSI will not recognise this or it is very difficult to prove they are independent. These students often feel abandoned by their families and the State and this is something we need to review. Every individual case should be looked at on its own basis.
Another issue I have raised previously in the Dáil through parliamentary questions is student accommodation refunds. It is welcome news that most universities have committed to providing refunds. I understand some have not done so yet and I call on them today to review this. I welcome the recent comments of the Minister, Deputy Harris, that he does not believe the policy on student accommodation is working. I encourage him, the Minister of State and the Department to look at alternative funding models that could be developed.
The Munster technological university will be formally established on 1 January. This is a landmark development for the south west. The new technological university will be formed by Cork Institute of Technology and Institute of Technology, Tralee. The university will cater for 18,000 students on five campuses at CIT Bishopstown, IT Tralee, CIT School of Music, Crawford College of Art and Design and the National Maritime College of Ireland in Ringaskiddy. The establishment of the Munster technological university will stimulate a more balanced growth of population and employment throughout Ireland. It will also help to make higher education more accessible. This is great news for the region as a whole. It will help us to continue to produce a well-educated and highly skilled workforce which, in turn, will lead to continued investment and attract new business to the region.
To go back to the announcement of €50 million, the Minister and Minister of State came before the education committee last week. Some concerns were raised with regard to the credit note aspect. In scenarios where students would appreciate the money upfront to facilitate distance learning, perhaps to help to purchase IT equipment or whatever the specific circumstances might be, I ask that they be taken on a case-by-case basis.
I want to be parochial on a particular issue. This year is the 100-year commemoration of two former lord mayors of Cork, Terence MacSwiney and Tomás Mac Curtain. It made national news that there has been some disagreement about statues and who is more deserving of a statue, including other political figures. I appeal to the Minister that if possible he considers a bursary in commemoration of both former lord mayors, given the significance of the centenary in Cork. There would be no better way to commemorate both former lord mayors who were playwrights, political agitators and poets in their own right. It would be a fitting way to commemorate the centenary.
I thank the Minister for being in the House to speak about the ongoing work he is doing in the new Department. It is critical for so many young people and those engaged in further education throughout the country. I am conscious that I am the youngest Deputy in the House to speak about this issue. I care deeply about it and I have worked in this area in the past, as the Minister is well aware.
A particular issue I raised in the House this week was the library system in Ireland. I have been engaging with officials in local government in Cork and elsewhere on proposed library developments in individual communities. Something that has been discussed much in Dáil Éireann in recent times is that so many students engaged in higher education and studying at home find it incredibly challenging to get a proper broadband connection, which is having a severe impact on their studies. My constituency office is inundated, and I am sure other Deputies have a similar experience. A potentially very good solution would be for the Department, along with the local authorities, to invest in our library systems. The Department is new, and I am sure the Minister is looking for new ideas and ways he can improve higher education throughout the country to make sure there is balance nationally for urban and rural areas. I spoke about the multidepartmental approach required for this because we need funds and we need the Department of Education and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to focus on the importance of projects such as those I have outlined.
In many areas, students who are at home and struggling to get proper broadband connectivity to engage in their studies would be able to go to their local libraries. There are many planned developments throughout the country. There are two in my constituency, in Midleton and Youghal, that are ready to go but need funding and back-up at governmental level in support of local authorities. This would transform people's ability to study and learn from home, with potential savings of thousands of euro for those who may be considering studying in cities such as Dublin or Cork, where accommodation is incredibly expensive. We could potentially save those families the cost and expense of this. They could put their SUSI money to good use in other ways to improve their studies.
Many students are from certain backgrounds or may be in unfortunate financial circumstances and they find themselves in a situation where they have to work many hours that could otherwise be dedicated to their studies. This is one route we should explore.
I welcome the news about the top-up grant of €250. I know this will come as an enormous benefit to many students who are stuck for money and financial support. I hope that, in the medium term and while the Covid situation evolves, we would consider such measures for next year as well.
I welcome the Minister's news that he will work to improve SUSI. I have outlined to him before in the House my sincere concerns about people fulfilling the SUSI criteria, particularly those Irish citizens who moved abroad and then returned home to Ireland. I have raised individual cases with the Minister where people were locked outside the criteria. It is an incredibly daunting task for them to go through appeals to try to obtain funding for their higher education, and this could potentially be the deciding factor in whether or not they are able to pursue their studies. This is wrong. We should be able to provide them with the supports they need. The Minister has been working with me on an ongoing basis on that issue but perhaps he could put a renewed focus on it in the coming months.
I wish the Minister well and thank him for all the work he has done so far.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this topic. I welcome also the establishment of the Department and the focus on third level and higher education. The third level experience presents people with the opportunity to broaden their horizons and gain additional skills, and it is transformative in its nature. A central theme needs to be around access and ensuring that all people, particularly people from disadvantaged backgrounds, have access. I am thinking in particular of access programmes and postgraduate entry. Several students have contacted me in recent weeks to outline the particular difficulties they are experiencing at this time in regard to postgraduate medicine and other courses which require a less conventional route through third level.
I note the Minister's efforts to support the institutions in the very important work they do and the contribution they make. I am a third level student myself on the Structured Population and Health-services Research Education, or SPHeRE, PhD programme. Given his former capacity as Minister for Health, the Minister will know that NPHET and other groups such as HIQA are currently relying heavily on graduates from that programme in regard to population health epidemiology. It is very important that we appreciate the value of those contributions.
In terms of the effort to undertake basic research, I sometimes find academia can spend a lot of time having to justify its own existence and I want to make the point about the principle of basic research and its importance. I also want to make the point about the opportunity for the new Department in regard to the role of the State in innovation. There is sometimes an idea that it is for big pharma or for the private sector to take on and do this creative work. Mariana Mazzucato and others have written about the entrepreneurial state, which is something we should be ambitious for because we need to take risks in our research. I commend that approach and implore the Minister to take it up.
I want to raise the issue of this year’s first-year students. I mentioned how going to third level education can broaden horizons. Many people come from a local parish or town and are subjected to new influences and meet people from a wide range of backgrounds, which can be very liberating, if messy at times for some people. However, with Covid-19, that has been completely restricted. I received a letter from a parent who happens to be a primary school teacher married to a primary school principal, and who encourages the Minister to contact third level institutions and ask them to look at every opportunity to get young adults on campus. Parents say they are living in their bedrooms with a laptop. That is the experience they are having in first year, which is very different from the first year experience of their predecessors. It is very tough on them and is affecting their mental health and their development. I ask the Minister to consider the opportunities there are to get kids on campus more often.
Covid-19 has forced us to rethink many of our priorities and understand what is important. Many of those things that we have learned the importance of during Covid-19, and which we should have known before, start with higher education. There are the doctors, the nurses and the scientists we need to cope with a health crisis, the engineers, the architects and the apprentices we need to build infrastructure and the houses we so desperately need, and the arts and the humanities without which, frankly, we would all have gone off our heads over the past six months. Yet, even before Covid, we were failing desperately to support and invest in the people who study these things at third level and postgraduate level. We have the highest fees in Europe, now that Britain has gone, with accommodation costs absolutely out of control for students and a straightforward lack of affordable accommodation, or any accommodation, for students. We had grants that were woefully inadequate and huge inequality in terms of access to third level, given 90% of people from Dublin 6 go to university while the figure is well under 20% in many working-class areas.
If all of that was true before Covid, frankly, it has got worse since then because students now do not have the opportunities to work they might have had in order to supplement their income. It is also true of postgraduate students who get paid nothing at all and who, even though they are key to delivering a research output in our universities, do not have proper contracts of employment. Student nurses, who are literally holding the front line together, as many of the nurses, doctors and healthcare assistants are out sick with Covid, are being paid nothing now. Having been acknowledged with healthcare assistant, HCA, payment for a couple of months, it was then pulled from them and the Government is resisting paying them.
Some €250 is a drop in the ocean in that situation. There is no justification for fees and there never was. There is even less justification in the context of blended learning, with most of it happening off campus amidst general uncertainty. Fees for international students are absolutely outrageous, student nurses actually have to pay fees, when they should be paid and not have to pay fees, and postgraduate students are not paid, even though they are doing real work in real jobs. A hell of a lot needs to be done to change the situation for our students and postgraduates and in regard to the proper funding of universities.
I want to first pay tribute to Maria Delaney of noteworthy.ie, who has done a series called "Academic Uncertainty", an investigation which shines a light on the precarity of university staff and the impact of that on diversity. The picture that emerges is that Irish universities are increasingly reminiscent of Edwardian, “Upstairs, Downstairs” society, with extravagant salaries for a very small minority while those actually keeping the show on the road are struggling to get by. Take the example of Trinity College, one of the top universities in the world. That reputation is built on the backs of thousands of low paid lecturers and unpaid PhD researchers. While it was found recently that the head of Trinity’s salary and benefits are so high that they breach the approved limits, the same college employs more than 2,000 non-permanent and casual lecturers. Across the country, there are more than 11,000 lecturers on temporary and casual contracts, and they are disproportionately women, often with no access to basic employment rights like maternity leave. The great and the good of university officialdom are treated like royalty while those who do the teaching and the research are left to fight for scraps.
The impact of those short-term casual contracts is lecturers unable to get a mortgage and unsure if they can cover rent for the next month, with no right to sick pay or maternity leave.
They are publicly funded universities involved in pushing a race to the bottom in working conditions.
I also want to highlight the particular exploitation of postgraduate workers taking place. Yesterday, I challenged the Taoiseach on the fact that postgraduate workers are currently expected to do hours of teaching work completely unpaid. In response, he said that not all postgraduates are workers. I also got a reply from the Minister that those hours spent teaching are not considered employment services. That underlines the lack of respect that is shown to those workers. Not only is their research work not considered work but many are not even paid for the teaching hours they do. Shamefully, because they are not recognised as workers they are not even allowed to join a trade union. That is the reason postgraduate workers are getting organised. My office is assisting them by helping to draw them together and to campaign. It is time to draw a line in the sand and demand respect and a living wage for postgraduate workers.
I welcome the Minister's update on his work and that of his Department. Much has been achieved to date and it is to be commended.
I welcome the €50 million announced today for third level students for a once-off payment of €250 to each student. It was a welcome announcement for the almost 5,000 students of the Institute of Technology, Carlow and St. Patrick's College in Carlow. I spoke to some students today and there was great excitement among them.
As a Deputy for Carlow-Kilkenny, I particularly welcome the progress made to date on the technological university for the south east, TUSE, and the work being carried out by the TUSEI consortium. The investment in the south-east region is significant and the proposed establishment of the TUSE through the merging of the Institute of Technology, Carlow and Waterford Institute of Technology in creating critical mass will generate many opportunities for the region, including links with industry and enhanced access to education.
I cannot let the opportunity pass without mentioning another excellent college, St. Patrick's College in Carlow, which plays a significant role in the higher education landscape in the south east region, with a concentrated expertise in the delivery of programmes in the arts, humanities and social science. Founded in 1782, Carlow College has pursued its education mission over 238 years during which the regional, national and international context has been continually evolved and changed. I fully understand and agree that the establishment of the technological university for the south east is the number one priority for the Minister, his Department and the Government. However, I will also be looking for his support, and that of his Department, in ensuring that no stone is left unturned in progressing the full integration of St. Patrick's College in Carlow into the higher education system in the south east region.
I am aware the Minister is as committed as I am to enshrine the provision of science, gender equality and multidisciplinary students across all regions of Ireland.
I welcome the Minister's enthusiasm in supporting the efforts to enhance technological university status for Carlow and the south east. This is a wonderful time in education. A technological university for the south east, consisting of Waterford Institute of Technology and the Institute of Technology, Carlow, is exciting. It is great for the south east. It is and has always been very important to me, and to Carlow in particular, that we can set out its stall for attracting foreign investment, foreign students, local investment and local students as well as wider community investment to improve towns and villages in the vicinity. I also welcome the appointment of Mr. Tom Boland.
I have been speaking to students, including today, and they very much need to get back on campus. Most of them are working from home and it is an issue that has been raised with me in the past few months.
I look forward to all the great plans the Minister's Department has for higher and further education in Carlow. I will support him at every opportunity in that regard. This is crucial for the south east and it will bring so much to the south east area and to my area of Carlow, where I met the Minister on several occasions and he was always very supportive. Hopefully, we will deliver. As the Minister said, 2022 is the timescale for having a technological university for the south east and that is excellent news.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to these statements. I note with appreciation both Ministers appearing before the Oireachtas committee recently to create their Department so I express my congratulations on that point. I believe it has to be formalised by the House but that will be a great day for both of them. I know they will be very pleased to formally have a Department in which to work.
I want to cover a few issues within the higher education sector. I will start with the expansion of apprenticeships, which is very pleasing to hear. It is a critical part of the training and third level offering from this State. Seeing it prioritised is very pleasing because third level education is not for everybody and it is all the more important for us to ensure that we have a diversity of third level education available across all sectors of society. If it is not recognised as a form of higher education perhaps it should be but its promotion as an alternative to further education is welcome.
I have discussed previously in committee with the Ministers the knock-on effects of the pandemic on third level access in terms of courses. I was very pleased to hear that the additional course places that were made available this year will be made available next year also. I certainly hope that with a variety of issues arising in the near future such as Brexit and, hopefully, the exit of the situation we are in currently in terms of Covid-19, the third level institutions and the Department will be responsive to the necessary changes that most likely will arise in terms of third level choices and, as I mentioned, apprenticeships.
That leads me to a point I made in committee, which is an important one. Both the Department of Education and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science need to work collaboratively on what a leaving certificate that does not involve sitting a summer examination in the future might be because that conversation needs to be had by all the various parties involved. It is worthy of having a conversation at this point given what Covid-19 has caused in terms of the class of 2020 and 2021. I feel very sorry for the poor fifth year, now sixth year, students but at the same time they have a burden in this process also.
I want to briefly mention the new literacy, numeracy and digital skills strategy the Minister has launched. I look forward to getting more information on that but it is a worthy area for him to focus on given the 500,000 people who are estimated to be struggling on that front. We need to support the work of the National Adult Literacy Agency, along with all of the other partners, in respect of ensuring that the policy is a success because additional adult education is crucial. We see it in communities up and down the country and it would be worthy to spend some time on that.
Colleagues have already mentioned the student supports that are available, some of which are in the positive category and some in the negative. I want to recognise the gestural support the Minister has given to students up and down the country with the announcement of the €50 million package, which will involve each student receiving approximately €250. That is worthwhile in recognising that students will have additional costs associated with learning from home. Also, the digital access scheme is crucial in assisting those students and catering for third level education at home.
I touched on it previously but the retraining and upskilling element of the Minister's Department is important in terms of recognising the change Brexit and Covid-19 will bring, the diversification that our jobs market will need to take and how responsive the third level institutions, and his Department, will be in dealing with that change and diversification.
I look forward to further engagement with the Ministers in committee. I am fortunate to be on that committee under the chairmanship of Deputy Paul Kehoe.
I wish the Ministers well in this necessary Department, which all of us want to see do very well. A number of Members have already spoken about the fact that we have some staffing issues in third level. A number of people would be on precarious contracts. That must be brought to a head from the point of view of sustainability and ensuring that people can put in all the effort and time they want to deliver education for our people.
That is something we need to deal with and take off the table. I would like to talk specifically about Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT. There are a number of favourable points for DkIT. We are glad to have the institute in Dundalk. The College Connect access programme is a good project which we would to see expanded. It is not only about making journeys easier for people, sometimes those coming into third level from more disadvantaged backgrounds, but also building relationships with communities. I also refer to the spectacular work done by places such as Ó Fiaich College and other institutes that offer post-leaving certificate courses, which provide another vehicle for people who do not necessarily follow the traditional route of the leaving certificate to make it through to third level. This is something that we need to look into. We had the situation with the leaving certificate this year but in many cases, people see a black and white scenario. There are many vehicles to get to where one wants to be in life and we need to work on that.
A major issue for DkIT is the idea of technical university status. I call on the Minister to ensure that his Department will work with all necessary stakeholders to deliver this. I know there was a notion that DkIT was quite slow to engage about this and there was no room at the inn for a number of groupings of institutes of technology and former institutes of technology. I know there are particular issues in the universities and complaints being dealt with, involving the Ombudsman. I do not want to get into the details of that. It is a necessity that DkIT does not fall behind. I call on the Minister and Minister of State to use the Department to deliver technical university status for DkIT.
In the last seconds that I have, I raise nursing and midwifery students. For obvious reasons, many who would have previously worked part-time in health are not able to do that at this point or when doing work experience. There is a small payment, including for travel. We need to make sure that it is sped up. While it usually paid retrospectively, we should pay it to them to make things easier for them to do vital work for themselves and us.
I bring to the Minister's attention an issue that was raised by a constituent regarding delays in completing apprenticeships. The correspondence states that the constituent's electrician apprenticeship is supposed to be a four year programme, but there is such a waiting list to move on to the next phase that apprentices such as this person will spend more than five years doing the apprenticeship. My constituent and I want to know if the Minister will look into this and solve the problem so that the apprentice can qualify within the four years and start to earn his much-needed living. All his exams have been completed in phase 6 and he has six months left in phase 7. I hope the Minister will look into that and come up with a solution.
On higher education in general, this is a sector which has grown rapidly in the past 20 years. I am sure we can all remember the days when the junior certificate, or the intermediate certificate, as it was known, was as far as many students went in school, then doing the leaving certificate became the norm. Nearly 60 years ago, the Government placed secondary education at the heart of Irish life. This helped to improve people's life chances and helped many people out of poverty. The fact that we now have a Minister with responsibility for higher education, with a dedicated Department, is evidence of the increased importance placed on higher education.
If we want to ensure continued growth in this sector, all areas of Ireland must be catered for. With that in mind, I draw attention to the university for the south east and the proposal to merge IT Carlow and Waterford IT under the technological university for the south east. That has been talked about for years but, while I know there is progress, it is slow. As the largest county in the south east in both population and area, a substantial university campus must be put in County Wexford as part of the university for the south east.
Cost has been highlighted several times as one of the main difficulties apparent in third level education. For example, the cost of accommodation in Dublin is astronomical and a grave difficulty for many families. Second, there is a benefit to having a university in the area, which is the ability to attract foreign direct investment. Unfortunately, County Wexford has been neglected by IDA Ireland for many years. The most recent announcement is the first in years. The number of IDA visits that happen in Wexford is constantly near the bottom of the list compared with the rest of the country. It is unacceptable for such a big county with obvious location benefits. The IDA visits are vital because they advertise the advantages of the location to companies considering investing and expanding in Ireland. One of the main reasons Wexford is neglected is the absence of a university campus.
In County Wexford, before Covid, we had makeshift car parks dotted along the roadsides where people met to carpool to head to Dublin to work. More than 10,000 people leave Wexford daily to work outside the county. I want highly skilled people in Wexford to have the option to go to college and work in Wexford, rather than leaving them stuck in traffic, spending the whole day in Dublin, and arriving home to their families later when their children have gone to bed.
When Donogh O'Malley announced free secondary education for all he did not exclude any county. Imagine if he decided to have free secondary education in only a few counties. How much worse off would we be as a society today? I ask the Minister to ensure that when it comes to a campus in Wexford as part of the university, we do not need to focus on the funds for it.
I was listening to the Fine Gael spokesperson on insurance a while ago. I was reminded of the sentence "an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea". Is the Minister with responsibility for higher education a part-time Minister? He is unable to attend the complete debate here. The Deputies left in the Chamber represent thousands of people in our constituencies and many of them are interested in this issue. For the Minister to hightail it before we have the opportunity to put our views to him is just not on, especially given that he was Minister for Health at the start of the year and he promised student nurses that he would pay them a wage for the work that they did on the front lines during the pandemic. What followed was a Minister who stiffed staff in this country who were working in the most difficult situations. It is beyond tight-fisted and actually cheap on the part of the Government not to pay the staff working in hospitals the income that the Minister promised.
Many students are being given a bad name by people in the Oireachtas. I know a Fianna Fáil Senator who wanted to use the Army against students in Galway because they were congregating in Galway in the summer. I want to talk about the fantastic students who are fighting for equality and campaigning. I think of one student, Sonia, who has been campaigning on the phone with Deputies and in media, trying to get proper salaries and wages for student nurses. I think of Cian Gallagher, another brilliant and driven student of politics in UCD, who is heading up a campaign relating to SUSI. I commend him on that. I would like to ask the Minister, if he was here, how many students who were promised a grant this summer have had that funding taken away or threatened to be taken away by SUSI.
Another student was in touch with me recently who has been orphaned. He was taking care of a guardian last year. The college in question failed to inform SUSI that he was not able to continue. He did not receive a cent of that grant but the university did. When he went back to college this year, he was not afforded that grant any more. Surely SUSI should ask the university for that money back and not the student himself.
In a time of recession we need to keep students in education in this country and we need a Minister who will follow through on the promises that he made to student nurses earlier this year. Gabhaim buíochas.
I welcome the formation of this new Department which was warranted and I hope that we see consequent and substantial improvements in our provision and learning outcomes as a result. I welcome in particular the emphasis that this Minister and Minister of State placed on the training and skills facet of the Department and their commitment to prioritise lifelong learning, one of the aspects of education which we do not do well currently in this country.
I will use my time, like many before me, to address the critical issue of the technological university of the south east, TUSE, a project with such importance to balanced regional development that it is specifically referenced twice within the programme for Government. The Minister of State will acknowledge that the technological university, TU, model was conceived in response to the need and demand for a university to serve the needs of the 500,000 people who live in the south-east region and the fact that Waterford is the only city in the country without a university-status third level institution.
I am old enough to remember when the Institute of technology, IT, structure was proposed as an answer to the same problem a generation ago. What followed was a re-badging exercise where all regional technical colleges, RTCs, were upgraded with no net benefit to Waterford or to the south east. It is much to the credit of Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, that it has consistently remained first among equals and has managed to compete with universities despite the inequalities of funding opportunities. I praise also WIT’s place within our community, both geographically and socially. Many of the students who graduate from WIT are the first in their families to attain a third level qualification. This is true of my own family. I also know as a matter of fact the great pride both staff and management place on this.
We are not, however, competing on a level playing pitch. As a region the south east accounts for 8.9% of the population but only 5% of the higher education income. Of our young people who enter higher education, 59% of them leave the region in order to do so, which is in or around 11,000 students per annum. This equates to a significant wealth transfer out of the south east but far more damaging is the loss of our young people and we see a pronounced demographic doughnut in the region characterised by a missing generation of 19 to 45 year olds. Our young people are going away and in many cases are staying away. Even in the TU model, a model designed to deliver a university to the south east, we see the disparity continue. Since 2018, €56 million has been spent on all TU processes. Of that TUSE has only received €8.1 million or 14%. This is a lesser share than that allocated to either Dublin, Galway or Cork, all of which are regions with existing universities. These figures themselves fail to capture the historical underinvestment in the Waterford campus and in particular in terms of the built infrastructure that lags far behind the higher education capital investment in other regions.
President-elect Joe Biden has been quoted as saying: “Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value.” For generations we have been told in Waterford how valued we should be as the economic driver for the south-east region. The historic Urban Regeneration and Development Fund, URDF, funding allocation last week for our north quays was a welcome signal that perhaps this Government might finally be putting our money where our mouth is. This needs to be followed through with the adequate funding of the TUSE project. If we are to grow our undergraduate and postgraduate capacity in the region, if we are to expand and improve the range of courses available, our region and its young people should accept no less.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this particularly important item and I thank the Minister for State for the work that has been done in that Department. It is timely that the emphasis is put on third and fourth level education for the simple reason that we face much competition in the workplace and will face greater competition in the future as our next-door neighbour moves away, as part of the Brexit issue. We will now be expected to face more challenges and to become an anchor for people who wish, hopefully, to invest in this country and we will also be able to put in place the workforce that is qualified, competent, reliable and the best in the business. It is possible to do so.
I will briefly mention some of the issues already referred to by others in the debate, for instance, the issue of academic bullying. That kind of thing should never happen at any level in any institution. We are long enough in the tooth looking at these things to be able to say that nobody should expect to get away with that in institutions as august as those at third level. Let us hope that adequate action is being taken to ensure that does not continue.
References has also be made to the award of higher education grants. I, like an Ceann Comhairle, strongly advocated years ago for free third level education in order to be able to give everybody an equal chance. Unfortunately, the budgetary situation did not allow that to continue. As a result this education is not as available as it could be. However, there will always be people who say on the one hand or on the other but we should compare our situation with that of the United States. The availability of third level education here is way ahead. That is why we have an advantage. In the United States, for example, it costs approximately $80,000 to receive a third level education, if one can get one, and there are many reasons why one cannot. We need to move further and further away from that model and make third and fourth level education more available to the people who are in the community, not necessarily at any particular level, but everybody should have equal access.
My last point is on the reluctance of some third level institutions to refund the accommodation element of the SUSI grant. I do not understand this as this accommodation could not be taken up by students because of the lockdown, and rightly so. Why could these institutions not have found a way to re-let their accommodation to somebody else? It is not as if there were not people looking for accommodation in the country at the present time. This could easily have been done on a short-term basis and they could have got their money from there. Instead, some chose to apologise and state that they could not refund this money as this payment was already part of the agreement. Circumstances of course changed where Covid-19 took off at a rate, and is still running. I strongly urge those institutions that refused to refund the accommodation level of the grant to do so as a matter of great urgency.
Tá áthas orm labhairt. We are here to discuss third level education in the round mainly. I also want to raise the challenges that are facing many students in the price of student accommodation which is effectively acting as a barrier for many students who just cannot take up places in college. We need to get to grips with that as this is excluding bright and gifted students. We need to ensure that we have legislation in place to overcome all of this.
The Government can announce millions in support and measure after measure to assist college students but all of that will be purely academic, pardon the pun, if people are priced out of going to college. That is why we must return again and again to the core issue of educational inequality and disadvantage. I already called on the Minister earlier this year to make immediate provision for the re-establishment of the education disadvantage committee which was set up under the Education Act 1998 and which did tremendous work. It was good value for money and led to many initiatives that came into play today, such as the DEIS initiative. This needs to be looked at. I raised this with the Minister, Deputy Foley, at the Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science earlier in the week. This would afford many students the opportunity of breaking out of that cycle of disadvantage and ensue that they had equal opportunities in this Republic.
We have had the Higher Education Authority’s newly released report, A Spatial & Socio-Economic Profile of Higher Education Institutions in Ireland. That report concluded that students from less well-off backgrounds and geographical areas continued to experience continuous and systematic levels of social and class disadvantage within our education system.
The report by the HEA makes for deeply disturbing reading in the sense we seem to have learned nothing over recent years when it comes to increasing educational opportunities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The challenges students face at educational level are being translated into deep, highly unequal economic divisions. Both the Minister and Minister of State must now accept that a new and imaginative approach is needed.
I, too, am delighted for the Minister of State. I wish him well in his portfolio. I, too, am astounded that the Minister, Deputy Harris, could not have waited until the end of the debate. Has he gone out to look into the black hole that is the children's hospital site? Some legacy he has in that regard. His absence is totally insulting to Deputies, smaller parties and groups who have waited in the queue. He does not even believe we were worth listening to. That has been his raison d'être.
I want to talk about three issues, the first of which concerns university status for the south east. This is badly needed. The region is the poor relation. The late Donogh O'Malley, a party colleague of the Minister of State's father and others, had great vision and inspiration regarding free education. My God, look at it now. Look at the stresses. Hundreds of students and their parents have been on to me about having paid anything between €4,000 and €9,000 for college accommodation and now cannot get it back. The Government has a majority. It has a majority on the Business Committee also, as the Ceann Comhairle will know. It should introduce legislation to address this matter. It will find that nobody will oppose it. Let the providers take 30% of the fees, or 40% at most, and give back 70% or 60% to the hard-pressed families. The Government tells us we are experiencing a pandemic and it legislated to close down everything. Why are the hard-working families being victimised, made perish and thrown to the wolves?
I support the staff in SUSI because they have a hard job to do. They did their best. I have a very good working relationship with them. My office is very busy. Geraldine in my office is on to the staff daily.
The student nurses have been betrayed. They left their colleges and came home to work. They put themselves on the front line and they were told they would be paid. The Government Members have stood up here and elsewhere to applaud them but they refuse to pay them. It is abject, disgraceful behaviour, and it is truly a reversal of the Government's promises. Promises are meant to be broken, the Government will probably tell us, but the student nurses need to be paid. They are at the front line working harder than many in the huge monstrosity that is the HSE. The are willing to be at the front line. They are losing the part-time work they had because they are not available to do it. They have been badly mistreated. The Minister of State has children himself and he will have college students shortly enough. I have a student in college this year. It is a very trying time. Some students have only one lecture. A student I encountered who wanted to travel to college had only five or six hours of tuition but they were spread over five days, meaning they had to travel on each of five days. The universities and colleges need to get their act together and not have students in college for perhaps ten hours over five days. It is unfair on the families and the students. There is a lot to be sorted out in the third level sector. I wish the Minister of State well with it.
I listened to the Minister, Deputy Harris, earlier. He had some good news. I was pleased to hear about the 58 new apprenticeship courses that are available, not only in traditional areas such as carpentry and plumbing but also in areas such as cybersecurity, accounting and supply chain management. I was also very pleased to hear that Ireland is now the ninth most innovative country in Europe. It really makes me proud to know I live in a country with so many innovative thinkers, doers and entrepreneurs across all sectors, building the foundations for today's and tomorrow's economy.
As a former teacher, I am particularly interested in the mitigating against educational disadvantage fund. There are many excellent community education providers in my constituency, Sligo–Leitrim, and in south Donegal and north Roscommon who will make great use of this money.
Every time I speak in this House on higher education, I always speak of the technological university under the umbrella of the Connacht-Ulster Alliance. For me, this is a top priority. I am happy to report that my various contacts tell me that genuine progress is being made and that things appear to be going according to plan. There is a tight schedule but those concerned are on schedule.
Not all is rosy in the higher education garden, however. I would like to highlight a specific issue that has arisen in respect of Covid. A constituent of mine who is doing a masters degree worked last year and now gets a contribution of €2,000 towards her fees this year, but she lost her part-time job because of Covid and will be €9,000 worse off at the end of 2020 than she was in 2019. She cannot avail of the special grant rate, however, because the authorities are refusing to take her changed circumstances into account. She may have to give up on her masters degree. I ask that changed circumstances due to Covid be taken into consideration when assessing eligibility for the special grant rate.
I received a letter from a constituent who expresses in a way I never could many of the concerns of middle Ireland when it comes to higher education. She states:
I am a mother off four young wonderful adults ranging from 19 to 27 three in education and one ... working. One young lady whose fellowship was put on hold in US ... [got no] financial support on returning ... in March. Another young lady, a first year student ... never got ... on campus
In good faith, this student's accommodation was booked because she was led to believe she would be on campus. A contract was signed for €8,800. She remains at home but the accommodation company demands payment. The constituent goes on:
Another Adult in ... second year studying from home ... no placements planned ... [yet] these are our future teachers!!!
I now call my home a mini university, Bed Rooms are ... lecture rooms delivering lectures through zoom. Sitting rooms are ... practical rooms for active/lab learnings. The Kitchen is ... the canteen [and the front garden is the open-air campus]. I pay for ... lighting ... heating ... wifi ... internet [fees, books, etc.]
I am their very committed mother, lecturer, counciler ... [offering support and trying to keep them balanced, encouraged and upbeat]. I am a one parent family who works ... [on the] front line.
Her questions are: how long will we deprive these students of college life experiences? What kind of education and life experiences are they getting? How do we expect them to acquire skills to become empathetic nurses and doctors, future entrepreneurs, confident electricians, carpenters, future politicians and lawyers? She finishes by saying, "My question is simple what are we doing to [do to] support this generation ... and show them we care." She signs herself "A very concerned parent who has not a voice at this time".
I thank the Deputies for their constructive and valuable contributions. My plan, and that of the Minister, Deputy Harris, and my Department, is to work in collaboration with our stakeholders, Oireachtas colleagues and many others. I look forward to our continued engagement. Nobody has to be reminded that education is not just primary school followed by secondary school, followed by going to college. There are a number of paths in life. It is up to me and my Department, working with others, to provide the kind of education a person wants, where he or she wants it. In that regard, my focus as Minister of State is on skills development, including apprenticeships and further education. Ensuring that everyone, including those groups that have been disadvantaged historically, has access to educational opportunities is vital.
For example, we know that in Ireland, participation by members of the Traveller community in higher education remains far below where we want it to be. The most recent data show only 61 Travellers are in higher education. Approximately 1% of Travellers have third level education.
Earlier, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, spoke about inclusion and equity of access, as have other Deputies this afternoon. Our record on Traveller participation in further and higher education is not good enough from my perspective. My Department has a plan to address this in partnership with the Traveller community. I am pleased to say that as part of the plan we have secured €300,000 in dormant accounts funding to safeguard Traveller participation and mitigate against the long-term damage that Covid-19 has caused. The funding will be used to support technology and study spaces that people may need and to address any caring responsibilities or health and social impacts of the pandemic.
In addition to this funding, there is also a once-off Covid-19 emergency fund of €1.9 million to support the delivery of access and support services to vulnerable students from target groups. The funding will assist access officers in educational institutions to implement supports to meet the needs of particularly vulnerable students. Priority will be given to the national access plan target groups who have been most impacted by Covid-19. The socioeconomic groups which have low participation in higher education include Travellers, first-time mature students, students with disabilities, part-time flexible learners, further education award-holder entrants, lone parents and ethnic minorities.
All students have suffered as a result of Covid-19 but it is clear some face greater challenges than others. We must ensure we do everything we can to help students stay in college during this difficult period. The funding is part of the €10 million access support package under the overall €168 million Covid-19 funding package that is supporting return to education. The overall goal is targeted measures in support of implementation of the national development plan for equity of access 2015-21 and the programme for access to higher education, PATH. The objective is to attract and retain students from target groups. We need to safeguard progress towards targets by ensuring successful transition to, and retention in, higher education during the Covid-19 period.
Our students are our future and many of them are at a formative stage in their lives. As we face the extraordinary challenges arising from the pandemic I am confident that each of them will rise to their current challenges as we work through the days and months ahead. We must play our part to ensure that the student experience will help them to blossom by giving them confidence that the supports are available when they need them.
It is not only students who access education who must be safeguarded. We have a healthy apprenticeship programme in Ireland and it too must be accessible. It is important that people know apprenticeships are for everyone no matter what age. There is no age limit. If a person has a disability, this can and will be accommodated. Education and training providers offer learning and other supports to apprentices during their training. Many employers also provide accommodation in the workplace to apprentices with disabilities. Currently, a total of 535 apprentices have reported one or more disabilities. They are receiving additional supports, as is appropriate.
In line with the programme for Government, a new action plan for apprenticeships is in development to cover the period 2021 to 2025 with a target of 10,000 apprenticeship registrations per annum by 2025. The plan will also set out how the apprentice population will more closely reflect the general population and offer targeted supports for under-represented groups. Focused and detailed work on developing the plan is under way in my Department through a strongly consultative approach. Over 60 submissions were received from stakeholders and are being supplemented with feedback from small and medium-sized employers through the regional skills fora and through feedback in the region from 3,500 apprentices through an online questionnaire. All of this feedback as well as the review of the current position of the pathway findings and recommendations will be used to inform the new action plan to be finalised by year end.
I am mindful of the challenges students have faced in respect of accommodation this year due to the financial pressures and the blended learning format of the 2020-21 academic year. In recent months my Department has been engaging with representatives from the higher education sector to address the many challenges faced by students at this difficult time. My Department, in consultation with key stakeholders, will continue to monitor the situation relating to student accommodation closely. Refund or cancellation policies for student accommodation should be set out in the licence agreement signed at the beginning of the academic year. In the first instance, students should engage with their accommodation providers to see if an arrangement can be reached with regard to a refund. If it is not possible, under the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2019 students have access to the dispute resolution services of the Residential Tenancies Board. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, and I have asked our higher education institutions with accommodation to try to show flexibility in terms of its use for the coming academic year as well as flexibility with regard to cancellation and refunds. I hope the private providers will show some flexibility. However, it is not within my power or that of the Minister, Deputy Harris, to issue instruction relating to the private rental market.
I am acutely aware of the impact the pandemic has had on our students and I am keen to ensure the safety of our students and staff in further and higher education. The majority of college will be online for this semester. We are providing financial assistance, as the Minister, Deputy Harris, has outlined through the once-off €50 million fund announced today.
Finally, I wish to outline the supports provided to institutions to deal with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. This year my Department has brought the total devolved capital grant for higher education institutions for the 2020-21 academic year to €40 million, a significant increase from the €10 million annually provided in recent years. This additional funding will help our colleges invest in additional works to help protect students and staff as we continue to fight this pandemic. It will also support institutions in upgrading their campuses and equipment for the long-term. The funding is expected to advance the development of high-end skills in the technological sector as well as facilitating building improvements to support health and safety works, information and communications technology equipment renewal and energy related upgrades. The funding forms part of the ongoing capital investment in the higher education sector under Project Ireland 2040. The 2021 allocation for infrastructure development in the further and higher education sectors, excluding research, is €224.4 million. This represents an increase of 53% on the €147 million allocated for 2020. The flexible funding provided through the devolved capital grant by my Department this year complements other large-scale capital investments in the sector and will help expand availability of student places and transform campus infrastructure in the coming years.
I wish to speak briefly in respect of funding allocated to the University of Limerick, Mary Immaculate College and the Limerick Institute of Technology under the additional 2020 allocation. Funding has been ringfenced for access services to assist higher education institutions in responding to the emerging challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Higher Education Authority has provisionally allocated to UL a Covid-19 support package of more than €4.5 million. Mary Immaculate College has been allocated more than €300,000 and LIT more than €1 million. These allocations will cover mental health and well-being, ICT support for disadvantaged students, research extensions and a Covid-19 contingency fund for access services for each institution. This funding is in addition to the recurring funding that each institution receives. This year the figure for the University of Limerick is at least €77 million, the figure for Mary Immaculate College is at least €21 million and the figure for Limerick Institute of Technology is at least €32 million.