Seanad debates

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage


Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

10:30 am

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I congratulate Senator Mark Daly on his election as Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann. I wish him the very best in the role. I am sure he will be up for the job and well able for it. I also congratulate all Senators elected to the Seanad. I look forward to working with them.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to present the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill 2020 to the House.The primary purpose of the Bill is to establish the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. The establishment of the Department is a major initiative of the new Government. It underscores our strong belief that the interface of knowledge, skills, innovation and access to educational opportunity at further and higher level is critical to our future prosperity and fairness as a society.

The new Department will place a strong focus on ensuring the supply of skills and supporting innovation which can drive economic development at national, regional and local levels, ensuring social progress and inclusion in our society and transforming people's life chances by widening access to educational opportunity. The Department will also help to position Ireland as a leading international location of world-class research and innovation which can address the novel challenges of a rapidly changing world. The priorities of the new Department, which the Minister, Deputy Harris, and I will set out, will reflect the focus of the programme for Government on dealing with the implications of Covid-19, building a more resilient future, rebuilding our economy, driving regional development and delivering a better life for all of our people.

We recognise that investment in further and higher education and research is an investment in our future. Our work in this area has already begun with the priority of stabilising the system which has been affected by the Covid-19 crisis and placing an emphasis on the difficulties experienced by learners, particularly those who are vulnerable.

The Minister and I yesterday launched a €168 million package of supports for further and higher education institutions and students. This package will cover the costs associated with the Covid-19 pandemic and will allow students to return to college this September. The higher and further education and training system will also play a critical role in our economic recovery. This will mean equipping people at all stages of life with the skills to secure employment in the short term and preparing our workforce for the massive changes that will take place in the world of work in the coming years. This will include moving to a low-carbon future and preparing for disruptive technologies. It is also important to stress that, as a Department, we will have a strong contribution to make to equitable regional development by driving innovation and skills supply in all regions of Ireland.

We have already set out an ambitious vision for how further education and training will build skills, foster inclusion and create pathways with the new five-year further education and training strategy, which the Minister and I launched earlier this week. This strategy outlines an impressive and exciting future for further education and training which the Department will deliver over the coming years. We will make sure that further education and training is seen as an option for everyone and that it is relevant to our changing world.

The social inclusion dimension of the new Department's work is absolutely critical and will be at the heart of everything we do as a Department. Access to education and training is as close as anything we have to a silver bullet to drive social mobility in society. We will have a relentless focus on improving access to educational opportunities for disadvantaged groups and supporting inclusive initiatives for learners with intellectual disabilities.

Research and innovation will also be at the heart of the new Department's agenda. As the Taoiseach told the Dáil on the formation of the new Government, "we need to do more to acknowledge and build on the incredible base of scientific research which has developed in the past two decades and has played a central role in our economy and ability to respond to the pandemic." The level of ambition of the programme for Government on this agenda is clear. The programme states: "We will ensure that Ireland is a global leader in research and innovation across the arts, humanities, social sciences and STEM."

Turning to the details of the legislation, the Bill is short and technical in nature. As Senators will be aware, in most cases where there has been a reordering of ministerial and departmental functions, the changes can be put into effect by way of secondary legislation. That is not possible in the current situation because what is proposed is an entirely new Department which will take its place alongside the other 17 Departments of State. A similar situation arose in respect of the establishment of the Department of Rural and Community Development in 2017, which necessitated similar short technical legislation.The main provisions of the Bill are therefore quite technical in nature. They essentially provide for the body of law which relates to ministerial powers and Government Departments to apply to the new Department. The Bill will also allow for certain orders to be made in respect of the new Department and Minister. These orders will include transfer of functions and alteration of name orders.

The Government will also move an amendment which will provide an annual allowance of not more than three specified holders of the office of Minister of State who regularly attends meetings of the Government. Current legislation provides for two specified holders of these particular offices to receive an annual allowance for attendance at Government meetings.

Once the Department is legally established, the actual transfer of legislative functions will take place by way of secondary legislation in transfer of functions orders. This will cover the range of responsibilities which will be transferred from the existing Departments of Education and Skills and Business, Enterprise and Innovation. The establishment of this new Department represents perhaps the most significant change in further and higher education and research in decades, as these areas will now be dealt with at Government level.

I know that issues of education are very close to the hearts of many Members of this House. I very much look forward to hearing their views. I again thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to present this legislation. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I congratulate the Minister of State on his elevation to high office. The University of Limerick and Limerick Institute of Technology will be excited to see him in his new portfolio, as will other institutes of higher education in Limerick. I know of his hard work and his many spokesperson positions over the years. I wish him well. Third level education is an important sector and we are delighted that the Deputy will be Minister of State with responsibility for it.

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Déanaim comhghairdeas leis as ucht a róil nua. I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate him on being appointed Minister of State in this very important Department. As spokesperson on public expenditure and reform and Gaeltacht affairs, I am pleased to take part in the debate on the first legislation from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to come before the Twenty-sixth Seanad.

The Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill is short and technical but its consequences will be far-reaching. The Bill establishes a new Department, An Roinn Breisoideachais agus Ardoideachais, Taighde, Nuálaíochta agus Eolaíochta or the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. The establishment of this Department will bring to 18 the number of Departments. Several Ministers will now be responsible for two Departments each, which is a mammoth task.

While I welcome this new focus on higher and further education and research, there are many other areas deserving of such a focus. The issue of our ageing population and the needs of older people is one example. The number of people over 65 is growing rapidly. Within a decade, one in six people in Ireland will be over 65 while more than 250,000 people will be over the age of 80. This brings into sharp focus the challenges we will face with regard to healthcare, housing, transport and social protection.

There are many areas that are equally deserving of the attention a designated Department brings but the establishment of this new Department is an opportunity and should be viewed as such. There are a number of issues I wish to raise which include the funding of the overall sector, the type and shape of the sector and the funding strategies pursued with regard to research.

The sustainability of the higher education sector is an issue which has not yet been properly addressed. We have had numerous reports, reviews and debates but, as yet, few or no solutions. There have certainly been no agreed solutions. The development of this new Department is an opportunity to recognise the value of higher and further education to individuals, the economy and wider society. The number of students is increasing. The Department of Education and Skills estimates that number will exceed 220,000 by 2022. That projection was made long before Covid-19 and its impact on our economy arose. I have no doubt this number will increase as a result of the need for reskilling, training and upskilling.

In July 2016, the expert group on the future funding of higher education concluded that an extra €1 billion in funding was needed each year to maintain and improve higher and further education. The Irish Universities Association estimates that Irish universities, not including institutes of technology or technological universities, generate approximately €9 for every €1 the State invests in them. Aside from this, coming from Galway I know at first hand the positive impact the National University of Ireland, Galway, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, Galway Technical Institute and other higher education institutions have had on our city and county and, indeed, on the wider region.I cannot overestimate the value of being home to world-class higher and further educational institutions. The positive impacts are everywhere to be seen, from job creation to entrepreneurship; the connection between research and the life science sector, including pharmacology and medical technologies; the role of research in the agricultural and marine sectors; and the crucial research and innovation in the development of renewable energy sources and low-carbon technologies. In addition, with this strategic approach higher education institutions can help develop nationally important schools or colleges in more rural communities. Examples include NUIG's Acadamh in Carna and An Cheathrú Rua and GMIT's National Centre for Excellence in Furniture Design and Technology, located in Letterfrack, in Connemara.

A second point I wish to make is the opportunity for this new Department to develop and nurture a culture of continuous and lifelong learning. Such a culture is necessary not just in economic terms, with the changing and evolving workplace, but also for the personal development of each and every citizen. If the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it is the ability we have to adapt to new approaches and adopt new ways of communicating. Blended learning is, I believe, here to stay. One cannot, however, beat the benefits of the classroom or the importance of physically attending courses. Notwithstanding the current situation with Covid-19, the facilities our higher and further education institutions have should be in continuous use. I welcome the expansion in recent years of the Springboard programme. This programme has been helping people to reskill and upskill in areas of high need or demand over the past decade. On several occasions it has been broadened and expanded in order that the courses are available at reduced cost or free of charge to people at work as well as free of charge to people who are unemployed.

The third point I wish to raise is the approach that has been taking to funding research at our higher educational institutions. Third level researchers need sustained and regular opportunities to apply for and obtain individual-led funding over their careers. In recent years it has become clear that demand for funding greatly exceeds supply. Researchers spend too much of their time on funding applications for funds where the success rate is low. Many excellent researchers struggle to secure funding to maintain their international competitiveness and their ability to train and provide PhDs and postdoctorates for academics and people from various industries. Individual funding is critical to generating new ideas, making scientific breakthroughs, identifying new directions in science and engineering and fostering innovation. There has been a focus in recent years on funding for specific and defined areas as well as a tendency to provide large amounts of funding to a small number of researchers. We can see this clearly through the approach taken by Science Foundation Ireland. Such an approach omits thousands of researchers who with some State support could leverage further funding for the Irish research sector. If we want our universities and ITs to remain competitive and to be centres of internationally important and significant research, we need to provide an increased level of core funding. This funding will be used for capital and physical infrastructure and technical supports and should include clear ring-fencing of funding for unrestricted researcher-led research, the type of research that often leads to great technological and scientific advances such as those in healthcare, engineering and so forth. We also need a robust evaluation of Science Foundation Ireland and the research direction in which the country is heading. The separation of the role of chief scientific adviser from the role of director of Science Foundation Ireland should also be pursued. The role of chief scientific adviser to the Government of Ireland should be independent of any of the funding organisations.

Furthermore, we need an information campaign to raise awareness of the importance of higher and further education to our economy, to our society and to individuals. We need a co-ordinated approach to the funding and organisation of our higher and further education sector, an approach that encourages personal development, fosters a culture of continuous learning and supports and nurtures pioneering innovation and research.

I believe that the establishment of this new Department presents a golden opportunity to achieve all this and more, and I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, the Minister, Deputy Harris, and officials well. I look forward to working with them. Having been part of the establishment of the Department of Rural and Community Development, I know it takes time for new Departments to bed in, from the simple things such as finding a premises etc. to getting a new Department up and running. I know that both the Minister and the Minister of State have taken that challenge head-on and I wish them well in their roles over the coming years.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I join my colleague, Senator Kyne, in congratulating the Minister of State and the Minister on their appointments. This is a relatively short piece of legislation but a very important one in that it establishes what I regard as a key Department for the planning of the future of this country. It represents a real opportunity. Much of what the Government does is firefighting, but this is a chance for a Government Department to focus on long-term, evidence-based policymaking, to prepare Ireland for the convergence of new technologies we are experiencing and to ensure that Ireland is equipped for the big challenges, such as ageing, which Senator Kyne mentioned, but also climate change and other areas.The Minister of State will be aware that this was a centrepiece of the Fianna Fáil manifesto and something we sought to ensure would happen as part of the programme for Government. The party and the Government are very committed to it.

Our challenge as a society is to ensure that our citizens are prepared for whatever challenges will face us over the coming years, that we are prepared to deal with the fallout from Covid-19 and that we can deal with the technological change and issues such as climate change. It is therefore essential that we base our decisions on research and evidence-based policy, and this Department has a role in driving that. One of the other key elements is innovation, and the fact that that word will be included in the title of the Department is very important. We have to look at being able to support not only companies but also social enterprise to be innovative here. I refer in particular to small organisations and spin-outs from higher educational institutions. We must allow them to be able to scale up.

Essential coming out of the Covid-19 crisis, when we have dealt with the public health challenges, is that we then move on. The July stimulus package announced today was very welcome. However, there will, unfortunately, be people who will not be able to go back to work because the jobs that were there before will no longer be there. It is absolutely essential, therefore, that we invest in a big way in upskilling and reskilling those citizens. As Senator Kyne mentioned, the Springboard programme has been enormously successful. It helped us to deal with some of the challenges we faced during the global financial crisis and the downturn that emerged from it a decade ago. It can now be repurposed to address some of those challenges, along with the human capital initiative.

What Covid-19 has also shown is that things we did not think necessarily possible or which we thought would take a lot longer, especially in education, have come about much more quickly than we would have expected. The move towards online, blended and distance learning and the pace at which that was taken on board was phenomenal. We will have to look not only at how we can use the fact that people have adapted to that but also at new technologies coming down the line in augmented reality and virtual reality and how they will change the education experience. This will also mean - and this is a challenge for further and higher education - changes in the nature by which we deliver education. In addition, we will see far more short online programmes being delivered, and we must ensure the quality and accreditation of those. Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, has been looking at this issue and there has to be support in this area.

I wish to raise with the Minister of State a number of specific challenges I see for the new Department and issues I think will be important to address. The proposed university for the south east and the move towards technological universities are important questions we have already raised. A cross-party group of Oireachtas Members will meet the institutes of technology in Carlow and Waterford on Monday. We hope the institutes will lodge their applications for university status on Monday. If not, we would like a guarantee that action will be taken by the Department and that there will be external intervention.

It is key that this new Department is learner-focused. I believe that the engagement with USI and Aontas right throughout the Minister of State's and the Minister's period in office will be key. The education sector responded to Covid-19 with informal fora. It will be really important for the Department to continue that, such that there is engagement with all the stakeholders in further and higher education, research and innovation and science over the period. I agree with Senator Kyne on the approach to research. We cannot overestimate the importance of blue-sky research. If there is one criticism I have of Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, which does great work, it is that too much of its time is spent focusing on applied research.We need to look at ways blue sky research can be incentivised. The point has been made that this is not just in science. This is in the humanities and social sciences as well and there must be adequate support for doctoral candidates and postgraduate researchers. I agree with Senator Kyne that a strong message must be sent that the Government chief scientific adviser has to be a stand-alone office and completely different from the senior person in Science Foundation Ireland. I would like a guarantee on that.

I know the Minister of State is committed to accessibility. Access must be a hallmark of this Department. That includes ensuring that traditionally under-represented groups, such as people from areas of socioeconomic disadvantage, the travelling community and persons with a disability, have opportunities to acquire skills. The further education and training strategy published last week is very welcome. We need to equality-proof all of our strategies in the further education area. People will engage in learning throughout their lives because of the need to upskill.

With regard to the ageing challenge which Senator Kyne mentioned, one in five teenagers today will live to the age of 100 and one in three babies born this year will live to 100. That presents all sorts of research challenges for society and it means we will be constantly learning to adapt. The economic challenge for the future will be about a war on talent. I ask the Department to look at the visa regime to determine how we can bring in more researchers and attract entrepreneurs to this country. We must not forget the creative sector either. It is also essential, in a post-Brexit environment, to look at how we can encourage North-South co-operation and continue the useful partnerships with higher education institutions across the water.

The sustainability of the higher education sector needs to be addressed. The Cassells report led to a whole series of other reports being kicked down the road. I ask that the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Harris, do not continue to kick the funding issue down the road.

There are so many opportunities with this new Department. It offers us an opportunity to shape a vision for a future Ireland. I realise many issues will be raised in this debate. The main thing I encourage the Ministers to do with this new Department is to be ambitious.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, to the House and congratulate him on his appointment. I understand he will be the only Minister of State in the new Department and that the principal Minister will be Deputy Simon Harris.

The primary purpose of this Bill is to establish a new Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science. I will focus on education, research, innovation and science rather than the nuts and bolts of running the Department. I understand the Department has no building or office so these are early days. The previous Government set a precedent when it established the new Department of Rural and Community Development and, by golly, did the Minister, Deputy Michael Ring, make a run for it and succeed. If the Minister and Minister of State are to learn anything, I suggest the two of them take an afternoon off to speak to Deputy Ring because he brought energy, commitment and enthusiasm to that position and got things over the line regardless of who attempted to detract from his ambition. I admire him for that. I might not always agree with his politics but one thing he did was bring energy and enthusiasm to a difficult situation in establishing a new Department. The Minister of State is on the same trajectory and facing the same challenge. I wish him well in that.

When nominating the Members of the Government in Dáil Éireann on 27 June 2020, the Taoiseach announced the establishment of a new Department responsible for a range of issues, including further and higher education, research, innovation and science and appointed Deputy Harris as Minister. Someone mentioned ambition and I have no doubt the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, are ambitious on many fronts. I hope they apply to their roles the same vigour, determination and ambition they have applied in their political careers and on behalf of their own constituents. I have no doubt they will do so.If any team were to work together well and be ambitious, it is these two. We should be looking out for them and I wish them well. There was a similar situation for Deputy Ring and I suggest the Minister of State might talk to him.

When one looks at the programme for Government, one sees recurring themes of educational opportunity, further and higher education, research in science and green technologies. We always have to have green technologies in everything now. I support the green movement but suddenly all the Ministers who come in here and all the speakers on the Government side pepper everything with "green". There is a new-found interest in green technologies. I agree and it is not you versus us. We are all in this together. I am glad to see that the Minister of State is on message and I am conscious of the Green Party Senator on my right. Long may that continue because it is an important message and we should not apologise about green technologies and green innovation.

As someone who sits on the agricultural panel, I would like to see a great emphasis on agricultural food sciences and education and learning. I will take from my book: I believe baker is as noble a profession as stockbroker. I would like to see more engagement, particularly in the agricultural sector, in relation to apprenticeships for farming. We know that in the dairy sector, the horticultural sector and the forestry sector we cannot get labour. People do not have the necessary skills and training. The Minister of State must not forget apprenticeships and the value of young people who, for whatever reason, fell out of the mainstream education structures at 14, 15 or 16. They are important. They too are our future and it is not all about postgraduate education and further innovation for those people. Everyone must be in this together. Everyone must be given equal access to training and education at whatever level best suits him or her. That has to be the key message which I would like the Minister of State to bring to the fore in his work. When we use keywords like "science", "research" and "innovation", we have to talk about the exciting potential of that but also bringing people along at their level and helping them to develop their potential and play their meaningful part, particularly given the challenges that will face this economy post Brexit and post Covid-19.

As a country we need to build a strong foundation and capacity in the critical four Cs: collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity. Each of them applies to real world challenges. We must ground our policy in how we can further develop the sciences, technology, engineering and maths, which we commonly call STEM education. By expanding science and innovation learning, we will be putting students on a track, be it slow, medium or fast, to success and to be able to embrace and take on board the challenges that face us going forward. I have mentioned STEM and that is important because we know that STEM empowers individuals with skills to succeed. We know that STEM increases people's understanding of and ability to cope with complex technologies in this world. We know that STEM is intended to be a leader in terms of innovation and is necessary to sustain our economy and surmount the challenges our country faces. This innovation and science literacy depends on solid knowledge and that is important. STEM, as the Minister of State mentioned in his presentation, plays an important part of that. The global economy is changing and we have to be fit for it. That means upskilling and training our people to face those challenges ahead. STEM skills and qualifications are considered essential for Ireland’s productivity going forward.

The Minister of State mentioned Science Foundation Ireland. That is important and the collaboration it has with his Department is important. Also important is sustainable finance for our universities, which have been starved of cash for years and years. We now find the great challenges that universities have. Universities are more than just learning. They are about synergies, collaboration with the private sector and giving back. I know somebody who was involved in an on-campus company in Trinity College Dublin and established a very successful business in Sandyford Industrial Estate. They gave back, not only support and mentoring, but also finance to Trinity. The company became so big that the person in question had to make the biggest decision any entrepreneur can make, to let go and bring bigger investment, and it is now successful in many parts of the globe.That is success. That is the sort of innovation, education and encouragement we want in our universities.

I wish the Minister, Deputy Harris, well. There are enormous challenges in this area, but we should never forget the importance of equal access to education, equality around education and equality of opportunity. Everyone is entitled to that and must be supported in it. As I said, there are different levels and stages in education. I hope the Minister will always be mindful of that and that he will encourage all of them. More important, I hope he recognises the knock-on effect of education on enterprise and how we as a country, and the island of Ireland, can benefit from this technology, education and innovation.

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Tá fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I will be sharing time with Senator McCallion. Mar a dúirt mo chomghleacaithe, guím gach rath ar an Aire Stáit ina théarma nua.

Sinn Féin will be opposing this legislation, although we do not run contrary to any of the valiant views outlined by speakers thus far. All of what has been articulated up to this point by other speakers has made absolute sense. It is what this Government, this Oireachtas and our society should be aspiring to. My concern is why these things are not happening already. Why do we need the duplication of another education Department to deal with these issues when they could slot comfortably into existing Government structures and Departments? While I do not want to get into a ding-dong across this Chamber, I have to talk turkey and be honest.

Many people out there will be understandably and justifiably concerned about the real intention behind this legislation. The Minister of State indicated in his speech that the primary purpose of the Bill is to establish the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. We did not hear as much about the other, secondary purpose behind this legislation. My concern is that, in duplicating some of this stuff, we are potentially duplicating the chaos and confusion that currently exists in some of our Departments. When parents facing into a new school term cannot get answers about when their kids will start back at school, what we and the Government need to be focusing on is working effectively within the existing Departments. At a time when people are losing their livelihoods and businesses due to the pandemic, and given the effects Brexit will have on people's lives across the island, we do not need the Government to put massive costs on the taxpayer by creating another Department. In doing so, it is also creating a further three Ministers of State, which is more than exist within the current Department of Education and Skills.

It was worrying to listen to some of my colleagues on the Government side of the House talk aspirationally about what this Department will do, thinking, perhaps innocently, that it will be a panacea. We do not need this Department to do the things colleagues have outlined should be happening. We do not need that duplication and replication within Departments. We have not, as yet, even established joint committees to scrutinise the Government. In this House, we do not yet have Commencement Matters to question the Government and scrutinise its work. This proposed Department does not even have an office yet, but it does have three Ministers of State with quite hefty expenses. What kind of message does that send to the public? At a time when people are under such financial and social strain, one of the first serious items of business to come before this Seanad is the establishment of a Department with another range of "super junior" Ministers, with all the expenses attached. I have to be honest. I will approach this term and the work of this House as collaboratively and collegially with colleagues as I can, but this just whiffs of boxing people off. That is what it looks like and that is what people will justifiably and understandably think of it. I do not disagree with any of the sentiments expressed by colleagues about innovation, green technology, investing in further education and the kinds of benefits innovation and research can bring to our economy, society and communities across the entirety of this country. I have no objection whatsoever to further education institutions working positively together throughout this island and with our neighbouring island. I do not object to any of that and I wish to make that clear. However, I do not think we need this Department or additional Ministers, and a hefty expense along with them, to do any of that. We can and should bring Ministers in to discuss all of the themes and issues raised by Senators and we should do that in a very serious, considered, and thematic way. We do not need to establish this new office-less Department. That is the sincere view of the Sinn Féin group in the Seanad and that is why we will be opposing this particular legislation. That is what the public would expect of us from our priorities as a Seanad and an Oireachtas. I ask colleagues to reflect on that sentiment and consider their own views as we move forward.

Photo of Elisha McCallionElisha McCallion (Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Notwithstanding what my colleague has said about us opposing the Bill as presented today, I can do the maths and I acknowledge that it is highly unlikely that our opinion will carry. On that note, I call on the proposed new Minister with responsibility for the potential new Department to meet representatives of the north-west Cross-border further and higher education cluster that was established a few years ago as a matter of urgency, to show where the Government stands on its commitment to the expansion of the Magee campus of Ulster University, as outlined in the New Decade, New Approach document. The Magee campus should be to Derry what UCD and Trinity College Dublin are to Dublin, but unfortunately, at this point in time, it is not. It is well documented that the Magee campus is in need of significant investment in order to expand to a university that is fit for purpose and of the right size and scale for the people of the wider north-west. Over recent years, the people of Derry and the north west have developed ambitious plans for the region, but key to these plans is the expansion of the university and key to that expansion are science, research and innovation. I acknowledge the previous Government's commitment to support the expansion of the university, which was set out in the New Decade, New Approach document. I also extend my thanks to the Executive in the North and the British Government for the support that enabled the establishment of a medical school on the Magee campus. That is a welcome first step but it is only a first step. We are seeking the overall expansion of the Magee campus. I also note this Government's commitment to a university in the north west in the programme for Government. With that in mind, I ask the potential new Minister to meet the staff of Ulster University to start putting some meat on the bones as to where the Government stands on the expansion of the Magee campus. I also ask that Ulster University be part of any potential new advisory groups established by the new Department.

Photo of Annie HoeyAnnie Hoey (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and congratulate him on his appointment. We met on the radio yesterday, so it is nice to meet him in person across the Chamber. On behalf of the Labour Party, I welcome this Bill, which demonstrates a commitment from the Government to higher and further education. The new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science has great potential to address the huge challenges facing the sector. This Department will be justified if it can prove its worth by prioritising a sector that has been woefully left behind over a number of years.Key stakeholders in the sector have been calling for increased investment in higher and further education for many years. In my previous position as president of the USI, which I have mentioned on only very few occasions in the House, I was involved in the campaign for publicly funded education when we took to the streets and got active in the wake of the publication of the Cassells report. I reiterate my party's support for a publicly funded education and I am hopeful about the establishment of the new Department as the sign of a fresh focus on the needs of higher education and the further education sector.

I want to comment on a point raised by Senator Byrne on the technological university for the south east. I hope the new Ministers will drive it forward and will be involved in the process in the south east and for other technological universities. They will need their support and it will be important.

We have a great opportunity to have a conversation about what the post-second level education sector should look like. This sector includes universities, institutes of technology, technological universities, post-leaving certificate courses, apprenticeships, traineeships, lifelong learning and adult learning. We finally have an opportunity to have a national conversation about our collective vision for the post-second level educational landscape.

President Michael D. Higgins spoke about the role of education to develop thoughtful, conscientious and active citizens. The desire to create jobs and have economic drivers must not come at the expense of the fundamental purpose of education, which is to promote learning and expand knowledge. Educational opportunity is significant for our society and economy. I have welcomed the Minister's focus on further education and lifelong learning. Yesterday, I attended a briefing from the National Adult Literacy Agency and I heard compelling testimony on the impact of literacy not only on capabilities but also on an individual's resilience and ability to participate fully in society.

I want to take a moment to reflect on opportunities and the impact education can have on families. My mother was a mature student when I was growing up and had the experience of being in education and trying to write her essays at the end of the day on a bockety computer, and I apologise to her for that time I tripped over and deleted an entire essay. Her drive for learning inspired my own drive for learning. She pushed through and took on this new challenge. She travelled up and down to DCU so she could educate herself and expand her mind. Her drive for education had an impact on me and my family. We can never underestimate the opportunity that education can provide for anyone, whether through seeing someone in the family go on to education or instilling in them the confidence that they too can achieve something as simple as opening up their minds and availing of new learning opportunities.

I also want to reflect on the precarious employment in the higher education sector. I am sure many of us know people who tried to get into academia and who wanted to work in academia but the opportunities were just not there for them or else they have had to leave the country. I have a friend who is heading off to Iceland, fingers crossed, to take on a postdoctoral opportunity. It is very difficult to remain in the education and academic sector. I ask the Minister of State to give a commitment to tackle this issue in conjunction with the unions.

During the Covid-19 crisis we have had the benefit of researchers in a broad range of disciplines based in many of our higher education institutions. Naturally, medical and scientific research has been to the fore of media discourse but it is important to emphasise the holistic approach needed to address the crisis. The NPHET subgroup membership encompassed experts on behavioural change, medical ethics and law. In looking at research as a way to attract foreign investment we must not forget the primary purpose of research is not just to make a profit but to expand knowledge.

On a broader level I hope the new Department does not neglect the arts and humanities. The broader societal impact of the crisis needs to be assessed and understood in a wide range of disciplines, including cultural, sociological and historical. I also want to reflect for a moment on the value of our teachers and staff in our post-second level institutions, including educators, support staff, researchers and academics. I commend the work of the national forum for the enhancement of teaching and learning, which is a key driver to ensure students are key stakeholders and equals in their own learning opportunities. It also ensures and promotes excellence in teaching and learning.

In recent months, the arts have suffered greatly but through initiatives such as Other Voices: Courage 2020 and the Irish National Opera live stream they have provided free entertainment for people in their own homes. Investment in the arts is called for by the national campaign for the arts, which needs to be included in this fresh approach to further higher education and lifelong learning.

I note the inclusion of the word "innovation" in the title of the Department and I hope this does not indicate that business and enterprise will become solely synonymous with higher and further education. Perhaps I am a little biased and understandably nervous because I studied theatre in college. I was not driving to be a business person and I was not going to change the world but many of us who have studied the arts and humanities change the world in our own way.Perhaps we do not provide huge research grants or solve cancer but we provide entertainment and drive societal change, which is just as important as economic change, as we saw with issues such as the repeal referendum and marriage equality. Societal change is a huge indicator of the state of a society. I hope we do not just solely focus on the economic output of higher and further education but recognise the societal output and the value the arts and humanities can bring.

This is a broad sector with a wide range of stakeholders. Engagement with those stakeholders, including learners and providers, must be at the heart of the Department's work. Clarity and reassurance must be provided to these stakeholders, particularly at a time of crisis. I welcome the Covid-19 package announced yesterday by the Minister and I hope the same level of engagement will be shown to ongoing issues in third level funding. The Union of Students in Ireland and the Irish Second-Level Students Union have not been included or invited to the NPHET briefings to share their opinions and thoughts on how returning to education will work. I suggest that perhaps they should be.

Ultimately, the main issue facing both Ministers will be the funding of the sector. We have the highest fees in Europe. While great ambitions are outlined with the new Department we cannot do anything unless we have funding. The sector and Department cannot go forward until the funding crisis is solved. As I have said many times, the Cassells report was launched four years ago and we have simply run out of road as to how we will fund the higher education sector. It will be short to the value of €400 million to €500 million over the next two years and this money will not come out of good will. It is time for a comprehensive vision of what the sector will look like. I reiterate our support for publicly-funded higher education. It is time for action in this regard. As I have said, it will not be funded through good will and words spoken. I have already called for a debate with the Minister and I very much look forward to engaging with him on how we will tackle the funding crisis.

I have a great welcome for the new Department and we will support it. We will not support the amendment on the Ministers of State but I look forward to working with both Ministers. I am very excited to see how we will solve the funding crisis and I look forward to it.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister of State for being here. I welcome the Bill, which will shortly create a new Department to represent higher and further education, research and innovation at Cabinet. I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State on their expected appointments at the Department once the legal changes are finalised and I wish them both well in their new roles.

I welcome the Bill in that at least it is a demonstration by the incoming Government that it intends to approach higher education issues with a greater degree of seriousness in the coming term. I was a member of the Oireachtas education and skills committee and it was an unfortunate reality that higher and further education were not given the attention and funding required, as demonstrated by the shameless inaction over the past four years on the 2016 Cassells report on third level funding. I am holding out hope this will change in the lifetime of the Government. However, I did not believe a new Department was necessary for these issues to be dealt with.

I am concerned the huge degree of legal and administrative work that goes into separating Departments and the associated ministerial functions could easily take away from the extremely important issues at play in the higher education sector. I would appreciate some assurances from the Minister of State in this regard. Will he assure us this work will not detract from the ability of the Department to administer and reform this crucial sector in the short, medium and long term? As a representative of a university in the Oireachtas I assure the Minister of State that such assurances will be well received by my constituents. I have heard about the considerable financial and administrative difficulties that have arisen with past divisions of Departments and I would welcome an assurance that lessons have been learned in the Department concerned.

With regard to the Department itself, I want to put a number of issues on the record with regard to how it will operate, its functions and priorities, and how best to balance them. The absolute number one priority of the new Minister and the Department must be the resolution of the third level funding crisis and making an early decision on a long-term funding model for the sector. In 2016, the Cassells report stated a decision could not wait. It has been four long years since then and with universities no longer able to rely on international student fees to make up funding shortfalls due to Covid-19 the sector is at true crisis level. I welcomed the €168 million announced yesterday and I thank the Minister of State for his work in securing it. The focus on the digital divide and supporting vulnerable and disadvantaged students during Covid is particularly welcome.However, it is unfortunately a drop in the ocean compared to the structural financial reform needed in the sector, especially given that the Cassells report of 2016 called for increased annual funding of €600 million by 2021. We conducted significant work in this area in the previous education committee, where we heard significant evidence in opposition to student loans and the mechanism to fund the sector. I urge the Minister to heed that. As a result, once again I ask him to look at significantly increasing public funding to the sector to allow it to return to a solid financial footing. This will, in turn, prevent the further commercialisation of the higher education system, as universities would not be forced to spend so much time and energy identifying alternative funding streams. It would also allow for a reversal of the concerning fall by Irish universities in recent international ranking publications. I welcome the improvement in Trinity's placement on the recently published QS rankings. This continued underfunding is indefensible and cannot continue. It must be the number one priority of the new Minister.

I have also long been concerned by the commercial focus and outputs of some research institutions and the inclusion of the word "innovation" in the new Department's title concerns me further. It is very important for the new Department to continue to fund arts research to the same degree as research in the STEM areas, even if such research has valuable outputs that do not register on certain economic indicators. This has been a particular concern with Science Foundation Ireland's funding decision mechanisms. In the previous Dáil, Deputy Lawless introduced the Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland) (Amendment) Bill 2018, which would require the body to split research funding fairly between original and applied research. This is a big concern of mine for the new Department and I urge the Minister to allay publicly some of those concerns. Will he progress Deputy Lawless's legislation and how does it stand with the new Government? Arts research is incredibly important in making sense of human experience and it must not fall by the wayside by having language normally relating to business, enterprise and commerce tied into the title of the responsible Department.

I would also appreciate if the Minister could indicate his support for the independence and autonomy of the research sector, the importance of fundamental research and scholarship and, in particular, academic freedom. There have been concerning trends in the US and in the UK in terms of the political nature of Government funding decisions, and that is without even mentioning the appalling situation in the higher education sector in Hungary and the outright attacks on academic independence and freedom there. I would appreciate if the Minister could indicate his awareness of these issues and his determination to ensure they do not play out in any form in the Irish context. This also extends to ensuring fair and appropriate funding for the sector rather than allowing it to rely excessively on funding from commercial, industrial and private sources that may seek to influence research processes and results. This is key, and I would appreciate a commitment from the Minister in this area.

I have a similar concern about the national training fund levy, which is applied on employers to fund national efforts by the State to educate and train the workforce. I was concerned by moves in the previous Oireachtas to give employers even more of a say in how the fund was spent, which led to criticism on the ground that industry and commerce were having a disproportionate influence on how the fund was allocated and managed. Employers are important stakeholders in national training policy but the State should direct policy to the national skills gap, not solely satisfying the demands of employers. Will the Minister take responsibility for this levy in the creation of the new Department and will he commit that industry input will be kept to an absolute minimum?

I know this Bill simply puts the legalities in place for the Department to be set up, but the decision to give higher education an entire Department to itself is significant and will come with major challenges. Recent experience in the UK shows that a similar move in that jurisdiction led to an increased focus within the department there on the privatisation and commercialisation of higher education. I urge the Minister to resist seriously any attempts to make similar moves here in Ireland. I wish the Minister and the Minister of State well in their roles and I look forward to working with them in the future.

Photo of Shane CassellsShane Cassells (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and I wish him well in his new position. I know his capabilities. He is a very reforming politician. I am delighted this new Department is now being established. I acknowledge what the Minister of State has told the House in respect of the €168 million package of supports. That is welcome.As Senator Ruane said, it is only another step along the path towards what is required in this sector. Crucially, this Department will put a dedicated focus on the sector. During the previous Dáil, we had numerous debates on the issue of the third level sector and higher education but it always seemed to happen on the margins of some other related topic. We now have a dedicated focus on a sector that is crucial to our advancement and continued growth as a nation. That is the justification for this Department if people are looking for it.

The challenges facing the Minister and this sector were set out in the report published in 2016. At the time of the publication, the author, Peter Cassells, set out quite clearly the urgency of the funding that was required. He suggested €600 million in additional funding per annum until 2021. Since 2015, there has only been a cumulative additional €350 million of funding whereas the report set out that we needed €600 million per annum. At the time it was released, Mr. Cassells stated that immediate action was needed to resolve the funding crisis in the third level sector. What is frightening is not only the lack of action taken in response to his recommendations, but it took continued requests of the Department from the Joint Committee on Education and Skills for an assessment to be conducted of the potential costs of actions suggested in the report were they to be acted upon. An assessment of the report by the European Commission then commenced last year and it is not expected to report until the end of this year. It is scandalous. There has been an lack of urgency in the assessment of what it would take to address the problems. The report, when it was published, set out the urgency that was required but, four years later, the Department and the European Commission are still assessing matters.

We must grapple with the thorny issues that were in that report, particularly those relating to fees. Ireland's student contribution fee of €3,000 per annum are the second highest in the EU. That is prohibitive for many families. The options that were set out were to abolish that fee, to leave it as it is but increase the subvention to the third level sector and increase State funding, or introduce an income contingent loan system. Nobody was seriously considering the loan system and, as Mr. Jim Miley, the director general of the Irish Universities Association, said, it was a cop-out that would have let the Government off the hook. The fact that we now have a dedicated Department, with figureheads such as the Minister of State and the Minister to deal with these issues and make these calls is significant given the lax attitude of the Department of Education and Skills in the past four years.

As I have said, as did Senator Ruane in her contribution, the Joint Committee on Education and Skills issued a public statement in January 2019 rebuking the Department for not providing an assessment of the potential costs of the recommendations in the Cassells report and making those recommendations a reality. The committee wrote to the Department seeking those assessments for two years. On that basis, I fundamentally disagree with the position that Sinn Féin articulated earlier to the effect that the party does not see the need for this particular Department. It is regrettable and depressing in its short-sightedness. The narrative that was used in arguing against the Department was that the people expected Sinn Féin to oppose it. Mother of God, that is pitiful, weak and lacking in imagination. We may have come to expect nothing else, but it was abhorrent that the narrative used to oppose the establishment of this Department was that the people expected Sinn Féin to oppose it.

Fianna Fáil certainly will not oppose it. We will support the establishment of this Department to drive the imagination, education and the growth of this nation. This will be done by people who have imagination, drive and passion to see a society in which everyone can achieve and attain the reality of third level education so that the advancement of our nation can also become a reality. I wish the Minister of State well with his work and look forward to collaborating with him and his Department to ensure the vision I have outlined become a reality.

Photo of Aisling DolanAisling Dolan (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for coming to the House. It is an historic day to create a new Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science. As Fine Gael spokesperson for education and higher education, it is an honour to be here today to see that happening. My role in NUI Galway is working with excellent teams of engineers, such as the translation medical device team. Even most recently with Covid, it was working with healthcare professionals and the industry in Galway to develop the possibility of sharing ventilators. That demonstrates the importance of research, third level, industry and healthcare working together to deliver for society as a whole.

Reference has been made to Science Foundation Ireland, where I have also worked. The Department will be interesting for me, as, given my background, I know many of the players. CÚRAM, for example, is a centre for medical devices funded by SFI. This model is based on research funded by the State, through the foundation, and by industry. It shows how we are developing and ensuring that world-class research is available in our universities. In that way, we are embedding industry in this country as well.

Access to skilled graduates and research infrastructure shows why universities and third level are crucial to economic development in the region. SFI is the major agency funding competitive international peer-reviewed research in STEM areas. It has the core funding, four researchers and top-class institutes that has supported Irish universities to reach the top 1% in rankings worldwide. Funding programmes span all types of research, not solely in applied research as there is also frontiers for the future, which spans 14 research priority areas.

The new Department will also focus on new technological universities, in particular for the Connacht-Ulster alliance involving GMIT, IT Sligo and Letterkenny IT. There is a proposal for more than eight campuses in the region. As a former board member of Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board, I am delighted that the further education, training and SOLAS sections are now coming under the new Department. Further education and training, FET, and SOLAS courses are available up to level 6 and are aligned with the national framework of qualifications, NFQ, model. There are apprenticeships in engineering and accountancy, to name but a few. Courses are also designed and developed to respond to employers' needs. One could ask why that is so important now. It is because we are entering into a massive economic crisis. We need to ensure that our educational facilities are able to respond to it and that is what the FET sector is doing. There are courses for the employed and unemployed and there are lifelong learning opportunities under the skills to advance and the skills to compete initiatives at I encourage anyone looking to continue their lifelong learning, which we should all do, to log on

I am very pleased to note the €168 million in supports for students and the new strategy for FET, as outlined by the Minister of State. Areas of focus now for us in respect of skills gaps and future jobs are in healthcare, especially given the current crisis. Medtech, climate change and disruptive technologies are changing how we live and work. Creative skills graduates and access to research excellence allow businesses to continuously adapt and innovate and will ensure our ability to attract FDI and employment to all regions in Ireland.

The people of this country are our true wealth. The talent we have here is what attracts and embeds world-class industry and research teams - our graduates in science, technology, engineering, medicine and the arts. I am an arts graduate myself. Such graduates are sought across the world. Ireland's National Skills Strategy 2025 quotes the OECD secretary general, Ángel Gurría: "Skills have become the global currency of 21st century economies." Without proper investment in skills, people languish on the margins of society. Technological progress does not translate into economic growth and countries can no longer compete in an increasingly knowledge-based global society.

Ireland as a country has learning and education at its heart. From the monks in Clonmacnoise along the Shannon, shining a light across the world from the 6th century, to our trail-blazing strategies as a country when we made decisions that education would be available to all. Now we have a Department to drive investment and to ensure the university and third level sector can deal with the current challenges with Covid and ensure that we are looking at blended learning approaches that will create fantastic opportunities for learning at all ages.

Reference has been made to the challenges we face and to the Cassells report. How are we going to provide core funding to universities? How are we going to provide the infrastructure and research facilities to ensure that we can offer the best?I am proud to welcome this innovative Department for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. It is core to access to education, to our economic recovery, and will have societal and cultural impacts. Integrating opportunities for people across higher education and further education and training and focusing our funding to support investment in the third level sector will make Ireland a centre of learning and world-class research excellence for our future.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and congratulate him on his elevation.

It is proven that countries that invest in research power ahead. If one takes New Zealand and South Korea, there is a reason why they have managed so well with the coronavirus. Apart from excellent political leadership, they have highly-developed innovation and research sector. In Ireland, we pride ourselves on our high standard of education at all levels and it is a significant factor in attracting foreign direct investment into the country. The same is true for research and development. Irish academics and researchers have been to the forefront of our very successful efforts so far in the Covid-19 area and many are world leaders in their profession. We trust their authority and their objective independence. This balance must be maintained in any new Department that is formed.

Covid-19 has also revealed deep fault lines in our higher education output. Take the example of the Academy of Clinical Science and Laboratory Medicine. Yesterday its AGM was told that the pandemic had demonstrated how much Ireland requires the expertise of medical scientists to respond to public health issues, yet there is a serious staffing shortage and retention challenges across all Irish hospitals and laboratories. Ireland lags behind our European counterparts in relative numbers of medical scientists. We need investment in this sector. Indeed, one of my colleagues adverted to the poor employment conditions that apply to casual workers in the higher education sector.

I wish to pay tribute to the former Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Ms Mary Mitchell O'Connor, who battled hard for the sector when she became the country's first Minister of State with responsibility for higher education. In a very short time she pushed through several reforms and I have no doubt that the Minister, Deputy Harris, is excellently placed to build on these. In mentioning the former Minister of State, Ms Mitchell O'Connor, it would be wrong of me to pass through today's debate without drawing attention to the fact that as a Minister of State, she remained unpaid for her duties while sitting at the Cabinet table. Even though I have spent most of my life in the trade union movement fighting for equal terms for comparable roles across various areas in education, it rings a little hollow to come in here to set up a new "super-junior" Ministry at a time when there are thousands of people who will not see work for perhaps years.

There has been a lot of talk about higher education, researchers, innovators and so on. The one place that has not had the degree of attention it requires is the further education sector. I thank Limerick College of Further Education, formerly Limerick Senior College, where I started my second-chance education at the age of 35. Without the expertise of the teachers who were committed to second-chance learners like myself, I would never have gone on to take a degree with the London School of Economics and a postgraduate qualification from the University of Limerick. As we move forward with this Department, I am delighted to see further education in there with higher education. I hope, however, it is not going to become the poor relation in the middle of the higher education, or have higher education taking the bulk of the funding and leave little for further education. Senator Kyne mentioned Galway Technical Institute, which is another wonderful institution in Galway delivering programmes similar to what one finds in Limerick College of Further Education and various other parts of the country. In Cork, there are several further education colleges doing a fantastic job.

In 1996 I held my first meeting to try to get the colleges of further education recognised as a separate and distinct sector in Irish education. One of the grave concerns I had all through my 20-odd years of teaching in further education was the inability to seamlessly transfer students from further education into higher education. We had more success sending students to institutions in Wales, Bristol, Scotland generally and Edinburgh in particular than we had in sending them to our local universities. Thankfully people like Professor Brian MacCraith of DCU changed a lot of that. The Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown, Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology and others all changed individually but it did not happen as a sector, as a group.I taught a session in computer networks where my students qualified at level six. When they transferred into an institute of technology, they had to retake level six because it was not Higher Education and Training Awards Council, HETAC, level six but Further Education and Training Awards Council, FETAC, level six. Quality and Qualifications Ireland has changed some of that but it was about the mindset that controlled that. I am asking for Education and Training Boards Ireland to have a place at the table along with the Higher Education Authority and others. It should have an equal voice and get an equal opportunity to look for funding. It is extremely important that this is the direction we go in.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, to the House and congratulate him on a personal level on his elevation to the role. He comes to the position with a very fine background and I wish him every success.

This is a very important Bill. I wish to declare my vested interest up front as a former director of adult education. I am a huge advocate of continuing further and higher education. This Bill is not about creating a Department or a Ministry for Ministers. I ask that Sinn Féin stop that rhetoric, please. This Bill is a monumental milestone in our educational development. To be honest, I was a small bit sceptical when I heard this being floated prior to the agreement on the programme for Government. As a former Chairman of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, I was a very big advocate of the establishment of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. On reading the plans however, and seeing the custodians of the ministerial offices I am genuinely very reassured. This is akin to the introduction of primary education in the 19th century and second level in the 20th century. Taking on board the remarks of Senators Ruane, Craughwell, Cassells, Byrne and Hoey, we as a nation must take further and higher education to the 21st century level. That can be done through what we are doing today in this House.

I am very happy to endorse the remarks of Senator Craughwell about the former Minister of State, Ms Mary Mitchell O'Connor. She was a very good Minister of State at the Department and was at Cabinet also. The Munster Technological University is very important for Cork and for the south generally. It heralded a new chapter for third level education.

I was smiling as my friend, Senator Cassells, spoke about the Cassells report. I would hate to have a political row with my coalition partners but we did have a lost decade because of the mismanagement of our country by a certain political party, which I will not name right now. That has to be said as well. That did cause a delay in the enhanced funding of many different sectors.

Photo of Shane CassellsShane Cassells (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We were always a reforming party for education. Senator Buttimer should remember that.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I acknowledge the work of the former Minister, Mr. Donogh O'Malley, but I have to pay tribute to-----

Photo of Shane CassellsShane Cassells (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We have to look at the whole picture.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I have to pay tribute to the rainbow Government led by the former Taoiseach, Mr. John Bruton, which abolished third level fees, as the Senator knows, and to Ms Mary Mitchell O'Connor as well. This is an important day and we will not have a political row.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is just like old times.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I say to Senator Mullen that the old times have not gone away, you know. He too could be part of the good times as well.

The Minister of State's legacy in politics will be defined by this challenge. He has a great opportunity to leave an imprint on the social dividend of our country. Senator Ruane has been a huge exponent and deserves not patronising accolades but real, meaningful thanks for the way she has told us all through her life that we can aspire to be who we are, as Maslow says. That is what this is about today. To me this is about giving young people and not so young people that opportunity to reimagine. I always go back to when I was a director of adult education. People had an opportunity to come back in to take a course in Spanish, French or basic mathematics, or to do the leaving certificate again.That was a passport to a college or a higher education FETAC award. We are trying to give people an opportunity.

In his report, Mr. Cassells mentioned the three options that we have for funding, and we must tackle the issue of funding at third level. However, continuing education also needs to be reimagined, redeveloped and recalibrated so that we can give people opportunities. We once had the applied leaving certificate and it was branded an horrific addendum to education. I taught social studies to applied leaving certificate students for almost ten years. It was the best thing we did in second level education because it gave education and opportunity to a cohort of students who would otherwise have been lost. This Bill is about opportunity. I wish the Minister of State well.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I congratulate the Minister of State and the Minister on their leadership of what will be a new and exciting Department. It is important that each element of this new Department is given its rightful consideration and that some parts of it do not overly determine the approach to others. Science is a part of the new Department but, as has been eloquently said, it should not determine all of the other parts. The fact that science is a focus of this Ministry should not mean that we are only talking about the scientific realm when we talk about innovation, research or education. I am sure that is not the intent. I hope that the intent relates to further and higher education in its fullest sense.

This Department is about setting out ambition, imagination, possibilities for the nation's future and what might happen, including ways to face the challenges we are now facing, such as the coronavirus, climate change and the achievement of sustainable development goals. Many universities and other research institutions are working in that area. I recognise, in particular, the Irish Research Council, which is doing important work through the joined-up thinking that is required by the sustainable development goals and other aims. We must consider how we shape the future and become agents of the future. We must ensure that new minds bring their ideas to play, that new ideas emerge and that we have creativity in our nation. That is important, and is what this Department can and should do.

There are real issues that need to be tackled. The underfunding of the university sector has been talked about. Mr. Thomas Estermann of the European University Association has spoken about the fact that, in 2017, Ireland was only giving half the amount of GDP to universities that it had been in 2012. We have been going downwards and there has been a decrease in overall funding. There has been a 40% reduction in the amount of money going into the system for each individual student. That is an indictment of our performance and a massive challenge that we face.

I agree with Senator Hoey that the Department must speak to the Irish Second-Level Students' Union, the new students who are coming in. That is important. The Department will also need to speak to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and others. We must ensure that education is presented as an option and opportunity to every person of every age when they reach a new chapter in their lives. A person may be unemployed or returning to the workforce after a period of caring and education must be an option for such people. There has been an emphasis on work first, and employment always being the option of first resort. We must provide education first. Sometimes putting literacy first can be the best option. That might happen through literacy training or the excellent work that is happening in education and training bodies and in other courses. We should never set the limit of ambition for an individual. Someone who is unemployed and accessing State support should have an option of pursuing a primary degree or master's degree as a part of his or her career plan. It is important that we have routes into education from all sources.

We also must ensure those working in education do not face precariousness and poverty. I launched a report by TASC, Living with Uncertainty, and many of its case studies are of people working in higher education whose conditions are very insecure.It is bad for the families who are affected but, crucially, it is also bad for academic freedom and ideas. If people are on temporary contracts and in insecure employment, they are not able to dive in and do the kind of meaningful, challenging work that we need our universities to do. They will be unable to give us the ideas and new research that us politicians need to face challenges. That is important. The humanities in a wider sense, including social, political, philosophical and artistic pursuits, are a part of what we need and must be fundamental to our vision for higher education in Ireland.

Let us redefine "innovation". The Minister of State has heard that the word raises concerns because people start up companies that come and go and are sold on in a few years. Innovation needs to be about transformation. It might apply to a company that has existed for 20 years, changes and transforms what it does. Within innovation, we need to consider public public partnership. Memorandums of understanding exist for how to do public private partnerships but there are no equivalents for public-public partnerships. I spoke to the former Minister of State, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, who did very good work on gender equality in the Athena SWAN charter, which the new Minister of State will inherit. We need public public partnerships with other public universities in other places in the world on research that is happening in public bodies. Public public partnership is an untapped reservoir on which we could lead. I encourage the Minister of State to grasp that opportunity.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I echo the words of welcome and congratulation to the Minister of State. This has been an uplifting, positive and welcome debate. This Chamber is normally occupied by other people and sometimes is much more adversarial. I believe that the questions of education and the establishment of this new Department should elicit a positive response.

The first words I spoke in the House today were to ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister to come here and explain what are his policies on education and its funding. I pointed out that there is a looming crisis of funding, particularly in the third level area. We are now in serious crisis mode. What has been recently announced may be an Elastoplast but unless third level education is approached in a radically different way, and unless the choices laid down in the Cassells report are addressed, the third level sector is going to be in serious financial, performance and morale crises over the next 12 months. Whereas I share the positivity about the potential for the new Department to be transformational, and I hope it is, I believe that we need to hear quickly how our third level sector will be assisted to weather the enormous crisis that is about to grab it by the throat.

Throughout education, there is a sense of drift at the moment. I wish the Minister of State and the Minister every success in getting their hands on the wheel, so to speak, and making the decisions to which Senator Cassells referred. Those decisions have to be made and there must be a sense of urgency about it. It is debilitating that everybody seems to think that there is a magic money tree that can provide funding for everything. It is nice for politicians to live in that climate.I remember being in that climate as a Minister of the Government when there seemed to be money for everything for a while. I assure you, a Chathaoirligh, that if the Central Bank had warned that Government a crisis was coming there would have been a different response. It is a matter of great regret to me personally that did not happen, but we are now in a very different situation. We are facing into what could be a world depression and a situation where money will not be available in infinite quantities. We must now look to adopting a coherent plan for the funding of third level education.

I have heard suggestions that universities are proposing to reopen with the 2 m rule in place. If it can be reduced to a 1 m rule with masks, hand cleansing and all the rest of it, and if we can safely do that, it could transform or accelerate the recovery of the university sector. I do not want to say anything negative about NPHET, because it has done its job as best it can, but I do not know whether the 2 m rule really is all that important and I would love these Houses to consider whether a 1.5 m or 1 m rule could not transform our own business.

I will finish by saying that as far as I am concerned, I wish the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, very well in their new endeavours. It will become apparent very quickly whether it is rhetoric rather than action and I do not, for one minute, think that whether one has a building or not is the critical issue. It is whether one has the ideas, decisiveness and courage to take the radical decisions that must be made.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I wish my colleague the best of luck in his new role in this Ministry. I have known Deputy Collins for several years, and I have gotten to know him particularly well over the past four or five years when I served with him in Dáil Éireann. It is acknowledged that he is a man of vision and of thinking outside of the box. I have no doubt rhetoric will not be involved here but it will be work and innovation.

I agree with Senator McDowell in that it is important this Ministry will deliver. However, I find this announcement innovative. As Senator McDowell said, there has a been a great debate here. I do not want to disagree with any of my colleagues, but I must say to my Sinn Féin colleague that he might have been advised wrongly to go down the road he did. Even his colleague, Senator McCallion, said he knows about education in the north west and she made a good point. I do not think it is jobs for the boys or girls, I think it is an innovation and a new idea.

I respect the Senator's point of view, but I hope that he will respect mine as well because we are looking for funding for research, for students' laptops and for a student assistant fund. How many times have we heard students' mental health and well-being being discussed over recent years? It is a concern for every politician. That is even more critical now because we have gone through this Covid-19 crisis which, by the way, still has not gone away.

Regarding funding for the disadvantaged and the Traveller community, we all must accept the mainstream school system does not suit a considerable amount of young people. That is the reality. They cannot go into a school and listen to a teacher. They want new ideas and new ways, and often, with some new ideas, those people who are thrown on the scrapheap can be a huge success. Let us look at all the changing areas and remember that because of what is happening now in this country it is possible the way we have done things is going to change. Everything may have to change. The Senator spoke about the universities and whether they could function. They may have to function in a different world.

We talked earlier about the opening of schools and a huge amount of work is going on behind the scenes.One of the reasons the Government is not making statements is that it does not want to make a half statement this week and a half statement next week. It wants to get this right. I assure Senators that it wants to get all the national and secondary schools and third level colleges opened come September.

Other issues raised were climate change, which is a challenge, ageism and the proportion of elderly people in the population and apprenticeships, which should be a major issue. I studied horticulture in college and it is a sector that has been completely failed by the State over many years. There are major opportunities in horticulture, but we do not have a horticulture college. People can study horticulture at third level but at one stage we had three or four horticulture colleges. These types of issues can emerge from what is being done. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and the Minister, Deputy Harris, will be more than willing to engage, debate and take on board suggestions we have.

We have something different here. I was a wee garsún when in 1967 Donogh O'Malley made a radical statement by introducing free education. That was unbelievable at the time as people did not think it could happen. Perhaps we should view this as something similar and radical which we will implement to solve some of the problems in the education system. I accept there are challenges and that we will probably not achieve everything we want. This is, however, a great challenge and an opportunity. I wish the Minister of State and the Minister the best of luck. I certainly hope we can look back on this day in a few years' time as something innovative and radical in our educational system.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, to the House. It was a pleasure to serve with him on the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence in the lifetime of the previous Oireachtas. I wish him the very best in his important new role in this new Department.

I speak as a Senator for Dublin University and follow my Labour Party colleague and spokesperson on education, Senator Hoey, who has outlined the party's position on this legislation and our support for the formation of the new Department, albeit many of us believe in education as a continuum. It is important we insist on the same principles underlying our education system from preschool years through primary, secondary and third level. To that extent, I have spoken previously on the need to ensure education remains to be seen in that light, as a continuum, and that it does not finish at third level. We also have a commitment to education beyond third level, through postgraduate study and education for mature learners and second chance learners. That is a hugely important principle for my party and all of us on the left in Ireland.

Senator Hoey also set out our position on the amendments. It is unfortunate these proposals have been introduced as amendments rather than being contained in the original version of the Bill. As Labour Party Deputies have also spoken against the principle of the amendments in the Dáil, we will oppose them in this House.

Addressing the general issue of higher education and the Minister of State's speech, I welcome the package of €168 million that has been made available to the sector. That has been welcomed by all involved in the sector, including the Union of Students in Ireland and others. That package of supports for further and higher institutions and students is essential. However, there are still immense concerns within the sector, as previous speakers have highlighted, about how we will address the implications of Covid-19 once term resumes in September or October. The announcement this week that it appears at least that universities and colleges will have to abide by the 2 m rule, when previously there had been indications that might no longer be the case by the time the institutions reopened, has caused immense consternation and anxiety.It is difficult to see how we can offer the education we would like to offer our students at third level if that 2 m rule remains in place. That is a real concern. It is somewhat at odds with indications from other sectors. I am speaking in particular about indications in other areas of education and, indeed, indications in these Houses that this 2 m rule might be relaxed in respect of, for example, meetings of Oireachtas committees in September, after the recess. I ask the Minister of State for greater clarity in that respect and that he, the new Department and the Minister, Deputy Harris, bear in mind the immense difficulties the 2 m rule will cause for students and educators although, as is clear, public health and safety is top priority for all of us.

I will refer to Senator McDowell's point about the need for a coherent plan for the funding of third level education. Beyond the immense challenge of Covid, the greatest challenge for the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the new Department will be to directly address the recommendations of the Cassells report. My party has stated very clearly its preference for our third level sector to be publicly funded. A previous speaker referred to Donogh O'Malley and free secondary education. We should be returning to the principle of free third level education for all. That is envisaged as an option in the Cassells report. I urge the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, to take on board and address this recommendation.

We know there is a funding crisis at third level. The heads of the universities and all of the third level colleges have spoken about this many times. As the Minister of State said, we know how important the third level sector is for our economy and society. We must also invest in research and upskilling.

We also need to invest to ensure inclusion. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds must be given equal opportunities and equal rights to access third level education. I have pushed for this in the law school and across Trinity College, which has an internationally recognised programme, the Trinity access programme. Senator Ruane has been to the fore in pushing for recognition of access rights in universities and other third level institutions. We need to assure adequate funding is in place for access, equality and proper investment in the sorts of technology and skills-building we will need not just at the time of Covid, but beyond.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Guím gach rath ar an Aire Stáit nua. I wish him very well in his work. Somebody once said that if one thinks education is expensive, one should try ignorance. It is important that we get our education policy right. As other speakers have said, investment in education is absolutely critical. We are all aware of the funding crisis at third level. Looking at what this legislation seeks to bring about with regard to the establishment of a new Department, however, I ask whether the business case has been made for its establishment. What does the Government hope to achieve with regard to higher education through this change that it has not been able to achieve under the previous arrangement?

There are 126 pages in the programme for Government but only a page or so relates to higher education. As has been said, higher education has been represented at the Cabinet over the last three years by the former Minister of State, Mary Mitchell O'Connor. We have gone from three Ministers with responsibility for education to four, comprising two full Cabinet Ministers and two Ministers of State. That is the same as we had in 2007, during the Bertie Ahern era. At that time, we had one senior Minister and three junior Ministers.

The establishment of new Departments and the appointment of Ministers does not solve problems in and of itself. One consequence can be the creation of a silo mentality in respect of particular areas and policy problems. This can sometimes make matters worse. Did the creation of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in 2011 solve the various intractable problems it set out to solve? Childcare is still a major issue which presents major challenges. There continue to be shocking failures of oversight and management in Tusla. The abolition of that Department was widely mooted during the recent coalition negotiations but it was saved from the axe by intensive negotiations and lobbying by various interest groups that may, perhaps, benefit from associated funding.

To create this new Department for higher education, several Ministers have had to be assigned multiple Departments. In fact, the three Green Party Ministers now have responsibility for the equivalent of five separate Departments between them while the Ministers, Deputies Foley and Harris, share what was a single Department which is now to be split in two.Is that really a model for good and efficient government? Does it make sense in and of itself? I am not so sure. I am not sure the case has been made that it does.

I would like to use the time remaining to me to speak about some other issues facing higher education. As Senator Bacik, Senator McDowell and others have said, the situation with regard to third level funding is serious and has been for a long time, more than 15 years at this point. The Cassells report, which has been mentioned by a number of speakers, showed the scale of the crisis. In January, the provost of Trinity College, Dr. Patrick Prendergast, described the problem as a time bomb. He said that an extra €1 billion would be needed by 2030.

This programme for Government promises to "Develop a long-term sustainable funding model for Higher Level education in collaboration with the sector and informed by recent and ongoing research and analysis." The 2016 programme for Government included a similar promise and proposed that the relevant cross-party Oireachtas committee would outline a proposed funding plan for this sector. There has not been a whole lot of concrete progress. A relevant question for the new Ministers is how the establishment of this Department will help to lead to the action that is needed.

To move to an issue on which I have spoken in the past, I believe there is a need for a more generous and courageous debate on whether students should make some form of contribution towards the cost of their own third level education, perhaps though income-contingent loans, which was one of the suggestions made in the Cassells report. In many cases, students are already taking out loans at high interest rates to pay for their third level education. The idea of replacing this with a State-backed income-linked system is at least worthy of discussion. There is an argument that this would give students more of a direct buy-in to their own academic progress and give them a sense of the value of the resource they are accessing. It may give them an incentive to succeed and do well. It might assist those who find themselves outside the threshold for Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants.

I do not claim to have any monopoly on wisdom with regard to this or any other issue. I am open to considering and discussing other courses of action to address this problem but I would like to see progress made on issues such as this and debate on these matters. I would like to see a fair and detailed consideration of such ideas. As politicians, we should not engage in partisan or ideological point-scoring or compete for likes or retweets in respect of issues such as these. The issues are too serious and need to be searched through thoroughly. There is more I could say but I am conscious that I am over time.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank all of the Senators for their contributions. There is a great depth of knowledge and experience within Seanad Éireann. Some Senators have in-depth and hands-on experience of working in our education sector. That is a great asset in dealing with the great challenge facing the Minister, Deputy Harris, and myself in operating this new Department. The challenges Senators have articulated are well known and are not simple to resolve, as I believe we would all agree.

Some have asked why the Department is being set up. My party leader, the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, and our party have long been of the view that a Department of the State dedicated to the area of further and higher education, science, innovation and research was needed to connect people from the education sector with the workplace and to further educate and upskill people.It is important to point out, and we all need to keep this to the forefront of our minds, that while we know higher education is hugely important, so is further education. I refer to the non-high-profile parts of our education and training systems: the apprenticeships, the traineeships, the likes of Limerick College of Further Education, the PLC courses, the work the ETBs now do, having taken over the former FÁS training centres, and the work SOLAS now does.

Part of the discussion I have been having with the Minister, Deputy Harris, and what he has been saying to me, even at the most basic level, is that when it comes to Estimates and budget discussions later in the year, we will go to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform as a Department with a dedicated focus on the further education, training, science, research and innovation sectors. We will not go in as the Department of Education and Skills has done, with its basket of issues mixed in with the basket of issues that will come under the remit of the new Department. The current Department has issues such as pupil-teacher ratios, challenges in the provision of new schools and so on to deal with. It is a good thing we are setting up a stand-alone Department for those reasons. It was very refreshing and welcome that during the Government formation negotiations, both Fine Gael and the Green Party agreed with the vision which was outlined in this regard by our party and my party leader.

Many issues have been raised by all those who spoke. We have taken note of them and I will bring them to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Harris, and discuss them with him. Obviously, the funding of the sector is critical to its future. Many Senators have raised, rightly, the issue of the Cassells report and the fact that it is on a long journey. We know where it is at present with the European Commission. Senator McDowell rightly pointed out that there is no magic money tree. Hard decisions will have to be taken regarding the future funding of the sector in the coming months, no doubt, and that decision and discussion will have to be had at various levels. There will come a point in time when that will have to be done. I agree with the views and sentiments expressed by many Senators that the sooner that happens the better, but we have to get it right and recognise the environment, particularly the financial environment, within which we are now operating in light of the backdrop of the Covid pandemic.

A number of speakers mentioned the fact that we launched the further education and training, FET, strategy last week. This is an integral part of the work SOLAS is charged to do on the provision of training, particularly the roll-out of apprenticeships, the identification of gaps, specifically skills gaps, and the provision of the courses, apprenticeships, models and traineeships to identify those gaps. We will come forward with an apprenticeship action plan in the coming months. This will seek to deal with the commitments within the programme for Government to ramp up the number of apprenticeships we can make available to people; the issue of the range and types of apprenticeships, and the areas that do not have apprenticeship scheme options at the moment; and some of the negatives within the apprenticeship model, specifically a gender imbalance. The plan will also seek to encourage people who come from different communities - for example, a Traveller background - to become engaged in the apprenticeship processes and the offerings we have. Yesterday, as Members will be aware, €168 million was announced to assist the further and higher education sectors to deal with the reopening of colleges and campuses in September. While we have been debating here, I have been looking at the news feed. The Minister, Deputy Harris, has been meeting the Irish Universities Association and the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA, representing the institutes of technology and technological universities. They have confirmed to the Minister, in welcome news, that they will be in a position to open in September to provide induction to first year students and to roll out a programme for engaging in college life in a way which will be, I hope, as normal as possible. We are dealing with the new normal, as we know, and each college will have its own set of circumstances and challenges which it will have to try to deal with.

I will give the House a breakdown of some of the moneys announced yesterday for the record. A sum of €168 million was allocated to assist the reopening. To break it down, a sum of €14 million is being made available to reimburse many of our institutions for the effort they made in the front-line response to the national Covid crisis and the work and research they did, particularly on personal protective equipment, PPE. A sum of €41 million is being made available to ready the campuses for the return of students. There is a sum of €34 million to assist colleges and institutions in dealing with their online and digital provision because, as we know, that will be a significant feature of third level education and further education and training across the online platforms. A figure of €48 million is being made available to the existing research projects in the system. There is a recognition that they have to continue. We are aware of the importance of research. For students, and I wish to acknowledge that this has got a pretty broad welcome, €15 million is being made available for the purchase of laptops, tablets and Internet connectivity to assist them in their return to college. There is €3 million for the provision of mental health supports to students. The student assistance fund is being doubled from €8 million to €16 million, and €2 million is being made available to support a fund for students with disabilities and minority groups such as members of the Traveller community who wish to avail of third level education. In addition, and I do not have the detail to hand but I am sure we will all pick it up when we leave this session, the July stimulus is at present being announced, and I am sure there will be further detail and information in that regard. I am reading on the news feed that there is a figure of €5 billion being made available and 50 actions.

One or two other items were mentioned. The technological universities constitute a huge project which is happening in various regions. Reference was made to the planned Munster technological university, MTU, that is, the Cork-Tralee link-up. We have a similar project in my part of the country, with Limerick IT and Athlone IT; in the south east we have IT Carlow and Waterford IT; and there is the Connacht Ulster Alliance. The Cork-Tralee project has progressed and the others are progressing at various stages. We know what the process is as to how these projects can advance and the role of the independent assessment committee.That will be a positive development for our third-level landscape.

On FDI we know of the hundreds of thousands of job that many multinationals give people in this country, providing well-paid employment. There are many reasons FDI companies locate in this country. Much of it is to do with the depth of research talent and availability within the country. We are an EU, English-speaking, common-law country and many companies see it as an entry point to the EU and locate here for that reason. Many also located here over the years for tax reasons and much of that was argued and articulated as part of the recent Apple tax case and judgment. However, primarily, they came here for the available pool of skilled labour. That is a testament to our entire education system, to our third-level institutions and to our FET institutions. That is a factor in them coming here and a reason we need to continue to invest and promote, improve and support them into the future. I will not be able to cover everything that was said but I have taken notes of some of the issues and the requests for the Minister to meet the group in the north west. That will be forwarded.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Is that agreed? Agreed.