Dáil debates

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Covid-19 (Higher Education): Statements


3:40 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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With the agreement of the House, I will share my time with the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the impact of Covid-19 on the further and higher education sector. I was a little disappointed that, for the first time in my political career, some Members of the Dáil actually voted not to have me here today for questions and answers. I find that a little bit regrettable, as almost half a million people in this country are in further or higher education. Many of these are first-time entrants to third level and, as a result of this awful virus, some have never had an opportunity to set foot on their campuses or to attend a lecture in person. The airwaves are full of discussion about the impact of Covid-19 on our schoolchildren. It is right and proper that this issue is being discussed but we also need to discuss and consider the impact this pandemic is having on young people more broadly, including young people in third level education.

I want to talk about that this afternoon because Covid-19 has robbed many of our young people of important milestones, which they understandably thought they could expect. It has robbed them of the opportunity to experience a life beyond secondary school. These first-year students last set foot in a school last March and now find themselves experiencing college life in a box room or at the corner of a kitchen table, looking at a laptop or a Zoom camera. They may have missed out on the opportunity to leave their home towns, to become independent, to meet new people or to be creative. Their college experience has been greatly curtailed. We know this is absolutely the right thing to do from the perspective of public health. It is a matter of saving lives and keeping people safe. We do, however, need to consider how best to support these young people and we must move mountains to help them. My message to young people and first-year students today, which I hope all will echo loudly and clearly, is that this will not be their college life forever. It is a difficult moment in time but it will pass.

Third level is, of course, not just about young people. It is also about mature students, that is, people who had the guts and the courage to go back to college and learning, to avail of lifelong learning, to start a new career, to reskill or to upskill. It is about the student from the Traveller community who may be the first in his or her family to attend a third level course and who now wants to find a quiet space to do his or her work. It is about young people, like those I met yesterday, who left school early for any of a variety of reasons - because school sometimes does not work out for people - and who are now back in Youthreach, trying to get their lives back on track and to fulfil their ambitions. We have to discuss the impact this is having on them and we have to ensure that when we open our doors - which we all hope will be soon - they will be in a position to continue their journey in education.

This country is talking an awful lot about economic recovery, which is really important but we are not talking nearly enough about how we are going to repair society and societal well-being after this period. From the engagements I have had, I can tell the House that people are finding this time really tough. People are fragile and consequently, when we talk about recovery, can we talk about social recovery, as well as about economic recovery?

There is absolutely no doubt that Covid-19 has resulted in significant disruption for students and learners, as well as staff. I acknowledge the enormous efforts that have gone into ensuring that continuity has, for the most part, been maintained throughout the pandemic. Despite learning having to happen in a new and different format, it has continued. I thank the unions and all of our stakeholders who have stepped up to the plate and worked very hard. In the early phase, when on-site activities were suddenly suspended, there was a very rapid shift to emergency remote learning.

Over time, a blended model of learning has become the dominant mode with varying levels of on-site and online delivery aligned to public health advice at different times. Our institutions in the sector are very diverse and have a strong degree of autonomy. This diversity and flexibility have been key in driving responsive and adaptable approaches to the challenges created by the pandemic.

Over the summer of 2020, people worked hard to put in place plans for a more comprehensive return to on-site provision for the academic year 2020-21 but we all know what the virus did to those plans.

At present, the level 5 measures designate higher and further education as essential insofar as on-site presence is required for education activities that cannot be held remotely. We need to be honest with the students and staff of further and higher education. As long as we remain at level 3, level 4 or level 5 of our Covid plan, the majority of learning will remain online. In overall terms, the sectors have adjusted speedily to a more restrictive environment again, with all further and higher education institutions conducting most of their provision online. The balance between on-site and online provision will be subject to continual change in order to safeguard students, staff and the communities in which institutions are located. There is a discretion for things that must take place in person and it is important for that discretion to remain in place.

SOLAS and our education and training boards, ETBs, have issued guidance to providers on the delivery of further education and training, FET, and craft apprenticeship programmes during January. FET programmes, including Youthreach provision, and apprenticeships are being delivered almost entirely online during this period. The Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, has been working hard on this and will provide further detail on the arrangements for apprenticeship in his contribution.

Ongoing engagement with relevant institutions and stakeholders continues. Every Friday I meet all the relevant partners as we continue to monitor this very closely.

I am pleased to be putting in place a range of supports for students and the sector during these challenges. I am always open to engaging on how we can do more to ensure that educational opportunities remain and are made more accessible to everyone, particularly the most vulnerable in our society.

There is a commitment to support those in the research community, who may have been somewhat unsung in the past but who have come very much to the fore during this pandemic. They are crucial to tackling the social and scientific problems posed by Covid-19 now and as we move forward.

A once-off funding package of €168 million was created to support publicly funded further and higher education providers and to support students. It included a doubling of the student assistance fund from €8 million to €16 million, additional funding of €10 million for access measures in higher education, €15 million to buy laptops and other devices and equipment to assist students in accessing third level education online, a €3 million increase in focused mental health and well-being funding and an increase in the level of funding for the 1916 Bursary Fund to €5 million per annum, which will provide an additional 200 bursaries, bringing the total number for this year to 1,000 bursaries for the most disadvantaged students in the college system. It also includes an additional €20 million in funding for Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, next year, an allocation of €6 million to increase SUSI support for postgraduates and, for the first time ever, a ring-fenced fund for mitigating educational disadvantage of €8 million to allow SOLAS to look at how we support community education and the learners in our community who may be at the greatest risk of disconnection from our education and training system. As colleagues will be aware, we have created a €50 million fund to provide financial assistance to full-time third level students in recognition of the particular impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and I am pleased to see colleges now attaching that €250 credit to students' accounts. We have ring-fenced funding of €300,000 for targeted supports to address the implications of Covid-19 for Traveller progression within higher education and funding has also been secured for 2021. Moreover, there is an allocation of €25 million for capital works and equipment in higher education, which represents a significant increase on the €10 million provided in recent years.

We are working as hard as we can to put in place as many measures as we can. We have provided €47 million to provide support for contract researchers and research students whose work has been seriously disrupted by the pandemic and we need to ensure that work can continue.

My Department is not just a Department for colleges and universities. It is also a Department of skills to help people get back to work and to get the skills they may need to obtain a job. Unfortunately, Covid has resulted in many people losing their jobs. It may also have resulted in some people taking stock of life and asking what they want to do with life and where they want to get to. Many people have decided to take a leap of faith in many ways, go back to the education system, retrain and start a new career.

In an average year we train about 245,000 people in further education. We are increasing further education and training places this year by 50,000. This will mean that almost 300,000 people will avail of places on training courses this year. Some 8,000 people have enrolled on the ETB-led Skills to Compete initiative. More than 1,200 companies are on board to provide places under the Skillnet Ireland Skills Connect initiative in a wide variety of sectors such as medtech, financial services and the sustainable economy.

We have started some good work on apprenticeships, although we have more to do. For the first time ever, we are providing a financial incentive to any business that takes on an apprentice. As a result, we have seen a real stabilisation and recovery on our apprenticeship registration numbers following its introduction. This scheme is continuing in 2021.

Retrofit training is being rolled out. We can be as ambitious as we want on climate action but without the people to do the retrofitting, it is just talk. We need to ensure we can provide people with the skills to give them the opportunity to get jobs in retrofitting. I am delighted that this year, we will open four centres of excellence in retrofitting training, giving people in communities throughout the country a chance to get a new job and giving communities a chance to avail of retrofitting.

We have launched a range of focused measures in higher education through Springboard, postgraduate courses and modular skills.

There are many opportunities available but we need to get much better at helping people to navigate through the information and to find what works for them. Next week, I will launch a new portal, which is aimed at delivering better central, customer-focused information via a dedicated campaign page on gov.ieand with an associated communications plan. We want to get the message out there. We need to help people navigate their way through the courses available to find the course that works for them. We will launch that new site next week.

As we move through this year, our approach, which has been very much a collaboration between the Department and stakeholders in the sector, has been underpinned by a set of key principles: prioritising the immediate needs of the health system; prioritising learners’ interests; the importance of maintaining continuity in educational services; ensuring the integrity and quality of solutions; ensuring that, at a minimum, disadvantage is not exacerbated by the crisis and that we look at opportunities to narrow disadvantage; and sharing best practice, solutions and leveraging.

As the full academic year in pandemic circumstances advances, we are focused on sustaining that continuity. I want to ensure there is a common-sense and compassionate approach to examinations and an understanding across our system for students this year as well.

Improvements to connectivity will continue to be required and I was pleased to recently announce the roll-out of Wi-Fi roaming to further and higher education students in over 90 new locations across the country. I thank HEAnet for its work in leading this project, which will result in the eduroam Wi-Fi service being extended to libraries in Longford and Galway, as well as other places.

I acknowledge what an extraordinarily difficult time this has been for students, learners and staff, with an enormous impact on their well-being. Every night we hear the figures and every night we hear of that sense of crisis on our country. Many students, educational staff and others throughout the country are enormously stressed. I am keenly aware of the challenges they have been facing in our sector. As we move forward in our overall response, I will establish a new working group in my Department, led and chaired by the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, dedicated to identifying, refining and implementing strategies to enhance learner engagement and well-being. We need to hear the voice of students and do everything we can to help them.

I once again wish to plug a number that we should make famous. We have a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week mental health text line. The number is 50808, which is available for anyone who feels at any moment they have an issue, big or small, that is getting them down. They should never feel they are alone.

I want learners right across third level education to know that this is will not be the way forever. We will get back to a more normal, more interactive experience. In the meantime, those who are finding it difficult should reach out and seek assistance. I know I will have the support of everybody in this House in saying that we will continue to ensure we put the supports in place and do everything we can to assist. At the moment, the priority must be getting people through this pandemic, minding their well-being and keeping our education services going. Then we will build back our services as the public health situation allows us.

I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House and I look forward to answering questions and keeping colleagues informed.

3:50 pm

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to provide Deputies with an update on further education and training during this level 5 phase of the Covid-19 pandemic and I look forward to taking any questions colleagues may have.

As the Minister, Deputy Harris, said, further education and training providers are responding to the recent deterioration in the Covid-19 situation. They are adapting and using their discretion to restrict on-site attendance further, only allowing the most essential work to take place on-site.

I am pleased that SOLAS and Education and Training Boards Ireland, ETBI, have issued specific guidance to providers regarding the delivery of further education and training and craft apprenticeship programmes for January. Programmes and apprenticeships will be delivered almost entirely online during this time.

Statutory safety training in the construction sector, delivered under the construction skills certification scheme and the Safe Pass programme, has been paused during January. It is important, however, to state that regulations enabling the period of expiring cards to be extended continue to apply. For apprentices, the impacts experienced have depended on the sector, with significant impact being experienced by apprentices in the hospitality and aviation sectors. Training has largely continued for those apprentices employed in office-based roles, such as in finance and ICT, with off-the-job training moving mostly online.

Off-the-job training for apprentices stopped between March and September. Assessments, however, were completed remotely for this group as much as was possible. In light of the current difficult and worrying public health situation, all apprentice training moved online on 11 January. This is being achieved by the theory aspects of craft apprenticeships being front-loaded for delivery in January. I acknowledge, of course, that the ability of individual apprenticeships to facilitate remote delivery is dependent on their particular characteristics, with programmes such as brick- and stone-laying facing particular difficulties.

Off-the-job training has moved online where possible and more than 2,000 craft apprentices were assessed remotely for the first time during the summer. Some €12 million has been provided in the budget to support additional places. That will mitigate the effect of smaller apprenticeship class sizes and allow the loss of provision in 2020 to be made up. Long-term funding and support measures will be considered in the context of the new action plan for apprenticeships, which will be completed shortly. SOLAS is continuing to work with education and training providers to identify areas where craft apprenticeship programmes can be delivered through blended learning and to address the impact of the move to remote delivery for January. This will support the continuation of off-the-job training delivery during public health restrictions in the future, as well as potentially ameliorating the impact of Covid-19 on waiting lists for access to off-the-job training.

I turn now to the apprenticeship incentivisation scheme, which is financed under the July stimulus jobs package. It provides a €3,000 grant to the employer which is payable over two years for each apprentice registered between 1 March 2020 and 31 December 2020. By the end of last month, some 1,358 employers had submitted claims in respect of 2,350 apprentices. Budget 2021 extended the scheme to include apprentices registered up to the end of June 2021. This is expected to promote the registration of approximately 4,000 apprentices in the first six months of 2021. The incentive has helped to maintain activity in the sector during this period of difficulty, and provides a good basis for meeting the ambitious targets set in the programme for Government for the upcoming action plan.

Some 2,511 apprentices were registered between September and the end of November, which comprised 52% of total registrations for the year. The action plan will set out to place apprenticeships at the centre of the education and training system, increase the attractiveness of the programme to employers and learners of all ages and ensure that the apprentice population is reflective of the general workforce in respect of diversity as well. I know we will have the support of the House in advancing these plans and I look forward to keeping my Oireachtas colleagues updated and answering any questions which Deputies may have.

4:00 pm

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for those contributions. I sat here for the last three hours during the discussions with the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. I apologise if I must go back over some of the same material, because of the connection between third-level education and the leaving certificate. All I wanted the Minister for Education to do was answer my questions. Several of her party and Government colleagues also asked her when a decision will be made concerning the leaving certificate examinations and what will happen in that regard.

What I would like to know from the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is whether he has looked at the impact of calculated grades versus having the leaving certificate examinations on CAO points and college places next year. I ask that question because the Government's performance in respect of last year's leaving certificate examinations has left much to be desired. Approximately 12,000 cases were appealed last year and some cases are still going through the courts system in that regard. I hope we have learned lessons from that experience, but I fear we have not. We are already seeing leaving certificate students being messed around. All they want is fairness and clarity.

They are in the process of doing their leaving certificate year now. They will do the examinations when they come or they will receive calculated grades. They are, however, going through the leaving certificate process and they have missed out on months of learning. The leaving certificate results for these students cannot be a measure of how ill they have been, how ill their families have been or how much time they have had to spend in isolation. However, that is what we are ending up with now. The further we go through this process and the longer the Minister for Education keeps her head in the sand, the more difficulties we will run into. It is just not acceptable.

Reference was made in the contributions just now to the problems around mental health and stress and anxiety. I, our party president, Deputy Mary Lou McDonald, and Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire heard from hundreds of students last week. They referred to this nonsense of such terms as "partners in education" and "advisory" groups. The Ministers need to stop hiding behind this blasétalk and get down to brass tacks with these students. I am really concerned about the impact that this situation is having on them.

I refer as well to the inequality associated with this situation. One of the students to whom I spoke told me that 18 classes were intended to be online, but it was only possible to have three of them because of broadband issues and teachers not turning up etc.. There is, therefore, a massive degree of inequality regarding what is being delivered to these students, who will be starting at third level or in apprenticeships in the months to come. Those students need to know now whether there are going to be written examinations, a process of predicted grades or whether it will be a combination of both of those processes. I also need to know the impact that process will have on third-level places.

Has the Minister examined the impact of the calculated grades? What increased numbers of third level places are needed to meet current demographic demand? How many places above that figure is the Minister's Department adding for the 2021-22 academic year to ease the pressure on students competing for those places? When did the Minister's Department begin engaging with colleges regarding those additional places? Can the Minister provide us with a breakdown of the places and in which disciplines they will be available?

We have seen inadequate numbers of doctors being trained in the last decade, for example. How many of these additional places, therefore, will be in medicine? We also need more nurses and therefore we need more student nurses. What is the target for the total number of places in nursing and midwifery courses for the next academic year? Regarding student nurses, does the Minister consider that the 4,500 student nurses do real work, or does he agree with the Taoiseach that to pay student nurses would somehow undermine the quality of their degrees or education? I am trying to get through these questions as quickly as possible and I would really appreciate if the Minister would do what the Minister for Education did not do, and that is answer them directly.

Regarding the €250 support for students, some students have still not received that money. How many students have received it and how many are still waiting? Are some students being told that they will have to wait until September to benefit from that support, even though they are under real financial pressure now? I refer specifically to those students who do not receive the SUSI grant in their final year. If students in their final year can get a refund, why are other students being asked for it? I have a real problem with students in their final year, who have already paid their fees and everything else and who are waiting for this €250.

I turn again to the question of accommodation. Students have lost the opportunity to work and they are being asked to pay extortionate rents.

The Minister, Deputy Harris, has all the time told me that on-campus accommodation is being sorted. At one point, I believe it was 20 October, the Minister told me that refunds would be made for five of seven of the institutions. The Minister made clear the Government's position on that. I have to hand an email dated 29 October from the Minister's office to a University of Limerick student who has not yet received a refund. The University of Limerick was supposedly one of the universities from which the Minister had received assurances. The email states that refund or cancellation policies in student accommodation should be set out in the licence agreement signed at the beginning of the academic year and that if the student is not happy, he or she should take it up with the Residential Tenancies Board. That is a long way of saying there is no refund and that one is on one's own. The email is completely at odds with the statement the Minister made in the Dáil just nine days before that. Will the Minister please clarify whether, on 20 October, he had assurances from the University of Limerick that refunds would be paid? What happened between that and 29 October? How many others have been put off from pursuing a refund from the office? Can students expect refunds for unused accommodation at public colleges?

On the Erasmus programme, the Minister has also repeatedly assured me that students from the North will not face international fees. When my office contacted colleges asking for information on such fees for any student coming from the North, at least one university told my office that as things currently stand, students from the North will face international fees. Will the Minister clarify if this is a mistake and is he aware that this information is being given out? The deadline of the CAO application is at the end of January. What immediate actions will the Minister take to ensure all universities are providing standard fees for students in the North and how is the Minister communicating this to students?

Reference was made to adult learners. I completely agree with the Minister about mature learners going back to college but what the Minister has said is completely at odds with the number of mature students who have contacted me. One student from a private college had paid €6,000 in fees. The college juggled around the timetable because of Covid but the student has a family and cannot take the place up. The college will not give him a cent back. This is wrong. What the Minister is telling me here does not correlate with what is happening on the ground. I want to give the Minister the remainder of my time so he can answer those questions specifically.

4:10 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Conway-Walsh for her time and her work ethic; she has been here for a significant length of time and I am sorry that more Members have not joined us with regard to this higher education discussion. I am not the Minister for Education and I will not go back on that but the questions asked by the Deputy in respect of my own brief are fair and I am more than happy to answer them.

I doubt the Deputy meant it like this, but she commented that Ministers should not hide behind partners in education. When the Minister refers to partners in education she is talking about teachers, SNAs, parents' associations and student groups. The Deputy would probably be the first up on her feet, and rightly so, if the Minister did not engage with the partners in education. The Deputy is worried about the welfare of teachers, SNAs and students, and the views of parents. We do need certainty around this. I heard the Minister, Deputy Foley, today say that it is absolutely her intention to hold the leaving certificate examinations. I also heard the Minister state that we need to detail exactly how that is going to happen. From the perspective of my Department I would very much welcome that detail. I know it will be forthcoming in the coming weeks. The Minister for Education has established an advisory group and my Department sits on that advisory group. This is the exchange of information that the Deputy has, rightly, been getting at in her questions.

I accept there were difficulties, stresses and errors around the calculated grades but from my Department's perspective, even with all the difficulties we had with calculated grades, we did manage to provide every single student who had an error with their first-choice place. Many doubted that we would. I thank my sector, the Department and all the stakeholders for the work they did. I use this as an indication of the can-do attitude that we will apply to try to help students as they prepare for the transition from secondary school to third level.

The Deputy asked about extra places this year. The Deputy is concerned that all of the extra places that we secured last year were a one-off. She was right to say that but we have secured them again for this year. We put a lot of extra places into the system last year. That was not just a blip and they are now in the system this year. I have also received funding in the budget for more than 2,000 additional higher education places this year to deal with the demographic pressures.

As for the student nurses, the Deputy will be aware of the situation that arose when I was the Minister for Health whereby clinical placements could not go ahead. We offered student nurses an opportunity to take up a contract as healthcare assistants. They did an absolutely Trojan job and we would have been absolutely lost without them. I understand that my colleague, the Minister for Health, has received a report he commissioned on the issue of supports for student nurses. It is for the Minister and the HSE to act on that and make recommendations on it.

On the €250 credit I would be very happy to provide the Deputy with a breakdown, institution by institution and I commit to doing that. From the information I have the SUSI students got the additional fund in December. In real time today, while coming in here, I see that Trinity College Dublin and UCD are announcing the dates they will credit students' accounts. I am satisfied that this is rolling out well. The Deputy referred to a student having to wait until September but I do not see it as that. I see that in the first instance, this €250 can be offset against the registration fee. If the student has paid the registration fee in part then it will be knocked off the remainder of the registration fee that has to be paid this year. If the student had paid the registration in full and is going back to college for another year in September, then he or she can chose to knock it off the fee payable then. It is a real reduction in real terms for students and their registration fee. Of course, if the student is not in one of those categories he or she will not miss out and will receive a cash payment.

On the issue of student accommodation, I will take up that case from the University of Limerick and I am very disappointed to hear that. My view on student accommodation is very clear; if it is college owned or campus owned the college should refund it, unless the student is using the accommodation. We should bear in mind that quite a few thousand students have taken up that option, as is their choice.

I acknowledge the Deputy's support for the issue of the Erasmus programme. I am really pleased that we have been able to put in place measures to make sure that students of all ages in Northern Ireland do not get left behind by the extremely regrettable decision of the British Government for the UK and Northern Ireland not to participate in the Erasmus programme. They talk of developing a new and better programme and I wish them well. I believe Erasmus is an excellent programme. Any student in Northern Ireland can avail of that by registering, on a temporary basis, in a Republic of Ireland higher education institution. Even as I am in here, my management board is meeting virtually with the management board in the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland, which has responsibility for higher education. I am very clear with regard to Northern Ireland students and their rights under the Good Friday Agreement quite properly to be Irish citizens, and therefore to benefit from the same rules and fees that Irish citizens benefit from in the Republic.

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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On the leaving certificate, we do not know how this virus will go, so will there be clarity around the predicted grades or a combination of both? Can the Minister reassure students that the algorithm that would be used for determining places in colleges will be fair? Will there be some transparency around it? I go back again to the clarity and the information that students need right at this moment on the oral and practical examinations, which is what happens around now. This is their lead in and we cannot just cut them adrift until they come into third level.

I welcome the Minister's comments on Erasmus but we also need clarity there. I ask the Minister to communicate this with the third level institutions because that is not the information they are giving out. Where students in the North want to register for courses right now, if this is not absolutely clarified for them and if they are being told by an institute where they want to study that they may be charged international fees, it will prohibit the student from doing that course, or at least dissuade the student from doing it.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Sligo-Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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I am aware that everything is very much underpinned by Covid at the moment but I did have an opportunity twice yesterday on that matter and earlier on secondary education. It is not that I am neglecting that as a most important matter but as this is statements on higher education, I want to focus specifically on the higher education area and on our plans as a State for the north west.

Both the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, as well as all Deputies in the House and particularly those from that region, have ambitious plans for the development of third level education in the north west. Indeed, over the past ten years we as a nation, across parties and across the House, have affirmed our commitment to the development of technological universities around the country through the amalgamation of institutes of technology. That is something we all support. In parallel, we also support the ongoing investment in our national universities, such as NUIG, UCD and others, to the extent that we provide funding to them and to our other third level institutions throughout the whole country.

As the Minister and the Minister of State will be aware from private meetings we have had on the matter, approximately 12 years ago on the back of the Salzburg report, there was some movement in St. Angela's College in County Sligo, which is a centre of excellence for home economics teacher training and has a reputation for that throughout the world. It is also a centre for nursing and other pursuits. The Ursuline Order set up the college way back and has provided sterling service to the education of people over many decades. On the back of the Salzburg report, a process started in which St. Angela's College and the Ursuline Order were considering their future. That led into initial negotiations with the National University of Ireland Galway, NUIG, about the potential for a merger. Since then, things have dragged along. Approximately six years ago, agreement was reached in principle by both NUIG and St. Angela's College and very little has happened since to advance it. To call a spade a spade, the reality is that NUIG was holding out for an absolute commitment from the Government of €50 million in capital supports. Staff and students in the college, as well as those in the wider education infrastructure community in the north west, were waiting each September for this agreement to be finalised and moved forward. In parallel, however, the landscape has substantially changed.

As I said at the outset, our outlook for the region, as a State, is to develop the technological university concept. We are very much progressing that in the north west with the Connacht-Ulster alliance, which would incorporate Sligo and Letterkenny ITs and others. With the procrastination by NUIG, the situation between it and St. Angela's College about their collective future has changed. The amalgamation of St. Angela's College with NUIG is not consistent with Project Ireland 2040, the Salzburg and Hunt reports, or our collective vision in these Houses for third level education in the north west of the country by way of the development of the Connacht-Ulster alliance or the technological university for that area. There are a number of reasons for that. First, €50 million is a colossal amount of money for the Government to invest in third level education. To do that for a satellite of NUIG in Sligo, on a site adjacent to Sligo Institute of Technology, would divide our purpose to the extent that we would not achieve our goal of critical mass in the area. That would not support Sligo as the selected growth centre for the region or the vision that has been pursued by the various institutes of technology that will make up the technological university.

Throughout the last six years in particular, there has been some expenditure by the Higher Education Authority and the Department in scoping out and facilitating the negotiations between NUIG and St. Angela's College, Sligo on their merger. As a member of the Committee of Public Accounts, I can understand why Department officials may feel they cannot justify changing tack, having spent up to €4 million in this process so far. However, much of the work that has been done, on which that expenditure was used, is equally valid and useable for a merger between St. Angela's College and Sligo Institute of Technology, and the evidence is there to prove that. It would be a red herring to stick by a plan that had great intentions when it was first conceived between eight and 12 years ago but as things have progressed, it would be counterproductive to our mutual purpose in these Houses of creating critical mass, as envisaged under the Salzburg report, and consolidating the smaller colleges like St. Angela's.

I want to impress upon the Minister, as well as the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, the need to be intelligent about how we move forward. We should not be afraid to lead Government policy in proposing and supporting the change of tack in order to build critical mass and momentum for the technological university, with Sligo and Letterkenny institutes of technology and others merging with St. Angela's College. They have dual campuses that are very close to one another. Doing so would add a critical mass and enhance what are already world-renowned facilities and reputations for home economics teacher training. As regards nursing and research capability, we have nursing courses in Letterkenny Institute of Technology, in Castlebar and in Sligo, in St. Angela's College. If we put all of these together, the capital expenditure required would be nowhere near €50 million. There would be a shared services capability, a shared campus capability and the student and staff experience would be enhanced, not least because the staff of these colleges, whether catering staff or professors, would have career prospects into the future where we have critical mass established. While ordinarily as a Sligo person I would love the idea of the NUIG approach, as we have committed to the technological university development it is the right thing to do. To try to do both would scupper both and we would be at a loss.

I fully appreciate that there are nerves in the Department and the Higher Education Authority, as there has been an expenditure of about €4 million, to which I alluded earlier, over the last eight years in facilitating the envisaged merger with NUIG. However, that is not lost if we switch focus to a merger which makes better sense and is underpinned by quite a number of Government policies, not least our higher education policy of building critical mass. It would also have other benefits in ensuring economies of scale and increased cost efficiencies can be achieved as there would be more capacity for shared services. Capital investment by the Government would be less and the student experience, which is critically important, would be improved. For example, St. Angela's College on the shores of Lough Gill did not have many of the student facilities that are part of the normal college experience, like the various clubs, societies, sporting activities and all of the rest that go with college life. Indeed, a merger with NUIG would not provide those either because NUIG is in Galway. Even if St. Angela's was to become a satellite of NUIG in Sligo, thus undermining the capability of the technological university as I outlined already, it still would not have those things, whereas a merger with Sligo Institute of Technology would support the technological university application, which is almost ready to be made and which the Government is anxious to receive and support. It all makes better sense.

As I said, St. Angela's College has a very strong reputation in programmes, which are professionally accredited by the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland and the Teaching Council and its home economics school is world renowned. There is potential to grow a large research-led school of education in a technological university, thus providing excellent progression routes to teacher education for all students in the technological university and across the region.

There is the potential to develop a research-led school of nursing, as I said, because there are small schools in GMIT and LYIT which, along with St. Angela's, can provide the critical mass that we yearn for, again, under some of the recommendations of the Hunt and Salzburg reports. While we in the north west are anxious that the technological university application will not be delayed, given that it is just about ready, we very much hope the merger of St. Angela's College with Sligo Institute of Technology will be acknowledged by Government and the Department as something that makes perfect sense economically and educationally and is in line with other core programmes in the programme for Government, such as Ireland 2040 and so on. I ask that the Minister and Minister of State facilitate a meeting over the next fortnight in order that we can discuss and progress these matters further.

4:30 pm

Photo of Johnny GuirkeJohnny Guirke (Meath West, Sinn Fein)
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I want to bring to the attention of the Minister a number of things I came across in the past couple of months that he could, perhaps, take on board. I am the father of two children who attend third level education. I know from experience what it takes for people to put their children through education. Many families across the country struggled before the Covid-19 virus arrived to put their children through college, particularly as there are bills for accommodation, food, travel, expenses and college fees. All of these impose a major burden on stressed-out parents and guardians. Students have had to endure more stress and anxiety during Covid times than in normal college years, with having to attend college classes online instead of in person. For some, that will be okay because they may have good broadband access. In rural Ireland, however, I am afraid that the pandemic hit us before the national broadband plan was commenced. I have spoken to many students who fear that they are falling behind in their classes due to not having adequate Internet services available to them. They have expressed their fears of not having any or having bad Internet coverage in their areas, which leaves them with two options, namely, to stay at home and miss classes or break restrictions by travelling to another home or premises so they can attend college online.

Another problem for students was identified by Deputy Conway-Walsh. I refer to the fact that students paid for accommodation but could not use it because restrictions did not allow them to travel or stay on campus. This led to students seeking refunds which were not given . As a result, many families were left out of pocket. Some students had to pay for accommodation in the hope that college courses would return to campus but, unfortunately, this did not happen, which meant they were also left out of pocket. Students also had to pay full fees for courses. In some cases, this cost over €3,000. There were no reductions in costs even though courses have now moved online. A voucher of €250 will be issued to students soon – some have already received it – to help with the upheaval they are going through. This does not go anywhere near meeting the full cost involved in paying for college.

Some students are worried that if they fail exams they may incur repeat fees, which can be very costly. It is to be hoped these fees can be waived in order to relieve any undue stress.

Many families have had one or both parents laid off work, leaving 400,000 people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment. This has caused undue stress for families with mounting debts. The loss of work for some of these families will not just affect their children who are attending college this year; it will have a major knock-on effect over the next few years as many families will struggle.

I hope the Government will take this into account and allow for additional grants and supports for struggling families over the coming years which will allow their children to be in a position to be able to attend college. A student explained to me that she has struggled through college this year and feels she has fallen further and further behind because online learning is not the same as being in a classroom. When one is in a classroom and does not understand something, one can ask a professor a question and he or she can help. If that is not good enough, a fellow classmate can be asked a question and help a student who feel he or she is falling behind.

Students are missing out on interaction in classes. Colleges assist our children with social and practical skills and life outside of the family or community bubble we live in. Another student told me that he feels like dropping out of his course in his very first year of college because he does not know anyone in his class. He went on to say that he feels lonely and isolated and does not have anyone to ask for help because he is the first of his family to attend college.

Other students have said that online teaching leads to classes overlapping, meaning that when a class running from noon to 2 p.m. runs over they are then late for a class at 2 p.m. This is a problem that is not just happening in third level; I am afraid it is happening across all levels of education.

A student told me he feels like he is teaching himself. This is on top of studying at home in a busy household where siblings play, unaware of the stresses their older brother is going through. He explained how he is starting to feel the pressure on his shoulders because he cannot travel to college for practical work, and is unable to work part-time due to the restrictions and is not entitled to the pandemic unemployment or any other payment. We need to put a mental health strategy in place to help students cope with online classes and studying. We need to make sure that our children come out of this pandemic smiling and happy.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I thank the Minister and welcome the opportunity to interact with him today. I have said several times that although the leaving certificate examination is important and that all of those facing State examinations deserve clarity, one set of examinations should not dominate and overshadow all other aspects of education. Many students in further and higher education are facing similar difficulties relating to the digital divide, appropriate study spaces and well-being issues as they endure one of the hardest academic years in our history. It is also worth remembering that for many students of the class of 2020, the pandemic marked the end of their secondary school education. The experience of the classes of 2020 and 2021 is stark and different from that of any other cohort.

I am very conscious that at this point that there would be a drop off in all university settings of students in first year who leave education for a variety of reasons. Can the Department capture the data in that regard? It would be interesting in terms of discovering what has been their experience in that regard.

A matter I will discuss further with the Minister is the potential of a no-detriment policy. I am very conscious of students in receipt of SUSI grants who, like everybody else, have four years of free education. This particular year is different from any other. Therefore, we might explore the idea of having a no-detriment policy in the future. I am happy to take this matter up with the Minister at a later date.

Any clarity and assurance the Minister can give to students would make a big difference. They need more information on what the next academic year will look like so that students and parents know whether to invest in accommodation. I understand how difficult that would be. If we knew the virus would be at a particular level meaning the colleges would not be able to go back, students would know what September would look like when they are budgeting for the rest of the year.

While acknowledging the autonomy of higher education institutions, some uniformity, consistency and consensus across the sector with regard to services, exam policies and what is deemed essential work on campus would be greatly welcomed at this time. I wish to inquire into the additional support for students this year, particularly mature students, students with children, students who are caring for a loved one and students from non-traditional backgrounds. They should be permitted to repeat modules or examinations without financial penalties.

I am also very conscious of the very welcome €250 the Minister has given to students for their educational needs this year. One particular cohort will not benefit from that, namely, foundation course and access students. I was on a call with the Minister when he discussed college for early years students recently. It was a fantastic engagement. We cannot leave this cohort behind the in the €250 payment for education. We need to be creative in how we provide that payment.

I greatly welcome the announcement of the eduroam network, but this process needs to be accelerated to address digital divides. For example, students in study spaces at home or those in rural areas need access to this network for online and blended learning. I submitted a parliamentary question to the Minister regarding whether the extended network could support secondary school students and those in further and higher education. My work in higher education access has shown me the great willingness and need for further and higher level institutions to support those at second level so that they might transition to further or higher education.

We have spoken previously about the digital divide. I would have raised it earlier with the Minister for Education if the opportunity had presented. The work being done across the university sector on pathways to third level overlaps with the issue of confronting that digital divide, albeit some of the voices are probably more realistic than others in terms of access to broadband. Progress in this regard would be hugely welcome. The Minister made reference to the fact that such a task would require significant investment in identity management and other improvements. I ask that he work with the Department of Education and the Minister, Deputy Foley, as the issue does not separate itself from third level students.

I welcome the review of the SUSI payment and I hope it will be swift and will account for inflation. I urge the Minister to look, in particular, at the issue of the binary labelling of students as either dependent or independent and the restrictions on changing that label. It is common for students to enter higher education as dependent students but their circumstances may change, sometimes dramatically. In some instances, students may become financially dependent over time. I have spoken to people who experienced both and were unable to access the financial support of SUSI as dependent students. They were required to submit financial information from parents or guardians with whom they no longer had a relationship. This is an issue every year in terms of access to the university sector. I wanted to highlight it in the limited time available and would welcome an opportunity to discuss it with the Minister at the next available opportunity.

I have raised a lot of points and would be grateful for whatever answers he can give.

4:40 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. I will do my best to get through as many of his questions as possible. I could not agree more with his point about well-being and that the leaving certificate class of 2020 and the first-year college class of 2021 are like no other in terms of all they have been through. I said in my opening statement that I am establishing a new group to monitor well-being and I have asked the USI to chair that group. We will work out further details of this tomorrow. While I am satisfied that we have done a lot to try to help students this year in terms of mental health supports, student assistance and the once-off €250 payment, we cannot do enough. We must continue to listen to the voice of the student and I certainly will feed that into our consideration.

On the dropout rate, I have asked the same question of the HEA. I hope to be able to capture those data and will be more than happy to share the information with the Deputy in writing. I am told that there has not been a significant change so far, from what the authority has seen. I would like to see that in writing, get the data and share them with the Deputy.

In terms of SUSI and the no detriment policy, USI called on me last week to make sure, in the first instance, that we restore the measures that were in place in March. We will do that. Second, although I cannot give a guarantee today on the floor of the House, we are going to look at how we can show that type of flexibility around SUSI. Getting students through this period alive and well mentally and physically has to be our first priority in keeping them connected with education. I certainly will look at what the Deputy referenced regarding the €250 payment and access to university courses and foundation courses.

As to what the next academic year will look like, I hope it will a lot different from this year. However, to be clear, under levels 3, 4 and 5, the bulk of learning remains online. We hope the vaccines roll-out will change the risk profiles of the options we have available. We need the meetings every Friday with the stakeholders to continue to review the situation.

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan.

We had a similar debate to this in March last year. It seems incredible that the pandemic has been with us for almost a year. The previous debate took place during the initial lockdown when the Dáil was on a similarly reduced footing, with fewer Deputies in attendance, etc. On that occasion, there was a discussion on the impacts of the Covid crisis on education, full stop, because, at that time, there was no Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. I recall that debate because the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Deputy Connolly, and I were the only two speakers to raise issues relating to higher education and third level. It was probably a question of timing because the focus then, as it is today, was on the leaving certificate examination. It is significant in itself that we now have a separate debate, a separate Ministry and a separate Department, none of which we had this time last year. That is one of the credits and pluses that have come out of the formation of the new Government. As the Minister knows, I advocated strongly for his Department to be created. It is really positive for the third level, research institutions and the further education sector that it is now established and that we have this opportunity to discuss issues that pertain to them.

Some of the feedback I have had in recent months relates to one of the issues I raised almost a year ago regarding the impact of the Covid crisis. Researchers were very concerned about projects being put on hold, grant funding being time-blocked and their ability to draw it down after the pandemic. If the funding expired, how would they resume their research? I have to credit the Minister and his Department for the fact that the HEA, Science Foundation Ireland and others have stepped up to the plate and given many of those projects the ancillary funding to allow them to continue and to get them over the line. That was a real worry a year ago. I must conclude that this is, in some regard, down to the existence of the Department and its stewardship. That is really positive and we must acknowledge it. This is not to say that the sector is without its own financial challenges. In fact, those challenges remain huge and include the loss of international students, accommodation revenue and all the other ancillary revenues. The funding issues that were identified in the Cassells report still prevail and have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. There is some good news for researchers and the new Department is really helpful in that regard, but those systematic, fundamental issues around funding of the sector still exist.

I have two questions for the Minister. As I said, this is a debate specifically on issues relating to third level. I do not plan to go into the leaving certificate issue again, even though some speakers have done so. However, I will ask one question that joins the two dots in terms of second level education and higher education. We heard the Minister for Education speak earlier about the plans being made for the leaving certificate examination. I am a supporter of the traditional examination for reasons I outlined during that debate. I asked her and I am now asking the Minister, Deputy Harris, whether a commitment will be given, if a situation arises where the traditional examination does not take place this year and a predicted grades process or some other solution is found, that any physical sitting that takes place as an alternative or follow-on, as happened last year, will be done in such a way that there will be time for admissions to flow from it. I am asking that we ensure students are not sitting the examination in November to try to get a place in college for September or October. If that path is followed, the alternative physical examinations should take place on time, maybe in August. My view is that we should not take that path but, if we have to, the timing is something we should consider.

My second question is on a broader point but, again, it is related to the current situation. It concerns the curriculum at third level. I recall as a student in Trinity College that we had many debates in the students union about the idea of a broad curriculum whereby rather than people going in to do a course in physiotherapy, computer science or graphic design, for example, students would start off in a very broad first year, perhaps studying a collection of humanities, sciences and commerce courses. It would be a very broad curriculum in first year, which could then be refined in second year into more specific subjects and more structured courses. That would be useful in normal times because it would allow students who are not quite sure of where to put their first steps to explore wider subject choices and options. It would be particularly useful at this time, in a situation where we may have issues coming out of the leaving certificate process with students crossing the bridge from second to third level. It may be something to look at. I do not know if it is practical or possible coming into the new academic year but it certainly could be part of the discussion if we are again in a situation where there is pressure on places and admissions. That kind of refinement could take place going from first to second year in college rather than from leaving certificate into third level. I will stop there to allow the Minister to respond to those points and questions.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for his work in advocating the establishment of my Department. I acknowledge the significant work he put into the policy development side of it. I hope we are beginning to see the merits and benefits of the Department. I thank him also for his kind words in regard to the researchers and the work my Department and the HEA are doing in that regard. When we get to the review of the national development plan and, indeed, when we are talking about every capital plan in this country, we need to realise that capital projects are not just about concrete; they are about human capital. I know the Deputy knows that and I look forward to working with him to try to win that argument across the various debates.

In regard to the leaving certificate examination, the Minister for Education has very kindly invited representatives from my Department to sit on the advisory group she has established. My Department is working hand in glove with her officials to try to tease out some of the issues. I very much share her ambition to hold the traditional leaving certificate examination this year. I look forward to her being able to put more details in that regard into the public domain shortly. I take the Deputy's point about the need for an earlier physical sitting should a contingency plan be put in place.

Finally, we can have a proper discussion on this at a later debate but on the whole issue of CAO reform and broader choices, I had a very good meeting with guidance counsellors last week. This is one of the exciting projects I want my Department to drive. We are narrowing the choices of young people in this country far too early and narrowing the conversation they are having. I would be delighted to work with the Deputy on that issue.

Photo of Pádraig O'SullivanPádraig O'Sullivan (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister and the Minister of State to the House. I will first address some topics for discussion to the Minister. Many third level students have not received an authentic college experience. That is to be expected given the pandemic we are experiencing and the spiralling numbers of transmissions, particularly in the past few months.

That said, will the Minister comment on the well-being of our third level student population? The demand for additional mental health supports is well-documented in newspaper articles or studies undertaken at third level and the strain placed on existing services is obvious. It is estimated that the demand for mental health supports have more than doubled during the pandemic. Isolation and online learning have taken their toll in that respect but I understand why this is necessary. That said, can the Minister detail what additional supports have been made available for third level institutions throughout the pandemic in terms of additional counsellors, mental health supports, etc.?

The Minister mentioned earlier that the 50808 helpline, a HSE 24-7 service, is available for people suffering with mental health difficulties. Are other additional resources allocated to third level institutions?

My second question leads on from the first. I suppose the Minister might say I am being a little optimistic but I will ask all the same. It relates to return to on-campus activities in a staged manner, like what we heard today from the Minister for Education and the Minister of State with responsibility for special education. Is any section in the Department drawing up a plan or blueprint for the return to campuses throughout the country by the end of this academic year or to prepare for September?

My third question relates to dropouts numbers from college courses. Does the Minister have any details about whether this might suggest that the impact of Covid-19 or being off campus has led to an increase in the number of students dropping out from college?

My fourth question is for the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. Earlier he referred to apprenticeships and upskilling, especially as we try to recover after Covid-19 in terms of strengthening and diversifying our economy. I welcome the Government's apprenticeship initiative and its extension to the summer of 2021 to provide for allowances for employers in taking on apprentices. That said, does he have any detail regarding how many apprentices have been taken on in 2020 and how this compares with previous years? Has there been an increase or decrease in that regard? I wish to emphasise the need for investment and prioritisation of apprenticeships in the leisure, food and hospitality sector post Covid-19. As we all know in this Chamber, these sectors of the economy have been worst hit and impacted. It would hearten many in those industries to hear what the Government's intentions are in that regard.

4:50 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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My thanks to the Deputy. I assure him that I am following up on the point he made about bursaries in Cork in this significant year for Cork.

The Deputy asked about well-being. In addition to the helpline referenced by him, we have increased mental health funding by €3 million. I appreciate his support in that regard. We have also doubled the student assistance fund. There is usually €8 million in that fund and now there is €16 million. Sometimes well-being can be tied to economic well-being. As I said earlier in my opening statement, I am now establishing a group specifically to look at the well-being of students and to continue to monitor that. Rather than it being chaired by a departmental official, I want it to be chaired by students and the USI. That is important.

The Deputy referred to the return to campus. We have published a framework for what can be done at each of the levels of the plan to try to provide as much certainty as possible. We meet every Friday at 11 a.m. with our stakeholders, including students, university leaders, college leaders and those from the further education and training sectors. The first priority is to try to resume things that cannot be done online, including practicals, apprenticeship and supports for vulnerable learners. I hope we will be in a rather different academic year by the new academic year.

The Deputy also asked about dropouts. The HEA tells me that it has not seen a significant increase in dropouts. The number is similar to last year. The authority is due to provide me with a report which I would be happy to share with the Deputy.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy asked about the numbers who took up the various apprenticeships. I do not have that detail to hand at the moment. Suffice it to say that during 2020 there was naturally a drop-off due to Covid-19 and the impact of the pandemic in terms of the number of people who took up apprenticeships and applied for apprenticeships. That was part of the reason we introduced the incentivisation scheme to which I alluded in my earlier remarks. I will respond to the Deputy and we will get him an exact breakdown on the numbers who entered each of the various apprenticeships across the range of apprenticeships during 2020 vis-à-vis2019.

Photo of Mairead FarrellMairead Farrell (Galway West, Sinn Fein)
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Le bliain anuas, is minic go raibh mic léinn ó Ollscoil na hÉireann, Gaillimh, agus Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, i dteagmháil liom agus iad trína chéile mar gheall ar bhrú airgid, ar fhadhbanna lóistín agus ar an mbrú meabhairshláinte atá orthu de bharr na paindéime seo. Tá a fhios againn ar fad gur buille uafásach a bhí sa phaindéim seo orainn ar fad ach ba bhuille ar leith í ar dhaoine óga. Chaill an t-uafás acu a gcuid phost agus, ar ndóigh, stop a saoil shóisialta. The past year has been difficult for all of us but it has most certainly been a difficult year for young people. I have lost count of the number of students from NUI Galway and Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology who have been in contact with me about the extraordinary pressure they are under. They have told me of the real economic hardship they face and of the real impact it has had on their mental health. Many have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and the social life that comes with going on to third level education is non-existent. The NUI Galway Students' Union has told me the feeling of isolation has become a major problem for many students. Of course, that is the antithesis of the experience of most of us at university.

I have raised with the Minister previously the issue of the repeat fee at NUI Galway. It still has not been rectified. In the middle of a pandemic when youth unemployment is at a height of 19.4%, students are being asked to cough up €295 for an examination that is free almost everywhere else. That is a considerable amount for students and it is not the kind of disposable income that most of them have. I call on the Minister to intervene urgently in this matter now, before we are in a crisis for so many students again.

This is not the only disadvantage facing students of NUI Galway. While other universities have made repeat examinations free, they have also extended time for deferrals and made it possible for students to resit examinations even if they have already passed. If a student needs a higher grade, the student can resit for free. This is the case in some universities but not others. The length of examination time has also been increased in some colleges but not others. There should be a unified approach. No one should be academically disadvantaged during this pandemic. When students graduate and join the workforce, they should be on a level playing field. It is unfair that policies at some universities are more favourable while other universities are not made to follow suit. I urge the Minister to consider this and what action may be taken.

Of course the cost of accommodation is bad and crippling in Galway city at the best of times. However, during the pandemic this has been exacerbated. One student wrote to me and said that for the summers between college she worked two jobs and saved 80% plus of the money she earned each summer to pay for going through college. She was also in receipt of the SUSI grant. Each time the college year ended she was in debt as the cost of accommodation crippled her year on year. There are plenty of other students in the same circumstances. Of course in Galway, there is an added stress on students since private providers of student accommodation have not returned money that they have been paid, amounting to up to €5,500 for unused accommodation. Again, we need action on this urgently.

I received another shocking account from a student nurse who was not being paid as a student nurse. She was unable to work a part-time job. Any money she received from SUSI, which was not much, went straight on rent. Then, when the pandemic hit, she had increased difficulty finding accommodation as people were concerned, naturally, about sharing with a student nurse. She ended up relying on the hardship fund. That is no solution when it comes to students in the private rented sector. A student hardship fund should not be going directly to landlords or on repeat examinations and college fees. We have another issue relating to the €224 levy being paid. Part of it is supposed to be going toward on-site services. It has to be paid. Will the Minister advise on whether he intends to meet private accommodation providers about refunding up to €5,500 to students? What is his view on whether some universities have more lenient policies regarding examinations while others do not? Will he contact NUI Galway regarding the €295 repeat fee?

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I know we are almost out of time. I will write to the Deputy. The short answer is that I will contact NUI Galway. Autonomy cannot be used as a fig leaf for inflexibility. I take the point she makes. In the interest of time, I will write back to her on the remaining matters.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy. I will take 50%. I will comment on the leaving certificate briefly. It was discussed earlier. There is no way the Government can guarantee the leaving certificate can happen in June. At the leaders' briefing, we asked Dr. Holohan whether the restrictions would be lifted by March. He said he could not possibly tell us and that he had no idea.

There is therefore no way the Minister can remove the stress and uncertainty from students other than by saying they will not be forced to sit the exam. Where the Minister comes in, it seems to me, is offering an alternative that would allow open access for everybody to higher level and third level education. He should start now by establishing where the current cohort of leaving certificate students want to go. He should find out where they want to go and see how many places we have and then work out how many additional places would be needed to accommodate them in the courses of their choice. That is what we should do. That would remove the stress, allow everyone to advance and provide certainty. By the way, in some countries they do that as a matter of course. They just let people go to higher education, and if they cannot manage the course, they drop out of it.

Fees of any description are unconscionable at the moment, particularly when we need more nurses, student nurses, doctors and engineers at a whole range of levels. When the ability of families and students to earn income is greatly diminished, and when the quality of the education experience is greatly diminished, how can the Minister possibly justify fees? We should remove all fees.

Lastly, I wish to ask the Minister about the student nurses. I think 6,000 healthcare workers have been out since Christmas. Student nurses will now once again be working just as they did all last year and they are offered the insulting amount of €100. This is at the same time as the Secretary General of the Department of Health gets a €90,000 pay increase to make an unbelievable salary of €290,000. I want the Minister to answer this. One of the arguments he has used is that one can have either an apprentice programme that is paid or a degree but one cannot have both. Student nurses have informed me that student paramedics are getting €28,000 a year for a degree course as we speak. How come student nurses cannot get that? In construction engineering in the University of Limerick one is paid €12 an hour for doing frankly less dangerous work than student nurses are doing. How come it can happen there? One can have a degree and quality education and get paid, and now is the time to give that to the student nurses.

5:00 pm

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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Tens of thousands of young people are at home right now and looking to go to further education in September. They are anxious as to how places will be allocated and anxious as to whether they will be able to get a place. Last year, after a massive campaign by school students, the Government promised extra places to remove some of the pressure on students applying through the CAO system. This year we face a similar crisis, but now the Government has plenty of advance notice and time to invest in a serious expansion of third level to let all sixth year students know there are places for them and to help to remove the stress they are going through. It is absolutely clear the leaving certificate cannot go ahead as normal this year. It would be not only unsafe but also deeply unfair on the students. It would pile massive stresses onto people already struggling to cope. This is a year group that has faced massive disruption to both their two years of leaving certificate study: studying from home, coping with isolation, the stresses of the pandemic and, in some cases, students themselves getting the virus and missing classes. Yet the Government seems to want to put the institution of the leaving certificate before the mental and physical health of the students. Last year the compulsory leaving certificate was cancelled and students were given a choice between predicted grades and sitting exams. This year students are demanding exactly the same. Students are getting organised and speaking out on social media, and that self-organisation of students is how they will win.

The Government needs to take action now and accept that the leaving certificate cannot go ahead as normal. The students are calling for a choice between predicted grades and exams which are updated to take account of the circumstances. It is time the Government listened to the students. It is their future, it is their choice. Even before this pandemic, the leaving certificate was a horrendous way to treat young people, creating huge mental health pressures and incorporating a deep inequality. It follows an outdated model of rote learning rather than encouraging critical, independent thought. It should be abolished and instead we should invest in third level education in order that everybody who wants to access it can do so. The Minister's Department has a crucial role to play in addressing this. The more college education is expanded, the closer we are to getting rid of the rat race of too many applicants chasing after too few places and the massive stresses that results in. Will the Minister invest now to ensure that come September there are enough places available for students?

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I always appreciate people helping to advocate investment in higher education, and yes, I will. Last year saw the largest ever increase in the number of higher education places in our country. Many Deputies opposite were rightly concerned, as was I, that that would be a one-year-only investment. We have managed to ensure that all the extra places we put into the third level system last year will be available again this year, with 2,000 additional places on top of that. We are expanding and growing the higher education sector at a rate at which we have never done before. Policy on the leaving certificate does, obviously, reside with the Minister for Education, but Deputy Murphy is right that my Department's role is to make sure we have as many places available for people as possible.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I wish the Ceann Comhairle and his staff a belated happy new year. I welcome the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Collins.

In July 2019 I attended a speech delivered by the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, who was then leader of the Opposition, in Dublin to the heads of universities and colleges in Ireland. He reflected on the theme of innovation and research in education in Ireland and its political roots in the ascent of Seán Lemass to the position of Taoiseach. During that morning he outlined his vision for higher education, research and innovation in Ireland and committed to establishing the first dedicated Cabinet position and separate Department of Government for higher education, research and innovation should he become Taoiseach. The speech was very well received on the day and, true to his word, on election as Taoiseach, Deputy Martin established for the first time in Ireland a Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science with a full Cabinet Minister and Minister of State. Deputy Harris is that Minister, and my able colleague from Limerick, Deputy Niall Collins, is Minister of State. Given the emphasis the Taoiseach placed on science, education and research, and given the critical importance he emphasises and places on this area of Government, it cannot have been easy when Cabinet allocations dictated that political oversight and leadership of that Department would have to be ceded to a member of a rival party. However, the overriding importance of the establishment of this Department rightly trumped any political partisanship.

Fianna Fáil is rightly proud of its pioneering role in education in Ireland. It is just one of the many areas of policy where we have left a positive, groundbreaking and enduring footprint. The establishment of a new education Department dedicated to higher education, research, innovation and science is a recognition of the vital work that is required to ensure that everyone, regardless of background, has a chance to achieve his or her potential beyond schooling and will be equipped to do so. It is also a recognition that without innovation and research, Ireland will fall behind in the world, lose its most talented and fail to harness the practical and intellectual genius of our people. With this Department Ireland can continue to be a world leader, to go boldly into new exciting areas of discovery and knowledge and to harness all our people's talents. The Taoiseach appointed Deputy Harris as Minister with responsibility for higher education. None of my colleagues serving with the Minister at Cabinet cross the boundary into his domain as Minister of this Department. He is a very bright politician and I believe he will do very well here. An emerging generation is depending on him for their very futures. He is also held in high public esteem for his stewardship of the health portfolio during the most challenging of times. Another occasion might allow for a robust interrogation of his tenure of that Department, but right now that is neither desirable nor necessary. No doubt leaving the Department of Health was a wrench for him.

However, for now the Department of Health has been entrusted to my party colleague, Deputy Donnelly. He is just six months into his first Cabinet position. While Deputy Harris, as Minister for Health, faced the enormous challenges of the onset of Covid-19, the Government was supported by all parties. Notwithstanding reservations around some communications, punches were pulled, people swallowed hard at times and lips were bitten. Why? Because the situation required it and the national interest demanded it. The challenges facing the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, are enormous. An unparalleled surge in the virus; an angry, frustrated, anxious, fearful and restless public is holding its breath for a vaccine; a baying Opposition; and the unprecedented logistical and practical challenge of ensuring the successful roll-out of that vaccine.

No Minister is perfect. Each has idiosyncrasies but once again the times require that Cabinet Government, in particular, stands united, acts collectively and supports one another. The national interest requires no more on this occasion than it did last year.

As the Minister is aware, this Government arrangement was not my first choice but it was the choice of the majority of my colleagues and for that reason I support the Minister in the challenges that he faces. He has the task of preparing a path for those students who have been stranded remotely for a year, missing out on much of the magical third and fourth level educational life.

Another challenge is to expand and promote innovation in the next chapter of apprenticeships in ensuring that we can deliver new homes and a green revolution, among other goals.

In returning to my original theme of the period of progressive policy innovation, I know that the Minister will agree that the period which was ushered in by Seán Lemass remains unmatched to this day. The bar was set high but we and all associated with this Government must aspire to surpass it. I support the Minister and his Minister of State in this Government as do all of my party colleagues. We want success for him in his position as Minister and our colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, deserves no less.

When we see Covid-19 in our rear view mirror, a period of sustained, pent-up, dynamic and frenetic activity awaits this country, if we are ready to meet it. The challenges are considerable. This is where the Minister’s leadership is necessary. If a fair wind blows against the virus and behind the vaccine in the immediate future, could third level students envisage any return this year to live college on-campus tuition? Can he inform the Dáil whether or not there has been an adverse impact to date on existing apprenticeship programmes? How are plans proceeding for the creative and innovative expansion of those programmes and when can students at second level begin to take advantage of them? Where and in what direction does the Minister see new apprenticeship programmes being oriented? How does the Minister propose to increase the awfully poor rate of participation by women in our programmes and what accounts for that lack of participation in the Minister's view? When will we be in a position to see dramatic increases in participation rates and apprenticeship offerings?

We talk so much these days about the cloud and I am proud to say that the cloud is in Tallaght and when Covid-19 is behind us the Minister is warmly invited to come out and see it at first-hand. Amazon Web Services, AWS, has developed amazing synergy with the local authority and the local hospital so that a child in Tallaght can now attend primary school, secondary school, attend Technological University Dublin, undertake a bespoke course connected and designed in conjunction with AWS and get a job right on his or her doorstep. The Minister might expand either in writing or down the road on what kind of other bespoke opportunities may be there.

The private sector has traditionally always been asked to lead on apprenticeships. During the crash, however, I often saw the potential of local authorities and particular Government Departments or semi-State agencies being able to offer to lead in this area. We can look at local authorities, for example, in librarianship, and there are State agencies like Teagasc and Coillte which should also bear responsibility for leading and innovating in that.

As to international experience, I am aware that different economies make different demands on their people but in Denmark up to 11% of the work force has come through apprenticeships. In the UK a commission was established, the objective and goal of which was that by the time it had completed its work every parent might consider the idea of an apprenticeship for their child, which might not necessarily be followed through on. Some 45% of apprentices in Denmark are women. One of the things that I was really excited about was that one could embark upon an apprenticeship at more or less any age of one’s life, up to the age of 60. What are the Minister’s ideas on this?

I would love to be Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. He has the opportunity to ride the wave of a post Covid-19 environment where there will be so much pent-up excitement, energy and dynamism just waiting to take off. It is an opportunity to set a blistering post Covid-19 pace that carries everyone along with it and leaves no one behind. I thank the Ceann Comhairle.

5:10 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Lahart. I read the speech the Taoiseach gave to the Irish Universities Association, IUA. We have joked about how it must be peculiar for a Fine Gael Minister to have read and now praised a then Leader of the Opposition’s speech, but it is a very fine speech. While Deputy Lahart rightly refers to the tremendously positive contribution that the late Seán Lemass made to this country, what most struck me from that speech was the contribution of Paddy Hillery. The Taoiseach referred in that speech to not enough having been spoken about the positive contribution that Paddy Hillery made during his period as Minister for Education because he indeed went on to do so many other wonderful things, including serving as our President. The Taoiseach and I have agreed in conversations that in many ways that speech is a manifesto for all that we collectively want to achieve. We have much to do in this Department and I will follow up on all of the Deputy’s ideas and respond to him in writing.

I am also very conscious that I am a Member of a Cabinet and have a responsibility, as does every Cabinet Member, to contribute constructively to our national response to Covid-19. I am also an elected representative for the people of Wicklow and also have a responsibility to raise their concerns at my parliamentary party meetings. We have much to do. We have a strong Government with a strong working majority and programme and I am excited about what the future has to offer.

Photo of Claire KerraneClaire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle. I am delighted to contribute to these statements. I am very conscious, as I do so, of the many young people right across the State who have missed out on so much both last year and this year. I was lucky enough to go to college. I attended NUI Galway, thanks to many sacrifices made by my parents. The experience that I had is the experience that has been missed both last year and this year by so many students and I am very conscious of that as we discuss this issue.

I begin by raising concerns about the private accommodation providers. I am aware that this has been raised at length not just today but previously. I find it a great shame that there are private accommodation providers out there behaving in this way. I am dealing with one such provider in Galway and also with a family which has spent over €5,000 for that accommodation place for their son. It is very regrettable that these private accommodation providers could not have stepped up and have allowed a refund or to have come to some arrangement with parents. We all know that so many parents out there sacrifice so much. Some have to get loans and go to their local credit union but they always, in as much as is possible, find a way to secure that place and accommodation for their son and daughter. Many students will also work part-time to try to help along the way. While I know that when it comes to private accommodation providers it is more difficult for the Minister to intervene in the same way as he might be able to with perhaps college-owned campuses, I ask, nonetheless, that he use this opportunity to call on these private accommodation providers to do the right thing.

I welcome the review that is underway of SUSI. I would really like to see some discretion exercised in the way that it makes decisions. I am referring in particular to the adjacent rule, that is the distance that someone lives from college. This is particularly important in rural areas where one might not live that far away from the college but the lack of public transport to get there creates so many added problems for students.

I recall a student who contacted me. She had received a very small grant because she lived less than 45 km from the college. If she wished to be in college for 9 a.m., which is the start time, she would have to get a bus at 4.30 a.m. to get to the next town and wait two and a half hours for a connecting bus that would get her to college at 9 a.m. The college ended at 5 p.m. and she would wait an hour and 40 minutes for a bus to bring her to a town where she had to wait an hour and a half for the connecting bus. She would get back to her local village at 8.45 p.m. We must examine this when it comes to SUSI and rural areas. There must be a little discretion for these students.

I have a question for the Minister about social care students and the payment of €250. I was contacted by a number of students in Athlone Institute of Technology. They had to go back this year to do their placements, as they could not do them last year. The students are not paying college fees this year, but have returned just to do their placements. Will they be able to avail of that €250?

Finally, and I appreciate that this is not part of the Minister's brief, but many Members have welcomed the Government's announcement this afternoon regarding the provision of special education from next week. I very much welcome that and I commend parents who were the voice for their children. It was a very powerful voice, especially in the past week. It is a reminder to us all of the battle parents have from day one, a battle for assessments, appointments, SNAs and a seat on the bus. We must do a great deal more for special education in the State, and for those parents and children. They deserve it all.

5:20 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for her contribution. I agree with much of it. With regard to the SUSI review, she made a fair point about the extra costs that people, particularly from rural communities, have to face. There will be a chance to make submissions and have public consultation on that. I hope to have the review completed in advance of the budget so the House can make the necessary decisions.

I will check the specific point the Deputy made about social care students. One generally must be a full-time registered student. If they are full-time registered students they should qualify, but I will check and write to her on the matter.

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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I gather that higher education cost the State approximately €2 billion last year. To quote the late American Senator, Everett Dirksen: "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money". At a cool €2 billion, the sector costs real money and requires real and meaningful oversight and a thoughtful strategy. I appreciate that appointing a Minister for the sector is a form of recognition that something must be done about higher education.

As regards funding, it is hard to figure out where the €2 billion goes. The raw data or the dashboard that shows the flow of the money into the seven universities, whatever number of institutes of technology and technological universities there are and the various colleges does not exist. With all the agencies that fund higher education and their various funding schemes, taxpayers cannot see where the money is going. The annual accounts are usually late. The HEA appears to be actively trying to hide how much the system costs.

With respect to accountability, attempts to make the sector more accountable appear to be an absolute mess. The previous Government backed away from its legislative attempts to make universities more accountable and to give us oversight powers. The cheek of the sector to fund an elaborate marketing campaign, Save Our Spark, which got lavish and unquestioning coverage for its funding crisis, telling everyone who would listen that the sector was a financial time bomb. Then it came, cap in hand, to the Government for further support. The only time bomb I can see is the runaway expenditure in the university sector, with no effective oversight. I see the massive unchecked borrowing of our universities. The Department hardly knows the full scale of the liabilities in the supposedly independent university sector. It appears that the dozy professors have borrowings of close to €1 billion sitting on their balance sheets and the taxpayers, despite promises, are on the hook for it. Much of that runaway borrowing was for exotic property deals and student apartments, with universities often mixing it up with commercial developers.

I would love to know the financial arrangements of UCD's operation in China. Are lecturers getting top-up salaries for doing their jobs? Who owns the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, RCSI? It is another pertinent question. The Irish Management Institute, IMI, deal carried out by UCC, aside from the context of Brexit, appears fishy. How much do some of the buildings cost per square metre? They look like they would make Nicolae Ceausescu blush. Presumably, all of this is above board and there is nothing to see here, but much of this activity falls outside the Comptroller and Auditor General's responsibilities. There is no public reporting and, to be honest, the annual reports gloss over the details of this stuff. I see inappropriate expenditure by our universities on palatial housing for their presidents and lavish entertainment. There are rumours of wine cellars, butlers, chefs and waiting staff. I also see huge sums spent without adhering to national and EU rules on procurement, governance failures, deficits, accounting issues, legal bills and vast cost overruns on capital projects. Accountability for funding in the sector is a myth. There is no economic evaluation or value-for-money analysis. I wonder sometimes if there is even a strategy.

We had the Hunt report in 2011 and the Cassells report in 2016, and we are awaiting the work of the European Commission. Meanwhile, the money going to the sector is rising apace. The sector appears to be adrift without a plan. That situation probably suits some, particularly our unchecked, bloated and bloviating universities. We must have high-quality data on expenditure from the Minister's Department, and we need good comparison work on the performance of the funded institutions. We must have an economic evaluation of the funding and the Government must produce a credible vision for this sector as it gobbles up €2 billion per year, largely unchecked and not bothered by oversight.

I have two questions for the Minister. In respect of the south-east region, the undergraduate platform costs approximately €125 million per year. With that, the region suffers a significant brain drain. Assuming we move to a south-east university model, the spend should be €223 million, an increase of almost €100 million per annum. Will he guarantee this additional €100 million per annum spend will be delivered to the south-east university to deliver educational equality for the region? Second, to deliver such educational equality to the south-east, what plans of governance oversight is he considering to regulate the university sector properly?

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for his questions. We were due to have an engagement this week, but I had to cancel for personal reasons. I am looking forward to having that engagement next week.

While I would not necessarily agree with all the language he used to set out his position, I take the points he made about the need for better governance structures. To take his second question first, we must overhaul governance and if he wants my Department to be able to do that, he must give us the legislative teeth we require. In March, I intend to bring the heads of a Bill to the Cabinet on a new governance Bill for the higher education sector. That will then go to the education committee for pre-legislative scrutiny. Subject to the committee doing its work, I would like to get that legislative measure passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas this year. In the legislative programme we published this week that is a key legislative measure for pre-legislative scrutiny in this session. I look forward to working with and briefing the Deputy, both as somebody who has an interest in higher education and as a member of the Committee of Public Accounts.

Quite simply, the governance structures are not fit for purpose. We must look at moving to competency-based governing authorities. We also must examine the HEA. It does very good work, but we have to consider it having the teeth it requires. The Minister of the day, whoever he or she is, needs to have the levers to pull so this House can oversee the investment. The extra investment in higher education has massively benefited many people. I believe it will transform our country. However, with extra investment there must be reform and a greater expectation of transparency and an alignment with national policies and goals.

As the Deputy knows, I want to deliver a technological university for the south-east. It is the only part of the country that does not have a university. Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, is doing incredible work. With an investment in a university there will have to be an increase in budget and extra funding for the region. I am expecting an application from the Technological University of South East Ireland, TUSEI, consortium in April. I would very much like to see the new university being designated to commence on 1 January 2022 and, as the Deputy regularly tells me, there is a great deal of work to be done to ensure that happens, including the people of Waterford and other parts of the south-east seeing the additionality this university will bring.

Rather than anyone asking what this or that county will get, the city and county of Waterford will see additional benefit in terms of investment, campus size, course range and research. I am very eager and determined that will happen if it is to be a university of the worth that we all want it to be, and that is very much the case. I look forward to engaging with the Deputy, some of his colleagues, and some of the people from the south-east he introduced me to in the coming days.

5:30 pm

Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
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I will share my time with Deputy Devlin. We will have five and a half minutes each.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
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It is an extremely difficult year for students. The Minister acknowledged that in his opening contribution, as have many speakers in today's debate. There are difficulties across the entire education system for students of all ages. I acknowledge that all the staff, teachers, lecturers and support and administrative staff in both the Departments of Education and Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science are working as hard as they can to try to bring some normality and quality of learning experience to students and I thank them for their work.

I want to ask the Minister about first-year students at third level. They went through a very difficult time last year with the leaving certificate and the uncertainty surrounding it and they are mostly sitting at home in their bedrooms on Zoom meetings. They are experiencing another very difficult year in their education. They are missing out on important aspects of their first year in college - the social aspect, making new friends, sports, and on-campus activities - the parts that help students adjust to a new educational cycle. First year is often less about the subject matter that one is studying than the adjustment to a new way of learning. It is nobody's fault that these aspects are not available now, and I hope the students will make up for it over the remainder of their degree.

However, in the best of times, first year can be a difficult year for students. That is evident in the failure rates and drop-out rates. There is often a realisation that a person may have chosen the wrong subject and he or she tries to change. I am very concerned, having spoken to students and parents, that we may have a higher drop-out rate this year than previously due to Covid and the real difficulty of trying to attend lectures and complete course work in one's bedroom. I note the Minister said there has not been a higher drop-out rate, but I ask him to keep a close eye on that because it tends to happen in the period after Christmas between January and April.

There are difficulties too for second-year, third-year and final-year students around project work, group work and placements. I am concerned that there has not been enough direct communications with students. The Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but from talking to students I get the feeling that a lot of them feel isolated. They feel they are on their own and they are the only ones having this difficulty when we know from the number of emails and contact we get that it is across the board. Many students are struggling and if they knew how many others were involved they would know that we are all in this together. I ask the Minister if he, the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, would communicate directly with students across the country to say to them that we know how difficult this is for them. We realise that they are under stress and have to work in ways that are not ideal. We can tell them that they are not alone. We should acknowledge that they need help and support and that we will provide it for anyone that needs it. We must assure them that a lenient and understanding approach will be taken to their exams or assessment, in whatever form they take place, given the difficulties they have encountered this year. These students have worked hard to get where they are and we need to make every effort to keep them in the education system. We do not want to let them drop out or to lose the connection with them. We must ensure they stay in the system and that when things return to normal it can offer them all the aspects they missed out on over the past 12 months.

My second question is probably for the Minister of State. It is about the apprenticeship opportunities for the highly ambitious and necessary retrofitting of our housing stock. We have a target in the programme for Government to retrofit 500,000 houses. This will bring thousands of job opportunities for long-term, decent, well-paid jobs in many trades. I refer to insulating our houses, making them airtight, improving ventilation, fitting heat exchangers, getting rid of the draughty, damp homes we have around the country, and creating a better quality of life and comfort as well as improvements to health, especially respiratory health. People's quality of life and comfort really improves when they have an energy-insulated house. There are opportunities to fit heat pumps and smart technologies to manage how we heat our homes, cut fuel bills and reduce harmful emissions, and in doing so we will also improve external air quality. We have seen poor air quality across Dublin in recent weeks.

The installation of solar photovoltaic systems and battery banks will allow us to produce our own electricity. A public consultation was launched today by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications on the fact that people will have the opportunity now to sell back into the grid. Microgeneration communities and farmers can create their own electricity, which can be fed back into the smart grid and they can earn money for it. There is also an opportunity with electric vehicles, EVs, as we roll out a fleet of electric vehicles. They can work in two ways. They can be charged from solar power or there is technology to allow them to feed back into the grid. That is how our future housing stock will be built and we need to ensure that we have the skilled workforce to meet the challenge to change 500,000 homes in Ireland to this standard but also to be able to build the 30,000 homes a year that we need to build. Could the Minister of State outline his ambition to create apprenticeships and training courses and how to encourage the take-up of these opportunities, in addition to how that should include mature apprenticeships and upskilling across all employment sectors?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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If it is okay ,we will hear from Deputy Devlin and then the Ministers can respond at the end.

Photo of Cormac DevlinCormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Ministers for their attendance. I have questions for both of them. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the impact the pandemic has had on the higher education sector. As we have heard both in this session and in the earlier session, Covid has had a devastating impact on the education sector as a whole. Lectures and tutorials have gone online. Events and sports events have been cancelled and students and staff have had to work from home. I had a conversation recently with a group of third level students who were envious of the second level students in the latter half of 2020 because they were in school. This has had a great impact on the well-being of students and academic staff alike. That must be recognised. While restrictions are justified, I look forward to everyone being able to return to some degree of normality as soon as possible, as I am sure my colleagues do as well. In the meantime, the Government must continue to support students and the higher education sector. One positive initiative in budget 2021 was the Covid-19 once-off emergency grant for students. Could the Minister provide an update on the progress of the roll-out of that?

SUSI has a key role to play in grants. I ask the Minister to take any necessary steps to ensure more flexibility is provided to that organisation. Concerns have been raised with Deputies about SUSI and Springboard over the summer. I tabled parliamentary questions to him in that regard. I hope that these issues are resolved and that the system will run smoothly from next September.

Turning to the class of 2021, as I mentioned in the earlier session with the Minister for Education, this year's leaving certificate students have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19. Not only did they miss three months in their fifth year, but they missed at least a month this year, owing to the restrictions. I hope the situation will be such that they can be offered the opportunity to sit the leaving certificate. However, some would prefer the option of predicted grades. The Minister has a key role in easing their anxiety in his comments and statements. Third level institutions could ease the pressure on Central Applications Office, CAO, points by producing more general entry programmes and increasing the places, where possible. I note the Minister's comments in that regard. This would take significant pressure off those students and I hope it can be considered. Could he give an update on those plans?

I wish to ask about the capital programme for education and training boards, ETBs, and further education colleges. The Minister might come back to me with a written reply. Many of the colleges are in older buildings and they need investment. I would like to hear his thoughts on the matter.

The Minister of State mentioned apprenticeships in his opening remarks. He has done fantastic work in that regard. The apprenticeship incentivisation scheme provides a €3,000 grant for employers. I understand 1,358 employers took up that offer, with 2,350 apprenticeships. He might send me the breakdown by sector of those figures.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Matthews. I could not agree more with his comments on first-year college students. These are leaving certificate students from last year, who last sat in a classroom in March 2020. Against all the odds and all the challenges, they got themselves into college and now, as he rightly said, they are finding courses being done from the bedroom, the box room or the kitchen table. It is extremely difficult for them. Subject to the behaviour of the virus, I have not given up hope of trying to at least arrive at a point where first-year students could be invited in to see their campus, to get a sense of what college will be like, to feel connected to the institution and to know that the current college situation is not forever. That will very much depend on how the virus goes.

I will keep a very close eye on the drop-out rate. I take his point in that regard. I would not in any way be complacent or cocky about that, but the initial indications are that it is correlating with last year. I await an update from the HEA.

Direct communication with students is important. I raised this last week when I met USI representatives and also the representative bodies of the colleges. We asked the colleges and the student unions to identify how best to do that. We do not want to bombard people with lots of communication or another email to read. Deputy Matthews is correct: it is time to try to wrap our arms around all of the supports that are there and put one, easily digestible communication in place in that regard.

On the examinations, I want to see common sense, compassion and a bit of cop-on when it comes to flexibility. I think that will be forthcoming and I was encouraged by the comments of the Irish Universities Association in that regard.

In the interests of time I will send Deputy Devlin a written note on the once-off payment of €250 but it is going very well. The SUSI grant before Christmas gave a once-off bonus payment in December and colleges are now beginning to credit the accounts of non-SUSI students, so the process is very much under way. My Department is ready to assist the Department of Education on extra college places and is working very closely with it on that. We have an ambitious programme of capital development for the further education colleges. I agree with the Deputy's point about them needing that investment. I will send the Deputy written detail on that.

5:40 pm

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputies Devlin and Matthews for their queries on the subject of apprenticeships, which is a major part of our programme for Government. We are very keen, as a new Department, to destigmatise the apprenticeships area and put these centre stage in our further education and training sphere. We hope to make this a very viable, attractive and rewarding career path and way of finding job options for people.

The new apprenticeship action plan is in gestation and the consultation period has closed. There was a high level of engagement with the consultations and they are now being assessed. In essence, we want to see a very strong pipeline of apprenticeships and traineeships, and we want to grow that number significantly. The commitment in the programme is to grow those numbers between now and 2025 to approximately 10,000 per annum. As Deputy Matthews has referenced, we are keen to ramp up the number of green apprenticeships and to provide new apprenticeships in non-traditional areas. One of our most important commitments and concerns is to promote more gender balance in apprenticeships as there has been very poor representation of women. These are concerns of which we are aware and that we want to address.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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If the Minister cannot answer all my questions in the time available, he might respond to me in writing. What action will the Minister take to ensure the return of accommodation fees, which were paid in good faith at the start of the academic year, given that because of Covid-19 restrictions, the majority of third level colleges are carrying out lectures online and students are no longer availing of student accommodation and cannot attend college? What plans does the Minister have to provide a support package for struggling families and students who have paid significant accommodation costs to private providers and who cannot receive refunds?

We have been importing over 85% of our fruit and vegetables into Ireland, most of which could be produced here while providing much higher incomes for Irish farmers while reducing environmentally costly transport for those items from abroad. The recent potatoes for chips scandal before Christmas is only one such example of an over-reliance on imports and long-term mismanagement of the horticultural sector. I am told most of this stems from a lack of support and prioritisation at the higher education level for horticulture. Will the Minister please tell me what plans there are for higher education for horticulture and those opportunities for Irish farmers, especially in places like west Cork?

There may also be opportunities for student placement programmes, as certificates in agriculture at Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, levels 5 and 6, are due to come in shortly. I am aware a 16-week placement on a farm is part of a level 6 programme but in current circumstances, going ahead with such action in the midst of a serious pandemic would be both reckless and unwise. For the duration of this pandemic year, students should have the option to complete their placement on their family farm, thus eliminating risks to their health, the health of their family and that of the family where the placement would occur. Will the Minister deal with this extremely important issue with immediate effect, as the health and livelihoods of many farmers and the future generations of farmers is at risk if it is not dealt with?

What supports are in place for families who cannot access broadband, particularly when they have students in higher education?

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I wish the Minister and the Minister of State the very best in this dynamic and interesting portfolio. Sixth-year students of last year and those in first year this year have had a very traumatic time. Their families have had a traumatic time. It has not been easy on any of those in the third level sector either. There are difficulties arising from non-return of fees. Parents have been put to the pin of their collar trying to pay these fees. I have experience of this, with a first year student myself this year. I know the difficulties arising in trying to study at home. They will rise to the challenge. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí.

I strongly support a university in the south east and we badly need it. There is also an application before Tipperary County Council for relocation and development of Limerick Institute of Technology in Tipperary to a new campus in the old Kickham Barracks. It must be progressed as well.

I would also like to get a list of apprenticeships, as the area must be broadened. We need these apprentices badly in the building, farming and agricultural and plant hire industries. I spoke to the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, about this a minute ago. As those areas are finding it difficult to get skilled operatives and people with degrees, we must enhance and broaden the scope of apprenticeships.

I welcome the review of SUSI and thank the officials there. I also thank Geraldine Kelly in my office for dealing with them, as we are trying to assist so many families. There must be a review of the 45 km rule, as it can be very cruel. I heard a Deputy earlier speaking about a student who would have to give ten hours travelling to a college for four or five hours of work. This affects rural areas where there is no public transport.

I promise the Minister and Minister of State the support of the Rural Independent Group in helping students from rural Ireland in particular but all across the country. Those in rural Ireland are handicapped because of poor broadband and rural transport. Will the Minister and Minister of State answer some of those questions? Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí. They need our support. They will be the leaders of tomorrow and into the future. While they will not forget this time, I believe they will rise over it.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Mattie McGrath is right to end on a positive note. As tough as this time is, we and the next generation will bounce back from this and we must all support them in that regard. Deputies Michael Collins and Mattie McGrath raised the very important matter of student accommodation and I will make a couple of points on it.

With college-owned accommodation, I expect universities and colleges to be flexible and give refunds where students have not been able to use the accommodation through no fault of their own. I note that some students, for a variety of legitimate reasons, have decided to take up that accommodation. Perhaps they might not have the space or opportunity to learn at home.

We need much more publicly owned or campus-owned accommodation and we will come forward with plans in that regard. We are still too reliant on the private market, which in many ways pits students against other people trying to rent accommodation. We have doubled the size of the student assistance fund, which is for students who have fallen on particular hardship. There is €16 million in that fund this year and it is available through all college access offices. I encourage the Deputies to direct their constituents to that.

I thank Deputy Michael Collins for the point he made relating to horticulture. I will make specific inquiries of the Higher Education Authority and come back to him in that regard and on the matter of placements. I am asking all bodies to provide flexibility and common sense on placements so nobody loses out at this time.

Both Deputies referenced broadband and I announced in my opening statement our plans to roll out eduroam broadband to 90 more locations across the country. It is clearly a major issue. On the SUSI review, I take the point about the non-adjacent rate and its impact on people in rural Ireland. There will be an opportunity for the Deputies to make submissions when we open to public consultations very shortly. I will look at the application from Tipperary mentioned by Deputy Mattie McGrath and revert to him.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Mattie McGrath correctly queried the range of apprenticeships. I will furnish all Deputies with the full range of approved apprenticeship schemes that are in place and available. We are anxious to create new apprenticeships in a range of new areas, and that will be a central tenet of the apprenticeship action plan, which we referred to a number of times in this session. It will be published shortly.

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I raise the question of the Connacht-Ulster alliance, as I have done on many previous occasions.

We had hoped that the application would be submitted by the end of last year but that has not happened. However, I believe that negotiations are in the final stages and hopefully the outcome will be positive. Can the Minister confirm what I have said regarding the Connacht-Ulster alliance application? Is the Government actively supporting this process?

Deputy MacSharry spoke about the possible linkage of St. Angela's College with IT Sligo, rather than NUIG, in the context of the upcoming application for technological university status. I do not always agree with the Deputy but I do on this occasion. He made a very comprehensive and cogent argument for considering that connection between the two colleges. Unfortunately, there was not time for an answer from the Minister so I would like to hear his comments now on the possibility of a linkage between St. Angela's and IT Sligo and whether he would support that course of action.

5:50 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Harkin for her questions. My information regarding the Connacht-Ulster alliance and the application for technological university status is the same as the Deputy's. We are expecting that application imminently. My Department, I, as Minister, and the Government are very supportive of it. The north west needs this university which offers really exciting opportunities in terms of regional development, with students being able to access the full range of university education at all levels within their own region. The discussions we have just been having about people from rural communities having to travel long distances are relevant here. The ability to stay and learn in one's own region makes it more likely that one can continue to live in one's own region, which has very many significant benefits. I am very excited about the Connacht-Ulster alliance and am also excited by the possibility of collaboration between the north west in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in terms of Government commitments regarding the Magee campus in Derry. I look forward to continuing to work with Deputy Harkin on the Connacht-Ulster technological university.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue of St. Angela's College again and providing me with the time to respond which I did not have earlier, unfortunately. I have met representatives of St. Angela's and was blown away by them. It is a brilliant college and I want to pay tribute to Ms Amanda McCloat, the president, the chairman of the governing authority, Mr. Justice Fennelly, and the Ursuline Sisters. St. Angela's is a really proactive and innovative college which clearly puts the welfare of its students at the heart of all it does. I cannot speak highly enough of the college, from the engagements that I have had with its representatives.

On the issue of which entity it merges with or where it sits, I would say two things. First, this has dragged on for way too long and I know that view is shared by St. Angela's. The fact that six or seven years on we are still talking about this is pathetic, to be quite honest. It is not good enough. A decision needs to be made, clarity provided and that needs to happen quickly. Second, the landscape has now changed, as the Deputy has pointed out. I am not coming down on one side or the other here because that would not be helpful to the process but the idea that there is only one potential partner is no longer the case for many reasons, including the development of the technological university agenda. When I became Minister the view was that there was one option and one option only but that view has now changed. My officials have written to St. Angela's College and invited it to put forward proposals or a business case for how it wishes to align, merge or engage with other institutions beyond NUIG. That process is live at the moment, with an opportunity for the HEA and my Department to consider any potential merger and a variety of different partners to put themselves forward. This has been going on for too long and there is now more than one viable partner. I would like to see those two issues addressed quickly.

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I am really pleased with the Minister's response. He is taking a regional perspective, which is absolutely essential for the development of the region and of course, for my own particular issue of concern, namely balanced regional development.

My second question relates to a specific query from a constituent who is doing a bachelor of arts degree in social care in NUIG. As part of this course, students have to complete 800 hours of unpaid placement work over four years. As the Minister can imagine, that was especially difficult last year and is practically impossible this year. I am not expecting an immediate response from the Minister but I ask that consideration be given to stretching out the 800 hours over the remaining years of the course for each student or to cutting back on the total number of hours. Will the Minister liaise with CORU on this?

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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The answer to the Deputy's final question is "Yes", but I do not hold all of the levers relating to this matter. I could give the Deputy a long answer about how all higher education institutions are autonomous and academically independent. There are, as the Deputy points out, also the professional regulators, including CORU but common sense is needed here. We cannot have a situation where we miss out on graduates in a given year, particularly in an area like social care where we need so many graduates to address a whole host of societal needs. I am asking all of the professional bodies and regulators to do what Deputy Harkin has suggested, namely, to challenge themselves to determine how they can respond in a pragmatic way that does not lessen quality or qualifications while taking cognisance of the very difficult situation presented by Covid-19. I assure the Deputy that there is a lot of engagement going on. I have asked for submissions, through my officials, from the USI, professional bodies and others to try to bottom this out this month. We are engaging very extensively on this.