Dáil debates

Thursday, 2 June 2022

Higher Education Investment and Costs: Statements


1:20 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss plans for future investment in the higher education sector. I have just come from Trinity College Dublin, where we have made an investment that I am particularly pleased we have managed to make together. I thank Deputies on all sides. I know they all work on and support this issue. We have announced that €3 million will be provided immediately to make our campuses more autistic inclusive in order to support autistic students in navigating third level education. This €3 million is being disbursed across all publicly funded higher education institutions and will cover things like: sensory rooms; student and staff awareness; pathfinder and wayfinding apps; and using technology to teach. It will make a real and substantial difference in the context of making sure that autistic students can access third level education and thrive within it. There is a second aspect to this as well. We have announced €3 million in funding each year from now out to 2026 for universities to come forward with pathways and programmes for students with intellectual disabilities. We have the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities, which is quite inspiring, and we have good work going on in many places but we want more ideas and we want people to put up their hands in universities and colleges saying they can provide programmes for students with disabilities, pointing how they can do it and drawing down from that €12 million fund that we are announcing today. It is timely, therefore, that we are having these statements today.

We have also been embarking on significant reforms in the sector through the publication in recent weeks of the Funding the Future policy document. In addition, we have made significant policy announcements on the important issue of reducing the cost of education and the cost of living for students and their families. We cannot be found wanting when it comes to addressing the question of investing in and sustainably funding higher education in the longer term. It has profound impacts for our economy, society and, most importantly, for the citizens we serve. I also believe that we need to have a system that is sustainable for students and their families. It irks me when people try to play one off against the other and suggest that it is not possible to do two things at the same time. Of course it is possible. You can sustainably fund the universities while still believing that the registration fee and needs to be reduced. In the new Funding the Future document, we have outlined €307 million in funding that must go into the universities if they are to be properly funded. This is not my figure; it was not plucked from the air. It is a figure on which we worked with the European Commission, Indecon and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and we have published a technical paper as to how we got there. It is a figure that we must put into the system over the three budgets left in the lifetime of this Government.

We have also said that alongside that we must address the cost of education. I get irked when people say it is all about the core funding. It must be about both. It must be sustainable for the universities and for students and their families.

On the same day we published Funding the Future, we also published the review of the student grant scheme. It is essential we get this right too. The cost of living, and indeed circumstances generally, have changed an awful lot over the course of the decade that has passed since the SUSI scheme was first put in place. In publishing our funding document we have ruled out the possibility of introducing student loans into the system. Instead the Exchequer - the citizens, the taxpayer - will increase public investment because education is a public good. Employer contributions will remain through the National Training Fund but we are not intending to increase them. The student contribution fee, while being retained, will be reduced over time. We have that twin-track approach now. A funding gap of €307 million is identified and there is a plan on how to fund that but we are also progressing addressing the cost of education for higher education students.

Our plan for the future revolves around an effective system performance and universal access to education. In prioritising core funding increases, we must also ensure we deliver the system we want. As Deputies may know, we have established an implementation group co-chaired by myself, Professor Tom Collins and Professor Anne Looney. It had its first meeting last week. The purpose of the group is to ask, if and when we have sustainably funded higher education, what we want this system to look like. Again, I do not think this is controversial; I think we have a shared understanding of what the system should look like right across the sector. It must mean better staff-student ratios. The European average is about 15:1. In Ireland it is about 20:1. The €307 million must get us to a better staff-student ratio and get us in line with that 15:1 figure. It must mean better pathways between further and higher education. Gone must be the days when the person who does the nursing post-leaving certificate course must then go abroad to get a nursing degree place. That is not right and it does not work.

We must also deal with the issue of access. This means access for people from a whole range of backgrounds, including those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students with disabilities and others. We must put the skills in place. Our universities are not just there to serve the economy but we must ensure they help us meet the skills needs of our country with respect to how we are going to build the homes we need, bring about the climate action we need and how we are going to prepare for the digital transformation that is well underway in our country and in our world.

The fifth pillar is we must reduce the cost of education. Hand in glove with the increase in funding there is a reform process. That is important and it will be overseen by the implementation group. I will come back to that in a moment.

The SUSI grant review was a significant piece of work because now we have an evidence base and not just anecdote for what we must do to progress student supports over the next number of years. I am sure colleagues will be interested to hear over 9,000 people participated in our consultation on the SUSI review. This perhaps gives an indication of the depth of feeling around the issue. As a result of the review we have already made some early decisions in the last budget to address some of the recommendations. For the first time in over a decade there will be significant changes to the rates of eligibility for students accessing the student grant scheme. There will be an increase to all student maintenance grant payments of €200 per year. There will be an increase in the income thresholds to qualify for the standard rate of a student grant by €1,000 and the non-adjacent rate of the grant will be available to qualifying students who live 30 km or more from college rather than 45 km, as was the case up to now. This will apply to students from September. That is quite significant, by the way. I sometimes hear people saying a €200 increase in the grant is not going to cut it but as a result of those changes, many students could see their grants increase by 25%, 30% or 33%.

I wish to be very honest with the House that we cannot shy away from the findings. They are stark and clear. We have much more we need to do. We need to start doing that in the next budget and we need to keep doing it in each subsequent budget. The report has highlighted that while Ireland has achieved high rates of attainment, other changes during this time, including student costs and inflation, have the potential to impact on some of these important gains. The research from the review also confirms that without student grant support, many would not have attended third level education. Overall, it shows a system that has worked well in targeting those most in need but one that now needs to be reformed to catch up to where we are in terms of the world and country.

Starting this year - this is an important development for the Oireachtas and not just the Government - my Department will continually assess the cost of education for people who use the system and will publish in advance of the budget an annual cost of education paper. This will be a key lever for Government and I am sure the Opposition, to consider transparently and accurately the costs involved in accessing third level across the population and bringing forward proposals and ideas such as what will happen if I increase the grant by a certain amount or if we reduce the registration fee by a certain amount. It is my honest belief student representatives have a legitimate point when they say the single most effective option to advance access to education is to address upfront costs for students. Those families who do not qualify for SUSI also need a policy response to soften the blow of the rising cost of living. I believe that very strongly. I am committed to ensuring younger generations have their voices heard and their lived experiences expressed in policy outcomes. The cost of education paper each year in advance of the budget will provide an opportunity to do that. It is crucial the Government and my Department use all the policy levers available to reduce the burden on families subject to annual budgetary decisions.

I turn to the reform agenda for higher education. Hand in glove with funding must come reform. We plan on providing more funding for universities, we have developed new technological universities in the regions and plan on bringing about new academic contracts for staff to ensure those technological universities can reach their full potential. These are a number of the reforms we will progress over the coming years. In the last week I have established the implementation group I referenced. It is there to provide guidance to my Department on the roll-out of the funding and reform framework and to focus on creating a unified system and improving pathways between further and higher education. As I have said, I co-chaired the first meeting of this group on 25 May and thank Professor Tom Collins and Professor Anne Looney for agreeing to co-chair it with me. The group membership is comprised of enterprise, student and societal voices and Government and agency representatives. I am really excited about what this group can achieve for our third level system for our younger generations like school-leavers but also for adults learning through life. At the meeting on 25 May the group agreed to divide its work stream into two core working groups with one focused on unifying the higher education system and improving quality and one driving skills, engagement and participation with and in the system, as well as addressing cost barriers to participation. These working groups will follow the fivefold approach to drive accountability and improvements in our higher education sector, as outlined in the plan I have published and taken Deputies through.

I also want the Oireachtas to know it is my clear view passing the Higher Education Authority Bill 2022, or HEA Bill, is an essential part of the reform agenda. We have worked quite constructively on this. We have had Second Stage in this House, Committee Stage at the select committee and we will shortly have Report Stage - I think this month. This will be an important system to ensure there is an appropriate governance, oversight and performance framework. We remain on track to have this legislation passed and enacted this year.

I mention also an issue I have been commenting on in recent days that is important. At the moment students have an income disregard of €4,500. He or she can earn €4,500 outside term time and not have it accounted towards their eligibility for SUSI. That figure was last set in 2016. It was €3,000 before that. It is time to increase it further because €4,500 is not the same now as it was in 2016 in the context of both inflation and the minimum wage. If a student wants to work this summer, such as by helping out the local pub, restaurant, shop, hotel or whatever business is in need of staff, we should be rewarding work rather than penalising it. It is my intention to increase that threshold so a student can earn more this summer without it impacting on their student grant when they next apply in 12 months time. I will provide the House with details of that once I have finalised my consideration of it but I hope to make an early decision on it in the coming days as well.

I should also tell the House it is my intention, when we talk about how we are going to invest in higher education, to publish a new national access plan at the end of this month or the very start of next month. This will endeavour to build on some of the progress we have made on access to third-level education. I do not mean that in a political sense but refer to the progress we have made as a country. We now see 66% of school-leavers going directly from school into higher education but that masks a reality and another headline figure, which is that transfer rate is lower in certain schools. It is lower in Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, schools. From memory it is around 40%. We are looking at what we need to do in the form of concrete actions in the national access plan to improve participation rates in socio-economically disadvantaged areas and for lone parents. It is about recognising not every student is a school-leaver. Students are now in their 40s, 50s and 60s with full-time jobs and have dependants and mortgages. They need an education system that is more flexible.

I also wish to give Deputies a preview that we intend to bring forward and include as a priority group care-leavers, that is, people who have grown up in the care system. There has been great work done across this House on highlighting them as a priority group. Also, as I have announced today, we are including for the very first time students with intellectual disabilities and students with autism. I could stand here, as could predecessors and successors, and say we are making great progress on access, and we are, but again the headline figures flatter because we have not been measuring participation rates of certain groups of people with disabilities or indeed certain groups in society. What Deputies can expect to see in the national access plan - we would be delighted to go before the committee and work with Deputies across the House on this - is new priority groups but also a new way of measuring. It is not enough just to say they got in the door of the college. It must be about how they got on in college and what happened after college with employment. We will bring that to Cabinet at the end of this month and publish it over the summer.

A range of important policies that set out a vision and direction for higher education funding are now in place. After years of debate, and, perhaps, ducking and diving, we have endeavoured to settle the question of how much sustainable funding needs to go into higher education. Deputies would be correct in telling me that how we deliver the funding in the forthcoming budget and the remaining budgets due during this Government's term of office is what we will be judged on. It is a challenge I very much accept. I look forward to working with people on all sides of the House.

1:35 pm

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for his statement and I welcome this opportunity to debate higher education again. I was very encouraged earlier by the announcement of ring-fenced funding for autistic students. I know the Minister agrees that it should have been done years ago. It is also important to measure and track outcomes so we can get real value for money and that the money can make a real difference to the lives of autistic students and students with intellectual disabilities. I have always felt on a broader level that we have missed out so much as a nation by not investing in young people with autism and autistic people of all ages. Many of them have unique talents that have not been fulfilled, and it is important to see that happen now.

I do not know if the education of staff will be done through the Middletown education centre. That centre was set up in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement. We visited it with former Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin. The work done there is really good. The centre is important because it has much experience and knowledge built up in the context of training staff.

The Minister will have heard about the plight of international students this morning. There are some shocking stories. These are mostly students coming here to study English. For a long time there have been reports of landlords, employers and agents taking advantage of these vulnerable students. We have heard of six students crammed into a disused nightclub and charged €4,000 for the privilege. We must do something to protect these students. The Minister must engage with his Government colleagues because this cuts across a number of briefs. We must end both this racketeering and this exploitation of these young people. Since inflation became an issue and with the economy the way it is, racketeering and exploitation seem to be going on wholesale. This type of behaviour needs to be called out across all Departments.

Many of these students and workers are in low-paid but vital jobs. Many of them worked in nursing homes as carers during the pandemic. They deserve to be treated with respect and protected. The Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Act 2019 contains legislative provisions for the establishment of a new national learner protection fund and the international education mark. These measures were intended to increase the quality assurance protection of learners in the practices surrounding recruitment, information provision and student welfare. I have raised this matter with the Minister in the past but there has not been any progress in respect of it.

There is also the question of protecting our own students who are heading abroad on J1 visas. Many are in danger of losing large sums due to the delays in securing their visas through USIT. That cohort of students and their families should be looked after.

I commend the Minister's clear statement that fees will not continue at their current level. That is really important. Over the years we have seen the financial burden arising from a deficit of funding at third level being pushed onto students and their families. We have the highest fees in the EU, unaffordable on-campus accommodation and no support for part-time students. I have much more to say about this matter but I am really concerned about the number of families who have contacted me in the past few weeks because they were refused the SUSI grant. I welcome the measures that will be introduced in September but even with those, the thresholds are too low. Any of the increases introduced in last year's budget have been eaten up by people's household spending. The financial status presented in a grant application bears in no way any resemblance to the reality for many of these households.

I welcome that the Minister has said he will increase the threshold for working students. Is there any possibility, in light of current circumstances, that the measure could be brought forward in order that those who worked over the past number of months and are being assessed now could be considered retrospectively? We need these students in the labour market as well. We should find ways for the really hard-working families and parents just over the threshold to find some relief this year because of the economic circumstances.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I was the first person in my family to go to university and I am very proud of that. I said it before on the record of the House. When I graduated, albeit a small bit after I could have, shall we say, it was a very proud day for me and my family. I experienced third level as what we might call a straightforward student, or one going straight from secondary school to university. I returned to university at the age of 21, after my daughter was born, to finish my degree. I also went on to do a master's degree. I have seen it from both sides; I know what it is like to come in straight from school, which is grand, and how to do it as a mature student with a small child, which was challenging but extremely worthwhile. When studying for my undergraduate and master's degrees, I worked in UCD. I worked in catering, security and administration for a while. Back then, the jobs in UCD were considered very good but, thinking back now, it was the start of the introduction of precarious work, fixed-term contracts and the commodification of the work of educators. That was in the early to mid-1990s.

I have seen the very positive impact that access to third level education can have and it can be transformative, particularly for people who come from disadvantaged working class communities. There is power in education and the confidence it gives to people. It is something we must share because it is so important and valuable. I was very lucky to work in the education sector for a number of years when I was with a small independent college. I also worked for the Higher Education and Training Awards Council for a number of years, which is now Quality and Qualifications Ireland. That gave me insight into how the education system works, and sometimes does not work, for learners, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Towards the end of my time as a union organiser, I spent two and a half years in the education sector representing people in the education and training boards, institutes of technology and the university sector. That was an eye-opener all right. There was a quality in the job and I saw the erosion of what would have been considered very good jobs by precarious contracts, people not being paid over the summer or as-and-when-required contracts. This was in an area it would genuinely not be expected; as a union official, I certainly did not expect it.

This is on the Minister, the Government, aided and abetted by its previous partners in government, namely, those in the Labour Party, and Fianna Fáil. There is a crisis in the education sector and it is no longer considered a great place to work, although it should be. It does not have that reputation any more. Between registration fees, textbooks, the cost of transport and rent, many families cannot afford to send their kids to college. They are looking at taking out loans so their kids can access college. On the flip side, the quality of jobs at third level is being eroded.

We all know some students being forced to undertake significant part-time jobs. I referred to my working in catering at UCD, which was handy because I could fit in shifts around my work. Not everybody gets those kinds of jobs. More and more we are hearing of students having to undertake what is effectively full-time work, which cannot really be done if that person is trying to study. I do not have technical or scientific qualifications - it is a general arts degree - but I would not have been able to do that and work full-time. That is impossible but many students are forced to undertake it because the parents simply do not have the cash to be able to keep them attending college.

Before the recent explosion in inflation, parents and students were struggling, and they will struggle even more now, with rent and transport costs.

All of these costs are absolutely crippling parents. It should not be the case that a young person who is preparing for the leaving certificate examination or a mature person who is considering going back to college should have to worry about where the money is going to come from for third level. Students who are sitting the leaving certificate examination in a few days from now should not be thinking they would love to go to college but that they must not ask their parents for support because they just cannot afford it.

I welcome the Minister's indication that he will publish a cost of education paper. I urge him to listen to the voices of the Irish Second-Level Students Union, the Union of Students in Ireland and, indeed, the trade unions representing workers in the education sector. He must work with them to take what can be learned from the report, and he must implement it to ensure access to education is for everybody.

1:45 pm

Photo of Pauline TullyPauline Tully (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I am hugely concerned about the worrying shortage of staff within disability services, particularly services for children. The progressing disability services model saw the establishment of 91 children's disability network teams. However, there is a vacancy rate of 28%, on average, across all teams. This amounts to more than 700 vacancies, with some teams having a vacancy rate of 33%. There is a need, in particular, for occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech and language therapists and psychologists. When I look at the number of students who are undertaking courses in those areas, I am very worried. There are insufficient numbers to meet demand.

According to a recent workforce census of children's disability network teams carried out by the HSE, there is a shortage of 122 occupational therapists. However, according to figures supplied to me by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, there were only 126 students undertaking the relevant course in 2020, which was the most recent year for which figures were available. The situation with speech and language therapy is very similar. It has been identified that there are 117 vacancies within the teams, but only 119 students were undertaking the course in 2020. These figures relate only to the shortages within the 91 children's disability network teams. They do not take into account other areas of healthcare and education, which will be competing with one another to recruit these students when they graduate. Primary care will be looking to recruit students, as will the education sector as we see the roll-out, we hope, of the social inclusion model currently being piloted.

Does the Minister have plans to address these extreme staff shortages? I am sure he, like all of us, is hearing from constituents about the devastating effect the lack of services in the children's disability network teams is having on children with additional needs and their families. There must be a plan to increase drastically the numbers undertaking the relevant courses. Work needs to be done not only with those already in third level but also with those currently in second level education to encourage the take-up of these courses in universities.

According to a head teacher who has worked to create inclusive environments in education and employment for people with disabilities, there were 15,846 students registered with disability support services in the 2019-20 academic year. This represented 6.3% of the total student population. That figure is very low compared with the percentage of people in the State with a disability, which is 13.5%. Ireland has one of the lowest employment rates in the European Union, at 26.2%, for people with disabilities. If we genuinely want to address this, students must be encouraged to pursue further study. The current employment rate, however, does not offer great encouragement.

All reasonable accommodations must be put in place to assist students to participate fully in third level education. There must be flexibility around course times and how courses are delivered in terms of blended and online options. If a student requires additional time to complete a course, that should be facilitated. Lecture content and study materials should always be available in a format that is accessible to all students. Education, including at third level, must incorporate the universal design for learning principles to guide institutions in making education accessible for all and to ensure we have shared educational campuses. Training should be provided to all academic and higher education staff on their legal obligations to students with disabilities. Some students have been made to feel uncomfortable when highlighting their needs and rights in this area.

Advances in technology have had a huge impact on the lives of people with disabilities. As much as possible must be done to ensure students with disabilities in Ireland have access to the vast range of technological solutions that now exist to support them. They should not have to fight for every support they require. Provision for all students, irrespective of need, should be available. We know from numerous and varied research findings that people with a disability are more likely to struggle with financial hardship. Access to the required finances should never be a barrier to such a person accessing his or her right to an education. It is vital that the higher education access route, HEAR, and the disability access route to education, DARE, schemes are adequately funded to support students throughout their academic and social lives in college.

There remains a huge demand for publicly funded diagnostic services for students who cannot avail of disability supports without an official diagnosis but who cannot afford to access private diagnostic services. There must be increased supports for mental health resources in institutions for students who need that support because of disability. It is vital that students with disabilities and their representatives are involved at every step of these conversations.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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First, I am disappointed that this is the conversation we are having this afternoon. The Labour Party had asked that we discuss special education. Nobody in the Opposition asked for this debate. We will not have an opportunity for another two weeks to discuss the fact that 270 children do not have a school place for September. Having said that, the issue we are discussing today is an important one.

Having listened to the discussion on "Morning Ireland" earlier today, I raise the outrageous situation facing people who have come here from all over the world to learn English. Our reputation has been tarnished by those who would abuse these people in such a disgraceful fashion by putting them in substandard accommodation in makeshift nightclubs and on disused sites. The country's reputation has taken something of a hammering in this regard. One young woman spoke on the radio about how she will tell everybody she knows in Brazil not to come to Ireland to learn English. It is important that the House deals robustly with this issue.

We all believe in the power of education and that it is the great leveller. I was a beneficiary of the free fees scheme, as it was known, in the mid-1990s. We no longer have anything like that system. Instead, we have gone backwards. The Minister and I have spoken before about his vision in this regard. He certainly has said all the right things and made all the right noises about bringing down costs for families when a child attends further or higher education. We often refer to the Cassells report. There is a section within the report that advocates the introduction of a capital assets test. When the Minister and I were in government together not so long so, abortion was the only issue that got members of his party in more of a flap than the idea of the potential introduction of a capital assets test for access to the full suite of grants for third level education. We identified individuals with €250,000 in their bank accounts who were able to get the full grant provision for their children. There was a scenario whereby if people could employ the services of an accountant, they could manage to muscle their way into the grant system, which is supposed to facilitate those who most need support to go to college. Of course, the proposal was never adopted because of the heavy lobbying by those who are quite powerful in political circles in Ireland. What is the Minister's view on the introduction of a capital assets test, as advocated for in the Cassells report?

It is depressing to hear the Tánaiste speak about tax cuts being the priority for him when it comes to the budgetary cycle. Are we not learning anything about the capacity of the State to do more to bring down the cost of living outside of the tax code? There are basic provisions across Europe and even on this island that people take for granted will be provided free at the point of access. Yes, they pay for them through their taxation system but there is no direct cost. We have spoken about free GP care, free schoolbooks, free third level education and affordable childcare. However, when it comes to the Tánaiste's interaction with the budgetary cycle, he cannot divorce himself from talking about tax cuts. It is utterly depressing. Collectively, the political system - or, more accurately, the Government - has thrown away €500 million. We are all talking about the point on which the Minister opened the debate, which is access for people with autism to third level institutions. There are many issues that are causing massive hurt and pain for people around the country.

All these significant issues are causing families distress, but the answer last October was to throw away €0.5 billion. The Tánaiste's idea is still to do something similar in this budgetary cycle, not understanding in any way the difference it would make to a family to have all these educational elements available for free or at least at a cost that would be much more affordable, as is the case across Europe.

It is often said that third level education is not everything, that we should not get so obsessed about it and that we should get rid of some of the stigmas attached to other forms of further and higher education. The Minister was correct when he said that. The people who always say this in forums like this or in the media, however, are people who have had a third level education. It is easy to say to a community that a third level education is not everything if one has been a beneficiary of it, passed through the system and has a lifestyle that benefited from that third level education.

I have several important points to put to the Minister. The recommendation in the Cassells report of a capital assets test is a hot political potato, but it is patently unfair that some people are getting grants who should not be. I refer also to the ambition to drive down the registration costs and the costs of attending college, which are forcing some families to make a choice between one of their children going to college or two of their children attending. Then there is the ambition we should have to return to where we were in the 1990s when I attended third level education. It should be free. We cannot accomplish that if the answer to every social ill from the leader of the Minister's party is a tax cut.

1:55 pm

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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A document on well-being measures is progressing through the Cabinet. It is based closely on the OECD Better Life Index. One of the factors measured is education. One of the other things measured in the OECD framework is the idea of different forms of capital and of human capital being one of them. Investing in education is investing in people and in society. I went to college at the same time as Deputies Ó Ríordáin and O'Reilly. I benefited from those structures as well. Much of the economic jump forward we experienced at that time, especially in the early 2000s, before it ran away from itself, was predicated on heavy investment in third level education and in the young people who came through that system at the time.

Like Deputy O'Reilly, I was in the first generation of my family to attend university. I was afforded the opportunity to do that because it was financially achievable for my family. We must maintain this ability, because the best possible investment we can make in our society is in education. While I might not share Deputy Ó Ríordáin's depression today or go so far in stating it, I agree with a central point of his regarding having an authentic, honest and genuine discussion concerning taxation and what taxation does. Nobody likes paying tax, but if we have an honest discussion about what it is our taxes pay for and go towards achieving in our society, and, strange as it might be to say it, realise that taxation can actually be a force for good in our society, then we might be able to have a more honest discussion about those things we decide to invest in.

This brings me to my first point about the future funding of third level education, which is what this debate is about. I welcome the €307 million investment in core funding. We have discussed this at the joint committee and the Minister appeared before us just last night in the context of this provision and the Ukrainian provision. I said then, and I repeat it, that we must be careful to disambiguate the two things we are talking about in respect of core funding and the affordability we should provide for in respect of students. All the measures the Minister lists in this context, including the SUSI grant review scheme, are welcome. An opportunity to access third level education will certainly be afforded to a wider range of students. I also welcome the Minister's suggestion that we might examine the income disregard.

Like Deputy O'Reilly, I worked my way through college. It was an important facet of how my family was able to afford third level education. If that cap has been in place since 2016, this is something we should be examining.

This sector has benefited from having a senior Cabinet Minister addressing it. There has been an injection of new energy. The Higher Education Authority Bill 2022 is a once-in-a-generation piece of legislation. It has been 50 years in the making and it is exceptionally valuable. The other thing the Minister has driven forward is the agenda concerning the technological universities. I have referred to my family. All four of the children in my family had to leave the south east to access a university education. That is no longer the case. There is now a university in the south east. The Minister will not be surprised to hear me repeat that we need to make that a university of scale and substance. Appointments have been made to the posts of president and chair of that institution. These appointments have set out the scale of ambition in this regard and it has been welcomed across the south east. We must, however, do this in the context of beart de réir ár mbriathar. I refer to having those quality appointments without following that up with the commensurate funding that will be required.

I mention the research capacity of technological universities as well. Along with the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smith, I met with people in the Walton Institute in Waterford. They are driving research capacity forward in the south east. It is extremely important. The staffing arrangements that apply to technological universities, however, are different from those that apply to regular universities and this makes it more difficult for people in these technological universities to engage in research. It is important that we consider this situation and ensure we find a way to address it in future.

Returning briefly to the Higher Education Authority Bill 2022, we scrutinised it on Committee Stage. As was said, I think it is due to come back to the House on Report Stage later this month. If we are talking about the future funding of third level education, and I raised this issue on Committee Stage, it must be recognised that the State makes a significant contribution to the funding of our third level sector. In that context, I would like there to be transparency concerning where the other funding comes from for the sector. If we are investing this much money in education as a State, and it is proper that we do so - I believe we should go further in investing in education - then we have a right, as a State, to see where the other funding is coming from as well to ensure it is commensurate with the values of our State and that we are happy for those sources of funding to be accessed in providing for the third level education of our children in future.

Turning to the provision of third level education for Ukrainians arriving here, the Minister gave an impressive overview of the provisions that have been put in place in a short time for the relatively limited number of students who have been coming in. We identified at the joint committee approximately 3,000 students who might fall within the traditional age range for attending third level education. I think the figure for those now accessing third level education was about 600 people. It seems like we have good structures in place. The Minister spoke about how the Erasmus scheme might be used to help people access education. This is all welcome and all to the good. Another aspect, which the Minister referred to at the joint committee meeting yesterday, was that this is an opportunity for lessons to be learned. We are seeing many people coming into the State now who are accessing things like, for example, English as a second language, ESL, courses, and the education and training boards, ETBs, are becoming involved. We must hold on to what we learn from this experience to enable us to provide the same support to people who may be arriving here from Afghanistan, Syria or wherever. We should certainly be learning lessons from these endeavours.

The announcement just this morning of third level access support for students with autism and students with an intellectual disability is extremely welcome. The impact of these supports will be felt in many families. It will make a great difference. If we are serious about being an inclusive society, and Deputy Tully spoke about this aspect, then we need to provide pathways into third level education and onwards into the workforce for people with disabilities. Therefore, this funding is very welcome.

That is more or less what I wanted to get through. It was important to have this debate. Substantial steps in the right direction are being taken. Having a senior Minister at the Cabinet table to drive this agenda forward has re-energised the sector. I hope to be able to work with the Minister at the education committee on the Higher Education Authority, HEA, Bill to make sure that we put forward the strongest possible legislation to safeguard the sector into the future.

2:05 pm

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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This year the Minister published a report that declared he would be cutting the cost of student contributions. This was a huge relief to college students and also gave hope to younger students who had ruled out college because of the cost involved. People eagerly await details on the amount by which it will be cut and when this will happen, but we are still waiting.

On a future date, by an unspecified amount, college contributions will be cut. This is no good to students today. This is no good to students who have to consider paying for rent, transport or petrol, and all the costs involved in being a student. Students and parents need to be able to plan. We have a serious problem in the State with third level education. We are producing some of the finest minds, most innovative graduates in the world, who go on to be leaders on the international stage and yet our colleges and universities are chronically underfunded. The cost of attending third level education is a huge barrier.

When costs go up, diversity comes down. We lose out in terms of the potential of young people, particularly those who fall in the middle between those who qualify for a SUSI grant and those who can actually afford to pay. These people earn too much to get supports from the State, but not enough to afford to send their children to college. People who are trapped in the middle are being hit from every side. I am talking about the families of working parents who are struggling. They are earning too much to get supports to put their children through college but not enough to pay the bills.

Instead of vague promises about funding in the future, Sinn Féin would cut student fees every year - this year, next year and the year after. We would reform the SUSI grant and expand its limits. It is said that third level education is not for everyone, but everyone should have the opportunity to attend third level education. They should not be blocked by a lack of finances or because costs are too high. That is what I am asking the Minister to do. We need to change that. We need to work on breaking down barriers and increasing diversity because smart teams do amazing things, but truly diverse teams can do impossible things.

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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Higher education has been in austerity mode since Fine Gael and the Labour Party came into power in 2011. This was continued by the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Government that followed. We now have a situation where public funding per student is 37% lower than it was in 2018, which is a lot. Over a decade of underfunding has led to a very high academic staff to student ratio by international standards. There has been a loss of focus on research and development. Our colleges are in free fall in the international rankings. This funding crisis has had a severe impact on wider society. Sinn Féin recognises the need to increase core funding and SUSI supports, about which Deputy Gould has spoken.

In government, Sinn Féin would abolish student fees on a phased basis, while ensuring the right level of investment is made to make our third level institutions fit for purpose. The Government's budget of 2022 included an increase in the student grant maintenance payment of €200 per year, which was welcomed. However, it was the first increase in ten years and has already been gobbled up by the cost-of-living crisis increases. The Government must go further to support our students and their struggling families.

Despite recognition in the SUSI review that rent is the biggest driver in cost-of-living increases, the Government is doing very little to ensure that students have access to affordable accommodation. Sinn Féin proposed a three-year rent freeze and a refundable tax credit that would put a month's rent back into the pockets of the struggling renters.

One only has to read a newspaper to know that we are experiencing a severe skills shortage. Trying to get an appointment for a doctor or a dentist in Kildare or Laois is impossible. I have people coming to me who have to go to Carlow for treatment. On Tuesday, I spoke in the House about the challenges faced by our local bus service. One might wonder why but these people need to be trained. The staff shortages can be seen throughout the health services and they are a direct result of successive governments' indifferent attitude to education. We are in the peak of a housing crisis and need a massive increase in the building of public homes. The best time to invest in necessary skills was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.

I visited Maynooth University recently. Every time I visit, there seems to be another building project ongoing. It is no wonder that it is Ireland's fastest growing university. I know our technical universities are multi-campus operations and I would love to see a satellite campus of Maynooth University in Newbridge or the Curragh that would cater for the needs of people in Kildare, Laois and Offaly.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I commend the Minister on the announcement he made today. There was much merit in what he announced and, time allowing, I will come back to some aspects of it at the end of my contribution.

I listened to the Minister's speech earlier and the part that stuck out for me was the disadvantaged action plan. He mentioned the concept of bringing more students from disadvantaged areas into universities, supporting them all the way through, and seeing what happens to them afterwards. That is very important and may be the first time the "what happens afterwards" part is being addressed.

I wish to take a moment to address what happens before students from disadvantaged communities go to third level. I know there was an issue raised about the word "disadvantaged" in the HEA Bill and it was removed. I am not exactly sure where I stand on that, but students are not disadvantaged by nature. They are disadvantaged by their circumstances. We should acknowledge that those disadvantages act as an impediment. In saying that we will bring more students from disadvantaged and low-income communities into universities, that process cannot start in sixth year. Imagine the impediments that begin for a child from primary school and continue all the way through.

In secondary school, in order to ensure more students from DEIS schools or disadvantages schools can go to university, we need to look at the emotional supports that are needed. Better access to emotional supports in schools is needed. I worked in the Trinity access programme in our school's outreach department and we had three different pillars that we used to engage with. The first part was giving career guidance information to students. We recognised the fact that in many schools career guidance did not kick in until fifth and sixth year because the career guidance teacher was often taken up with providing emotional support to students. By the time a student got to fifth year, it was the first time they were having discussions about universities and apprenticeships. We need to look at the thread that runs from primary school through to secondary school, where it only kicks in.

I am probably the third politician today to say that I was the first member of my family to go to college. We all like to say that but it is an issue that is relevant for the cohort of students we are trying to get into third level. Having access to information at the kitchen table or in the sitting room about what college a person went to is absolutely essential. One component we used to focus on was mentorship for students, provided by people who were in the workplace having graduated from college. We need to factor in how we bring people, who have worked in various sectors, back into their schools and communities to provide support to students who may be the first in their family to progress to third level.

The third area was developing 21st century teaching and learning practices within schools. The manner of assessment that we call the leaving certificate does not train anybody for college life. In DEIS and disadvantaged schools, and in fact all schools, we must ensure that teachers are trained in new technologies, students have access to laptops, they are trained for a 21st century teaching and learning module. That is absolutely essential.

I am aware some of this is being factored into the leaving certificate. We must look at the other skills to develop leadership and confidence building, giving students not just the classroom rote learning experience but also encouraging them to get out into their communities, to volunteer and engage. Seeing that as part of their assessment is how we bring more students from disadvantaged areas into universities.

Research carried out by Dr. Katriona O'Sullivan, on what happens to students who come from disadvantaged communities through DEIS schools or the higher education access route, HEAR, found that students from low-income communities do moderately better than students who come in through traditional means.

However, where that falls down is access to the workplace afterwards. That, again, comes down to these kinds of darker arts. It is the networks and people who work in these accountancies and tech companies being able to provide internship opportunities or the ability to link in with people who are there. If we are serious about supporting students from disadvantaged communities who get to go on to university in their careers after graduation, we need to figure out how to break down the cultural who-you-know networks that can provide what are almost slipstreams through. If we can combat that, we are onto something.

That leads me to my next point. Last week we discussed the area of apprenticeships. I am very conscious that the world of work of a student who is 18 or 19 and is about to sit the leaving certificate next week will be vastly different in 20 years’ time because of, for example, the increase in automation and AI. I am curious as to how we are future-proofing college and apprenticeship courses. Inevitably, when changes in technology happen and we see increases in automation, it is usually the people from working-class communities who have these jobs and apprenticeships who are the first to be let go, lose their jobs and be replaced. I have seen that in my community in the north inner city around Sheriff Street where containerisation set a community back almost half a century. We see that when we go our local shopping centres. People who work on tills will be now replaced with machines. That will happen consistently. It is being rapidly increased due to the pandemic. How are we future-proofing courses to ensure that our students are ready not only for the current economy, but the one that will exist in 15 to 20 years? We need to be factoring that in now.

I also want to discuss the area of further education and training, FET, routes into university. A couple of months ago I raised the area of student nurses, for example, who do FET courses in nursing and cannot get places in the universities. Have there been any developments in terms of providing slipstreams for those students into university courses?

A cohort of students in the leaving certificate applied, LCA, does not have any traditional routes into universities at present. I would be eager to see a route for students who just simply learn differently in their schools and classrooms that allows them to go onto universities.

2:15 pm

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I will start by taking this opportunity to acknowledge the unparalleled investment the Government has made in higher education throughout the country. The publication of the Government’s landmark policy on funding higher education and reducing the cost of education for families has been welcomed by all since it was announced last month. I welcome that the Government has confirmed its commitment to address legacy issues in higher education, to increase investment and to reform the sector.

I am particularly pleased to see that the Government has decided that the income-contingent loans for fees will not form part of the future funding model and that it will reduce the cost of education through changes to the student grant scheme and student contributions, which will be discussed in the coming budgets. This will make a huge difference for many students and their families. Costs should not be a barrier to education.

Recent proposals for the developed of a unified third level education system are also important, as is the work the Minister and his Department are doing in developing apprenticeships as part of the higher education system. The recent announcement of more than 10,500 free or heavily subsidised courses for unemployed, self-employed or returners to work under the human capital initiative are vital to ensure we are planning for the future skill needs of our economy, which, as we all know, is critical to delivering on our ambitions as a nation. Again, it removes the cost barrier for many wishing to take part in these courses and, of course, to upskill.

I also wish to commend the efforts being made to assist displaced Ukrainian students. That is very important. I met many students in Carlow and I want to welcome that.

Yesterday, it was announced that €3.7 million in funding is to be invested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, projects aimed at improving public understanding of those areas. I note that the funding on will be focused on encouraging diversity and inclusion in STEM, while also targeting a wide-range of ages including young children, teens and adults. It would be great if similar funding could be invested in the arts, humanities and social science, which are also of importance and play a significant role in our economy and society. I am thinking of various higher education providers, such as Carlow College, St. Patrick’s, where the focus is on arts, humanities and social science. These providers and their students need our ongoing support.

Now that I mention Carlow College, St. Patrick’s – which I have mentioned to the Minister many times before – what is the current position on discussions between his Department and Carlow College regarding strategic positioning of the college in the higher education framework within the south-east region? I ask this being mindful of the national strategy for higher education to 2030 and the changing landscape of higher education, which includes consolidation of smaller institutes and economies of the same scale.

The Government is delivering. I really mean that. The Minister is making genuine steps to change our higher education. The creation of the South East Technological University, SETU, was a game changer. I am delighted that the south-east region now has its own technological university, TU. It has been so important for the region since the establishment of it on 1 May. I want to welcome it, again, for Carlow because, as the Minister knows, Carlow is my priority. Following recent attention on Carlow College that the Minister is well aware of, people in the area have contacted me asking when it will become part of the SETU. Momentum is building and it is important that we now expedite the process. There is great potential to create an opportunity to develop an enhanced faculty of the arts, humanities and social science and to enhance the number of subjects on offer in a facility with high-level educational expertise and to deliver greater institutional quality.

In addition to the educational, social and cultural benefits, we know the SETU is a key stakeholder in the economic growth of the region. Integration of the Carlow College campus into the SETU would demonstrate recognition of the objectives of Project Ireland 2040. The national planning framework states that by creating institutions of scale and strength, multi-campus technological universities will bring greater social and economic benefits to the regions through a strengthening role in research and innovation and by delivering on a broad range of high quality education and training in each of their campuses.

As we welcomed our American visitors earlier today, the Minister will be aware from his recent visit to Carlow College that it runs a very successful international study abroad programme. Over the years, it has developed many US partnerships. It is now working with SETU to build on those important partnerships. It is critical that discussions between the SETU and Carlow College, St. Patrick’s are expedited with the support of the Minister’s Department.

The Government is introducing the most radical changes to the leaving certificate examination in half a century and this is very welcome. We need greater collaboration and more unified regional systems to provide more choice, where all possible pathways are equally valued and learners can move and progress across further and higher education systems seamlessly. It is also important that our education system can meet the different needs of individual learners throughout their working and personal lives.

I would also like to welcome that under the new phase of the capital investment in the further and higher education sectors, some 45% of the total allocation of €430 million is being directed to further education and training. This investment will address the expansion of skill centres and apprenticeship programmes across the country, as well as the establishment of further education and training colleges of the future. The further education and training strategy will underpin the development of the new strategic performance agreements between SOLAS and each of the education and training boards, ETBs, the next three years - from 2022 to 2024. The provision in the budget for 2022 will support building the required capacity within the ETBs, which play an important and valuable role in the further and higher education sector nationwide. It is crucial that we support them.

As I finish, I would like to take the opportunity to return to the core issue of the cost of living and higher education. Can the Minister tell us more about plans for specific measures to reduce the cost of education through changes to the student grant scheme and the student contribution planned for the coming budget?

As the Minister is aware, we need to address the increasing cost of third level education urgently. Students and their families need and deserve certainty as they plan ahead for their education.

I have been working with the Minister since he became Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and I can only compliment him on the work he has done and on this commitment to the this sector. But before I finish, can the Minister come back to me as quickly as he can about Carlow College, St. Patrick’s and the meetings with the college? It is important that this college is integrated into the TU. It has one of the most beautiful buildings in what is known as the cultural quarter of Carlow town. It has much to offer. It is important that I mention Fr. Conn Ó Maoldhomhnaigh who has had several meetings with the Minister and with his Department and who is so dedicated, as are his staff in their commitment. They can offer much to the people of Carlow and to the south-east region, which will be very beneficial. Timing is of the essence.

Every Wednesday, when the Minister, Deputy Harris, is sitting over there in his seat, I will address him about Carlow College, St. Patrick’s. The Minister knows for certain that this is a priority for me, for Fr. Conn Ó Maoldhomhnaigh and for the people of Carlow and I reiterate it has so much to offer to the south east.

I thank the Minister again for always being so helpful and obliging whenever I have gone to him with issues that concern me. I thank the Ceann Comhairle.

2:25 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I can see the Minister nodding vigorously so I assume this is on his bucket list.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Did the Deputy mention Carlow IT, by any chance?

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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Carlow IT is a university now. Carlow is a university town now and we are honoured and delighted to be recognised as such.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Deputy for that important contribution.

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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I have an acute knowledge of the situation where many families are sending their children to college. At the moment I have two children in third level education and next year, we will have three of them there. It is one of the few disadvantages of having your children close together. Apart from that, it makes me conscious of the very high costs for the many families who are unable to get a grant. I am not complaining at all as we are well looked after and have a good salary in here but many families find it very difficult when they have children in college, particularly if they have more than one of them there at the same time, are not able to get a grant, and have to pay the fees.

Many families also come to us where their children have summer jobs and, because of that, they are put into a similar position. Those issues need to be addressed particularly in the context of the cost-of-living crisis which is gripping the whole country, as well as the high cost of rent. Many families I speak to from the west and from my constituency have children who want to go to college in Dublin because the course there suits and works best for them but simply cannot afford it because of the rent and the cost of student accommodation in Dublin. The same applies in Galway and in other cities where this cost is very high. This is an issue which will have a crippling effect on many people.

Many of the issues that were raised here today are valid and one which is core for me in the whole area of higher education is the impact it is having on our economy, on our services and on what we do into the future. It must be acknowledged that education is the greatest avenue out of poverty for people. If people can get into college and have that opportunity, they have a good chance of having a decent lifestyle afterwards. That opportunity has to be given to everyone, particularly people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I also believe, and it was mentioned by my colleague and others here, that this is the case in respect of the services that are provided by people. I believe Deputy Gannon mentioned the automation of many things in our society but one thing that cannot be automated is care for people. Many of our caring services are devoid of qualified staff, from nurses to doctors and right through the whole way across society. Occupational therapists and speech therapists were mentioned. We need to be training more and more people in those professions to ensure that we can account for ourselves as we look into the future.

I welcome the provisions mentioned by the Minister this morning and it is great to see that happening. Unfortunately, many of our services for people with disabilities in this country are lacking because we simply cannot get the staff. One of the reasons for this is because we are not training enough of them. That has to be acknowledged and dealt with as quickly as possible. I will leave it at that.

Photo of Martin BrowneMartin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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I am nearly embarrassed to start talking now about Tipperary without mentioning Carlow.

For counties like Tipperary, there has been some positivity on the third level education front. This provides the opportunity to study closer to home, if that suits the course people have chosen or have been accepted for and is more than welcome. The fact, however, that the technological universities that I am talking about here have less funding allocated to them than the so-called traditional universities is a matter of shame and needs to be addressed.

It must also be remembered that it has never has been more difficult to make ends meet for those students who still have to travel for college. The rising cost of living has hit every sector of society. People on limited or fixed incomes are particularly affected and students can be counted among them.

While I will not ignore the budget commitment to increase grant maintenance payments and so on, the unfortunate point is that in real terms, the SUSI maintenance grant has declined by 25% over the past six years and we have to take the term “increase” with a pinch of salt.

Furthermore, it is looking as though inflation will have practically exhausted those additional payments by September. Despite this, Sinn Féin’s proposal to introduce a three-year rent freeze and to put a month’s rent back into the pockets of struggling student renters was rejected by this Government. The fact is that that system has been consigned to austerity since Fine Gael came to power. That it was supported by Fianna Fáil since 2016 has not helped matters.

However, despite opting for the reliance on student fees, public funding per student is 37% lower than in 2008. Imposing fees on students has not worked and the wonder is that Government parties had suggested that it would.

Like Fine Gael’s welcome U-turn on the student loans, it must rethink its current approach and take measures to provide, among other things, the capital needed for those institutions, such as investment in affordable student accommodation.

The fact that extended SUSI supports to part-time learners is being seen as a long-term objective is also frustrating, given the significant need we have for workers and the shortfalls we have seen across sectors, especially in the wide span of healthcare specialists. We need to see action on addressing this funding gap in the upcoming budget.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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On 18 June, the recently established Cost of Living Coalition will hold a national demonstration demanding a compressive package of measures to address the cost of living crisis. That coalition involves workers, pensioners, lone parents and people on low and middle incomes but perhaps the most surprising element of the groups that have affiliated to this coalition, and which is very enthusiastic about being mobilised for that protest, is students. The Union of Students in Ireland, USI, is affiliated as is University College Dublin, UCD. In talking to some of the students this morning, they said themselves that the response of young people and of students to the idea that there are going to be protests over the cost of living is quite phenomenal. This is not something one would have expected, to be honest.

When we had the big water protest a number of years ago, it was mostly older people and that was in effect about the cost of living also. There were not many young people on those protests but I suspect that, judging from the response we are getting from students, many young people will in fact be participating.

Why is that happening? Why are young people and students joining workers and pensioners to protest about the unbearable and worsening cost-of-living crisis? It is because they too are being very significantly impacted, in the first instance by the cost of accommodation, which is completely shocking.

Beth O’Reilly, the incoming USI president, has made the point that student accommodation is now as expensive or more expensive than accommodation generally in the private rental sector. That is something else, when one thinks about it. The whole point about student accommodation, surely, is that it should be cheaper to enable people to do their further and higher education and complete that education, because they do not have the sort of income and resources that workers might have, and because it is in society’s interest that they are educated to the highest possible level. Nowhere is that more true and obvious than at the current point in time.

Our society has serious problems facing it because we have a lack of people who are educated and trained in a whole number of areas. This is the case in construction, health, education, mental health, ICT, and science. We need more people right across the board. Those shortages are called bottlenecks, in euphemistic economic terms, but that means we have not invested enough in training and educating our most important resource, our young people, to do those things which our society needs to function and grow.

It is not just a moral imperative, as it most certainly and immediately is, to address student poverty, the stress, impact on mental health and the pressure that students face because they cannot find affordable accommodation or because they are paying extortionate amounts because they are lashed with fees and so on. But it is also an imperative on the whole of society to remove the obstacles to further and higher education. Accommodation is critical in that. It is entirely unacceptable that UCD, for example, is building student accommodation that will cost €1,400 a month. That is an outrage. This is a publicly-funded university. That is only one example. Look at all the purpose-built student accommodation where investors have moved in and are exploiting the housing and accommodation crisis and charging students extortionate money. They are making profits from the hardship and financial difficulty experienced by students and they are allowed to get away with it. That has to stop. We need more subsidised and directly provided student accommodation at prices that are genuinely affordable for students. We need to remove all barriers to access to further and higher education, whether exam barriers such as the leaving certificate or financial. They are a throwback to an elitist and unequal society where there was a notion that only rich people should access education. That is what it is a legacy of. It makes no sense in today's world to limit in anyway or obstruct access to higher and further education. It is totally counter-productive.

On many occasions I raised funding for educational and counselling psychologists. It is ridiculous. There are huge waiting lists for assessments and the provision of services for children with special needs and there are young people who want to qualify in these areas but are being obstructed in doing so because they have to pay €11,000 or €15,000 in fees to do postgraduate studies in educational and counselling psychology. It is madness. Graduate medicine entry students, who want to be doctors, have to pay €15,000. We have a shortage of doctors. It is crazy to obstruct them. It is crazy to have fees and to have exam barriers which make it more difficult for people to enter further and higher education. It imposes incredible stress and pressure on our young people. The leaving certificate is putting many young people off education. It is actually inhibiting them from achieving their full creative potential. We need free education in the interest of students and of society. We need to solve the student accommodation crisis.

I do not have time to say anything about apprentices except that fees should go for them too. Apprentices should be given college places near where they live because the cost of them travelling is unbearable for many. We need to do that if we are to get the tradespeople we need to solve so many of the problems we are well aware of in our society.

2:35 pm

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to get an opportunity to speak on this. I will try to cover a lot of different topics. First, I welcome that finally the system, including the universities which have been pushing this hard, has been told that its option, the loan option, is not on the table. I remember during the 2000s, when I was in the Government. The summer is a good time to try to put a memo through. I remember one summer a memo was circulated but I was away. I sat down and sent back a very strong note saying that having read the documentation I was totally opposed to the loan option. It is hard enough for young people when they leave college to buy and insure a car and then get accommodation and then try to buy accommodation without being saddled with the cost of education on top of that. I welcome that decision.

I welcome that there will be more investment but we have to put it into context because the grant rates today are far below what they were. For example, the adjacent rate in 2022 will be €1,415 and a non-adjacent rate will be €3,225. In 2008 the adjacent rate was €1,370 which is ever so slightly less at €45, and the non-adjacent rate was €3,420 which is more. In fact we are standing still in the new rates compared to 2008 but there has been a lot of inflation since then and particularly in the last year. The special rate in 2022 will be €2,575 and a non-adjacent special rate will be €6,115. There is a similar pattern where in 2008 the adjacent rate was €2,680 which was greater than it will be next autumn and the non-adjacent rate was €6,690 which was €475 higher. We are only catching up. The idea that we are improving things is not true.

Then we go to the maddest decision which I could never understand. We are always boasting that "higher" higher education, that is postgraduate education, is so vital in this country. In 2021 the postgraduate rate was €3,500 which is a good increase on the €2,000. But in 2008 to 2010 it was €6,270 and quite rightly so. In the past a person would have gone to work after getting a degree and very few would have gone on to fourth level education but now it is very common. But people want to have an income by that stage. Many of them are doing free tutorials and so on. The decision that was taken back ten years ago was a bad one and one that was never future-proofed. The student contribution is now €3,000 where it was €900 in 2008. We need to look at this radically.

The same pattern is probably evident if we look at the grant ceilings for eligibility. They have not progressed according to inflation. I make a simple suggestion on that. When assessing parental income, particularly in the circumstances that people face now, mortgage or home rental costs should be deductible from the gross income, although a ceiling could be put on the disregard. There could be two families whose income looks the same, say €50,000 or €60,000, but one could have a very large mortgage and another none. There is a huge discrepancy between both.

One way of helping to solve the student accommodation crisis could be done by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, with the stroke of a pen. That would be to put in place much better radial services out of all the university and third level towns. I will give an example of a simple step. Until two years ago, no bus left Galway that went beyond Knocknacarra after 6 p.m. Unless student life has changed totally from the time I was in college, students did not want to go home every night at 6 p.m. They are entitled to a social life. Thankfully in that case we got three services up to 11 p.m. that are very well patronised. That makes it possible for students not to have to get accommodation in the city. Students can bunk-up the odd night they want to stay overnight but they do not need five-nights-a-week accommodation. If the bus or public transport services are not there they cannot do that. I bet if there was a survey of all the third level towns around the country, you would find a very bad, patchy pattern of public bus services out of those towns, particularly in the late evening. It would be a quick win. We are all the time talking about sustainable travel.

Of course, it would be very important that the 50% reduction for students be maintained.

An issue that of grave concern to me is access to third level education. We talk about reforming the leaving certificate. That is not my concern; the CAO race is. One examination decides what course a student gets into and whether the student becomes a doctor, if that is what he or she chooses to be. That system mitigates against people who do not have the resources. I am not sure that is getting us the best people into professions. There should be general courses for the first year in medicine and the other subjects requiring high points and then the choosing should be done at that point. It would be much more equitable and give many more people access to such courses. We know that if one does a map of third level access, one will find all the so-called rapid areas we used to have as being very low access. One will find Travellers as having very low access. We need to tackle that issue.

Another issue that concerns me is the need to maintain standards. I accept that research standards are high in this country. I am not so convinced that we are not slipping down in the general courses at level 8. It is absolutely important that we maintain standards and that there is high, rigid auditing. Other countries had a big dumbing down which did not do them an awful lot. We boast about good education but complacency is always a devil in situations such as these.

On science investment, Science Foundation Ireland was set up to do blue-sky research. If we want to attract companies and high-level, high-end researchers to this country, we have to be willing to invest in the future. There was a big move in the early part of the last decade towards applied research, getting results and working in projects that would give commercial results. We need to look at that again and make sure that this country is doing top-level, blue-sky research. It is a long-term investment. There is no immediate return. Many of the things we have talked about in the past few years emanated from blue-sky research that, over time, became applied research. If one is not doing blue-sky research, one will not attract top-end people.

I am concerned about career guidance for young people. Unfortunately, academics seem to have a greater cachet than apprenticeships. This is a major issue. We are paying the price of giving that status. We need to do something about the status difference. I know that work is going on and that there is much more prominence now for apprenticeships, but we need to really focus our career guidance on the ability, interest and natural direction that a student would go and try to encourage them not to go for the status things. If one becomes an industrial electrician, one's skill level would match that of some people with a PhD in modern electronics. We need to sell these apprenticeships in such a way that people realise they are very valuable.

Is é an rud deiridh ná an cheist a d'ardaigh mé go minic cheana. Tá Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla (Leasú) 2021 gafa tríd an Oireachtas agus tá sé ina dhlí anois. Tá sé ráite go mbeidh 20% den tseirbhís phoiblí earcaithe de dhaoine a mbeidh sé ar a gcumas oibriú trí Ghaeilge agus trí Bhéarla ach ní léir dom go bhfuil aon phlean ag an earnáil oideachais tríú leibhéil, ag an gcomhairle, ag an Údarás um Ard-Oideachas ná ag Roinn an Aire, faoin gcaoi a gcuirfear chuige le cinntiú go mbeidh na daoine ar fáil agus soláthar daoine ar fáil leis na seirbhísí seo a chur ar fáil. Is é seo cuid den rud a tharlaíonn sa Stát seo. Déantar cinneadh istigh anseo ach ní dhéanann an córas cur chuige comhtháite a chur le chéile le déanamh cinnte go ndéantar freastal ar mhianta an Oireachtais. Bheadh súil agam go dtabharfaí faoi sin láithreach mar níl sé ach seacht mbliana go leith go dtí go mbeimid ag 2030, an spriocdháta. Níl baol ar bith, i láthair na huaire, go sroichfimid é mura ndéanaimid gníomh láithreach.

2:45 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta Ó Cuív as ucht na bhfocal stuama sin.

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I do not know whether I should frame this as a complaint. The Minister was in Coláiste Chú Chulainn this week. My nieces, Makayla and Leah, whom I name to embarrass, now have more pictures with the Minister than they do with me. They were there to facilitate the graduation and I am told they presented the Minister with a tie.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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It is a bit late for the students.

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I see that. I was not able to make it to this obviously very important event, especially for those graduating. I will embarrass a number of people in my family now, but there is a logic to where I am going. My son, Conor, attends another Louth and Meath Education and Training Board, LMETB, school, Ó Fiaich College. I have to thank to it for the work it has done. Our Conor, a bit like myself, has taken a circuitous route in his schooling. However, he has seen my stepson, Aaron, do a post-leaving certificate course in Ó Fiaich College and go on to Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT. That is a route map. Those are the sort of route maps on which we very much need to work. It is incredibly important. I have spoken to the Minister before about possible projects such as the Redeemer centre, where people may feel more comfortable in starting certain modules before they go to Ó Fiaich College or other institutes. That is vital.

It would not be a conversation on third level education in Dundalk without mentioning TU status. We know the race that has been run previously. I know the Minister is supportive. We need to ensure that it happens. We know there have been many missteps but section 38 is there. There is a route map towards it. I have spoken recently to the Minister about a possible wobble around the criteria and the relationship with Dublin City University, DCU. We need to ensure that nothing hampers us on that road.

Workforce planning is vital work about which we have spoken previously. Many Members have spoken about the issues with regard to occupational therapists speech and language therapists, physiotherapists and the particular issue with regard to psychologists and ensuring that our disability networks and entire medical system have the staff required. There is a job of work that needs done at Government level, and it needs to be followed through at third level. We need to ensure that we can deliver on what is absolutely required.

I echo much of what has been said with regard to connectivity and early interventions that need done to deal with disadvantage. It is absolute necessity. We have failed many people. We need to reintroduce free third level education, as quickly as it can be done, but there are many people who fall off the education wagon long before that. It means we need to put a considerable sum of money into early community and family interventions.

If we are talking about the cost-of-living crisis, we have to deal with the cost of education. We have deal with the wider cost of accommodation, but what needs to happen relatively fast is in terms of the cheaper rate for public transport that has been introduced. We need notification of it for the likes of private operators, such as Matthews Coaches, which many people use for third level transport. Knowing that as early as possible prior to September and the new academic year is absolutely necessary.

We are back to normality. I have to make two events being held in Dundalk. One of them is taking place at Coláiste Ghlór na Mara, a satellite school that is being launched this evening. Alongside that, my youngest son, Toirleach, will be graduating from St. Joseph's National School. I have named everyone at this stage. We will also be going to an event this evening for Amy Broadhurst, who, like me, is a graduate of St. Joseph's National School. She is also now a world champion boxer.

2:55 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I suppose we had better have another Dundalk perspective from Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick.

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Independent)
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It is important that DkIT becomes a TU. It has been left behind for far too long. The Minister said a couple of weeks ago, during his visit to Dundalk, that he feels that DkIT has a great future. Ireland's fifth TU, the Technological University of the South East, was established a few weeks ago. I congratulate Waterford Institute of Technology and Carlow Institute of Technology on coming together. On many occasions, the Minister has announced his frustration with the lack of progress on DkIT becoming a TU. It is important that we get the support of the Minister and of the higher education authorities. In recent years, the Minister and I have had many debates about the status of DkIT. In fairness, he has kept his promise about everything he has said so far. Good progress has been made.

Last October, DkIT affirmed its commitment to become a TU by establishing a new steering committee aimed at accelerating the institute towards TU status. The goal was to put a structure in place to develop a pathway for DkIT and to set a series of targets which would align with the national policy. Some of these included meeting the TU target of having 4% of postgraduate research students at levels 9 and 10 and ensuring that 45% of its academic staff possess a level 10 or equivalent professional qualification. Other targets included increasing the competitiveness and sustainability of the research agenda through dedicated support structures. Another is to enrich the learning experience through the implementation of digital teaching and learning infrastructure. A further target is to improve the further education to higher education progression for our region, thereby opening up higher education to a large proportion of our regional population. Only a few weeks ago, the chairman of the board of governors said that most of these have been put in place. Hopefully, we should be well on the way there by September.

A few weeks ago, I attended an award ceremony at DkIT. I was meeting students who had attended the college for the last number of years and also sporting people. It provided a fantastic opportunity to speak to the students, to talk about the facilities and the courses available. The main topic of these statements is investment in higher education and the cost for a family of a son or daughter attending college. As I said, a great investment has been made. Most who attend the college come from the local area. There are so many students taking courses in art, business, management, marketing, computers, creative art, media, early childhood, engineering, building, hospitality, tourism, music, drama, performance, nursing, midwifery, science, agriculture, animal health and sport. These are but a few. This is a fantastic opportunity for the people in the surrounding areas, including Louth, Meath, Monaghan, Cavan and Northern Ireland, and elsewhere too.

I am delighted that the Minister met the senior management, student union leaders and the Teachers Union of Ireland. When he came to Dundalk a couple of weeks ago, he sat down to speak with them and gave a lot of time to that. DkIT is the sole provider of higher education in the north east. More than 5,000 students attend it and there are more than 500 staff. Some 80% of the students who attend the college are the first generation of their families to attend. That is fantastic. We talk about job losses in Dundalk, such as at PayPal, but the college has done fantastically in helping to create jobs in the area. It has attracted many multinational companies and helped many SMEs, including me. Years ago, I set up my own wee business. DkIT is the life and soul of the north east. Every year, more than 600 international students come to the area. It is the most diverse and multicultural of all the institutes in the area.

I am proud to be a Dundalk man and to be involved with DkIT. I am trying to be as positive as I can. The only thing that really put me off is that, four years ago, DkIT was the leading force in the TU project. The Minister said earlier that it is no one's fault but DkIT's that it did not put in the application. We set up a steering committee. It is all looking very good. I am looking for the Minister and the HEA to keep to the commitment. As I said earlier, investment is required in order to get TU status. Some 80% of the students attending the institute are the first in their families to do so. They should not have to travel so far to university. We need a university in the area. I have full confidence that the Minister will work with it.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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As a Deputy representing Limerick, I am proud of the universities there. The University of Limerick, UL, and Limerick Institute of Technology have brought many fine students to many companies in Ireland and around the world. Every university is in crisis due to the lack of accommodation for students. UL currently has 2,900 bed spaces on campus on a 350 acre site. There is ample capacity on the site for a possible four more villages. The campus accommodation is ideal because it is monitored 24 hours a day and there is security and support. However, there must be joined-up thinking in all Departments for universities such as UL to move forward. There must be a multi-agency approach to funding to tackle the issue, such as having additional modular accommodation, which is relatively less expensive. Putting the jigsaw together cannot be dropped at the door of just the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science; the Departments of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Transport must come together and there must be full engagement with stakeholders.

Accommodation should not be a barrier in Limerick. It is fixable. There are currently 17,500 students in UL. That leaves a shortfall of accommodation for 14,600 students. If one takes out the students who have access to public transport, that leaves about 9,000 students who either have to drive or be dropped off at the campus. There has to be joined-up thinking. It cannot just be dropped at the Minister's door. It is an issue of transport and housing. All Departments need to work together to get a solution for the students in this country. I am the father of four boys. My third lad, Niall, has just graduated from Coláiste Chiaráin in Croom. I have one left who is 14 and the jury is still out on him. We have to make third level education achievable for those who want to get there, so that they can get the best possible education in future. I am thankful for all that education has provided for my family and look forward to what it can introduce in the future.

I welcome everything brings for those in second level who want to go on to apprenticeships. Third level education is not for everyone, but I welcome and embrace it for those who want to go to it. I applaud those in second level education who want to go to apprenticeships or different models. Everyone in this country is needed. We all have a place in this world. Once we all work together, I am happy with that.

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
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I draw the Minister's attention to the higher education report which was produced in 2019. I know the Minister is familiar with it. It showed that 15% of the student body at second level is disadvantaged, while 10% of the student body at third level is also disadvantaged. It is certainly concerning and confirms what we all thought all along, that there are students from less affluent areas who do not make it to third level.

In light of that, I want to ask the Minister to consider reinstating the educational disadvantage committee. That committee did fantastic work initiating the DEIS scheme. It did brilliant work and produced fantastic reports. It was set up at a very low cost and provided great value for money. Could that be considered? To address this issue of students not progressing to third level we need something like a disadvantage committee. It would be very worthwhile.

I also want to raise the whole area of special educational needs. Students need the supports at primary and second level to be enabled to proceed to third level and progress into that system. It is becoming an issue that we have so many barriers. In my constituency, there is no dedicated special educational needs organiser. It is causing great frustration among parents and schools. If these children are to be given a fair chance and an opportunity to reach their potential, as is laid out in the Education Act 1998, every child must be included and enabled. For that to happen, we must have the basic supports in place. A serious injustice is being done to children with special needs who are already at a disadvantage. I would love to see that addressed and to see collaboration between the Minister and the Minister for Education to ensure that the gaps are addressed, so that these children have the same opportunity as every child to progress through our education system right to the end.

I commend the great work that is being done in respect of apprenticeships. It is fantastic that we see more of a focus on apprenticeships. I said this at the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science recently. While it is brilliant that the places are being made available, we also have to ensure that the students make it through the apprenticeship right to the end. One apprentice spoke about the financial difficulty of trying to make it to the end at the recent committee meeting. It is an issue that needs to be addressed. They need to be given supports as well. Perhaps there could be some grant assistance or fund that could help them make it through to the end. It is one thing providing the places but another ensuring that the students get out the other end and that we have them to contribute to our society and economy, which is going to be very valuable in the future.

I recognise that great work has been done on the SUSI grant review. I want to impress on the Minister the issue of student earnings. The fact that they are capped at €4,500 is a disincentive to students and is affecting the hospitality sector, which cannot get students to take up work. I genuinely feel that it needs to be increased.

3:05 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this today. I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the establishment of the Atlantic Technological University, ATU, which comprises Letterkenny IT, including the Killybegs campus, Sligo IT and GMIT. I especially welcome the opportunities that this brings to the Donegal campuses. I attended the launch of the ATU in my home town of Killybegs recently. I am very excited about the potential of this campus. The catering college has been a huge feature in Killybegs for over 50 years now. Fishing is what Killybegs is known for, but the catering college has also been a central part of the town's development. It has been known to produce the best people for the tourism, hotel and restaurant industries. It has generated a lot of income to the town and attracts people nationally and internationally. Many of the students who come to Killybegs actually end up staying, working and starting families there. In that context, Deputies can understand the importance of the campus to the town and its development.

The opening of the college in 1969 created many opportunities for Killybegs and I am optimistic that the establishment of the ATU will continue to create such opportunities for the area. It should be an integral part of the ATU and its future development. I would hope that the ATU recognises the potential of the Killybegs campus and ensures that it is given the funding and focus necessary to make it a world class tourism facility. I would hope that the ATU also recognises Killybegs's capacity for development and growth. Killybegs has real potential to expand outward, and I would like to see this embraced and a commitment to this going forward. The Killybegs campus is an important resource and we should take advantage of this time of growth and change to reimagine the college’s future.

One of the great things about the Killybegs campus is that it offers part time courses, as well as upskilling courses. However, as far as I know, although it might be changing, these types of courses are unfortunately not eligible for funding and I strongly believe that this is something that should be looked at further. I have long been calling for SUSI reform and I am glad that the Minister also sees this need for reform. I support his intention to make it easier for students to access SUSI grants and to extend the eligibility to allow part-time students to access supports. There is also a need to include upskilling courses. People should be given every opportunity to upskill and further their education. This would not only benefit the individual, their employer or their industry, but it would also benefit the whole of society. It would especially benefit towns like my own Killybegs which has great upskilling courses available, but does not have the demand due to lack of funding. It would be a shame for such courses to be discontinued due to us failing to see the value of them.

I would also like to support the Minister's reduction of the distance for the higher non-adjacent student grant from 45 km to 30 km. Things like this make such a difference, both for students from Killybegs and students in Killybegs. Students would be less likely to travel between Letterkenny and Killybegs if they were not eligible for the higher non-adjacent grant, especially due to the rising price of petrol. This change is a massive benefit to the ATU and I would hope that the Minister continues to ensure all supports necessary are in place for the establishment of the ATU. I would also hope that the ATU will ensure that campuses such as Killybegs are being prioritised and ensure that their full potential is realised and developed. That is vitally important.

The creation of the technological university is a positive thing and has worked very well. It has potential to work fantastically for the whole west coast, working together. I am thinking of the campuses in Galway, Connemara, Castlebar, Sligo, Killybegs and Letterkenny. It works well how it is spread out through them. The potential is there. Obviously, it is going to be difficult to develop and will cost a bit more because it is on various campuses but that should be seen as an asset rather than a problem. The danger as funding becomes tighter is that it would be seen as a problem and that funding would be withdrawn. I hope that will not happen in this case.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank everyone for coming to this debate on Carlow College. I jest, but only a bit. I know how important the issue of Carlow College is to the people of Carlow. I know important it is to Deputy Murnane O'Connor. I acknowledge the very regular contact the Deputy and I have on this matter. I hope we can make real progress. I, too, pay tribute to Father Con. He is a superb leader and a very decent individual working with a great management team in Carlow College, a college that has contributed a huge amount to Carlow and the south east. It has also provided access to third level education in Carlow to a group of people who, perhaps, at least back in the day would not have had that access otherwise. The Deputy knows the answer to the effect that where it fits in the technological university is a matter for the technological university. She, I and the Government want to ensure that enough time and space is provided for the technological university to be able to consider that and that, in the interim, we continue to support Carlow College. Legals are being considered on both sides. I share the Deputy's view that this is a matter that should be progressed expeditiously. I will keep in very close contact with her on the matter as I know she will with me.

On DkIT, I thank Deputies Ó Murchú and Fitzpatrick for raising the matter again. I wish to very clearly restate my absolute commitment to the north east having a technological university. This is something we are united on across all sides and parties of the House. Deputy Fitzpatrick talked about my frustration in the past regarding the north east not getting an application in. That is true but we have moved on from that now. This is about getting a solution. I am very pleased that for the very first time I am aware of, we now have the management team, staff representatives, student representatives and governing authority all having one shared vision that they want to be a part of a technological university for the north east. We have provided funding through the transformation fund. We have provided expert advice through Dr. Neavyn. I take the point Deputy Ó Murchú made on the metrics.

We work very closely on this and we will keep in contact.

It was a pleasure to meet Deputy Ó Murchú's nieces. The school very kindly presented me with this tie, which I promised I would wear in the Dáil. We all had a laugh, on an occasion of celebration, about a member of the family of a Sinn Féin Deputy having to get a photograph with a Fine Gael Minister. It was a very pleasant night and it was very nice to meet the Deputy's family. I did not try to politically convert them and I do not believe I would have been successful anyway. However, it was lovely to be in the school. I pay tribute to the Príomhoide, Mr. Tomás Sharkey, who is well known to the Deputy. He is an excellent Principal and is held in very high regard by the community.

Deputy Pringle referred to Killybegs. I share his view. The strength of a technological university is its multi-campus approach. People should see that as a strength. While it is not a particular issue in the north west, some people talk about technological universities as if they were all about their town, particularly in larger towns. It is actually about a region. It is about the north west and working as a region. The Killybegs campus has a very important role to play in this regard. It actually came up in a conversation I had with the president of Atlantic Technological University, Professor Orla Flynn, last week. She was at Killybegs campus very recently. I intend to visit the campus, either during the summer, if that is appropriate for it, or just at the start of the new academic year. I will certainly let the Deputy know when I am going there. I share his view that it has potential and will require investment. We will work with the Deputy and other Donegal representatives on that. The Killybegs campus has an important role to play in the Atlantic Technological University.

There are a couple of other issues to touch on. I accept that student accommodation represents a very significant issue. I also accept that if we can get it right, it will become a lever not only to make progress for students but also to help address the housing issue overall. If we can provide students, who are competing with a family to rent a three-bedroom terraced house, with student accommodation, there will be a double benefit. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and I have been discussing this. I am due to update the Cabinet committee on housing on some proposals and ideas we have on this at its next meeting. To be blunt, it will require the State to make a subvention. Much college-owned accommodation could be built if we get the model right.

In the short term, there is more student accommodation this year than there was last year. Nine hundred and seventy new units have been constructed in the past two years, and I think 929 more are under construction. We have changed the law to ensure students do not have to pay for many months of rent up front. We are now giving the technological universities the ability to access the borrowing framework to build. I am meeting presidents and chairpersons of universities and colleges this month to talk about further local solutions that can be effected in the interim.

I was taken by the comments of Deputies Ó Cuív and O'Donoghue on public transport. As I travel around the country, it comes up that better public transport in rural areas could lessen the need for student accommodation in that there are students who would not necessarily move out of their homes if they had public transport. I will take this up further with my colleague the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I thank the Minister for Transport for the measures he has introduced to reduce public transport fees, particularly the 50% reduction for those under 24, many of whom are students.

I was struck by the comments on apprenticeships and pathways. A couple of Deputies made a point in this regard that I know they did not mean, but I want to clarify the position because we must use language correctly in this House. An apprenticeship is a form of third-level education. It is not a question of third level or an apprenticeship; it is just a question of what form of third level. We have got to get that right. I make the mistake sometimes too. An apprenticeship is a third level education; it is just a different way of getting it. All of us beginning to speak like this helps with the status aspect to which Deputy Ó Cuív alluded.

It definitely has to be about pathways. One of the key requirements we have in the reform agenda, in return for sustainably funding higher education, is a unified third level education system. I refer to apprenticeships, further education and higher education all working more closely together.

Deputy Conway-Walsh and others raised the cost of education, as did many others. I am very clear and get that we have to do more. I am pleased that we are beginning to move in relation to improving student grants. I accept that there is more to do, as the student grant review states very clearly. The paper on the cost of education will afford an opportunity to all of us to put our cards on the table regarding what we believe are the next best moves to make in the budget. The timing of the changes and how we introduced them are matters to tease through as part of the Estimates process.

I want to comment on the issue of students studying the English language here and the way they were treated, as raised by Deputy Conway-Walsh. I want to be very careful about what I say because, despite my being protected by parliamentary privilege, I am conscious that the report relates to an illicit arrangement. There are legal protections in place for all tenants, including students. There is also the Residential Tenancies Board. I am sure all of us hope that the full rigours of all these protections will be explored. My office will be in close contact, including this afternoon, with Ms Laura Harmon, who heads up the organisation representing international students here. We will do all we can to provide them with information and support. Deputy Conway-Walsh should note that we intend to move forward with the international education mark. I expect it to be in place by the beginning of 2023 and to have detailed information in the autumn of this year on how it will be rolled out. I am happy to provide the Deputy with a briefing on that.

The issue of visas for J1 students is not a matter for my Department but one that I will take on board. The point made in this regard was a fair one.

I take the point on wanting to increase SUSI thresholds. People are being assessed on last year's income level. It is retrospective for 12 months, so people are not feeling the full whack of the inflationary measures yet.

I will leave it at that. We now have the key ingredients in place. We are seeing the benefit of a full Department of State working on these policy issues. I pay tribute to the people working in our Department and agencies. They have worked extremely hard over the past two years, not just in dealing with Covid and its impact on education but also in trying to put in place some of the key blocks, including the Higher Education Authority Bill, which is currently going through this House, and the future funding plan, on which there has been ducking and diving for too long regarding how we properly fund higher education. That question has now been addressed and we have to get on with the implementation. Other elements include the SUSI review, the work on the cost of education and the new national access plan coming at the end of this month. There is a lot of work to be getting on with. I look forward to keeping in close contact with colleagues.

3:15 pm

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