Dáil debates

Thursday, 11 March 2021

Young People and Access to Further and Higher Education: Motion [Private Members]


4:50 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

notes that:

— Covid-19 and public health restrictions have imposed significant hardship and sacrifice on young people, students and all those in education, seriously diminishing the educational experience and negatively impacting on mental health and general wellbeing;

— even before the Covid-19 pandemic, this cohort of people faced very significant stresses and hardships, including:

— the serious stress and anxiety among students generated by the Leaving Certificate and intense competition for access to apprenticeships or places in the further and higher education courses of their choice;

— an unacceptable level of social inequality in accessing third-level education, where, for example, 99 per cent of young people living in Dublin 6 go on to higher education, while only 16 per cent of those from Dublin 10 continue in education after school;

— widespread poverty and financial hardship among many third-level students, particularly because of extortionate rents for accommodation in both purpose-built student accommodation and the wider rental sector;

— the financial hardship imposed on many undergraduate students and their families by having to pay €3,000 per year in registration fees and a full cost of up to €7,000 for many, the highest across the European Union (EU);

— the inadequacy of the Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) grant system, where too many students are ineligible, and the grants do not cover the full costs of education;

— the significant additional costs of third-level education also include textbooks that often must be bought new, IT, vaccines for those training in the health professions, uniforms, travel and transport etc.;

— many groups of students having to work without pay on placements, including student nurses and midwives, social care students, allied healthcare trainees and others;

— an alarmingly high number of students suffering poor mental health and depression, where, for example, a recent National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) survey showed that a third of all their students were suffering from depression;

— one in six students dropping out of university in their first year;

— students who live in digs and private student accommodation being classified as ‘licencees’ or subject to private contracts rather than being ‘tenants’, and not being governed by the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, and being denied access to the Residential Tenancies Board;

— extremely high postgraduate fees and difficulties with visas for non-EU students;

— the €16,000 plus, per year, fees for some courses such as Graduate Entry Medicine, Dentistry and Pharmacy;

— PhD stipends set at a dreadfully low level, far below a living income, even with the increase in the Irish Research Council’s Postgraduate Scholarship

Programme stipend in 2021;

— PhD researchers and other postgraduates being treated as students and not workers, despite their indispensable role in research and teaching in all

higher education institutions, with responsibilities of PhD and postgraduate students having grown as a result of reduced Government funding to third-level institutions; and

— widespread precarious working conditions, with temporary, short-term badly paid contracts for those working in higher education, and with over 50 per cent of lecturing staff and 35 per cent of lecturers on temporary or part-time contracts and ‘hourly paid staff’ not being entitled to sick leave, maternity leave and excluded from the unfair dismissal protection;

believes that:

— after the hardships and anxieties impacting young people during Covid-19, the Government owe a particular debt and have a particular obligation to support our young people and students;

— the Government expenditure on third-level education is inadequate at less than 0.6 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with the latest Universitas21 study finding that Ireland is 46th out of 50 comparable countries for the level of Government expenditure as a share of GDP when it comes to third-level investment, a fall of 29 places since 2017;

— higher and further education is reliant on big business to fill the gaps in funding, with areas of study such as humanities, languages and social sciences, deemed to not bring a profitable return and not getting the investment needed, and the courses and what is studied in courses should be determined by academic interest and not by profit;

— due to limited places on third-level courses, with approximately 80,000 people chasing 52,000 places with the Leaving Certificate, and with the Central Applications Process (CAO) points system playing a role in rationing out places in third-level institutions, the system operates as a crude market mechanism where students are pitted against each other, and as such is riddled with unfairness, especially for those from low and middle-income backgrounds, who have additional needs and face other barriers such as disability, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and is a system that distorts education at second and third-level;

— there is a direct connection between the level of educational achievement and the life and career opportunities available to those after they leave education and seek to access the workforce;

— access to the highest levels of education should be a right for all and that access to third-level should be seen in the same way as access to second-level was in the late 1960’s, when second-level was expanded for all;

— with the ceaseless development of science, technology, innovation, artistic and cultural endeavour in the modern world, it makes no sense to limit or ration access to higher levels of education or to impose financial or other barriers to completing such education; and

— it is in the interests of our society to remove all obstacles, provide all the supports and all the needed investment to ensure the maximisation of human potential through education; and

therefore, calls on the Government to:

— abolish the Leaving Certificate Examination as an unnecessary stress on young people, a distorter of the education system and a barrier to accessing higher education and the life opportunities that flow from it;

— provide open access for all to higher education courses or apprenticeships of their choice, without fees or barriers;

— expand the number of higher education and apprenticeship places to meet demand (approximately 25,000 additional places), increase academic staffing levels commensurately, and introduce more omnibus entry courses, especially in areas where there is high demand;

— end the reliance on big business to fill the gaps in funding from central Government;

— invest to expand further education access programmes, to increase the participation of those from disadvantaged areas, marginalised groups or communities;

— commit to supporting the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) Education for All pledge to end fees, cut rents and increase student supports;

— end the ‘study now, pay later’ and ‘earn and learn’ policies and move to a publicly funded higher education at the heart of the Government policy;

— abolish all registration fees and tuition fees for all apprenticeships, undergraduate and postgraduate courses, and increase grants and supports to cover the real cost of education;

— return fees paid by students for the academic years affected by Covid-19;

— extend the Back to Education Allowance to cover postgraduate courses, allow students to be eligible for the Housing Assistance Payment and restore Job Seeker's Allowance rates for young people to the standard rate, and extend other social welfare supports, such as the Working Family Payment, to those in education;

— provide free access for all students and apprentices to counselling and personal education services at the point and time of need;

— fund and staff Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services teams, to the levels recommended in Sharing the Vision: A Mental Health Policy for Everyone;

— pay students properly for work on placements, including student nurses and midwives, students of social care, allied health professionals and others who are doing genuine work while on placement, while protecting the degree status of these courses, and work with student representatives and CORU to resolve the issues of placement requirements that have emerged as a result of Covid-19 limiting placement hours available;

— recognise PhD researchers as workers, not students, with contracts of employment outlining major research and teaching responsibilities, collective bargaining rights and public pension contributions, paying at least a living wage;

— comprehensively integrate access routes and student supports from second-level and further education, through to higher educations;

— end precarious working conditions for all academic staff, hiring the 11,200 staff, mainly women, currently on these short-term/part-time contracts;

— urgently commence a major publicly funded programme of building genuinely affordable, publicly owned student accommodation and establish a charter of student/tenant rights; and

— abolish the licencee classification and the private contracts for students living in private student accommodation or digs and give full tenant rights to all students.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Is Deputy Boyd Barrett sharing time?

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I am sharing with Deputies Paul Murphy and Gino Kenny. I am taking eight minutes, Deputy Paul Murphy is taking eight minutes and Deputy Gino Kenny is taking four minutes.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy has it all worked out. Fair play.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The socialists are extremely well organised. We are also trying to be ahead of the curve with this. It is sometimes frustrating in this place because there is great interest in the barneys and the Punch and Judy show. However, there is not so much interest when Deputies are trying to put forward what I would consider in this motion on higher and further education to be positive proposals for a radical overhaul of the way in which people can access higher and further education and apprenticeships.

The proposals we are making would be important at any time but they are even more important in the context of Covid-19 and the huge suffering, hardship, stress and anxiety that huge numbers of people have suffered in recent times. The people who have suffered most are those who have lost loved ones. Those who are working on the front line to deal with the pandemic have maybe suffered the greatest stresses. Coming quickly after those are a cohort of, mostly but not exclusively, young people. For them, the question of education relates to: the leaving certificate; access to further and higher education and apprenticeships; and doing masters and postgraduate work. I also mention people who, for example, may have lost their jobs or livelihoods, possibly permanently as a result of Covid-19 and who may wish to go back to education to reskill and retrain in order to find a way forward, a new livelihood and a new future in the post-Covid era.

What the Department does in this area of education, particularly in access to further and higher education and apprenticeships, will be critical in the post-Covid future although it was always important. If much of the rhetoric we have heard across this House about learning the lessons of the pandemic and moving to a new future are to be taken seriously, they have to be fleshed out in meaningful plans and policies that will make life better for people and that will pay them back and reward them for the sacrifices, stresses, anxieties and hardships they have endured during Covid.

That is not the case for many of those people. Let us think of a few of them. The leaving certificate students have been through hell, to put it bluntly, and they are still going through hell. That stems from the fact that we have an exam which was putting extreme stress on young people long before Covid. It was a winner-takes-all and one-size-fits-all system which is completely inappropriate for the world we live in and which puts extraordinary stress on young people, to little purpose that I can see. If that was true pre-Covid, it is doubly true now. All of that stress mostly revolves around the fact that there are not enough places in higher and further education and apprenticeships.

Therefore, they are forced into the CAO points race in order to move to the next level of education. I raised this matter with the Tánaiste and he basically said that it was a nice idea, but not really practical. I do not buy that for a minute. I want the Minister and others to ponder this because sometimes we do not see the wood for the trees. We find all the excuses for not doing things. Excuses are still made in the North about things like the 11-plus which is an horrendous barrier to put at the end of primary school and determines what type of secondary education a student gets. Any decent progressive person would say that it is horrendous to have a hurdle over which a student must jump at the end of primary school which may determine their entire future.

It is equally horrendous that not so long ago, it was expected that children in some sections of our society would just go to primary school and would not go to secondary school, and that secondary school was some sort of privilege. Later, the expectation was that large numbers of people would drop out at the age of 16. Donogh O'Malley decided that we needed to open up secondary education completely and make it free for everybody from 1969. I am sure there were naysayers then, as there always have been.

It makes no sense in the world we live in, especially when we think about the stress our leaving cert students are experiencing as a result of the exam and the Covid pandemic, to give them a hurdle to jump over to access the higher and further education course or the apprenticeship of their choice. The only reason for that rationing is that there are not enough places. Some 80,000 people have applied through the CAO system, but we only have 55,000 places. What do we need in order to remove that stress from young people that takes such a serious toll on their mental health? We need 25,000 extra places.

We also need to remove the financial obstacles preventing people taking up those places. Ireland has the highest fees of anywhere in the European Union now that the UK has left. The fees are €3,000 and €7,000 for many. The fees for some postgraduate courses are shocking. It costs €15,000 for graduate entry in medicine, pharmacy and other areas. For other postgraduate courses there are incredibly high fees, stipends that are not living stipends and, in many cases, postgraduates working for free. All these people are suffering the extortionate high cost of accommodation because of the lack of affordable student accommodation. There are high drop-out rates as a result, with one in six people dropping out of college in first year. There are very high levels of mental stress, mental illness and depression. A survey by the NUIG students' union found that one third of students in NUIG said they were suffering in that regard.

I will conclude now but will come back in later. We are saying that all the barriers should be removed. The fees should be scrapped. The leaving cert should be scrapped because it represents a mechanism for stopping people from getting into higher and further education. The Government should support our students financially and in every other way to reach the highest level of educational achievement they can achieve.

5:00 pm

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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When I read the Government's amendment to our motion earlier, I thought that George Orwell had been resurrected and put to work. I am sure he would not want to be writing Government amendments. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the slogan of the regime famously was "War is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength." The Government's amendment suggests that what are the highest fees in the EU are free fees. The free-fees scheme that is lauded in the Government's amendment ignores the reality as has been pointed out of the highest level of fees for third level education in the EU.

Covid has shone a light on many unsavoury parts of our society and has laid bare realities about the class-based nature of the society in which we live. It has definitely done it in the case of education. It has highlighted the abuse and exploitation of student nurses working for free but has also shone a broader light on the reality of free labour not just by student nurses, but also by others. It has shone a light on the precarious, insecure and low-paid conditions of more than 50% of those who are working in our third level institutions. It has highlighted very clearly the inhumane, horrific and anachronistic system of the leaving cert. It has also shown that we do not need it.

Our motion and the Government amendment reflect two very different visions of how our education system should be structured and what it should be aimed at. The Government's amendment fundamentally defends the status quo. It sees education as a mechanism to train workers up for the profit maximisation of corporations in the future. It defends a system which is absolutely steeped in inequality. It reflects the inequality that is in society generally and then it is accentuated.

It stands over a system where 99% of young people who grow up in Dublin 6 go to third level institutions when it is only 16% for those in Dublin 10. Those figures can be replicated in different parts of Dublin or different parts of the country. It stands over this anachronistic and entirely unnecessary system of the leaving cert which puts incredible pressure on young people's mental health. It charges people at least €3,000 a year for third level education, and for international students the fees are many times that amount. It does not provide the necessary grants for people to be able to live and it exploits free labour across the board but in particular from postgraduate researchers.

The alternative put forward by our motion is a vision of education as a right rather than a privilege and as a public good where we do not ration access to third level education; where there is a place in third level education for everybody who wants to have it; where we do not have fees; where we actually have free fees as opposed to the name "free fees" hiding a fee of €3,000 or more; where we have living grants that are sufficient for people to be able to survive on; where we protect the tenant rights of students; and where we pay researchers for the work they are doing.

I listened to the response the Tánaiste gave Deputy Boyd Barrett earlier. Basically, he suggested that this was all unrealistic stuff. Fundamentally what he meant was we cannot afford this. It is a political choice by the Government to claim we cannot afford to get rid of fees for third level education, which would cost only €250 million and to do it for postgraduate students would cost a further €66 million. It is something that we in the socialist left have included in our budgets every year. However, the Government makes a political choice not to prioritise and not to open access to third level education in this way while it simultaneously claims not only that we can afford not to charge the big multinational corporations, such as Apple, basically any tax at all in this country, but that we have to do so. We can afford pay rises for Deputies and can afford extraordinarily high rates of pay for the Secretary General in the Department of Health, the head of the HSE and so on.

As socialists, we favour making a very different political choice. We favour using the wealth in our society to benefit the vast majority of people as opposed to those who own the means of production - the big corporations - and shaping education for them.

There are many examples that can be given to show the wealth exists for us to be able to do this. I wrote an article recently outlining the case for a Covid tax. In a number of ways we could raise over €20 billion in terms of trying to tax some of those who have benefited from the Covid situation. The point is, the wealth exists to do it. It is a political choice not to do it.

I congratulate the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, for the Education for All campaign. In a way, this is a part of that campaign which was launched last week. It is clear this motion will be voted down by the Government. Presumably, unfortunately, the Green Party Deputies will go along with that, together with the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Deputies, but that is not the end of the campaign. The reason nominally free education - the free fees in terms not of the capitation fee but the original fee - was done away with is precisely because there was a student movement which pushed for it. That is what we need to build again.

I will conclude with one point on the postgraduate workers, which I have raised a number of times with the Minister. It is a disgrace that our universities are using unpaid labour by way of postgraduate workers and the Government is turning a blind eye to it. Last October, the Minister admitted it was common for PhD researchers to have to do five hours of teaching a week. Nobody should be working unpaid in our universities. It is time to recognise the work of these postgraduate workers, not just their teaching work, but their research work, and to pay them a living wage with proper employment contracts and rights. The Minister said previously to me he would be happy to engage with the Postgraduate Workers' Alliance and he spoke about a group bringing people together, but the alliance has not heard anything further on it. Will the Minister make contact with the Postgraduate Workers' Alliance?

5:10 pm

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The Minister recently stated he wants to see access to third level education for all. That is very admirable, but is it achievable? Covid has shone a light on many areas over the past 15 months. In particular, it has shone a light on a leaving certificate that is outdated and antiquated. The intense competition for third level places shows up the leaving certificate for what it is. It defeats the purpose of education. Education is supposed to be enjoyed. It is about educating ourselves. The leaving certificate has become something very different. It is a points race for those who want to access third level education.

Education should be open to all regardless of income. Education inequality goes to the heart of income inequality in this country. Deputy Murphy spoke about postcodes in Dublin. The following is a great example in that regard. A student living in Dublin 6 has a 99% chance of going on to third level education, whereas for a student living in Dublin 10, the chances of going on to third level education are 16%. Even in terms of postcodes, particularly in Dublin, there is educational apartheid. This is applicable across the prison system as well in that the vast majority of people who are in prison are from certain areas of Dublin. This goes to the heart of the class system.

I want to speak about my own experience. I sat my leaving certificate examination in 1990, which is 31 years ago. Less than 3% of my class went on to third level education. In 2020-2021 more than 30% will go on to third level education. That is very positive. There are a number of factors at play. The culture has changed in working-class areas, access to education has changed, especially around institutes of technology, ITs, and the culture of the school has changed, with teachers now telling students they can be good and that they can go beyond what they are. There are still many barriers to access to education in terms of income and fees. Even when in that education sphere, there are still barriers for working-class students.

On the CAO points and places for nursing and midwifery, the Minister should take on this issue during his time as Minister with responsibility for education. Incredibly, there are 1,800 places available on the nursing and midwifery course, yet 6,000 students chose it as their first preference, which means that course is oversubscribed. Students want to engage in that vocation. They have seen in the past year in particular how that vocation has stepped up to the plate and served us all. If the 1,800 places were doubled to 3,600 places, we would gain 1,800 additional nurses, who on qualification could be offered a €10,000 per annum incentive to remain in the Irish public health system. This is done in Scotland. These are good things we can do rather than continue to recruit nurses from different parts of the world, although those who have come here have done amazing work. Let us look to what can be done to keep our nurses here rather than emigrating.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

“notes that:

— the establishment of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is a clear demonstration of the strength of the Government’s commitment to deliver on the far-reaching goals for the entire tertiary education system strongly articulated in the Programme for Government - Our Shared Future;

— at the heart of this commitment, as set out in the recently published Statement of Strategy 2021-2023 for the new Department, is the objective of ensuring that Ireland’s further and higher education and research systems support everyone, regardless of their age, gender or address, in achieving their full potential;

— the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives of young people but, in general, both young people and students continue to respond superbly, adopting new approaches that ensure the continuity of their learning and demonstrating high levels of attention to public health guidance to ensure their own safety and that of their friends, families and communities;

— a comprehensive crisis response has been implemented across the further and higher education sectors, involving a partnership between the Government, educational institutions/providers, staff and students;

— continuity of education and research has been maintained throughout the pandemic with provision primarily online other than where onsite attendance is essential;

— in summer 2020, the Government provided a €168 million package of supports for further and higher education institutions and students, to cover costs incurred by institutions during the 2019/20 year and to provide further supports for the current academic year;

— this includes expansion of mental health supports through the student counselling service, a doubling of the Student Assistance Fund and provision of devices and other equipment to assist disadvantaged students;

— additional supports were provided in Budget 2021, including a financial contribution of €250 to each full-time undergraduate student in publicly funded institutions costing €50 million, an €8 million Mitigating Educational Disadvantage Fund for the further education and community education sectors, enhanced Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) grant supports for postgraduate students and increased support for the Programme for Access to Higher Education (PATH) access initiative to increase participation in higher education from the most economically disadvantaged students; and

- for the 2021/22 SUSI scheme, the fee grant for postgraduate students will rise from €2,000 to €3,500 and the income threshold for eligibility for these grants will increase from €31,500 to €54,240; and

furthermore, notes that:

— a review of the SUSI scheme has commenced, as committed to in the Programme for Government, which will consider issues such as grant rates, income thresholds, adjacency rates, postgraduate supports and part-time provision;

— the State currently provides very substantial financial support to undergraduate students in higher education towards the cost of their studies and this commitment is demonstrated through the Free Fees Initiative under which the Exchequer currently contributes €340 million to meeting the tuition fee costs of eligible undergraduate students in higher education, and in addition, the Exchequer pays the student contribution of €3,000 per annum in full or part, through SUSI, for approximately 44 per cent of students at a cost of over €180 million;

— a comprehensive economic evaluation of the funding options presented in the report of the Expert Group on Future Funding for Higher Education entitled ‘Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education’ is underway, supported by the European Commission Directorate-General for Structural Reform Support programme, and this review is expected to be concluded over the first half of this year and will support an informed debate on the future planning and funding of higher and further education provision;

— significant progress has been made under the third National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015-2021 and work on the development of a new national access plan for 2022-2026 is already underway;

— a National Student Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Framework is in place to address issues of student mental health and an additional €5 million in funding for student mental health supports was provided last year, and the Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education in Ireland (PCHEI) partnership through Text 50808 (a free 24-hour text service) allows students who are suffering from distress or mental health issues to speak with counsellors and access supports, and also a Student and Learner Wellbeing and Engagement Working Group has been established to monitor student wellbeing arising from the pandemic, review the implementation of existing measures and identify further initiatives;

— the Government is fully implementing ‘Sharing the Vision: A Mental Health Policy for Everyone’, including its comprehensive approach to improving the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS);

— actions taken to support the provision of student accommodation include: — legislation to extend rent predictability measures to students residing in student-specific accommodation in rent pressure zones and to bring student accommodation under the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB), giving students access to the RTB’s dispute resolution procedures;

— empowering the Housing Finance Agency (HFA) to lend directly to higher education institutions for the development of new student accommodation, with a total of €157 million in loans for higher education institutions approved by the HFA; and

— the active engagement by the university sector on accommodation refunds, with all universities confirming that students who opted to leave their university-owned student accommodation as a result of reduced on-campus activity will be offered refunds or rental credits; — the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is finalising its report on reform of the Senior Cycle, and this review will encompass the wider purposes of the Senior Cycle including the aim that it should continue to educate the whole person and help every student to become more enriched, engaged and competent as they further develop their knowledge, skills, values and dispositions in an integrated way, reflecting the fact that higher education is just one of the pathways that students follow after completion of the Leaving Certificate;

— the Government strongly recognises the value and benefit of an integrated tertiary education system with the availability of diverse pathways for all learners and is committed to promoting the complementary roles of further and higher education and facilitating enhanced information for school-leavers and for all seeking learning opportunities, providing a wider choice at transition points and enabling progression pathways across and between different institutions;

— the Government continues to invest to provide additional student places in higher education, with €18 million provided in Budget 2021 for this purpose for the academic year commencing September 2021, resulting in overall investment of nearly €80 million to address demographic pressures since 2018, ensuring that a higher proportion of Central Applications Process (CAO) applicants secure a place on one of their top three CAO options, and these places to meet demographic need are in addition to the 1,330 additional places commencing in 2021, funded through the Human Capital Initiative Pillar 2, which will be on undergraduate courses in areas of priority skills needs;

— the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is working with the Higher Education Authority (HEA), higher education institutions, Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) and professional regulators, to identify further interventions that may be required to assist with additional places, and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science will update the Government on this in April;

— the Government will shortly finalise an action plan on apprenticeships, promoting uptake in a growing range of apprenticeships as an attractive educational and career choice for increasing numbers of young people;

— a Researcher Career Development Framework has been introduced by the universities and Budget 2021 provided funding for increased opportunities for early career researchers and a 16 per cent increase in the Irish Research Council’s Postgraduate Scholarship Programme stipend;

— the Minister has advised the House that his Department is engaged with the HEA and sectoral stakeholders, to gather information on the teaching duties of PhD students and relevant funding arrangements and consideration will be given to this matter by a sub-group of the National Advisory Forum for Ireland’s National Framework for Doctoral Education;

— the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are currently updating the Employment Control Framework within which individual higher education institutions manage their staffing;

— legislative proposals to reform the Higher Education Authority Act 1971 will be brought forward, to ensure that the higher education sector is enabled to meet the vision for an excellent higher education and research system which is innovative, adaptive and inclusive and which contributes to social, economic and cultural development; and

— this comprehensive programme of reforms clearly demonstrates the Government’s ambition for a high-quality tertiary education system which supports everyone to achieve their full potential.”

I am sharing time with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. I welcome this debate. I genuinely thank Deputy Boyd Barrett and his colleagues for putting down this motion. We have had an opportunity to discuss these issues in the House today and yesterday. I would guess were it not for the Deputy seeking that time, and I acknowledge that, but perhaps also if we did not have a dedicated Department, we may not be having this level of focus on the issues. I genuinely welcome that.

While we may not agree on everything in terms of how we get there, I do share the ambition in terms of removing barriers to access to further and higher education. Deputy Kenny made a fair point. The following is not a political point because I was not in government at the time. We have seen a lot of progress made in our country over recent decades in terms of access, but we do have a lot more to do. Deputy Boyd Barrett said he wants to see a radical overhaul in this area; so do I. I genuinely want to see a radical overhaul of how people get from second level to third level.

Yesterday, the issue of why we are debating further education and higher education and why we do not have an integrated tertiary education system was raised. That is what I want. I accept there is an onus all of us, me included, to, in the Deputy's words, "flesh out" the plans and policies that will help achieve that. It is okay to debate that and to have different views as to how best to do it and sequence it. I am united with the Deputies on the purpose of radically overhauling the system.

I also take a lot of interest in what has been said about the points race. It is wrong we have created a culture where there is an obsession now with the points race. There is huge pressure. I have just come from a virtual meeting with a group of sixth year students from three schools in west Cork. The idea of the points race and students' anxiety around getting points is one I accept. In terms of what I have done this week, I have tried to begin to change that by talking about having an integrated system, a broader CAO system where people see all of their options. It was mentioned we would need approximately 25,000 additional places to meet the demand, but that is if every student chose to go the higher education route. If we got our act together on apprenticeships as a real alternative, a pathway and an equally valuable way of getting to where one wants to get to in life, and in regard to further education, and we got each of those systems talking to each other, I do not believe we would need 25,000 additional places in higher education. We are having a conversation with students about the name of the university they want to go to before having the conversation with them about what they want to do in life and then offering them the four or five different routes of getting them there. I have seen this in my own constituency. We need to make it easier for people to move from further education to higher education.

We need to embed apprenticeships not just in the private sector but the public sector. The public sector needs to step up too. There are only 300 plus apprenticeships in the public service. Later this month, along with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, I will be publishing a detailed action plan to set specific targets for all Departments, county councils and State agencies in that regard. This week, we launched the first statement of strategy for my Department. We will publish it on Monday. It is an ambitious plan of reform, which is about building collaborative connections. It will tackle inequality and barriers which prevent people entering third level. We will ensure everyone has the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential through access to education and training. The statement of strategy was not dreamed up by civil servants and a Minister; we engaged extensively with stakeholders, including students and wider civic society. We listened and, as a result, we do not just list the challenges. We also look at the opportunities to try to address some of the challenges in that statement of strategy. I hope we will have many chances to take elements of it and debate them in this House.

We have published 36 specific actions we want to get done this year, including a review of the student grants scheme. I will be attending a virtual meeting this evening with students, parents, guidance counsellors, teachers and principals in Longford to talk about how we can make the SUSI system much more comprehensive. I accept that it needs to be radically overhauled to take account of issues like part-time learners, adjacency rates and non-adjacency rates, and income thresholds. We will have the output of that review this summer, which will give an opportunity to consider it in advance of the budget.

I have talked already about the CAO reform process. I had a very good meeting yesterday with representatives of the CAO on that issue.

We also need new legislation to reform higher education governance. We are putting €1.83 billion a year of taxpayers' money into universities and higher education and we need to be able, as Oireachtas Members, to see that we have fit-for-purpose, 21st century governance. Legislation on that issue will be brought forward and, I hope, passed by the Houses this year.

I firmly believe in the importance of an integrated and connected third level system. I am passionate in my view that there must be diverse and progressive pathways into education. There cannot just be a right way of doing it and a wrong way of doing it. There must be multiple ways that work for learners of different ages and from different backgrounds. The CAO system works effectively in taking people from secondary school to university but it leaves out whole swathes of opportunity. We need a single portal through which students can apply for further education opportunities and apprenticeships, for which the points system does not apply, and for higher education as well.

In regard to extra places, we have already set aside €18 million in the budget this year to provide 4,100 additional places, having already grown the third level sector last year. I accept that the scramble that had to be made last year to try to find those places was a little unedifying. That is why I have set up a working group, now that we have clarity on the leaving certificate examination, to see whether we can do even more in this area. The point Deputy Gino Kenny made in this regard is a really interesting one. As a former Minister for Health, I know only too well the shortages there can be in nursing, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and so on, and the challenges they can present for the delivery of public services. One of the issues we are looking at is that if we want to train more nurses and doctors, we need to match each of them with clinical placements. That will involve sitting down with other Departments to see whether if we create an extra university place here, they can create an extra clinical place there. I hope to have that work done by Easter and to update Cabinet and the House on what more we can do, above and beyond the 4,100 additional places. Last year, I gave a commitment that we would maintain the ratio of students who got their first choice or a choice from their top three. That is my intention again this year.

In regard to funding, it is important to say that the Exchequer currently contributes €340 million a year to meeting the tuition costs of students in higher education. It is also important to say, and very few people say it, that some 44% of our students have their registration fee covered in full or in part by SUSI. The idea that everyone is paying €3,000 is not correct. As we improve the SUSI system, I hope fewer people will pay that registration fee. It is also important to point out that the OECD's latest Education at a Glance report, which is based on 2018 data, indicated that this country is investing more per full-time student than the EU or OECD average. As we know, funding for third level has increased further since 2018. I look forward to the up-to-date data being reviewed.

Having said that, we need to have a really honest conversation about funding. In fairness, Deputy Boyd Barrett is being honest about it in saying that he wants to follow the Donogh O'Malley route, that is, the concept that access to at least an undergraduate education would be free as part of a natural extension of the education system. There is serious merit in that proposal. We will soon have the economic evaluation from the European Commission of the Cassells report. The last Oireachtas was a bit cowardly, quite frankly, in kicking that report down the road and into another review. That was done on an all-party basis. There was an attitude of, "Sure, is there anything to be said for another review?" That other review is about to come to an end, in quarter 2 of this year, when we will have the final report on the options set out in the Cassells report. Let us then have a very honest debate. I instinctively want to see any barriers removed to students being able to access undergraduate education. The Deputy is right that Donogh O'Malley was told back in the 1960s that he was mad and wrong and he could not do what he proposed to do. As we know, he went ahead and did it anyway. Let us have that debate this year.

In regard to access, it is a personal goal of mine to make sure that the third level education system is more diverse. When we look at it, it should be like society looking back at us. That is not the case and it needs to be more diverse. We are currently working on our third national plan for equity of access to higher education, identifying groups that are currently under-represented in higher education. The consultation for that has begun and I would appreciate Deputies' support in order that we can have the best plan possible. More than 79,000 students were assessed by SUSI in 2020, up from 71,000 in 2019. We have increased the postgraduate allowances, which were paltry, and I want to do more on that issue. In addition, we have doubled the student assistance fund.

The past year has been a really difficult one. I do not have time to get into all the challenges for students, but I know it has been difficult for them. They have sacrificed and suffered a lot. I want them to know that we are working on making sure they have a more meaningful, on-site college experience in the new academic year. We have set up another well-being and engagement group chaired by students to look at what more we can do in this area.

Deputy Paul Murphy referred to the difficulties being experienced by postgraduate students. I will meet with them to discuss the allowance for postgraduate workers. I apologise that such a meeting has not taken place so far.

Education is a great leveller. We should be ambitious and we should use this new Department to drive an ambitious programme of reform. I am really excited about what we can get done. It will include reforming the CAO, creating an integrated tertiary education system, overhauling the SUSI grant system, making big and brave decisions on a sustainable funding model and bringing forward new governance legislation, an adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills plan, and a new national access plan. We have lots to do. The debate today, importantly, puts a focus on a number of those important issues. I look forward to continuing to work with colleagues on them.

5:20 pm

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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I ask colleagues to consider what is the essence of the Minister's remarks and his key line of argument. In effect, he is saying that we are all in agreement in this House on these issues and we are headed towards the same place. We are agreed on the goal, according to the Minister, and the only debate is over the speed at which we travel. The facts contradict what he is saying.

According to Universitas 21, which measures government expenditure on third level education as a percentage of gross domestic product, Ireland was 46th of 50 countries measured recently, which is a fall of 29 places since 2017. According to Mr. Jim Miley, director general of the Irish Universities Association, State expenditure per third level student is down more than 40% since 2008. The Minister points to an increased budget for mental health services in third level institutions, giving a figure of €5 million, but from what base is that starting? In University College Cork, UCC, the year before last, there was one counsellor for every 2,340 students, compared with a recommended best practice ratio of one for every thousand students or, at most, 1,500. The situation at Cork Institute of Technology, CIT, is considerably worse than that. In UCC in 2019, there was more money spent by the college on flights for staff than on mental health services for its tens of thousands of students.

What is the Government doing this year? It is pitting leaving certificate students against each other in a battle for a limited number of third level places. That would be unfair in any year and it is especially unfair and wrong in a pandemic year. There are 61,000 leaving certificate students, most of whom are part of a cohort of 80,000 CAO applicants for approximately 55,000 places at third level next year. It is scandalous in a pandemic year that students would be forced to compete with each other for a limited number of third level places. The Minister said that he attended a virtual meeting with students in Cork and he spoke about how wrong it is that there is an obsession with the points race etc. He is one of two Ministers in this Government with responsibility for education and he is in charge of a machine that is forcing students to compete against each other this year.

The Minister can wring his hands and say it is wrong but he is implementing it by not having a policy of open access to third level. From the first week of January to the week after 17 February this year I had Zoom calls with leaving certificate students. They practically all spoke of their experience every day during the leaving certificate crisis. Mental health was the issue to the forefront in so many conversations. The crisis pressed down hard on each of those 61,000 students. Many were impacted themselves or knew a friend or classmate who was being impacted severely. They organised, campaigned and fought back. They forced the Government to climb down on the position that there was to be a forced leaving certificate for each student. I do not believe that the predicted grades model is a solution precisely because, like the leaving certificate, it pits students against each other in a battle for a limited number of places.

After that leaving certificate crisis and in the context of the pandemic, it is time to stand back and review the position. The State could not organise a traditional leaving certificate last year or this year. Next year there will be a need for many changes. It is a good time to do a review. We maintain that this examination is outdated. Even in non-pandemic times it is, from a mental health point of view, negative. It is an outlier in Europe in terms of the level of pressure it exerts on young adults. It is riddled with class bias. Most obviously, if a student can afford grinds, that student has an advantage over a family that cannot afford grinds for their children. It is biased against young adults who are not neurotypical. It is time for this examination to go.

More than 50 years ago, the primary certificate was a big thing in Irish society. When the doors were flung open to second-level education and people were invited in and places made available, the primary certificate became a thing of the past. The leaving certificate and the pressure that goes with it could go the same way if the doors are thrown open to third level. The ballpark is 25,000 places. If the Minister says he would need fewer, then there is less of a mountain to climb. There may be 10,000 or 15,000 new jobs. The Minister will not have difficulty finding the staff to recruit because there are already 11,200 part-time or short-time staff or staff on insecure contracts in the third-level system. We can have blended learning next year. We can digitise the libraries and provide third-level students with information technology equipment. We can have a period of two or three years to put the investment in, build the buildings and put the physical infrastructure in place that is necessary. It can be done in other ways next year.

People may ask how in hell it would work. A key would be an omnibus entry operation. Dr. Áine Hyland produced a report for the Higher Education Authority in 2011 on the leaving certificate and college entry. She strongly recommended the idea of omnibus entry. Broadly speaking, in year one there is a general course or courses and the students have examinations at the end of the year. From that point, people go on to second year or other courses to which they are more suited and they become more specialised.

Let us be clear. This would not come cheap. This would cost a great deal of money, perhaps billions - we are not saying anything other than that. However, the wealth is there in society to pay for it. The 300 richest in Ireland own and control €93 billion in wealth. Irish society has 17 billionaires, whose wealth increased by €3.3 billion during the pandemic year. We need a steeply progressive tax system. The starting point is serious taxes on wealth in Irish society.

There is one final point I wish to make. Open access on its own is an empty formula unless we combine it with a living grant for every student, the abolition of fees and decent accommodation for every student who needs it.

We had a scandalous situation last year where we had student accommodation centres run by big businesses, international consortium interests etc. They tried to grab thousands of euro, in some cases five-figure sums, from students. They maintained the students had signed up for a year and, even though there was a pandemic, the students were off home and so the landlords were free to take the money and run. Students fought back, spoke out and campaigned. In most cases, they forced these exploiters to give the money back. However, they could try the same con tomorrow and they are legally entitled to do it. That right should be removed from them. The Bill that the Union of Students in Ireland is backing provides for this to be outlawed and is an important part of this discussion as well. We need accommodation for students which is on the basis of need rather than for profit. It should be publicly built with reasonable rent rather than extortion, as in so many cases at the moment.

5:30 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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The next slot goes to Sinn Féin. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh is leading off.

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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I am sharing time with my colleagues and would appreciate being cut off after eight minutes. My thanks to Solidarity-People Before Profit for bringing forward this important motion. While it might contain some things that we have differences on, I wholeheartedly support the vast majority of it.

The first point arises in terms of removing the barriers in place. I hear the Minister talking, I hear students talking and I hear tutors within colleges talking, but it simply does not add up for me. The first point is in terms of removing the barriers. I know the Minister agrees that we have to remove the barriers to education. I know he realises they are there - the first being the fees charged. I know the Minister would say those entitled to a Student Universal Support Ireland grant do not pay fees and so on. However, we charge the highest fees in the EU. We cannot stand over that and Governments cannot continue to stand over that. Vast fees are charged for international students and post-graduate fees. Yesterday, I spoke about medicine graduates. One young man outlined to me that he will have to end up paying €100,000 to be a doctor. We are a country that is crying out for doctors and we go around the world looking for doctors. Yet, we do not invest in our own in the way we need to. We desperately need more clinicians. The Minister outlined some of them himself. We need to join the dots. We need to ensure that we are investing. We are not looking at the cost of education. We need to be looking at the opportunity cost if we do not invest money where we need to in education, especially third-level education.

We spoke about Donogh O'Malley in the 1960s and commended what he did. However, we know now that for many jobs we need third-level and further educational qualifications. That is what is needed for people to be able to access that type of employment or the type of enterprises we need in this country.

I know the Minister is well-intended but one thing will really show us and the student population if the Minister's intentions are genuine. Let us consider the USI legislation around accommodation. We know students have been fleeced in the past year. Hard-pressed families, some of them single-parent families, are really struggling. It is unforgivable the way they have had to pay over money for something only for us to say they cannot use it. It is like going into a shop and compelling a customer to pay over her money but insisting that if she leaves the shop she cannot bring the goods with her.

That is wrong on many levels. The Minister can show that he is genuine about addressing this problem by supporting the USI's legislation, which I introduced in the Dáil and which 58 Deputies have already signed. That needs to be done quickly. When students return to education in September and October, we must ensure that they are not exploited as renters. Just because they are students does not mean they can be fleeced. If this were not a pandemic year and restrictions not in place, students would be outside the gates of Leinster House. I thank them for not doing so. I thank student unions across the country for their Trojan work over the past year in trying to protect and defend students' rights.

A picture is being painted of everything being okay, but the Minister knows it is far from okay. Some 90% of students have told us that they are suffering from stress, loneliness and isolation and that they feel disconnected. Our production of human capital has been mentioned in this debate, but we must consider education and address issues holistically. We have an opportunity. Deputy Harris has the privilege of being the first Minister of a Department of higher education. He will be judged in that light. I hope that he will be judged kindly and on the basis of what he makes happen for students and their families, not for the reports he commissions, and addressing inequalities. If we continue with an education system that feeds inequality, everyone will pay the price. That is why we must have an education system that is treated as a public good, is invested in and ensures equality and integrity and to which we expand access through Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, whose thresholds are too restrictive.

Since I did not get an opportunity to do so yesterday, I will focus on apprenticeships. The Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, is present. I welcome the Government's apprenticeship strategy and the addition of apprenticeships to the Cental Applications Office, CAO, system so that everything is handled through a single portal. However, there are immediate problems with apprenticeships that we must address. Apprentices have been left in limbo by the Government. Currently, 6,928 apprentices are waiting to access their off-the-job training. That is more than one third of all apprentices. Their practicals and exams have been put to one side continually, with no end in sight. We must engage with apprentices and show them their training pathways. Most apprenticeships last four years. They cannot be allowed to last six years with people not obtaining the qualifications or earning the incomes they need. This matter needs to be taken in hand. The Government has missed even its modest targets. Regardless of the strategy for the future, we need to deal with the here and now. SOLAS needs to engage with apprentices and employers so as to ensure that the issues are addressed.

The situation of student teachers in terms of Gaeltacht courses and grant aid not being extended to those whom we have pushed into getting qualifications from private colleges must also be addressed. The grant needs to be extended.

I could speak about many more education matters, but I have run out of time. I will hand over to my colleague, but I think the Minister gets my drift.

5:40 pm

Photo of Maurice QuinlivanMaurice Quinlivan (Limerick City, Sinn Fein)
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CSO figures demonstrate a correlation between levels of educational attainment and social and economic advantage. Higher Education Authority, HEA, figures show that there is a significantly lower level of attainment of higher level education in areas deemed disadvantaged versus those in affluent areas. The Minister does not need me to cite the figures. Regrettably, Limerick has more areas of deprivation than anywhere else in the State. If issues of marginalisation and deprivation are to be tackled successfully, we must ensure that students from disadvantaged communities are offered opportunities and supports to access higher education.

Available data suggest that too few students in schools catering for unemployment black spots progress to higher education. Looking at the progression rate from schools in my constituency, a pattern emerges. For instance, one all-girls secondary school in Limerick city sees almost everyone progress to higher education, but in a similarly sized school with a disproportionate number of students from disadvantaged areas, more than a third fail to progress. Support and encouragement must be offered throughout the school cycle, not just in the final years of second level education. All levels of schooling from preschool onwards should be treated as important stepping stones towards higher level.

Regarding progression, I wish to mention St. Mary's National School in Limerick. St. Mary's Park is listed as an unemployment black spot. It was described in a Pobal report as the most deprived area in the State. I have discussed some of the issues affected the area previously. Unemployment is rife and there is a myriad of social and economic issues to be tackled. One institution in the community that I am particularly proud of is the local primary school. Its students come from St. Mary's Park in the main. Worryingly, the brilliant work that the school does is now in jeopardy. Under the teacher allocation circular of 2020, the school has six classroom teachers and an administrative principal. Under the 2021-22 circular, however, the number of students enrolled suggests that the school will lose two teachers and its principal's administrative status. This school cares for and educates children from the area to the best of its ability. Many of them come from complex and disadvantaged backgrounds, yet their school is scheduled to lose teaching posts. This is not acceptable. One of the teaching posts to be lost is that of deputy principal. The current occupant of that position is from St. Mary's Park. Not only is she a teacher and deputy principal but, according to the principal, she has served as the bridge between the school and community. She knows many of the families and many of the complexities that the schoolchildren face. We talk about the need to deliver further access to higher education while injury is done to a school that educates and supports children from a catchment area where, unfortunately, few get the opportunity to progress to higher education. How can we improve access to higher education when we damage schools in catchment areas because of a calculation that fails to consider the children's specific needs?

The contrast in educational access is perhaps most striking in my city of Limerick. It has eight of the ten top unemployment black spots in the State on the one hand and, on the other, there is a fantastic university and other third level institutions, including an equally impressive institute of technology.

I reiterate the need for more apprenticeships. In 2018, my party launched a strategy on apprenticeships. Our target was to increase their number to 60,000 within five years. Unfortunately, the previous Government did not live up to its commitments. As such, I welcome the Government's commitment to increase apprenticeships by 10,000 per year. I hope that this Government will be more successful than the previous one in that regard.

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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I thank People Before Profit for tabling this motion. Unfortunately, the Government has proposed a cynical amendment. It has a habit of doing so in respect of proposals it knows are the right things to do but that do not fit with its conservative, right-wing agenda.

Covid-19 and public restrictions have imposed significant hardships on our students. Their educational experience has been far from ideal and there has been a negative impact on their mental health and general well-being. We must listen to our students. For years, we have heard from them that too much pressure is being placed on them. There is too much emphasis on one exam to decide their paths in life. I am reminded of the song "Little Boxes" by Malvina Reynolds, with students being put in boxes and all coming out the same. We must radically rethink our approach to the leaving certificate. We require an education system that is adaptable and seeks the best for every student regardless of his or her academic ability. We also need to balance between equipping our students with life skills and with academic skills.

There is an unacceptable level of inequality in access to third level education. There are parts of Athy, Portarlington and Newbridge in which the number of students progressing to third level is less than half the county average.

There is widespread poverty and financial hardship among third level students, particularly as a result of extortionate rents. We need to urgently commence a major publicly funded programme of building affordable, publicly-owned student accommodation. Affordable accommodation is a significant barrier for working class people who wish to progress to college. There is also the financial hardship imposed on many students and their families as a result of having to pay what are among the highest registration fees in the EU.

Students should not have to work long hours to keep themselves in college. Students on work placements are doing real work and they deserve fair pay. I cannot believe we are still talking about paying student nurses. Can we not just get it done?

Sinn Féin in government will abolish third level fees. It is a disgrace that while some families make significant sacrifices to keep their child in college, foreign executives can claim tax relief under the special assignee relief programme. Almost 1,500 individuals availed of €42 million in tax relief under that programme in 2018.

Meanwhile, Members are well aware that SUSI, to which the Minister referred, is not fit for purpose. It finds any reason possible to refuse grants to struggling families. It really shows where the priorities of the Government lie. They are certainly not with the working poor of counties Kildare and Laois whom I represent.

5:50 pm

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. I thank Solidarity-People before Profit for tabling the motion. I think it is a fair ask. I agree with it in the sense that there needs to be a greater level of imagination and that we have to look on this as an opportunity to deliver for third level on the same basis that Donogh O'Malley delivered for second level education. It is fair to say that there is an obvious need to deal with the issues of fees, SUSI and, in particular, the income thresholds. I welcome the fact that the Minister stated some of those issues will be addressed. However, we also need to accept the importance of access to third level in other respects. The sad news coming from Drogheda is a reminder of what can happen when kids from disadvantaged areas become involved in a pretty seedy part of this world that impacts on many working-class communities and impedes them greatly. Kids become enveloped and the victims of utterly scurrilous criminals. It is a blight on society that needs to be dealt with. We need to put all those factors into play in the context of what we can deliver for people and the opportunities they can be offered.

As I have stated previously in the House, my father was the principal of a school in Muirhevnamor, Dundalk. He often remarked on the utter ridiculousness of a teacher getting worked up about a kid not having a pencil, pencil case or copybook when that kid might not have had breakfast. We need to look at all the multi-agency interventions that are necessary to ensure that everybody is given a fair start. That begins long before children even get to secondary school. We need this to work from primary school, through secondary school and then into tertiary education.

I refer to apprenticeships. I welcome some of the narrative from the Government in terms of multiple access points to career paths. I welcome the fact that in Dundalk there is access through the Ó Fiaich Institute of Further Education and Drogheda Institute of Further Education, as well as access to post-leaving certificate courses that provide a springboard for many people to get into third level institutions such as Dundalk Institute of Technology, DKIT, as is the case for many in my constituency. We have to consider all these pathways. It is obvious that funding has to be increased, as do supports for access programmes. We also need to look at the College Connect initiative, through which proper connections are made with communities, particularly those that surround these third level institutes and the residents of which do not necessarily have a great tradition of attending third level.

I welcome some of the innovative moves that have been made by Louth and Meath ETB and other bodies. It established the advanced manufacturing and technology training centre of excellence in Dundalk, which provides lifelong training in high-tech and high-spec industries. We need more such initiatives. There is also a need for an audit in respect of employers' needs in terms of the skill sets that are required and should be built into apprenticeships. I know that some experts in the field believe that certain soft skills relating to communication or almost emotional intelligence, as well as certain other skill sets, are sometimes lacking. If that is the case, it would be very easy to incorporate that into apprenticeships and lifelong learning to ensure that we can produce students who have all the skill sets required.

I welcome the fact that the Minister referred to the issue of DKIT and technical university status. I would welcome further communication from him in that regard. I know that a meeting will be held next month with Oireachtas Members representing County Louth. We need to ensure that DKIT does not miss out and that we deliver on technical university status. I welcome the Minster's interaction on other issues that have occurred in DKIT. I would welcome a response from him on those issues. It may not suit him to discuss them in the Chamber.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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Anybody who spends time in my company will learn in a very short time that I was a teacher in, and principal of, a school in the north-east inner city of Dublin. It effectively changed my life and the way I view the world. I learned more from those children than I ever taught them. When I became a school principal I got a wonderful bit of advice from a great colleague of mine named Mark Candon. He told me that regardless of the decision a principal makes, he or she will have conflict with staff colleagues, potentially with the parent body, definitely with the Department of Education and possibly with the board of management and others, but if a child is at the centre of every decision that is made, nobody will ever question the principal's integrity and, therefore, make sure that a child or children are at the centre of every decision made. If one analyses the education system from beginning to the end, it is very difficult to come to the conclusion that we have constructed a system that has a child, children or students at the centre of decisions that are made. If one was to start with a blank sheet of paper, which is what I believe should be done, one would not construct an education system like the one we have now.

The second level system ends with the leaving certificate if the student gets that far. Many young people do not get that far. As a result of this pandemic, we have lost a generation of young people at risk. There is no legal requirement for these vulnerable young people to be in school after the age of 16 and, as a result of the pandemic and the lack of in-school learning, they have been lost to the system. The leaving certificate is outdated and no longer fit for purpose. It needs to be overhauled radically because it does not have young students, human beings, at its centre.

We have an education system that perpetuates inequality. It is rooted in inequality. If one asks Finnish politicians about the education system in Finland, they will say they had a discussion in their society about their education system and tried to find the theme or belief system that should underpin it. They came up with an answer. It is this radical idea called equality.

Everybody buys into that notion, including the far left, the far right, the centre-right, the centre-left and centrists. They all believe that equality should underpin the education system. In Ireland, we believe that choice should underpin the system.

The word "choice" sounds nice but it leads to competition between schools. In my constituency and others around the country, the notion of choice leads to open nights - when such things were possible - in September and October that encouraged parents to send their children to particular schools. That competition leads to a race for points, things like league tables and a stripped down and nasty discussion as to how one school is more successful than another. That, in turn, leads to a race among parents to try to get their kids into a certain secondary school because it has a certain reputation. In a given community, one then has a league table of secondary schools which inevitably means that a school at the bottom of the league table has a disproportionate number of young people from the Traveller community, migrants, young people with special educational needs and others who have been suspended, expelled or moved on from other schools. Many in society - I do not want to use the word "all" - are willing for that school to exist because there is a race for parents to get their young people into schools at the top of the ladder. It is not fair, does not work and is killing any sort of imagination or goodwill among students and teachers. Teachers are given the impression by parents and society that it is a waste of time to talk about stuff that is not on the curriculum. Parents feel they have to put their kids through the machine, so to speak. They can acknowledge that a school includes extracurricular activities but instead send their child to a grind school because they can afford it.

The leaving certificate makes young people good at doing a leaving certificate. It does not make young people good at anything else. We need to overhaul and radically change the leaving certificate. We, as a political collective, need to be brave and say that, in this day and age, the leaving certificate is no longer fit for purpose. The leaving certificate is pretty much exactly the same now as it was when I sat it in 1994. I think most people who have gone through a leaving certificate year are still slightly traumatised by what they had to do in order to get through it. That is if a student made it that far.

The Minister referred to the Cassells report. We always talk about the price tag attached to education in Ireland and most of the discussions that happen at the school gates or between parents and teachers or principals are about money. People have said to me that if they did not have to talk about money, they could actually talk about education. Staff in schools have told me that they are always asking about a fundraiser, talking about book money and voluntary contributions or being asked about those things. Parents just wish they could talk about education and the development of their children. When it comes to third level or further education, reference has been made to former Minister for Education, Donogh O'Malley, and his work in the 1960s but one only has to go back to the 1990s and another former Minister, Niamh Breathnach, to find the template of political will to abolish third level fees, the funding for which was found from a progressive taxation system. That is how these things should be done.

I believe there is goodwill across this House and I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion that has been laid down. There is a fantastic opportunity for us to grab the initiative here because never before in my political lifetime has education been at the top of the political agenda, as it is now. Never before was there a thirst within the Irish population, the education body, teachers, parents and students to radically overhaul what we do. We should not be married or welded to the leaving certificate because it is the only thing we know. Let us take the opportunity to radically overhaul and reform it. Let us make third level and further education absolutely free. At least then we could return to the basic principle of putting the child at the centre of every decision that we make.

6:00 pm

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Private Members' motion and I thank the Deputies who have brought it before the House. It raises some good points that the Government needs to address in a constructive manner. In the main, I fully support the motion although there are aspects of it that are aspirational and would not be workable.

I come from the Dundalk region of County Louth and the Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT, is on my doorstep. DkIT is, without doubt, one of the most recognisable landmarks in the region and is home to more than 5,000 full-time students. I see at first hand the enormous benefits that the college has brought to the north-east region. Not only does it support 5,000 full-time students, but it has worked with local industry on joint projects to benefit not only industry, but the region itself.

I will speak about some of the points raised in today's motion. The financial hardship that many families face as a result of children going to third level education is simply unacceptable. I note from the motion that Ireland has the highest registration fees in Europe, with amounts ranging from €3,000 to €7,000. It should be noted that those fees are per student per year. Let us take an example of a family with three children attending third level, each of whom completes a four-year term. The cost to the family is €36,000 in registration fees alone, without taking into account the cost of books, travelling and accommodation expenses and so on. When we talk about free education, it is clear that it is not free but a heavy burden on many families. My firm belief is that every person should be given the opportunity to better themselves through education and that financial hardship should not be an obstacle to a third level education. The sad reality, unfortunately, is that financial hardship is a barrier to third level education and needs to be removed.

I agree that we need to take the approach that was taken in the late 1960s when access to secondary school education was extended to all. Now is the time that the same approach should be taken to third level educational opportunities. The present Covid-19 pandemic has caused great difficulty for students, among others. I have always worked very closely with this generation and taken a keen interest in the mental health of young generations. What I have seen during this pandemic has, quite frankly, frightened me. I have seen the mental health of students deteriorate during this period. They have lost out on a full year of social interaction with their peers and the impact that will have on their future development must never be underestimated. The Government must provide whatever hope and support is needed to support students during this most difficult period. I have spoken to many students and heard the same stories over and over again.

I am also being contacted by the parents of students who are extremely worried about the mental health of their children. It is not natural for students of this age group not to be socially active. I fear for the long-term consequences and, in that regard, I totally agree with the call in the motion for free access for all students and apprentices to counselling and personal education services at the point and time of need.

I agree with the motion that for students affected by the Covid pandemic and whose classes were held online, a substantial amount of their fees need to be refunded. I acknowledge that the Government has repaid €250 to students but, in all fairness, that is not nearly enough. I call on the Government to look at this matter again and put a more realistic figure on it. I suggest that a rebate of at least 50% of the fees paid should be refunded to third level students for any years of their courses that have been affected by the pandemic.

The motion before the House seeks to abolish the leaving certificate examination. While I do not agree, I am of the opinion that the leaving certificate is an unnecessary stress for young students and not always a good guide to a student's real ability. I believe that the leaving certificate needs a major overhaul to bring it up to date. The leaving certificate has become a rat race for access to third level education. That is wrong and places too much unnecessary stress on young students. One of the reasons for the rat race is that demand is outstripping supply. There are 80,000 students chasing approximately 52,000 third level places and that is unacceptable. If there are 80,000 students seeking to advance to third level education, then there should be 80,000 places made available for them. Successive Governments have failed in that regard.

The Government is very fond of using statistics when it suits it but if we look at the statistics on Government expenditure on third-level education then we have a different picture. The Government spends less than 6% of gross domestic product on third-level education. When we compare this with other countries, unfortunately, we are nearly at the bottom of the pile. We are 46th out of 50 countries. That is a fall of 29 places since 2017. We need answers on the reason that has happened. Why have we fallen 29 places on expenditure on third-level education in less than four years? The Minister must address this as a matter of urgency.

Returning to the leaving certificate, we must start a conversation on it, as it is out of date and needs a major overhaul. We must ask the difficult questions and get the answers. Has it now become a rat race for CAO points or is it serving a different purpose? If we remove the barriers to third-level education, then the leaving certificate must go. Second-level education could help develop students more for life in general and prepare them better for third-level education if we removed the rat race of CAO points from it. We must develop more resilience among the younger generations so that they can cope better with the demands of modern living. I firmly believe that second-level education can play a major role in the development of young people and produce a more resilient and resourceful student in third-level education, which in turn will better prepare them for the demands of modern life but this can only be done if we remove the CAO points rat race.

I find it frightening that the statistics showed that, on average, one in six students drop out of university in the first year. That needs to be examined to understand the reasons for the alarmingly high drop-out rates. Is it because students have chosen the wrong course and, if so, why has that happened? Do they get enough guidance on the selection of courses? Do we need to look at career guidance at second level? It is obvious that something needs to be done. It is unacceptable that there is a such a high drop-out rate among students in their first year at university.

I acknowledge that the Government has recognised that apprenticeships still have a value in the education system. The apprenticeship scheme has a major part to play in developing students in careers that are financially worthwhile and offer a high job satisfaction rate. I call on the Government to make additional funds available to support apprenticeship schemes. They will play a major part in the post-Covid era. We must be more creative with apprenticeships and not just think of them in a traditional manner. There are many people today who still think that apprenticeships are only for electricians, plumbers and carpenters. We must raise awareness of the many valuable apprenticeships that are available.

I thank the Deputies for bringing this motion to the House. I support many aspects of it, but I cannot support all of it. I call on the Government to look again at refunding fees for students whose courses were affected by Covid. I acknowledge the refund of €250 in respect of fees paid, but this did not go far enough. I call on the Government to refund at least 50% of fees to students whose courses were severely affected by the Covid pandemic. I also call on the Government to drastically increase its annual budget for third-level education so that we are not bottom of the pile when compared with our European neighbours. I further call on the Government to explain why we have slipped 29 places in the space of four years when it comes to spending on third-level education.

I urge the Government to support the motion in respect of giving access to third-level education the same priority it was given in the late 1960s when access to second-level education was made available to everyone.

6:10 pm

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
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Tá áthas orm an deis a fháil labhairt ar an rún seo. Tá mé ag tacú leis an rún. This is a very deep and systematic problem that we are dealing with today in terms of educational disadvantage. As always, it disproportionately affects those in what are termed the lower socioeconomic groups in society. I am aware that the Department is working with the European Commission on the independently appointed consortia of consultants on the Cassells report and that the key aim of the review includes an examination of the funding options for higher education. I hope the Minister's commitment that the review will be completed towards the latter part of quarter 2 of 2021 will materialise.

The Minister will be aware that the issues concerning access are deeply embedded in the education system. In 2019, I called on the then Minister of State with responsibility for higher education, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, to make immediate provision for the re-establishment of the educational disadvantage committee to advise on policies and strategies to be adopted in order to identify and correct educational disadvantage at all levels. I welcome the great work that is being done, but if we are to build on it, then the educational disadvantage committee must be reinstated.

The Higher Education Authority released a report entitled A Spatial & Socio-Economic Profile of Higher Education Institutions in Ireland. The report concluded that students from less well-off backgrounds and geographical areas continue to experience significant and systematic levels of social and class disadvantage in the education system. I know the Minister will accept that it is not a lack of ambition or an absence of dreams for a better future that is the problem for young people; more often than not it is the financial inability to give effect to that ambition. My hope is that the efforts we are making here today and going forward will recognise this and lead to a proper, affordable and fair system of access to third-level education or apprenticeships that young people so richly deserve.

We must broaden the range of apprenticeships available, but we must also ensure that they are promoted as much as possible and that they are seen as being as valuable as a third-level degree. It is very important that perceptions change and that the value of apprenticeships is realised and recognised.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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I fully support the motion. There are so many issues of serious concern to students in higher education. Even last week I raised a matter with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science in the Dáil concerning motor mechanics apprenticeships with SOLAS. Although the students completed phase 2 of their apprenticeship in December 2020, they are still awaiting the official results of exams and cannot progress to the next phase. The course was supposed to take four years, but it now looks like it will take seven years. What plans are in place for those students? That is the kind of situation students find themselves in.

An issue that is raised with me time and again is refunds for accommodation. The families of students are in great difficulty. I am aware of 19 students and their parents who were asked to pay for accommodation since the arrival of Covid even though the students cannot use it. They must pay upfront and in full just in case they go back to college. There is no system in place to refund them. This is not good enough given the times we are in at present. The same is true of fees. Students cannot get refunds. It is ridiculous that they are asked to pay fees upfront when they cannot attend college. It is an outrage and there should be plans in place to help these young people. Students from west Cork and other rural parts of the country have basically been left behind because they do not have broadband. These are serious issues. It is a case of one issue coming on top of another and students are incurring stress as a result. Students try to earn money during the summer, but they could be penalised for that later and they might not be able to get a grant from SUSI, which is terribly unfair. I have often seen situations where the parents' income was just a little over the threshold and the child was disqualified from receipt of a grant from SUSI. Parents are working very hard to pay mortgages and lots of things are not taken into account. It all comes back on the students and their families.

Unfortunately, we will again have the same disaster this year with transport for young children going to school. That is another very stressful issue for families, although it might not fully relate to today's motion. I have often fought in the House for students to get a driving lesson sorted. They are trying to do their theory test and it is ridiculous in this day and age that theory tests cannot be done online. That brings me back to the situation concerning students who are trying to work to subsidise themselves and who must drive to work in rural communities so that they can continue in college. I am sorry, I am eating into my colleague's time.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I thank People Before Profit for tabling this motion. The debate is a timely and interesting one that we should have. Ar an chéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil do na daoine a bhíonn ag obair i SUSI. They do a very hard and dedicated job and they are very helpful. SUSI has settled down now from when it started. There is significant discrimination against rural people. While Covid was a calamity, it should have given us the opportunity to catch the third-level education sector by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake because there is a lot of dead wood and inequalities. Change is badly needed.

I could mention a university for the south east, which is badly needed. Clonmel is affected by the move of Limerick Institute of Technology, LIT, from its current site at the bypass to the old Kickham Barracks, which is a wonderful site. While there are great plans for it, we need that move to be supported.

I spoke to my daughter, who is in University of Limerick, UL, before coming into the Chamber. She said college is like having a website provided. There could have been much more in terms of learning online. It is not fair. More should be done for students. We are now a year into the pandemic and we should be able to adapt and have more functions on campus. For sixth year students going into first year, the world is their oyster. They had a tough year in sixth year, when the leaving certificate had to be changed utterly. All campuses need to do more to allow young people to express themselves, be able to learn more and fulfil themselves in spite of Covid. This is an opportunity to do things differently.

While online learning should have been a wonderful experience, it has not been. People are going on to websites to work. Much more needs to be done by management and those responsible in third level institutions to be more interactive and to physically engage with students as much as possible. They should be allowed on campus and not stuck in their rooms on computers all day. It is the same as giving them a website.

6:20 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the motion on access to higher and further education. I commend Solidarity-People Before Profit on bringing it forward. It is a wide-ranging and detailed motion and to cover all of it would probably take an hour. That is as it should be.

I want to talk about a couple of issues in my contribution. I would like to begin by welcoming the Minister's announcement of a revamp of the Central Applications Office system and its expansion to allow applicants to access options such as apprenticeships and further education and training, a strategy which will be led by SOLAS. I will touch on this in my contribution.

I want to discuss SUSI. In mid-February I raised the need to address issues with the SUSI grant system. I have raised this important matter a number of times, but inadequacies remain. Last month, I called for the eligibility requirements for SUSI grants to be broadened for higher and further education. All students whose parents earn less than €24,500 a year should qualify for a top-up SUSI grant. It is hard to believe that parents who earn less than that do not automatically qualify. The reality is that unless part of a person's income is made up of a qualifying social welfare payment students will not qualify for a top-up, and parents are affected by that rule. The figure of €24,500 is appallingly low for parents to have to depend on.

There are many issues in how the SUSI grant is decided on. One thing which has always been a bone of contention for me is the fact that self-employed people can manipulate the system much better than PRSI workers who cannot hide their income. A PRSI worker can earn a lot less than a neighbour who is self-employed but whose children will qualify for grants.

I have not received any assurances that the impact of coronavirus pandemic on incomes will be taken into account in eligibility assessments for SUSI. This issue relates to those who are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, as well as those who might have experienced changes in self-employment during the pandemic. Assessment of SUSI eligibility should be determined for PAYE workers on net, rather than gross, income, and deductions should be given for childcare and medical expenses.

It is unfair that students must be over 23 years of age to be classed as independent. I have worked with students aged in their 50s and 60s who are still classed as dependent children because it is easier to qualify for the SUSI grant that way as the system does not accommodate them otherwise. It is absolutely crazy.

The relevant age should be lowered to at least 21 years. Young people may live at home longer in Dublin due to skyrocketing rents, but in rural areas they are more likely to live independently than their Dublin counterparts and should be treated as independent students rather than having to rely on their parents' incomes.

I have raised the issue of young graduates in Donegal on several occasions. The Government must actively create opportunities for graduates to remain in rural constituencies. Many of us in Donegal have encouraged our young wains to go to college and university, knowing that it is highly unlikely they will return to their home towns to live and work after graduation. That is the sad reality of the situation. I have three children in college and it is probable that none of them will live in Donegal after they graduate. We are raising our children to go to college and move away. That needs to be reversed.

Where are the job opportunities in the forgotten county? Many people work in the North and are used to travelling back and forth between Donegal, Glasgow and Scotland, but Brexit and Covid have changed all of that. There have been some initial positive reports of people moving back to their home towns during lockdown while they can work from home. The repopulation of rural Ireland is very welcome and I hope the necessary infrastructure and resources are put in place to continue this trend. A train to Donegal might be a bit of a stretch.

My concerns about the working from home phenomenon is that employers will continue to blur the lines of when they expect work to be done. As long as proper boundaries are put in place around the right to switch off, the pandemic creates an opportunity for job opportunities to be decentralised. Workers have to be careful what they wish for because employers will abuse it and make sure they are available at any time of day or night.

I wanted to talk about a number of other issues but I have to give way to my colleague.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I wish to raise a couple of points. I thank People Before Profit for the motion and facilitating this timely debate.

With regard to universal access to third level education, I do not have a problem with thatper sebut we need to be cognisant of what is possible. I studied briefly in Belgium - most of my studies were brief – where everybody could go on to third level education. There, they had started to transfer the pressure that we want to avoid in leaving certificate year to the first year of third level. Everybody gets into first year in third level and there is then massive attrition. The hardest and most stressful exams students in Belgium will probably do in their lives are at the end of first year. There was a huge dropout rate. Allowing people to go to university is not necessarily the solution.

I accept that we need greater access and equality of access, but merely allowing people in does not necessarily negate all of the other inequalities. The same cohort who got through the leaving certificate will probably get through the first year of college with exactly the same unequal assistance that their socioeconomic background can provide. We need to be cognisant that the idea that merely abolishing the leaving certificate as it is and allowing people into first year would be a panacea is not necessarily the case. In certain professions, people are expected to work for nothing or next to nothing for a very long time, and are supported by their parents. That is open to some people in society but not to the vast majority. It is a difficult thing to address but one we necessarily have to address.

The next issue I want to raise is apprenticeships. I appreciate what the Government is trying to do by including apprenticeships into the CAO system. They will not be based on points, but we need to give greater weighting to apprenticeships and not just in the construction sector which is what we typically think of when we talk about apprentices.

I cannot think of the name of the particular series, but RTÉ used to make nuanced, slow and good documentaries about crafts in Ireland, from weaving to saddlery, that we do not find any more. We want to move increasingly to a circular economy and have fewer disposable products. What proportion of shoes are now repaired? Are they are worn until there is a blemish in them and then thrown out?

I do not suggest that people should work for nothing or cheaply, that the type of labour people traditionally carried out should be cheaper or that people should not be paid as much as any other professionals in our economy. They should be. Rather, I am pointing out that there are dwindling skills that need to be protected. Saddlery, wood turning, weaving and other highly intricate skills, which existed throughout our State until about 20 years ago are now dwindling and need to be protected.

I am not entirely convinced that the way to do that is just through putting access to these trades or skills on a CAO course. A much greater change in mindset is required from the Department. While I commend the intention behind putting apprenticeships in the CAO system, it may be counterproductive and even if it is not, it simply is not enough. We need to stress to people that third level and the academic third level system is not for everybody and should not be for everybody. That is not to say that it should be for people from a certain background and not for others. There are people from all sorts of backgrounds who are not particularly interested in studying algebra at third level and should not have to.

6:30 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We will now hear from the Minister of State.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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"Hands" was the name of the programme.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Very good.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputies for their contributions to this debate. I know that access to education is an issue close to the heart of many Members. As the Minister, Deputy Harris, outlined, since the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science was formed last August we have been working to build a strong, flexible and inclusive further and higher education sector for Ireland. Our statement of strategy sets out both our vision of what the further and higher education sector should be and the actions we need to take to achieve this. Over recent years there has been a significant programme of re-investment in higher education and we will continue to build on this. We are committed to engaging in the funding reform process in order to ensure that the further and higher education system is fully and sustainably resourced to deliver the highest quality education possible.

We have ambitious plans to reform the national skills agenda, broaden access to education and ensure that the further and higher systems are integrated so that students and learners can progress along educational pathways that best allow them to develop their skills and reach their full potential. We must ensure that students are aware of all the options available to them as they leave school, so that they can make an informed decision on the pathways best suited for them.

We are taking an inclusive approach to ensure that everyone is provided with the supports they need to participate fully in education. Policies such as our ten-year strategy to improve literacy, numeracy and digital skills are indicative of our commitment to ensuring that education is an option for everyone. Fostering inclusion is one of the core pillars around which the further education and training strategy is built and the national plan for equity of access to higher education sets out a vision of a student body that represents the diversity and social mix of Ireland’s population.

This has been a very difficult year for students and the Government has taken action to mitigate the difficulties they are facing. We have doubled the funding available in the student assistance fund, provided €15 million to support access to laptops and other devices and to bridge the digital divide and €50 million was provided to offer financial assistance to higher education students through a €250 grant or fee rebate.

I fully appreciate the sentiment behind the motion and I assure Deputies that access to education for all will remain a core tenet of my Department. The Minister and I will continue to work to create a tertiary education system that can act as an engine of progress and innovation in this country and that provides an opportunity for all to realise their full potential.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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We have heard often, correctly, during the Covid crisis much concern about mental health impacts, especially on our young people during all the restrictions that have been imposed on them. Sometimes those expressing concerns for young people and their mental health do not generally have a record of concerning themselves about the plight of young people or the issue of mental health in our society. There is no doubt that Covid has impacted on young people in a dangerous and unpredictable way. I am struck by the often hysterical reaction to incidents involving breaches of the restrictions. As regrettable as they are, it is seldom that the same commentators or politicians find space or time to verbalise the same level of outrage in relation to meat plants, construction or other vested interests in business that have done more to take risks that could spread the Covid virus. I did not hear those same voices talk about the impact on young people's mental health when previous Governments slashed their jobseeker's allowance, because they could, because of their age and it has never been restored or when they cut back spending on many of the youth services that are desperately needed to intervene with young people at high risk. Our motion tries to address a range of issues. My colleagues have raised most of them, but I wish to make some general points.

One element which frequently goes under the radar is the position of many young people in apprenticeships. They have to undertake placements and on-site work to progress in their apprenticeships. Covid has thrown much of that into disarray across their grades and set sectors into turmoil. Their ability to get work and to progress, or even to get work to survive, and continue with their apprenticeships has been hugely impacted by Covid. It has shone a light on many weaknesses in our education, health and other services. In the apprentice schemes there are problems which are specific to Covid including delays and lack of training spaces, but the underlying issue here, as with many issues, is the actual financial and other supports that we offer students and apprentices. It would be possible to live with the delays and backlogs in terms of trying to combat a pandemic if young people were assured of getting the supports they need to survive not just in crisis but in general during their education and apprenticeships and that they would not face the same pressures with finance, housing and so on.

We accept a fiction in this country about our education system and, indeed, our society in general. That fiction says that we are a classless society and that education is the great leveller. I even heard the Taoiseach say this in a discussion earlier, the idea that with effort and application, any student can succeed. No doubt many do and many will despite the barriers but it remains a fiction nonetheless, a myth that seeks to hide the reality that this is a deeply class-divided society and system and a society in which the odds and the game are stacked against some young people from a very early age. That is partly why the leaving certificate is elevated to a position of some immense milestone that filters young people and so gravely determines their path in life. If we are truly concerned with young people's mental health then the first step would be to scrap the leaving certificate and to end the pressure it places on young people as some final say in what their future and their future education can be. We know that the playing field is never level and that the leaving certificate structure discriminates severely against many young people but that discrimination and disadvantage does not start with the leaving certificate exam itself but much earlier. The leaving certificate simply amplifies the problem. That is why the majority of Traveller children do not complete second level education and why children from migrant backgrounds leave school much earlier than their native Irish counterparts. At the same time, school leavers from affluent backgrounds are most likely to achieve high CAO points, giving them a much greater choice in college. Some 32% of students in the leaving certificate with 550 points or more are from the wealthiest families, compared to 3% from the most disadvantaged.

Professor Kathleen Lynch points out that "it is not the job of a democratic Government to ensure that the wealthiest can perpetuate their class privilege through inheriting excessive private wealth at the expense of precarious, low-waged workers on the one hand, and failing to intervene in educational policies that are blatantly class biased on the other."

6:40 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I thank everyone who contributed to this debate. Mostly, however, I thank young people and students for forcing these issues to the top of the agenda, especially during this period of Covid-19. I thank the leaving certificate students this year and last year who simply refused to do the leaving certificate examinations, despite the Government's obsession with trying to carry on with them. Those students insisted they were not going to be forced to do the leaving certificate examinations and they forced the Government to respond to them.

I also thank the student nurses and midwives who educated us all about the dishonesty of the praise for front-line healthcare workers when thousands of student nurses and midwives were working for nothing on the front line during their placements. I thank the occupational therapists, the radiographers and the physiotherapists who contacted us. I extend my thanks as well to the graduate entry medical students, graduate entry pharmacy students and other student health professionals in training for raising the issue of how difficult it is for them to continue and complete their education because of the cost of fees and the exorbitant cost of accommodation. They are just sick of the situation.

In a time when we need those students more than ever, we are making it extraordinarily difficult for them. We put immense pressure and stress on them, instead of making it easier for those students to complete their education, which is of benefit to us all. If we have learned anything from the experience of Covid-19, it is that we need these young people. We need them in our health services. We need young people to build the houses we so desperately require. We need more teachers in our overcrowded classrooms, which are some of the most overcrowded in Europe. We could through the whole list of such requirements.

I thank the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, for their "Education for All" campaign which plays a central part in this motion. The members of that organisation are determined to fight to get rid of fees and to remove the barriers to getting into and completing courses of education. I heard the Minister saying he agrees with much of the sentiment of this motion, but that it will take time to achieve progress and we can only do it incrementally etc.. It is just not good enough to say that he agrees with the sentiment of the motion.

The fact of the matter is that 80,000 students have applied to the CAO application process but only 55,000 places are available. Consequently, 25,000 students who have gone through the anxiety, the hardship, the stress, the competition and the pressure that is associated with the leaving certificate examinations every year - but that has been added to even more this year because college applications are being undertaken in the midst of a pandemic - are going to be disappointed. Potentially, they are going to be demoralised. It is already an extraordinarily difficult situation. Who is to blame for that? It is the Government and the State, because they should have provided the required 80,000 places. Nobody should have to be demoralised, depressed, feel excluded and be denied access to that next level of education.

If we do not address this situation now, then when will we? If this is not the moment for the Government to make the radical changes to ensure people can progress to the higher education, further education or apprenticeship courses of their choice, then when is it going to do that? If this is not the moment when the Government is going to scrap the fees to remove the pressure that leads to the mental health problems suffered by so many young people and address the great financial pressure being placed on so many families, then when will we do it? If we are not going to regularise the situations of the thousands of people working in the higher education system who are on part-time and temporary contracts and who are underpaid and living in poverty, then when are we going to do that? We need people who do research and who push the boundaries of science, art, culture and technological advancement. If we are not going to address this situation now, after this pandemic and the existential challenge it has posed to our society, then when are we going to do it?

We propose this motion on that basis and I encourage the students and young people who made their voices heard over the last year to continue that fight for education for all.

Amendment put.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Insofar as a vote has been called, it is deferred until the next weekly division time can be held. I thank the Deputies for their co-operation on this matter.