Thursday, 19 May 2022
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Further and Higher Education
106. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if measures will be taken as part of budget 2023 to ensure that all financial barriers for those wishing to undertake further education or apprenticeship courses are removed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25334/22]
I do not know what school they are from but I was going to refer to the young people in the Visitors Gallery as well. I am not sure what year they are in but when they finish school, many of them will be looking to go to higher or further education or do apprenticeships. That would be good for them and also for our society because we need people in construction, medicine, the health service, in the arts and so on. However, we are putting barrier after barrier in the way of people actually getting in to third level or continue there. We should remove all financial, fee and other barriers.
I too welcome the students and thank them for being here. I want them to know that we are going to put an education system in place that means they can get to wherever they want in life. I urge them please to join in a conversation about broader educational opportunities, university, further education, apprenticeships - there are so many different ways of getting where they want to go. I thank them and welcome them to the Dáil.
A key priority for me, the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and everybody in this House is reducing the cost of education. I hope my comments have not made the students leave. Maybe they have gone to sign up for the apprenticeships.
We have already taken action on the matters raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett. I am sure he will welcome it. We abolished the post-leaving certificate course, PLC, levy. There was a €200 per year levy to do a PLC course. We were telling people to go back to education and do a PLC course and then we were charging them for the privilege. We abolished the levy with effect from September. That has been welcomed across the sector. The Deputy will also know that we introduced for the first time ever a fund called "mitigating against education disadvantage". For the first time ever, we are providing funds to community education projects including in his own constituency and including laptops and sensory rooms. It funded over 500 projects in 2020 and 600 projects in 2021. We have made it a permanent part of the landscape.
We introduced apprenticeship bursary schemes targeted at supporting under-represented groups including female participation in apprenticeships. We will make further progress on this in budget 2023 in October. We are working to reduce and remove financial barriers. The Deputy is right that this is not just about the cost of living, although that is an important part. It is also about the skills needs of our country. I believe we can do more in the budget.
The Minister knows our position. We think we should get rid of all fees and all financial barriers. Now is the time for bold moves. We are facing chronic shortages in a number of areas such as construction, education, medicine and almost every area one can imagine. I want to ask about one particular group, though. There is a chronic shortage of psychologists and the result is real suffering, particularly for children with special needs. They cannot get assessments or services. We are putting shocking barriers in the way of people getting doctorates in psychology. Clinical psychology is partially funded but educational and counselling psychology are not. People doing doctorates which are necessary to qualify are paying extortionate fees of €11,000 a year and are having to work for free on placement. Their counterparts in clinical psychology are paid €36,000 a year. It is madness to put that barrier in their way.
As the Deputy knows, in respect of reducing financial barriers, we have already removed a number of them. We have increased student grants for the first time in a decade, meaning that many people will see their student grants increase by more than 25% in September. Also, when I became Minister, while the commitment in the programme for Government was not to increase the registration fee, we have now managed to publish a paper that commits to reducing it and increasing student grants. We are making policy progress on improving access and recognising education as a public good.
The issue of psychologists strays quite a bit from the question on further education and apprenticeships. However, I take the Deputy's point. The role of my Department is to work with line Departments such as Education or Health, which can bring forward ideas and proposals in terms of assistance they need from us in providing more college places and we respond. It is a matter for the line Department, be that Health or Education in respect of the specific issue of psychology. I am happy to look into the issue, talk to my colleagues and revert to the Deputy in writing.
The question is really getting at barriers. By the way, I think we should get rid of all apprenticeship fees for college, for the bit apprentices have to do in college. There is a campaign on that. I was asked by someone doing educational psychology to raise this so I am taking the opportunity.
A Vision for Change recommended that we have 190 psychologists in the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS. Currently we have 90, less than half of what was recommended more than a decade ago. There is real suffering for very vulnerable children as a result. Then we have people like Áine who wrote to me, and I have received multiple representations, who wants to do educational psychology. They are paying €11,000 in fees and have to work four days a week on placement doing this work but are paid nothing. To make a bad situation worse, they are working side by side with people who happen to be on clinical psychology courses who are being paid €37,000 to €40,000 for doing the same work and who do not have to pay fees. That inequity has to be addressed.
We spoke earlier about the overall cost of education. I take the Minister at his word that he is committed to third level education as a public good. That must mean something, particularly in respect of apprenticeships. The Minister outlined earlier efforts that were being made to tackle the backlog but it is not being done fast enough. When does the Minister project that we will have no waiting lists in apprenticeships? The cost of the extra waiting time is not only in terms of cost of accommodation and the fees that are involved but also in terms of not being paid what they should be paid. If a student was starting at Trinity tomorrow morning for a four-year degree course and then it turned out to be six years, there would be hell to pay. Why should it be any different for an apprentice?
I thank the Deputies. It is because of the importance and the sensitivity of the issue Deputy Boyd Barrett raises that I want to get him a more substantive reply than I have here. If he would like to send me Áine's correspondence I will certainly discuss that. My understanding on the issue of payment for placements is that it is a matter for a Department other than mine. The Deputy might still let me, as a member of Government, see if I can make progress for him on that and come back to him and to Áine with a more detailed answer.
In response to Deputy Conway Walsh, I do not mean this in any flippant or smart way but we need to have a common and shared understanding of what we mean by "waiting". As we increase the number of people coming in to apprenticeships, and we are seeing a massive increase, there will always be people who are waiting. I think what the Deputy and I both mean is people who are waiting longer than they should be. In respect of the people waiting longer than they should be, I expect during the course of this year for massive progress to be made in that regard. In fairness to my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, a large amount has been allocated in additional funding. There has been a lot of flexibility shown by the sector. A lot of it, although not all of it, does arise from the Covid backlog. It is not a lack of resources on our part because we are throwing more money than ever before at apprenticeships. It is so vital. It is requiring physical expansion to capacity and additional staffing as well.