Seanad debates

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Further and Higher Education

10:30 am

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to take this matter. He will be aware the Cassells report was published in 2016. For five years, it has been kicked to touch, but having sought advice at European level, we did get an assurance from the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science that we will finally come to crunch time - I believe the phrase he used was "this is the year" - and that there would be an update published this autumn on how we are proceeding with implementing the report. My question and that of most of the sector is when we will see that update this autumn. Will we clearly see, either as part of the budgetary process next week or in the very near future after that, a clear timetable to ensure we have a sustainable model for funding of higher education?

Higher education has been underfunded, as I am sure the Minister of State is aware, but during the pandemic the situation became even more critical. Higher education institutions and students responded very well in difficult circumstances, but the financial challenge facing those institutions grew even more. As the Minister of State will be aware, the income from international students effectively collapsed and the opportunity to gain income from commercial activities also disappeared. We also saw a significant increase in the number of higher education places in terms of the number of students coming through the CAO system, which was most welcome. I think it is something we should be very proud of in this country that we have one of the highest participation rates in higher education in the world. Even though all those additional places were made available, and students will talk about this, the additional staffing and resources behind it were not there to match it.

Therefore, I am asking the following questions. Will we see the publication of the report quite soon? In the budget, or soon after, will we see a sustainable plan for the long-term funding of higher education? The Minister has also promised we will have a national strategy on research, which will be crucial for this country's long-term development. The current Government allocation for research and development is 0.94% of GDP, which is well below the EU average of 1.4%. There is also a commitment to undertake a review of SUSI, which is particularly important to students. Students are experiencing enormous financial difficulty at the moment. This is feeding into the funding crisis in higher education. I would appreciate an update soon on where we are with the SUSI review.

During the course of the pandemic, we saw the operation of a number of very inclusive working groups for the higher education institutions and those in the sector to try to resolve the problems. It has been a tradition in higher education that the approach would always be collaborative. This makes sense. I understand the group dealing with student accommodation is now being reconvened. It is important that all of the players are involved. However, in terms of this country's long-term development, everybody accepts our investment has to be in education, training and research. We have been kicking this can down the road for far too long. I am hoping the Minister of State will be able to provide us with some kind of update today on what is happening with the Cassells report and whether we will see a long-term strategy to ensure a sustainable higher education sector.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Byrne for raising this important matter.

The expert group report of 2016, entitled Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education, confirmed that higher education makes a hugely positive contribution to the development of individuals, employers, society and the State. The report concluded that the approach to funding at the time was unsustainable and that substantial increases in investment in higher education must be made to ensure the sector can remain viable and provide the capacity to meet the major increase in student demand projected up to 2030.

In advance of and since the publication of the 2016 report, my Department has been working hard to deliver a significant programme of reinvestment in higher education. It is important to acknowledge that, since 2015, a very significant programme of reinvestment in higher education has been implemented. Over that period, current public expenditure allocated to the higher education sector has increased by in excess of half a billion euro or almost 40%.

Funding and policy developments taken in recent budgets have taken significant steps to address the funding needs of the sector. Most notably and in line with the recommendation of the Cassells report, a new stream of employer funding was introduced upon a review of the National Training Fund. This level of investment responded to demographic pressures and underpinned a range of initiatives in the higher education sector, including a substantial investment in the evolution of technological universities and significant skills-enhancing opportunities for individuals, sectors and regions.

In 2021, excluding additional Covid supports, total planned current expenditure funding for the higher education sector, exclusive of research provision, is in the order of €1.98 billion.This significant allocation of public resources is a clear demonstration of the Government's commitment to meet the funding needs of the higher education sector to realise more fully its potential in contributing to economic and societal priorities which are central to this country's long-term sustainability.

Regarding ongoing work to implement the recommendations of the Cassells report, the development of a sustainable funding model for higher education is essential in light of the centrality of higher education to our progress as a country. In this regard, my Department's statement of strategy, which we published on 8 March last, contains a commitment to put in place a sustainable funding model for higher education.

In that context, I am very encouraged by the recent completion of a comprehensive economic evaluation of the funding options presented in the report of the expert group on future funding for higher education as supported under the European Commission Directorate General for Structural Reform Support, DG REFORM, programme. The key aim of this review is to investigate methods of increasing the sustainability of higher and further education provision in Ireland, including an examination of the funding options. My Department has commenced its examination of the report's analysis, findings, conclusions and recommendations to develop proposals to bring to the Government to seek its support for a sustainable future funding model and transformed further education and training, FET, and higher education, HE, sector as contained in the statement of strategy. This will be brought to the Government for consideration in advance of its publication.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the fact that the Department has that report but my question is when we will see publication. It is important we have an open debate on this and that all the stakeholders are involved in the process. The Minister, Deputy Harris, has previously promised that the report would be published this autumn. Given the critical nature of investment in this sector, as the Minister of State himself outlined, that report needs to be published quickly.

As for Ireland's very specific international offering, our economic strategy was based for a long time on tax and talent. We now know we will no longer base our arguments solely on tax, perhaps rightly so. This country will rely very heavily on its talent offering. As the Minister of State will be aware, that is part of the reason our party ensured the established of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science as something to drive that, but you cannot have the driver unless the sustainable funding model is addressed. I therefore ask the Minister of State that this document and the strategy to follow be published this year and that we commit to the necessary serious investment in higher education and research.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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Unfortunately, I am not in a position to give the Senator a publication date today. Suffice to say that, apart from my previous opening remarks, there is a serious commitment in the programme for Government on addressing the sustainability and the funding model of our higher education sector. That has also formed part of the negotiations and the discussions between the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in advance of budget 2022 in the context of providing a multi-annual funding stream for our higher education sector, which I think will drive a lot of Government discussion and consideration quite shortly.

The Department will continue to work with stakeholders on this comprehensive analysis of funding options for higher education and the assessment of the appropriate balance in provision across the tertiary education system. Our Department is committed to ensuring we will utilise the opportunity provided by the independent and comprehensive report, which has now been completed. The sustainability of the further and higher education system is a critical issue which will enable extensive transformation and responsiveness to central Government priorities. This requires a sustained commitment to investment and transformation, and we are actively engaged in the Estimates process for 2022, which I have outlined to the Senator.

In addition, my Department is continuing to address the demographic pressures on the sector through the provision of additional places in further and higher education, to which the Senator himself has alluded. We are also seeking additional funding for sectoral pensions. There is quite a large and serious pensions issue right across our universities.

Through the recent publication of the national development plan, we welcome additional Exchequer investment of nearly €2.9 billion in further and higher education infrastructure, research and innovation over the five-year period 2021 to 2025. The overall objective of this investment is to support a knowledge-based, resilient and innovative society and economy in which all citizens will have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

While I cannot give the Senator a specific date, this is a key priority within both the Department and the Government and I hope we will hear more about it in the not-too-distant future.

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State and thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I am sure my fellow constituent and colleague, the Minister, Deputy Harris, will not let us down.

Sitting suspended at 11.26 a.m. and resumed at 11.33 a.m.