Seanad debates

Wednesday, 4 October 2023

Access to Third Level Places and Student Accommodation: Statements


10:30 am

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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We now proceed with statements on access to third level places and student accommodation. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Harris, to the House. The Minister has ten minutes speaking time, group spokespersons have eight minutes and all other Senators have five minutes. The Minister will be called to reply no later than 4.20 p.m. with the statements to conclude at 4.30 p.m. I ask the Minister to commence and thank him for being here and for the work he is doing in higher education and continuing education, which is a very important part of his brief.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus leis na Seanadóirí. I thank the Members for the opportunity to be here with them today. I know the Seanad has raised a number of issues including student accommodation, access to third level and access to apprenticeships.

I am very happy to discuss all of them today but I want to start by being very clear that this Government and my Department are absolutely focused on addressing the challenges facing students and their families. We have tried to do this through a variety of means, including reducing fees for the first time in 30 years, reforming the student grant system and investing public money into the construction of student accommodation for the first time. We have also reformed the apprenticeship system with record numbers of people applying to become an apprentice. We have created new degrees outside the CAO system, with 20 new courses being rolled out at the minute. This reform is vital if we are to end the pressure we place on our young people. This is something that we need to keep on talking about, focusing on and adapting policy to.

There is the idea of telling every young person and not-so-young person that there is one way of succeeding in life, and one way only, rather than asking them what they are passionate about, what is in their heart, what is in their soul, what difference they want to make in their community and world, and how we help them get there. This is the case whether they are a student with a disability or who has had nobody in their family before going on to third level education, whether they are a student who would like to become an apprentice, or whether they are a student who is not 18 or 19 but is 45 years of age, has two kids, a mortgage and full-time job, and also needs to get back to education. We need to move beyond this narrow way of funnelling everybody through the CAO system and that is what I am absolutely determined to do.

I will start by speaking about access to third level education. The announcement of CAO offers is always a significant day for students around the country and this year saw a record 57,980 applicants receiving an offer in the first round of CAO offers. More than 31,000 applicants received a first preference offer for a level 8 course, compared to 28,000 last year. I am very pleased to see that approximately 60% of students are now getting their first choice which is a direct result of the investment we have made in providing additional courses, not just additional courses in a general sense, but in trying to grow the number of places in courses where there is real demand. This is demand from both a public service point of view and from students, including 465 additional places available in medicine, nursing, pharmacy and other key healthcare courses. That has resulted in points for these courses falling.

Expanding courses in higher education is really important but it should not be the only route people have available to them. We know the points system can cripple people and can place a ridiculously unnecessary amount of stress on our young people. That is why I am determined we develop new pathways. This is not just talk. I was in Sligo on Monday of this week and I met the first nursing students from Sligo, Donegal and Galway, who are doing their nursing degree. Nobody asked them what points they got in the leaving certificate or asked them to apply through the CAO. They have started their degree based on an interview, on their passion, and on the suitability they demonstrated at that interview. They will begin their degree in a college of further education and they will complete their degree in the Atlantic Technological University. They will not have to do what happened in the past where people were passionate and committed to doing a nursing post-leaving certificate course, PLC, and nine out of ten of them then headed to the UK. We have enough challenges in staffing our own health service without trying to staff the National Health Service, NHS. This idea that one could get all of the distinctions possible in a further education course and still not be allowed into the university to complete one's degree needs to end and is one which needs to go out with the dinosaurs. I am very pleased that we now have 23 degree courses beginning this year in what we call the new joint tertiary degrees which are not linked to what one got in the leaving certificate examination or to the points system. This is just the beginning.

I was delighted last week to announce a new expressions of interest round and we have written to all of our universities and education and training boards, ETBs, encouraging them to get involved. We intend to at least double the number of degree courses available outside of that CAO points race next year.

I am conscious we are meeting today a week or a little less out from the budget and I wish to update the House on the measures we are taking to help students through the cost-of-living challenges. This year, 2023, we allocated €430 million for overall student support measures. The majority of this is through the student grant scheme. This year, we have received 93,000 applications for the student grant scheme and 70,100 have been awarded to date. The grant is the main source of support for students but for the first time this year, we have offered relief to students, including a 50% reduction in fees for anyone earning between €55,240 to €62,000. If one's household income is below €62,000, one's fees are reduced by at least 50%. Further to that, if one's income is between €62,000 and €100,000, we are giving every student €500 off the student contribution fee. Fees have been permanently reduced in this country for anybody with a household income of less than €100,000. I want to do more and to go further. In addition, we have allocated €20 million for the student assistance fund, which is a discretionary fund for students to help with the cost of living.

Colleagues will know I also managed to reduce college fees for the first time last year. This was well-received help. If a person had one, two or three students in college at the same time in one's family, to have to find the €3,000 registration fee is a great deal of money for people, particularly for those who do not qualify for a grant. I was pleased that we were able to reduce fees by €1,000 by either giving people back €1,000 before Christmas or by knocking €1,000 of the bill. Obviously, what happens in the budget is a matter for budget day but if one does something well and it works once, it is certainly worth considering if it can be done again.

I am also working closely with the Taoiseach and his Department on measures we can take to try to help groups which are under-represented at third level education. I have heard very clearly from representative groups for one-parent families that it is very bizarre, unfair and a trap sometimes, that we say to people who are perhaps trying to raise children, hold down a job and pay the rent or mortgage, that, of course, they can access third level of education but we will only provide them with some form of financial assistance or free fees if they do it on a full-time basis. Many Members here will know from their work and engagement with constituents that for many people, the only way that they can access third level education might be on a part-time basis. It is a perfectly good way of doing it. It gets the person the same qualification but such a person cannot access the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, system, or the free fees. I am looking to see in the context of the focus on child poverty, child well-being and how we try to break cycles of disadvantage, if we can open up those supports around fees and those supports around student grants to part-time education, particularly for those groups at most risk of socio-economic disadvantage and I will continue to work at that.

I am extraordinarily aware of the greatest challenge facing a student and indeed their parents with regard to costs which is, of course, affordable accommodation. The difficulties faced by students in accessing affordable accommodation is something that I am completely committed to addressing. Believe it or not, up until last November, there had never been State intervention with regard to building student accommodation. It had either been left to the universities to borrow of their own volition or had been left to the private market. Since November, we have changed Government policy and we are now directly investing taxpayers' money in helping make student accommodation projects progress. This will see the State directly investing up to €61 million in the construction of around 1,000 new student beds across a number of higher education institutes with delivery expected to begin on this in 2024.We have also provided €1 million to our technological universities to begin to plan. We have universities in the regions now, which is important, but we need to make sure they have student accommodation. I expect in 2024 we will start to see their plans as to how many student accommodation beds are needed in Sligo, Tralee, Athlone, Carlow and Waterford and how to make it happen. In addition, my Department continues to work with UCD and TCD on some larger scale proposals where they have active planning permissions which I would like to progress.

I accept the rent-a-room and digs scheme may not work for everyone, but it works for some. As of Friday, more than 2,000 rooms were available to rent on college websites throughout the country. Last year when we introduced the renter tax credit, I worked with the Minister with responsibility for housing and the Minister for Finance to ensure that tax credit applied to students in student accommodation. If the credit increases in the coming days and weeks, I want to make sure students and parents benefit.

I acknowledge the incredible work done by the Irish Universities Association, the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA, and others in relation to sustainable funding and core funding of our universities. We have acknowledged that an additional €307 million needs to go into our universities in the years ahead. We have made some progress on that and put an additional €40 million in last year. That has seen for the first time in many years a significant increase in staffing levels in our universities. I think more than 1,500 additional permanent staff were able to be hired. Of course, I would like to go further on core funding this year. I acknowledge the excellent work that has been done but Government has to balance many competing priorities. We need to properly and sustainably fund higher education and further education, support apprenticeships, have an integrated tertiary system and support students and parents with the cost of education. I am hopeful we can progress on a number of these areas in the budget next week but, more importantly, in the weeks and months ahead. In the relatively short time my Department has been in place, we have seen a renewed focus on higher and further education, increased investment, falling fees, increased student accommodation, increased grants and a focus on students with disabilities.

We have made good progress on special needs education, though it is not perfect. It means sometimes the cliff edge has moved. I acknowledge Senator Clonan, who worked with me on this before he was a Senator, and his son Eoghan. We need to make sure the fund for students with disabilities applies to all our students. I am pleased we are making progress on that. We also need to look at examples of best practice like the Trinity centre for people with intellectual disabilities, and how to expand that model. There is now a funding line available to all our universities to develop programmes specifically for students with intellectual disabilities. I am enthused by the level of interest from the universities in developing new programmes. The funding is in place and I expect to be in a position to make a number of exciting announcements in 2024 with those universities about expanding those opportunities.

Photo of Tom ClonanTom Clonan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister for coming in. I recognise the significant contribution he, as Minister, has made to special needs education, particularly for students with disabilities in higher education institutions, HEIs, including those participating in the publicly funded university sector and those in the so-called private sector, for example, Griffith College and Dublin Business School, DBS. People often associate those private colleges with rich kids but the vast majority of students who attend those HEIs are atypical and not your standard student. Many of them have additional needs and come from challenged and disadvantaged backgrounds. I know this because my son, Eoghan, attends DBS. They fulfil a function in the third level sector, though other universities like Trinity College Dublin or Technological University Dublin are trying to attract people in from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are making the case through the Higher Education Colleges Association, HECA, to have the SUSI grant extended to students who attend those for-profit third level institutions. The grant should follow the student, irrespective of the institution they attend. The Minister acknowledged and acted on that principle when it came to disabled students.

I know I am pushing at an open door here but I have been a lecturer in the higher education sector for the past 22 years. Over that time and especially in the past five or six years, I have seen the impact the housing and accommodation crisis has on students. I have had postgraduate students who, unable to find affordable accommodation in the city, commuted daily from places as far away as Dundalk, Galway, Wexford and Waterford. Every day they got up at 6 a.m. to get a train to Dublin and make their way into the university, and then got a train home in the evening. Some managed to couch surf for one or two nights a week. That situation has become more than commonplace among the students I have dealt with who were postgrads. Many of those were mature students who had access to funds and income. At undergraduate level, it presents an even greater challenge for families. The Minister mentioned families with more than one student at third level. I have three at third level at the moment. That is why the Minister may see me later on Grafton Street playing a guitar - notes only, please. It places quite a burden. We are fortunate in that we live in Dublin and our adult children, so-called, can live with us. There is a huge burden which is complicated by the housing and accommodation crisis and by the cost-of-living crisis.

A suggestion that the Union of Students in Ireland made, and I think it is a good one, is that there be free public transport for students at third level. Eventually we may arrive at a situation where all public transport is free to use as we confront the climate crisis. There is an intersectionality there in terms of what we can do. I went to college in the 1980s. Ireland had major economic challenges at the time and other challenges, including mass emigration. I went to college with a cohort of students from all over the country who were able to rent everywhere from Rathmines to the south and north inner city. They had a pile of life experiences that are part of the third level formation, but many young students today cannot avail of those life experiences. Whereas their peers throughout the European Union and in Britain normally move away from home and go through that rite of passage, many of our students and young people are denied that. We as a House, Government and Parliament should do everything in our power to afford young people, often referred to as the locked-out generation, the opportunity to fully participate in university life and in the social, economic and cultural life and fabric of the cities where our universities are based.

I know the Minister to be a person of absolute integrity and considerable energy, which is often remarked upon. I know he is sincere, authentic and genuine when he enumerates the various schemes and proposals he is putting in place. However, we need to accelerate our efforts because, apart from the Irish students I commented on and whom I have had experience with in the third level sector, Technological University Dublin has a large cohort of international students and that is also the case with Trinity. Increasingly, foreign students are finding it difficult to attend courses in Dublin. They are prepared to pay the international fees. They are attracted here because we are an English-speaking country within the European Union and our universities have a good reputation, but the accommodation crisis is turning them away. I am hearing from students that Dublin is getting a bad name, as are Limerick and Galway, because students cannot get accommodation. That is something about which we have be very careful because it impacts on not just our HEIs but on Ireland Inc. and our international reputation. In fact, I have a number of interns.I lectured on a masters in public affairs and political communication. Approximately two dozen interns here in Leinster House were on that course. Many of them are international students. They are now telling me some of them are finding it difficult to source accommodation. It is an all-of-society challenge but, given the Minister’s brief, he needs to do his utmost to deal with this issue, as I know he will.

As regards the €307 million shortfall in core funding, I have received many representations, particularly from Trinity College Dublin, about the impact that is having on pupil-lecturer ratios and universities' capacity to carry out research, to foster innovation and to attract international funding, sponsorship and grants. Universities are the engines of economic recovery and innovation, as well as being important engines of ethical and moral accountability in society. We need to bridge that gap.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. When it comes to debates on education, there is great passion shown by Senators, whether in government or in opposition and whether they are lecturers, teachers, parents or students. While we may differ in opinions, we all have the desire to make the system as good as possible for students. Fianna Fáil is committed to providing education that is accessible to all, cherishes and promotes inclusivity, equality of opportunity and lifelong learning and advances research and innovation. Access to third level education continues to be a national priority for the Government and the Department. As Senator Clonan noted, the Minister has flair and a great desire to get this done. I admire him and his officials for what they are doing.

We should consider statistics that compare Ireland with other countries. For example, Ireland ranks third in the OECD for the rate of third level education attainment, at 54%, compared with an average of 41%. Ireland is 13% higher than the OECD average. That is a big plus for Irish education and shows that, despite some failures we might have, we move in the right direction in terms of education. The percentage of young people aged between the ages of 18 and 24 who are not in employment, education or training dropped to 12.1% in 2021, down from the previous year and well below the OECD average of 16.1%. I am not saying a rate of 12.1% is acceptable, but we are well ahead of the OECD average and that should be acknowledged. Of 18- to 24-year-olds in Ireland, 63% are in education. That is well above the OECD average of 54% and the EU22 average of 59%. Those are all pluses and we should acknowledge that.

Students are facing difficulties accessing affordable accommodation. The Minister is addressing that and gave a very good account of himself in that regard but, of course, we want more progress from the Government. I know he and the Government are committed to addressing this issue.

I pay tribute to all the students I see in supermarkets, hotels, restaurants and down on the farms, working every weekend. They take every job they can get. Even though they are very well paid by employers, I often think how little that money is worth to them, given the cost of living, yet every weekend they get up and make that sacrifice. They sometimes miss football matches, family occasions or going out with friends but they do it because they want to achieve. We should recognise all those students who, in general, are fantastic people. It always strikes me when I walk into a shop or hotel, I see these students and their commitment to earning a few bob. I know many of them from down home.

We should realise that some students do not like asking their parents for assistance on an ongoing basis. I always tell students to ask their parents if they need help. A very difficult situation is developing in this country at the moment. Drug lords are making their way to students and attempting to gain access to their bank accounts to put money through them. This is a significant issue about which we should all be concerned. One can understand how it can happen when students are short of money to get from week to week. I appeal to students not to go down that road and I appeal to parents, lecturers and us as politicians not to let them fall into this trap. It can ruin their whole lives, give them a criminal conviction and destroy their ability to get on in life. It has been a problem in England and left many young people there with a criminal record, although there has been a move by the justice department over there to remove those situations from students who were found guilty. I make that appeal in order to make us all aware of the situation. In this cost-of-living crisis, students may not want to go back to mam and dad again, or to an uncle or aunt or to whomever they talk, but ask them to please do so. It is the best way to go.

I acknowledge the continued increase in funding for education and what the Minister has done in that regard. That is important. Some universities or colleges renting accommodation to students seem to be charging them a significant amount of money, such as €800 or €900. That is going on at some colleges, even those in the west of Ireland. I accept the college may have borrowing commitments relating to the development of the property but the Government should make every effort to buy up that accommodation and rent it out. Students should be paying rent at a rate of €500 or €600 a month if at all possible. Something has to be charged for it but it is tough on students to be expected to pay so much. I know of a lad and some of his friends in different accommodation in Galway who are paying €1,000 for a room. This situation affects a person in my family and some of his friends. It is happening. It is crazy. It is intolerable. As Senator Clonan stated, some people may have two or three children at third level. It is great to see people progressing but the cost of student accommodation is a significant burden, even for people on middle incomes. It is an awful lot of money. Like any genuine family member or parent, people want to do it for the good of their children. They want them to be happy and content and to progress at what they want to get on with in life.

The Minister made an important point about the nurses who are now in training and the fact that access to that course is not based on their leaving certificate results. I was glad to hear him say that. I am not taking away from the students who put in a lot of effort, study hard and are committed but there are many students of wonderful ability who, for whatever reason, cannot do well in exams. They now have many chances to get on through the education system. It has been repeatedly proven that they make fine nurses and staff in other areas of the public service. They are getting a chance they might not otherwise have received.

There are challenges within the system but the reality is we are in a pretty good place. Accommodation is the issue we need to address. We must ensure it does not squeeze out people. I am confident the Minister will address it and the Government will continue to support education. I again pay tribute to the Minister on his role in this. He has a flair for it and is serious about it. He gives us a good feeling about it. We are all unhappy with certain things now and again but, in general, the Minister’s heart and mind are in the right place and the Government is backing him on that.

Photo of Aisling DolanAisling Dolan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister coming to the House to speak to us on the opportunities and places at third level. He recently announced funding of more than €5 million for the further education and training, FET, sector. That is topping up funding he issued in April into the FET sector. Under his watch in this new Department we have seen a phenomenal focus on the opportunities under further education and apprenticeships. The development of the new technological universities throughout the country means third level qualifications and education and training are available in towns across Ireland, as well as in cities. It means education is more accessible. We need to consider this model because, for many students, the costs of going to college are high. They were high when I was a student. The cost of housing now is incredible.I also know the Minister has done much to try to ensure technological universities, TUs, are now able to apply for funding so they can start accommodation. In the University of Galway, I believe hundreds of new student units are now available this year. The Minister may wish to comment on that. Speaking as somebody from the west, the importance of access to education is not solely about the ability to offer courses. It is also about actually being able to go to college. We speak about the apprenticeship programme as a way to offer more flexible pathways. The Minister, Deputy Foley, was in this Chamber yesterday. She spoke about obviously-----

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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One second, Senator. I welcome to the Public Gallery the guests of Deputies McNamara and McGrath and Senator Byrne. They are all very welcome and I thank them for being here. I apologise to the Senator.

Photo of Aisling DolanAisling Dolan (Fine Gael)
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Not at all. They are very welcome. I will return to my points, which the Cathaoirleach will have to remind me of.

I was speaking about the apprenticeship programme, which has 70 courses available. Those opportunities are so people can work for a period of time and get a qualification. The qualification can be a diploma, a degree, or can go the whole way to a PhD. We have that across so many courses and apprenticeships. I really want to call for is the availability of those types of courses in what are now our campus towns, as well as our campus cities, throughout the country. I know the Minister is supportive of this. Two important programmes the HEA will have brought to the Minister's attention are particularly about challenges we have in parts of the country, namely, access to GPs in regional areas. One innovative course being offered through the University of Galway is based on clear best evidence from Canada about achievements and success in this area. It is about how we can have an intake of medical graduate students who will perhaps have a background in and understanding of regional towns but will also, on qualification, be there to take up these roles in our communities. The challenge in regional areas like counties Roscommon and Galway, and in Ballinasloe, is that it can be difficult to attract people for this type of role where there is so much driving. As the Minister is aware, this is the case if a GP takes on a role in a rural area. We fought for Westdoc funding to support them, but they are travelling long distances. It is not like a city where everything is in a small area. People can come in by public transport, and perhaps the GP does not have to go to visit someone in their 70s and 80s because it may be easier for them to get to the facility. That is not the case in rural areas. We need ways to incentivise people. Part of that is by ensuring we are offering courses for people who will take up these roles in our rural areas. That will show how Ireland and this Department will deliver for communities across Ireland.

Another area the Minister is looking at is the veterinary courses in Kilkenny and in Mountbellew, County Galway, where the agricultural campus there is linked with Atlantic Technological University in Letterkenny. That is about farming and the challenge we have when it comes to big animal vets. We have a demand for those in the country. Farming and agriculture is one of the largest sectors in this economy. I might mention other areas in my own region. I extend an invitation for the Minister to come visit us in counties Galway and Roscommon. He would see how the Ballinasloe College of Further Education is operating. I know this is something on his list. This is about the availability of these courses for people coming out of the leaving certificate.

The Minister has issued funding under further education for people with disabilities. Approximately €40 million was allocated to that. We spoke already about the expansion of funding to TUs. The increase in spending is something else, if I may speak about this in terms of research and innovation. Our colleague Deputy Stanton had a good public meeting with the AMBER SFI centre for advanced materials research. Having worked as an administrator in Science Foundation Ireland and in the research office in the University of Galway, I really see the excellence there. Ireland stands head and shoulders above so many other countries in our achievements, and I know we do not talk about it as much as we should. We do not shine a light on it. I know they do this in the Minister's Department, but we need to shine a light on the excellence happening every day. We saw the Nobel Prize for medicine awarded to Katalin Karikó, a Hungarian researcher who went to work in the United States. She joined with a US colleague and with BioNTech, whose founders were first generation Turkish migrants to Germany. It is incredible how research and researchers are so international. It is incredible how people follow excellence, and they are coming to Ireland. We have such a multinational research cohort both at PhD and postdoctoral level. I would like to highlight the importance of funding excellence and the importance of our brand research and innovation agency, which will be coming on stream shortly. There is funding in this budget that we are looking at how we are supporting excellence. That innovation is going to drive change and drive the innovation we will see and need in Ireland in the years ahead, be it for climate change or medical innovation or, as our AMBER colleagues told us a while ago, how everything we use, from our phones to our medical devices, is literally materials. These points are key and I know the Minister will be taking my colleague's points back too. Research and development funding is important. Given these new agencies, including research and innovation Ireland, will bring a focus to the importance of the impact arts and science have on our society and economy, it will be crucial that funding is allocated to support that agency in terms of administration, early stage career researchers, PhDs and postdoctoral researchers. That funding will be crucial in the time ahead.

Photo of Lynn BoylanLynn Boylan (Sinn Fein)
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Sinn Féin believes that education is a basic and fundamental right that should be available to everyone on the basis of full equality. We believe there should be no barrier, such as contribution fees or any other charges, that holds back anybody who wants to access further education. However, lack of planning, funding and resourcing is having a real impact on young people, their education and the future career opportunities available to them. This lack of appropriate planning and investment is resulting in an increasingly two-tiered and classist education system whereby those who can afford the student contribution fees and extortionate rents can avail of further education. By contrast, as we have heard from others today, those who cannot afford them must either face long and often unsustainable daily commutes that impact both their education and experience of college life or they need to forgo third level education altogether. Unfortunately, more and more young people are being locked out of education.

One of the key factors is the contribution fees that many young people and their families are being asked to pay. When asked about the impact these fees are having on young people and their ability to access education, the Minister, Deputy Harris, has cited once-off measures that he and his Government have introduced. However, we all know that once-off measures are not long-term solutions. Most further education courses require a three-year commitment as a minimum. Young people and their families are not in a position to adequately plan their futures on the basis of annual ad hocmeasures. It is now October. Colleges have resumed and students are still waiting to hear what measures might be included in budget 2024. At a minimum, students and their families deserve the clarity that will allow them to make informed decisions on their education before the university term commences. In many ways, this is the easiest barrier to address as it simply requires Government to commit to a schedule of reduced fees in budget 2024 and the subsequent abolition of fees in 2024-25.

However, even if fees were abolished in the morning, it would still not address the issue of student accommodation. Again, others have raised this issue in the House today. This Government cannot continue to blame the student accommodation crisis on the universities or private landlords. They are required to operate within the confines of a delivery model which is clearly broken. We need a new model of delivery for student accommodation with affordability at its core. In 2018, a Government report stated that, by 2024, we would need an additional 21,000 student beds.We have now learned from the Department that the current level of demand is in excess of 30,000. This failure to meet demand means that costs for young people and their families are continuing to increase.

The provision of student-specific accommodation, while a welcome start, is not a resolution in and of itself. It is crucial that the accommodation be affordable. This begins with determining what is affordable in a student context and developing an affordable student accommodation model. Apart from the University of Galway, all universities have increased their rents for student accommodation. Many have opted for the maximum 2% increase that is permitted. For instance, first year students staying in DCU's Larkfield apartments have to pay €5,863, up from €5,584 last year. In UCD, the cheapest private room to rent is now €7,767, reaching its highest level ever. In Trinity College Dublin, those staying in the Printing House Square complex will have to pay a total of €10,379. These costs are on top of electricity deposits of up to €500, which are often required when availing of such on-campus accommodation. For many young people and their families, these prices are simply unfathomable and unaffordable.

The lack of appropriate regulation of the rent-a-room scheme or digs is of equal concern for young people and their families. Far too often, students are faced with situations where they have little to no access to facilities, insufficient privacy - they cannot have locks on their doors - and no recourse to the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, in disputes. Combined with the absence of any requirement for a notice period, this creates a precarious situation for many young people, one that leaves them vulnerable to coercive action by landlords. The solution is not complex: listen to students and work with Sinn Féin on introducing legislation that provides regulation and protection for those renting rooms and digs.

We are now in a situation where 16% of students responding to the student survey have indicated they have considered dropping out of their courses solely on the basis of financial pressures. The Government must listen to our young people and address this issue with the immediacy it deserves. Budget 2024 cannot be another missed opportunity for the Government. The Government must act to address the increasingly two-tier and classist system that is developing in further education. Education is a basic and fundamental right that should be available to everyone on the basis of full equality. That begins with adequate funding and resourcing at Government level. It is only through providing this funding that we can begin to nourish future generations and discover the deep and wide-ranging well of ability and talent our young people possess.

Photo of Rebecca MoynihanRebecca Moynihan (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for joining us. I compliment the Minister, Deputy Harris, who is continually expanding university places and pathways to higher education. Coming from a further education background myself, he is the first Minister to recognise seriously the sector’s potential and the alternative pathways it provides many people into third level.

We are here to discuss the major crisis in student accommodation. A student march on the crisis took place today. It was organised by the Union of Students in Ireland, USI. Our students are paying some of the highest fees in Europe, but they are also being crippled by the cost of accommodation in our cities. It is impossible for students. Where housing is concerned, we need an Ireland that works for all, including for those in education.

Students have to work full time and balance multiple jobs on top of lectures, practical classes and placements to afford the rents in some of our major towns and cities. The greatest barrier to education is not entry requirements but the affordability crisis. It is preventing students from taking up their higher education opportunities, regardless of how many pathways the Minister opens. We see people who are couch surfing, commuting, dealing with overnight evictions from digs, forgoing meals and dropping out. These are all-too-common experiences in universities, further education bodies and colleges throughout the country.

We have relied on the private sector. In this way, we have opened up a two-tiered education and accommodation system where the privileged become students and the rest are never given a chance. My area of Dublin 8 saw a large amount of student accommodation built between 2017 and 2020, but it was not accommodation for people attending Griffith College or what has since become Technological University Dublin, TU Dublin. Rather, it was specifically targeted at high-end international students, with all the bells and whistles that accompany that. It was unaffordable for any student attending those bodies of further education.

We need a new path to education - a public, affordable and accessible accommodation path for all. We do this by ensuring the State is involved in directly building cost-rental student accommodation and universities are not forced to use student accommodation to plug their gaps in funding. We need to increase direct State financing of higher education and tackle the cost-of-living crisis.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I will begin by commending the students, student unions and various bodies that took to the streets this afternoon to call on the Government to take urgent action in the upcoming budget to address the many crises facing young people and students. I commend Trinity College’s students and union for the action they have taken in recent weeks in response to Trinity's board increasing rents at a time when it is impossible for students to meet basic meets, never mind contend with such increases.

The issue of access to third level and higher education is a multifaceted one. This debate has mostly focused on the steps that can be taken by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to improve access to third level, but there is a duty on every Department to ensure young people have the building blocks to achieve their full educational potential from early childhood, given the lack of diversity in further and higher education as a direct consequence of poverty, deprivation and inequality. If we continue to view certain matters in an isolated way, for example, access to education, as only being at one point in time that someone needs to overcome, we will not take in the full sense of that person’s world, including the intergenerational aspect. Some people believe it is just a matter of the person needing to know that college is accessible to him or her, but it is so much more than that. Sometimes, attending college does not enter your arena of thought as a possibility for you to even begin thinking about what the barriers to access are. There are many barriers that make it more difficult for young people, especially from working-class backgrounds, to access education, for example, the narrow framing of means testing for Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants.

Let us say there is a single mother who is earning a certain amount - maybe she is a hairdresser - or she has a partner working in construction. Her partner never went to university and left school at 13, 14 or 15 years of age. She has no college education herself and grew up in a community where there was little access to education as well as a great deal of intergenerational issues in terms of the professional backgrounds of those families. SUSI and access programmes will look at her child purely through an economic lens. There may be two working parents, bringing the child slightly over the means test, but no one in that family has had an education in generations. This approach is shortsighted and narrow. It views financial capital as the sole reason someone can or cannot access education, but that could not be further from the truth. We need to consider social and cultural capital and the generations that have gone before. When someone applies for a SUSI grant and exceeds the threshold, he or she is out. That person does not go to college. He or she might have been the first person in his or her family who wanted to go to college. If someone happens to get into college but does not qualify for a SUSI grant, that person will not qualify for a back-to-education allowance because he or she is going straight from school. The person’s parents are just about making ends meet, and they are paying for it. I agree with Senator Eugene Murphy on looking at students who make sacrifices, work and so on, but, unfortunately, that is not a possibility for everybody. Unfortunately, there are students who are already coming from a disadvantaged background who will put 20 or 30 hours extra work into just doing the actual work to get through college. If a person goes to a school where the vocabulary is not what exists in the university, that person will have to work extra hard to understand even the words being used in the classroom. They go home and get their dictionary out. They do not have any friends who are in college, so they are not staying behind at the end of the day discussing the subject. They do not have a parent who went to college, so they cannot go home and talk about a very interesting subject that came up in engineering and ask to bounce ideas off them. A student who comes from a very disadvantaged background with no education among any of their family has to do a full-time job just understanding and getting by in the new environment they are in. It is difficult to try to add a job on top of that, whether it is in a shop, factory or anywhere else. It is about the capacity and the overwhelming thought of even being able to do that.

Then, for example, what if someone is neurodiverse in any shape or form? We have to think about when someone has any sensory issues, any dyslexia or any literacy issues. They also have to use all their spare hours outside of the offered college course to put in the extra work. To be able to take on work outside of that is very difficult.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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But many of them are doing it.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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We should not look at the SUSI grant purely through the lens of financial means but also in the context of people's environment, situation, disability, ability and the professional background of their family members. There could be a kid who has, for their entire life, gone to a DEIS school that only has two kids a year go on to college who will be refused access to third level education based on means because their two parents may just have normal, everyday average-person jobs, but their income is slightly over the limit.

We need to start looking at intersectionality and positive discrimination in respect of some college places and having more ambitious quotas on the intersectionality of not only students but also staff. Looking at the access programme, and I am a graduate of the Trinity access programme, TAP, it kind of supports its own existence now. There are only, say, 20 mature students going through that every year. That is more than 20 years in place. Why are there still only 20 students? We are encouraging kids to do leaving certificate applied, LCA. If kids do that, they will not even be considered for an access programme, never mind an actual degree. We are encouraging kids to do LCA, which can be a great programme if it is done properly, but we are not even letting them into access programmes based on an LCA. It does not make any sense. An access programme should be the widest possible opportunity to take in any number of students.

I will finish on this. A piece of a research was published yesterday in The New York Timeswhich highlighted that the life expectancy for people without a college degree in the US is roughly 8.5 years less than those with a degree. I know it is a different context from ours, but it is worthwhile considering the impact that education and equality has on every aspect on someone’s life, even in terms of people needing social welfare, health equity, mental health and everything else. To be able to advocate for yourself with a certain level of education frees up many different areas in your life where you can transform not only your own family but everything around you, including communities. I encourage us to be a bit more ambitious when we think about access.

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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This afternoon I attended an interesting presentation in the audiovisual room from the Dyslexia Association of Ireland. I compliment the third level side. The accommodations made available are very helpful. Extra time and access to technology have been very helpful in third level. Unfortunately, coming down that pyramid, second and primary levels do not have the same access. We have a bizarre scenario where one gets extra time in third level for examinations but not for the leaving certificate or junior certificate. I cannot get my head around that. That is a huge issue. However, we need to acknowledge what we are doing well with universities.

I will twist the debate around to the grades issues we have seen over the past four years. We have walked ourselves up to the top of the hill regarding the graduated grades that have increased – the adjustments, as they have been called. They have been a significant issue with respect to points. We have had point inflation, to say the very least.

We have people taking up courses and drop-out rates off the back of it. People dropping out of courses who do not have the access or financial means to return should be looked at. It is a financial burden on the family and the individual. I do not know how we will achieve that but it is an issue.

Several parents have been in my office in the past few months where someone has probably gone through two years of college, dropped out for two years and are now going back. The financial implications are huge. It is an amazing amount of money that the family now has to pay. We need to look at options regarding this type of scenario. The finances are an impediment to these people getting a third level education. Some, rightly or wrongly, picked the wrong course on the CAO form. It is a daunting CAO form, to say the least. We have all been there. We do not know what is actually behind the courses half the time. When there is that scenario where someone makes a choice that does not suit them and they drop out 20 months later, the knock-on implication is that it will have a huge impact on their entire life.

We need to look at how grades were inflated over the past three or four years. We need a policy or platform in place going forward. This issue will have to be sorted out in time. It is probably not for the Minister in front of us now, but we need to make a statement at some stage regarding where we are going with our graduated grades. We have walked people up to the top of the hill. We have people with grades that are there for life and they might come back into the system at a different stage. Where do we go with them going forward? Will we always have graduated grades or will we change to a normal platform? I will be honest in that it is an awkward decision. We need to look at it, as well as the drop-out rates, because they are significant.

Photo of Eileen FlynnEileen Flynn (Independent)
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Less than 1% of the Traveller community goes on to third level education. To many people in this Chamber, that may seem like a very low number. Obviously it is, but for us as the Traveller community, it is a high enough number. Going back 15 or 20 years ago, there was very little participation of Travellers in third level education.

I welcome the supports and measures that have been put in place over the past few years by the Minister, Deputy Harris, around access programmes, especially access for members of the Traveller community. Galway has a great access programme that is focused on getting Travellers in the door to third level education.

I am also a graduate of TAP. I remember how tough my first year in college was, having a euro every day going into college. I did not have the money to pay on the Luas. I really struggled in the first year of college trying to get in to make something of my life - not having the money to be able to do that, but still trying to hard to do it. Every day I would go in with a euro. At that time, I was drinking tea, and I would get one cup of tea a day. I did not have the capacity to be able to study, I was not getting sustainable food and I was not looking after my health in my first year of college because I just did not have the money.

Two years after that, I went to Ballyfermot College, where I was able to pay weekly or monthly for my education for the access fee, which was brilliant and absolutely helped me. I then took a year out to look after my dad who was dying.I then got a job and had money. I did not get the SUSI grant while attending Maynooth University, but I had a good job so I was able to get a degree. For members of the Traveller community, there are many barriers when it comes to first level and second level education, never mind third level. In the past two weeks we have seen reports, including the one from Tusla about the reduced timetables. This report notes that 4% of Traveller children in primary schools are on reduced timetables. In secondary schools, the figure is more than 12%. In addition, 24% of Traveller children are on reduced timetables in special schools. Where is the equality of opportunity there?

I understand that Minister had to go away and do something else. That says a lot about the conversation we are meant to be having. I understand that the Minister of State is not responsible for this. I have emailed the Minister for Education twice on this issue. I could not come into the Chamber yesterday because I was so angry. I said to myself that there was no way I could speak about education because of the level of anger I had in me. I am nobody important, but for the community and the young people that I am trying to make changes for, the Minister could have least had a bit of respect and responded to my email. We emailed the Minister more than a week ago inquiring about how we could deal with second level education to ensure that Travellers have equality of opportunity.

We are sick of hearing the phrase "If you can see it, you can be it" for many years. Many Travellers can see doctors, nurses and gardaí. The can see these jobs but they cannot be them because the opportunity to be successful within the education system is not there. The 18-year-old me went to college every day just to take part, to be there and to have the experience. That highlights the importance of access programmes. Even if a person does not qualify at the end of one of them, they at least have the one year of experience which is great for a their CV. Travellers want employment and they want to go to university. Unfortunately, the opportunities are still not there for them. I worked with a young Traveller woman during the summer who was under great pressure to pay for accommodation in Galway University. Obviously, we all have to pay for accommodation but this young woman did not have the money to pay for it and there were no special measures put in place. Thankfully, we dealt with the situation. There should be special measures put in place to help students, however. We are not asking for a handout or special treatment, just equality of opportunity to be able to be successful within the education system.

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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I welcome Councillor Pip Breen and the members of various Gorey sports clubs who are in the Gallery.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House for this very important discussion about access to further and higher education and issues relating to student support and accommodation. We know the issues of funding for students and higher education funding have continued to be kicked down the road by successive Governments. This Government took a very clear decision to cost what it would need to ensure that higher education institutions are adequately funded. The figure arrived at was an additional €307 million over three years. The Minister committed to delivering that €307 million but only €40 million was provided in last year's budget. That presents a challenge. We have to ensure that the higher education system is adequately funded. The Government has accepted those figures, which means that between this year's budget and next year's, the Minister has to deliver on €267 million in funding, as he agreed, in order to ensure that we get to the appropriate level of funding for our higher education institutions. If that does not happen, the challenge is going to continue for our universities and other institutes to be able to ensure that students have adequate access to libraries laboratories and other facilities. The core question of funding has to be addressed in the first instance.

The second question that needs to be addressed is that of access to higher education. This means that we need increases in the level of SUSI grants and in the thresholds at which individuals qualify. Many families are just above the threshold for student grants. This makes it very difficult for them to be able to attend college. We also need to expand the programme to part-time students. It is critical that these issues are addressed.

We also need to look at the supports for our research students. For those on research stipends it is impossible for them to survive now in universities, particularly in the major cities. This has to be addressed, as does these students' access to basic equipment. The Minister of State knows that the Irish Universities Association reported that we are now in a situation whereby half of all research equipment is at least ten years old. It is not acceptable that our top researchers have to work with such old equipment. I am entirely appreciative of the fact that we now have more opportunities in higher education. For the students who are in the Gallery, there are now more places in further and higher education than ever before after they get the leaving certificate. However, the problem is that the quality of the further and higher education those students will receive will not be as good unless it is adequately funded and it will not be sufficient if they do not get access to adequate levels of student support.

I welcome the moves by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, in partnership with the universities, to ensure that where construction of student accommodation has been started, supports will be provided to the universities to complete it on the basis that it is priced at a reasonable level for the students involved. We also need to expand this programme to the technological university sector. There is an opportunity to construct student accommodation in our technological universities. The Minister of State will obviously be very familiar with the Technological University of the Shannon, while I am familiar with the South East Technological University. We need that level of expansion.

Our party established the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science for the specific purpose of being prepared for the technological and other challenges this country has to face. We have got to ensure that students have a quality education when they get to third level.

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I commend the Minister and the Minister of State for the work they have done in modernising the entry system for access third level education. The changes that have been by the National Tertiary Office for people who do not have to have the requisite leaving certificate points is a really welcome move. I know this is only the start of the process and that it will be expanded in time.

I also welcome the changes that have been made to the apprenticeship system in the context of access and how apprenticeships are presented in the context of this CAO system. I am not too old - I am only 36 - to remember that not so long ago if a person wanted to do an apprenticeship, they were dealt with separately. The process was completely separate from the CAO process, whereas now they have been integrated. This change has been welcomed by parents, students and teachers. Our target of achieving 10,000 apprenticeships by 2025 can probably be realised before that date because of the investment going to new training centres. In my county of Waterford, €8 million has been invested in a new training centre to increase the number of apprenticeships available.

Notwithstanding the comments made by Senator Ruane regarding the difficulties faced by students from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who are neurodivergent being able to take up part-time work, many students do in fact get jobs. When I attended the University of Limerick I worked at various times during the summer months in the concert hall, the Theatre Royal in Waterford, Smyth's toy store and Superquinn. These jobs allowed me pay for college. That is why a change made last year which was a really welcome move. This increases the disregard for students from €4,500 to €6,552 to allow them to earn money out of term.That was a really welcome recognition of the fact that students do go out to work and try to earn additional income outside of term time. I would like us to be able to build on that, to be perfectly honest. I think that if a student is working, is earning money and has the ability to be able to do that, it should be completely disregarded in the SUSI grant means test. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State could take that up.

On the issue of student accommodation, I do not need to tell the Minister of State of the difficulties in that space. I know that the Minister, Deputy Harris, also recognises that. A €1 million fund has been put in place to carry out a needs analysis across the TU sector in terms of student accommodation My own university, the South Eastern Technological University, SETU, is the only TU that has a track record of building student accommodation. As the former Waterford Institute of Technology, it was the only institute of technology to have delivered on-campus accommodation. It has already done that needs analysis. The next stage it needs to get to is to get a design team in place and get its student accommodation plans to planning permission stage. Really, notwithstanding the importance of having a framework for the whole sector, if we have a university that is ready and willing to drive on, we need to support that. I would appreciate it if both the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Harris, would see to it that this side of Christmas the likes of SETU are able to progress their student accommodation plans because of the importance of providing that affordable on-campus student accommodation.

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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Before I call Senator Kyne, I welcome the management, staff and students of Dundalk Grammar School. They are more than welcome. I believe Senator McGahon is a former student of that part of the world. They are more than welcome to this part of the world. Senator Kyne has four minutes.

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I will address some of the changes that were made last year. Without pre-empting the budget, I hope we can see a repeat of some of those initiatives this year. The €1,000 reduction in registration fees was certainly a boost in terms of improving accessibility to our universities for students, as were the changes made in the Finance Bill 2022 whereby students could avail of the rent tax credit if they were renting a room or digs and their parents could avail of it if they were renting college-owned accommodation or purpose-built student accommodation. Those were very positive measures and I hope we will see similar initiatives next week in the budget. I also acknowledge the increase in the income disregard highlighted by my colleague, Senator Cummins. It was very positive in increasing eligibility for SUSI.

There is no doubt that there are still significant challenges within the housing market for students. Student accommodation is hugely important in easing the burden on those students who can get into accommodation and reducing the burden on everyone else who is also looking for accommodation within the rental market. Students can become significantly stressed because when they get the notification of their placement, particularly if it is out of town, they have to go to visit the new place - they may be coming from the north west to Galway or elsewhere - to try to source accommodation. The supply of student accommodation is hugely important. I welcome the change in Government policy whereby the Minister and the Minister of State got the go-ahead from the Government for €61 million in capital funding to unlock the development of around 1,100 student accommodation beds. That is important. On foot of that, we are seeing students return to third level, with more beds this year than last year. That is a positive. There are an additional 938 college-owned student accommodation beds this year compared to the last academic year, and 674 of those, or three quarters, are in the University of Galway. That is remarkable. There are also over 2,000 additional privately funded beds due for completion this autumn. That is good news in terms of the Galway element, certainly for this year. Obviously, more is required not just in Galway but across the country. I certainly hope that is the case in this budget as we continue to progress towards improving accessibility to students across the country. As I said, the costs associated with accommodation can be a huge burden on students and their parents, particularly for families where there are siblings of a similar age or a year apart in age. It puts significant financial pressure on parents. Obviously, most students will endeavour to earn a few pounds themselves. I mentioned the changes in Government policy. If we can see some further changes in next week's budget, hopefully it will be of huge benefit to the students in Galway and elsewhere across the country.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all the Senators who contributed. The Minister and I readily acknowledge that students face many obstacles in choosing and completing third level education. The current cost-of-living and housing difficulties are acutely felt by third level students. However, the steps implemented by this Government seek to erode those obstacles and provide more opportunities and supports to those who wish to start, or indeed reignite their lifelong learning as mature students. We are working closely with the higher education sector to address additional supply of affordable student accommodation, in the short term through digs supply and activating projects with planning permission with the support of this Government, and in the longer term by adopting a sustainable approach to standardised design of accommodation and through continued supporting initiatives.

Our commitment to increase the number of access routes into third level education is growing. The newly announced tertiary education programmes are an exciting new pathway, blending the best of further and higher education to provide accessible and flexible courses for our students. These new programmes include courses across the healthcare, enterprise, ICT and creative sectors in a further education institution, with students knowing that they have a guaranteed progression route into the higher education institution to completely their fully accredited degree. Importantly, tuition fees or student contribution fees will be applied for the duration of the tuition delivered by the ETB, and the free fees initiative and student contribution arrangements will apply for the duration of the tuition delivered by the higher institution. Students registered on the tertiary programmes will be eligible to apply for the student grant subject to the eligibility criteria. These supports, coupled with the increase in financial supports through SUSI grants, will ensure that our students who most need support can access a third level education that works for them and that Ireland benefits through the development of a highly skilled workforce with the necessary skills and capacity to operate in a constantly changing environment.

One of the overarching objectives of the Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021-2025 is apprenticeship for all, which means ensuring the profile of the apprenticeship population more closely reflects the profile of the general population. The plan promotes general access, diversity and inclusion in apprenticeship by offering targeted supports to encourage participation from under-represented groups, including gender diversity, people with disabilities and members of socioeconomic groups of disadvantage. The specific targets and interventions are informed by the access and inclusion subcommittee of the National Apprenticeship Alliance. This will help to ensure the voice of under-represented groups is integral to the further development of the apprenticeship system. Information on apprenticeship was included on the CAO website for the first time for CAO applicants in 2022. This shows the range of learning and qualification options for school leavers. As part of this landmark change, a freefone helpline was introduced for learners, parents and guidance counsellors to provide information on apprenticeship, including how to find an employer. The helpline supplements the existing guidance counsellor service at post-primary and further education and training levels. The National Apprenticeship Office will increase the visibility of under-represented groups in apprenticeship literature and promotional material to reflect the participation and positive experience of people from all backgrounds and communities, as well as the availability of assistive supports. The general push towards women in STEM roles under the STEM education strategy and the ICT skills action plan should also feed through to the apprenticeship intakes. These measures, and the implementation process for the action plan for apprenticeship overall, will have a significant impact in ensuring greater diversity and representation in the apprenticeship population as a whole.In addition we are focused on providing additional supports for the further education and training, FET, sector in providing the facilities required to support these learning needs. Yesterday we announced additional funding of €5.4 million in respect of 127 projects across 14 education and training boards. This brings the total devolved grant for the education and training boards to €13.4 million for the year 2023. Projects approved cover health and safety issues, small-scale energy efficiency measures, equipment and requests relating to positive improvements for learning spaces. Additionally, we are investing strongly in developing capacity in key skills areas in our FET colleges. To date, six locations are benefiting from part of the next tranche of capital investment under the further education and training strategic infrastructure upgrade fund.

Ensuring there is sufficient accommodation for our third-level students remains a key priority for this Government and for the Minister, Deputy Harris, and me and is being addressed under the Housing for All scheme. We recognise the importance of increasing additional affordable supply to ensure access and the well-being of our students. The growth of the student accommodation sector not only delivers benefits for the higher education institutions in attracting and retaining students but also plays a pivotal role in addressing the wider accommodation shortage, which is a shared mission of the Government. We are working closely with the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, and his officials in this regard. Our Department will continue to work with colleagues across Government and the wider sector and, of course, student representatives to ensure access to education is attainable for all.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 4.21 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 4.46 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 4.21 p.m. and resumed at 4.46 p.m.