Topical Issue Debate

Children in Care

Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an gCeann Comhairle as ucht seans a thabhairt dom an t-ábhar seo a chur faoi bhráid an Aire. I am delighted that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, is here to discuss this issue. I express my disappointment, however, that this House will be debating the X case legislation for the next two and a half months, during which time parliamentary party meetings will be convulsed in heavy debate and we will all be under intense pressure to deal with an issue that has dogged us for 20 years, yet when a problem pertaining to 6,300 children in care and their educational needs arises, there is only one backbencher - me - to raise it. I find the hypocrisy galling and odious.

I refer the Minister to the report published yesterday by the ESRI, commissioned by the Ombudsman for Children, Ms Emily Logan, Education of Children in Care in Ireland: An Exploratory Study, which details some of the difficulties children in care have in maximising their educational potential. The Minister is well aware of some of these difficulties such as attitudinal barriers on the part of teachers and principals, placement breakdowns, inadequate care planning, as well as delays and shortfalls in assessment. The Children's Ombudsman has said she was shocked at the lack of adequate information on schooling for children in care. She said, "When encountered, these challenges place children in care at higher risk of suspension, exclusion, absenteeism and early school leaving." It seems there are no data on this issue within the Minister's Department, the Department of Education and Skills or the Department of Health. In my experience, where there is cross-departmental responsibility, problems such as this fall through the cracks.

In respect of data collection and research, the report states: "A mechanism needs to be established for systematic gathering of data on the educational experiences of children in care in order to inform evidence-based policy making". We cannot have a policy on the education of children in care and how to maximise their education potential unless we know what we are dealing with.

There are some good news stories within the report. There is evidence to suggest that when children in care are placed in foster families and experience a stable family background, they can achieve their potential and do quite well. Without the essential data, however, and the required information as outlined in the report, or unless some scientific research is conducted on the educational experience of all of these 6,300 young people in the system, we cannot plan properly for the future.

These are the most vulnerable children in the education system. That is an oft-used term, but these children have been placed in care because of dysfunction in their own families or other particular family situations and they need the education system more than anybody else. Education is the great liberator. It is the only thing that can change one's life, regardless of what happens, whether one is placed in care because of a family breakdown, or one's relationship breaks down, one falls sick or loses one's job. Education is the one thing that will always rescue someone and ensure he or she always bounces back. If we have no data on what is happening to children in care and if we are not digging deep into the reasons they are falling out of the system and underachieving, that is a major failing on our part. Is the Minister aware of the report and, if so, has she read its findings and is she prepared to act on them?

I have just received it. I welcome the research conducted in the report, Education of Children in Care in Ireland: An Exploratory Study, commissioned by the Ombudsman for Children, Ms Emily Logan. The educational outcomes of all children are matters for my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills. Monitoring issues relating to educational access and attainment are policy matters for that Department. Notwithstanding this, in cases in which the State is providing alternative care for the child, it has the role of the parent in supporting any child or young person in his or her academic endeavours, as in all other aspects of his or her well-being.

It is true that more information would assist in assessing the challenges for children and young people in care and how to maximise their outcomes across a range of indicators of their well-being. Education is one of these important indicators, a point on which I totally agree with the Deputy. It is also worth noting that the group of children under discussion is a cohort and as such, it is not static, with children moving in and out of the care system on a regular basis, which makes the process of tracking their progress complex. This needs to be recognised. The HSE compiles regular performance reports which include statistics for children in care in education. Since my appointment as Minister I have been making the point that the Deputy makes: how can we plan policy if we do not have proper statistics and data? I was appalled at the lack of some of the data I had sought in the early months after taking up my post. Some of the data I had sought was not available. I have asked for more performance indicators and that more information be obtained. That is happening and we must develop it more and more.

Children in care were hidden. They were out of public sight and there was not enough information on them. Thankfully, that has changed. Just yesterday, for example, I launched a new national advocacy service for children in care, run by Empowering People in Care, EPIC, in order that children in care will have a voice. Transparency about their experience in care is extremely important and that includes transparency about their actual experience of a host of issues, including education.

I have asked for more indicators and that is happening. For the first time, because of my request, we have firm data on the numbers of children and young people leaving care, in receipt of aftercare services and in education. These reports are published on the HSE's website. We need to see some of the good news about children in care, as well as highlighting some of the problem areas. I am happy to say that the latest published report shows that in December 2012, 96% of children in care between the ages of 6 and 16 years were in full-time education. That is a very recent statistic and one we did not have before now. However, we need others about what happens to children when they leave care, in education and what funding they receive. Early school leaving needs to be examined in more detail because we know, as the Deputy said, that children in the care system can be very vulnerable, some more so than others. I spoke to the Ombudsman yesterday about this issue and assure the Deputy that the two Departments will consider the issues raised in the report as we move towards the establishment of the child and family agency. The links between the Departments are already very strong across several themes but, in particular, the education welfare agenda.

The establishment of the agency with a broad base of universal and targeted services, with newly merged functions, including those of the National Educational Welfare Board which also falls within the remit of the Department, will enhance the potential for the two Departments to work well together in the interests of all children but particularly those in care. We will consider further the issues raised in the report, in conjunction with our colleagues in the Department of Education and Skills.

One of the main themes emerging from the study is related to the stability of care placements. The study found, as one would expect, that a stable and supportive environment, either a foster home or a residential care unit, enhanced children's ability to do well at school, helped their motivation and encouraged them to have high aspirations, while in contrast, multiple care placements might disrupt their schooling. When a child is taken into care, the policy of the HSE and the new agency will be to place him or her in care settings, preferably in foster care, as close as possible to his or her home and community in order that the links with school can be maintained and continue. When a child is being placed in foster care, the suitability of a placement with relatives is explored in the first instance.

Ireland is almost unique in that over 92% of children in State care are placed with foster carers. In Europe, many foster children are placed in residential settings. For that small number of children placed in residential care, these services have improved greatly in recent years. Children often experience placement change; however, on 31 December 2011, the HSE reported that 34% of all children in care had been in their current placement for more than five years, while 42% had been in their current placement for between one and five years. This represents a considerable degree of stability.

It is important to obtain balance on this. Many children in care have good experiences. The issues highlighted in the report warrant further focus, and I assure the Deputy they will receive that. I have asked for further indicators to ensure we have the data we need to focus on the issues highlighted in yesterday’s report.

I appreciate the action the Minister has taken in this regard. If the Minister is appalled and the Ombudsman for Children is shocked at the lack of data, then I am comforted by the fact the Minister has sought to change this. We cannot work on policy to empower the most vulnerable of young people unless we have statistics. Considering schools are falling down on adapting to children in care, do we need to have a circular sent out from the Department to advise school principals and teachers on this? It is one thing to have a policy in place but another to have a circular guiding, encouraging and requiring schools to behave in a particular way.

The Minister stated that 96% of children in care between the ages of six and 16, inclusive, are in full-time education. That is a statutory requirement, however. The National Education Welfare Board does not deal with young people outside this age bracket. Any child who is four or five does not come under its remit. I will be introducing a Private Members’ Bill to deal with this soon. Neither does the NEWB deal with any young person aged 17 or 18, another failure in the system.

The report’s outstanding recommendation is to have a mechanism in place for the systematic gathering of data on the educational experience of children in care to inform evidence-based policy making. I hope this central issue will be addressed.

The report points to the need for further performance indicators which encapsulate the points the Deputy made. In the case of children aged 16 to 18, what is their educational experience? Along with the Department of Education and Skills, I can examine the further gathering of such performance indicators so that we have the data. We will examine the report to see how we can further develop the data we have.

The Deputy made an interesting point about how statutory services relate to children in care, the need for an understanding of the child’s experience and the need to ensure the service is responding appropriately to those children. I would include the health services in this too. When I meet school principals, they speak about the need to get a better partnership with the HSE in response to concerns they might raise. When I speak with the HSE, it wants a better partnership with the schools. There are two sides to this, and we need to see better engagement and partnership between the statutory agencies involved with children in care. We also need greater awareness of the particular needs of children in care, as they are a vulnerable group. I like the Deputy’s suggestion of sending around a circular in this regard which would encapsulate some of the issues that arise. I can take that up with the Department of Education and Skills.

Broadband Services Provision

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important issue, which is critical to the success of secondary schools across the south east and south west. The high broadband speed for schools project aimed to provide all second level schools with 100 Mbps of high-speed broadband by 2014. The pilot scheme and phase 1 have been completed while phase 2 has just been announced. Phase 1 delivered high-speed broadband to schools in all counties from Clare right up to Louth, including the midlands.

While I welcome the news that a further 216 schools will be covered in phase 2, people are asking why schools in Meath, Kildare and Dublin have been chosen in rolling out high-speed broadband. There are several potential problems with this. First, the areas with the worst broadband services available should have been prioritised first. This would have meant that schools in Tipperary such as Coláiste Dún Iascaigh, Cahir, or Scoil Ruáin, Killenaule - schools that are in more rural areas and simply do not have the same commercial coverage available - are further missing out on the benefits of having a business-class broadband service. There is also the possibility that until all remaining 250 schools have been connected with high-speed broadband, the final phase might not go ahead due to the current economic climate. It is essential that this investment be delivered as soon as possible to the remaining 250 schools to ensure they can deliver to their students a more in-depth educational experience, which is brought about through the advantages that high-speed broadband brings. Only recently it was announced that 1.6 million people use smartphones. A significant number of these people are in our secondary schools and have become used to communicating through the newest of technologies. We need to ensure all our schools can harness the changing face of technology to provide a better education to secondary school students who need to be better prepared for the digital economy. To do this, a fast, reliable and secure broadband service is essential.

The advantages of such a service are multiple. It will mean that teachers can develop the use of ICT, information and communications technology, in their teaching methods and practices. It will also mean that communication tools such as Skype and other video-conferencing tools can be used, which will also allow for greater co-operation between schools, universities and other experts in curriculum areas. It will mean that classes can watch important Dáil debates live on their computers.

While I welcome the existing investment during the current economic difficulties, it is vital that modern high-speed networks are available to all students in all areas. It is also vital that assurances be given to all remaining schools that students in these areas will not be left behind. Will the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources confirm the position for the remaining 250 schools?

I am grateful to Deputy Tom Hayes for raising this important issue.

The provision of high-speed broadband to all post-primary schools is a policy that the Government has embraced since taking office and one that I am proud to say we are well on the way to realising. I strongly believe this significant investment in our current and future generation of schoolchildren is money well spent. It is also a key investment in future employment and employability as it feeds into the development of a more ICT-literate workforce.

In February 2012, I formally announced the national roll-out of 100 Mbps broadband services to post-primary schools across the country. The national roll-out of this project is being undertaken on a phased basis, with all schools scheduled to be completed by the start of the academic year in September 2014.

Roll-out in 2012 saw high-speed broadband connectivity installed in 202 schools, 78 having been connected in the pilot, in the 14 western and midlands counties covering Cavan, Clare, Donegal, Galway, Laois, Leitrim, Longford, Louth, Mayo, Monaghan, Offaly, Roscommon, Sligo and Westmeath.

The selection of schools for connection in 2012 was undertaken following the technical review of the pilot project and discussions with our project partners, namely, HEAnet, the Department of Education and Skills and PDST Technology in Education, and with the service providers engaged on the pilot project. It was considered that a geographical roll-out would provide the project with the most economically beneficial method of achieving the project objectives within the available budget. In addition, the identified counties, mainly in the west and north of the country, were in receipt of the slowest average broadband speeds under the schools broadband programme.

This approach to the selection of schools was adopted for the 2013 roll-out, when all second level schools in Dublin, Kildare and Meath will be connected. A geographical roll-out allows for the aggregation of backhaul links to provide the optimum solution for the schools selected for connection. It will also allow service providers to provide the local school access connection in a cost-effective manner to deliver to multiple schools within similar locations at a reduced cost to the Exchequer.

I can assure Deputy Hayes that the extension to south Tipperary will not be held up because of the constrained financial circumstances. The roll-out will continue to September 2014, when schools in south Tipperary, along with those in Carlow, Cork, Kerry, Kildare, Kilkenny, Limerick, north Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford and Wicklow, will be connected. The procurement of services to ensure this is achieved as quickly as possible is currently being undertaken.

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of visiting Presentation Secondary School in Warrenmount, Dublin, where I saw at first hand the real and tangible benefits that this programme has delivered to our post-primary students. The availability of high-speed reliable broadband is changing both the way our teachers teach and the way our students learn. What I witnessed that day convinced me that the course we are on is one that will fundamentally change the use of ICT in our classrooms and help us to deliver the digital workforce to drive economic recovery.

With the infrastructure in place, the technology accessible, and the guidance of progressive educators, we have the potential to ensure that ICT will play a central role in the development of the digital citizens of tomorrow and allow the Irish economy to compete in the global marketplace.

I thank the Minister sincerely for his comprehensive reply to this issue. This has been a concern for many schools across south Tipperary and I have no doubt, having listened to the information the Minister has provided and the assurance he gave, that within 12 months all schools in south Tipperary will be dealt with. That is excellent news, for which I thank the Minister. I understand this will take time but it is a positive development in these economic times. The principals and the teachers in the school who contacted me in recent months were concerned that it would not happen. I am very pleased this is going ahead, particularly in Cahir, Killenaule and other areas, because it will help in the education of our children.

We all care about Cahir.

I have explained to Deputy Hayes the reason it makes good sense to have high-speed connectivity installed in contiguous geographical areas. That is the most economical way. My Department will pay all of the capital cost under the project to the end of 2015 and will pay the recurring costs for connectivity to each school for the year of installation and for a further 12 months thereafter. We estimate the total capital cost to my Department for the project is between €11 million and €12 million, and the current expenditure costs for the years 2012 to 2015 are approximately €10 million. Thereafter, the Department of Education and Skills picks up the bill. I can assure Deputy Hayes that south Tipperary will be a priority in the coming academic year.

Do not forget Cahir.

Road Network

I welcome the opportunity to raise an important issue for my constituency. It concerns the road coming into Adare, the N20 from Limerick to Kerry. The road into Adare has been named by AA Roadwatch as one of the country's worst in terms of traffic tailbacks. It appears in the list of seven of the county's slowest roads compiled by the Automobile Association based on its own experience and information from the Garda Síochána and bus companies. That is no surprise to the people of Adare, because tailbacks have been experienced for a number of years, which has caused delays for traffic coming into and leaving Adare. Last Monday, which was a bank holiday, there was a two-mile tailback coming into Adare from the Kerry side as a result of people returning from Kerry after the weekend. It happens both ways, but the problem is very serious at weekends, especially on Friday nights. It is no surprise to the people of Adare that it is on the list of the seven slowest areas compiled by the AA.

I wish to highlight a number of issues. Obviously, commuters going west experience great frustration. Many commuters who travel through Adare morning and evening are from the west of the county but work in the city. There is also a serious problem on the small country roads because of what are often referred to as rat-runs. A total of 133 people have signed a petition calling for a speed limit on those roads but the council is not prepared to concede that because it is not a 24-hour issue. There are serious concerns about the safety of children. At certain periods people cannot walk those roads because of the traffic going west avoiding Adare.

This has been a problem for almost 30 years. Several routes for a bypass have been identified over that period. We were extremely disappointed last autumn that An Bord Pleanála turned down the last route the council proposed, using the excuse that the motorway from Limerick to Cork is being delayed and it was to be part of that.

I am making the case for the bypassing of Adare, similar to the bypassing of many other towns. Castleisland is a recent example, but the bypassing of Adare stands on its own, so to speak. I would like to know how much this project has cost in terms of planning and other changes in the past 30 years. As the Minister of State is aware, Adare is a premier tourist product. It has been described as one of the prettiest villages in Ireland. There is a good deal of tourist activity in Adare, but that could be enhanced by the removal of the traffic from the village, which would facilitate more local traffic and more tourist traffic coming into the village.

I put the case for a bypass to the Minister of State. There are strong feelings about the issue in Adare. The demand for a bypass is supported by Limerick County Council. The Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, when he was in Adare, expressed his disappointment at the decision of An Bord Pleanála to turn down the plan. I ask the Minister of State to respond and give us some hope after almost 30 years that this bottleneck can be overcome.

I thank the Deputy for the opportunity to address this issue.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has responsibility for overall policy and funding regarding the national roads programme. The planning, design and implementation of individual road projects is a matter for the National Roads Authority, NRA, under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2007, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. Within its capital budget, the assessment and prioritisation of individual projects is a matter in the first instance for the NRA, in accordance with section 19 of the Roads Act. Because of the national financial position, there have been very large reductions in roads expenditure over the past number of years and there will be further reductions in the next number of years.

The NRA has a budget of €318 million for improvement and maintenance works on the national roads network in 2013. The available funds do not match the amount of work required. For this reason, it is not possible to progress a range of worthwhile projects and the main focus must be on the maintenance and repair of roads. This will remain the position in the coming years. Only a small number of new PPP projects can be taken to the construction stage for now.

Pragmatically dealing with this reality, in early 2012 the Minister indicated to the NRA that it should withdraw its application to An Bord Pleanála for the M20 Cork to Limerick route. The Minister was concerned that to proceed any further with the scheme to build the M20 would have exposed the NRA to significant costs arising from the legal requirement to purchase the land if the CPO was approved. This would have to be done without the reasonable prospect of proceeding to construction stage quickly thereafter. To do this would have tied up large amounts of capital which could be better used elsewhere on the national network given the funding constraints.

Turning to the issue of the Adare bypass in particular, the position is that the N21 Adare bypass route was intended to run to the south of Adare and link with the Limerick-Cork route. The compulsory purchase order and environmental impact statement documentation were submitted to An Bord Pleanála for approval on 4 March 2010. On 18 October 2012, An Bord Pleanála made a decision to refuse the proposed road scheme to bypass Adare. Principally, although not exclusively, An Bord Pleanála's decision was based on the fact that the Adare bypass route would, in the board's words: "if permitted and constructed, constitute isolated infrastructure, would not represent a coherent approach to the provision of major roads infrastructure and, furthermore, would not have the potential to fulfil the functions envisaged for the scheme." The proposed development would, therefore, be contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area.

While I do not think anyone would argue that traffic is not an issue for the residents and businesses in Adare, An Bord Pleanála has made its decision and it is now for the NRA and the local authority to assess options open to them on the basis of that decision.

I understand from the NRA that it recently received a request from Limerick local authorities to authorise and fund the appointment of consultants to commence the planning process for a revised scheme to bypass Adare village. That request is currently being considered by the authority. It should be noted, however, in keeping with the provisions of the Roads Act 1993, the Minister is not directly involved in this assessment process.

With regard to the specific issue of the costs involved over the past 30 years, I do not have that figure off the top of my head. However, I will endeavour to get an assessment of the costs involved from the Department for the Deputy.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply, but it is disappointing. I urge the bodies involved, the NRA, the local authorities and the Department, to recognise this is a serious issue. There are many good plans for the development of the tourism product in Adare. Recently, a heritage destination strategic plan was launched by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, for Adare and it will establish the town as a leading heritage and cultural destination in County Limerick and the Shannon region, drawing on the inherent assets within the village and the wider area.

I contend that one of the limiting factors regarding the development of tourism in Adare is the fact there is a consistently high level of traffic going through Adare and that there is a constant tailback, particularly at busy times. The vision statement on the heritage destination plan states there is absolute determination, despite the difficulties experienced with implementing the plans for the bypass, that by 2018 Adare will become a "must see" destination, with a strong reputation among local, national and international visitors for delivering high quality heritage accommodation, retail activity and catering packages. By 2018, Adare will also act as a tourism hub from which visitors will be encouraged to explore the wider County Limerick and Shannon region through a series of touring trails, high quality information and imagery and joint packaging with other key assets, attractions and activities.

We are asking that everything be put in place to support this ambitious and viable plan. The basic product exists in Adare and the removal of heavy traffic from the village would provide serious support and assistance for the plan.

I appreciate Deputy Neville's concerns. I know Adare well and pass through it frequently. I admit it has serious traffic issues. I wish the NRA and the local authorities well in their endeavours to find a new route and look forward to progress on that. However, there are restrictions with regard to funding. The timeframe on that is neither within my gift nor of that of the Department at this time. However, in the long term it is a project that is needed.

I am aware of the issues faced in the region as I am part of the same region. I live beside a place that has very similar issues in the context of traffic and tourism, Ballina-Killaloe. Therefore, I empathise with the Deputy. I will note his comments and ensure the Department gets back to him with regard to the volume of funding spent to date.

Higher Education Institutions Issues

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing this Topical Issue.

The school of tourism of Letterkenny Institute of Technology, LYIT, is currently located in Killybegs, in what was formerly the Cert training college. The college has been providing high quality training in the catering and hospitality industry for over 40 years and many students have won international awards over the years for the standard of their expertise in the cookery field. In recent years, the Cert school amalgamated with LYIT and this it was understood would secure the future of the college and ensure growth into the future. Unfortunately this has not come to pass.

Currently, there are approximately 180 students at the Killybegs campus. The college not only provides for school leavers through the CAO system, but also has a large cohort of part-time adult learners who are reskilling themselves and hope to participate in the tourism sector. The campus in Killybegs also provides training in the renewable energy sector, with the first training tower of its kind in the country located on site. This provides training for maintenance personnel in the wind energy sector. A number of companies have also looked at the college with a view to using the facilities as a training location.

Killybegs is the largest fishing port in the country and is also involved in the oil and gas exploration sector and in the importation of wind turbines for the renewables industry. The high level group report on job creation in Killybegs, launched by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in Killybegs in June 2011, envisages a vital role for the tourism college in the future development of the town and surrounding area. A number of key actions in the report will help the development of the whole of the south west of Donegal if brought to fruition, such as the development of a seafood innovation hub, the development and consolidation of the LYIT school of tourism as a key resource for the region and the establishment of Killybegs as a centre of excellence for the green economy.

At the moment, the LYIT board is drafting a five-year financial plan for the institute and I believe it is considering relocating the school of tourism to the Letterkenny campus. This will seriously undermine the viability of the Killybegs campus of LYIT. There is a serious urgency with regard to this situation, because the plan is due to be delivered to the Higher Education Authority before the summer. This could signal the end of the delivery of tourism courses in Killybegs. While everyone understands there is a need for education and training to be cost-effective, closing the Killybegs campus will be a severe setback for the whole of south-west Donegal with the withdrawal of a vital education resource. It will also make the continuation of the adult learner facilities in Killybegs unviable and remove a resource for many under-skilled and unemployed workers to improve their educational attainment and contribute to the growth of a viable tourism sector, which because of Government policy is one of the only options available in Donegal for job growth.

The school of tourism is the lynchpin that is keeping the rest of the facilities at the Killybegs campus going and if it is removed it will reduce the viability of the entire campus.

LYIT might have financial difficulties - recovering student debt is probably one of its biggest problems - but the removal of the school of tourism from Killybegs will ultimately not solve them. It would hamper the recovery and development of a large part of County Donegal. It would bring an end to a significant tradition that has been in the hospitality and tourism industry for many years. Surely LYIT has a role in delivering and participating in the development of the entire region. The Killybegs campus should be seen as having a role as part of that remit. It should be supported so that it can develop the tourism, food and renewable energy sectors for the future of everyone in the north west. I call on the Minister of State to ensure the Killybegs campus continues to play a full part in that effort.

I thank Deputy Pringle for raising this issue. As he will be aware, the tourism college in Killybegs is a school of Letterkenny Institute of Technology, LYIT, which is an autonomous statutory body. The management of the college is the responsibility of the governing body and the president of LYIT. The Department allocates recurrent funding to the Higher Education Authority, HEA, for direct disbursement to HEA institutions including LYIT. The HEA allocates this grant to institutions for free fees, core grant funding and other specific earmarked initiatives. The HEA uses a recurrent grant allocation model to determine the amount of core funding provided to each institution. It is then a matter for the institution to determine how this funding is allocated internally and locally.

All higher education institutions are facing real challenges to cope with declining State budgets and increasing student populations. Institutions must reduce staff numbers in line with the employment control framework for the sector. Core staff numbers in higher education institutions were reduced by 9% between December 2008 and December 2011. Overall full-time student numbers increased by 12% during the same period. Staff numbers had reduced by a further 1.5% at the end of 2012. Further reductions will be required. It is a matter for each institution to work within a balanced budget and to achieve best value for money. The HEA has committed to working with institutions that face particular financial pressures in the coming year. The need for an agreed strategy to ensure they can continue to meet the needs of students, employers and other stakeholders in their regions is of paramount importance.

I understand the HEA has requested a financial plan from LYIT covering the next three years, indicating the strategy to be used to address financial issues at the institute. This plan has not yet been received by the Department. There has been no indication of any specific proposals concerning the future of the Killybegs campus. The HEA is undertaking a study on the sustainability of the current funding system for higher education. An initial report has been published. This report makes it clear that immediate work is required to prepare for a longer-term approach to a system that can be maintained through a sustainable funding base. Such a system should be able to address the continued expansion of the sector while protecting quality of education. The HEA is continuing its work in this area. It will advise the Department further as this work progresses. The report will help inform decision-making on the future funding of the sector.

The Deputy will be familiar with a document, Towards a Future Higher Education Landscape, that was published by the HEA last year after inviting submissions from institutions and commissioning expert analyses with a view to giving the Minister formal advice on an outline future configuration of the higher education system. That advice is under consideration. The HEA has advised on the development of regional clusters of higher education institutions which will allow programmes of teaching and learning to be better planned and co-ordinated, resources to be used more efficiently and more flexible student pathways and better progression opportunities to be put in place. Regional clusters will build on the explicit value placed on collaboration between Irish higher education institutions in recent years. They will create more stable and permanent arrangements between institutions within regions. Negotiated agreements between institutions within a cluster will allow for the elimination of unnecessary duplication of provision and provide a more coherent offering to students in the region with good pathways into and between institutions.

I would like to be able to thank the Minister of State for his response, but I do not think it did anything to alleviate the concerns I have expressed. The one thing I can probably take from the answer is the reference to the sustainability study that is being carried out by the HEA. It is examining how will this country's third level institutions will be funded in the future. On that basis alone, I do not think any college should make a decision now that will affect the future of any campus under its control. For that reason, LYIT should be encouraged or told to sustain its current provision of education at Killybegs while the outcome of the HEA's study is awaited. We can deal with the report when the time comes. It is vitally important for the recovery of large parts of the country that these courses are retained in the areas where they have been provided for many years. The Killybegs campus can and will play a very important role in the recovery and development of south-west Donegal. It cannot do that unless the services and educational courses that are currently provided at Killybegs are maintained and a plan is put in place to ensure the campus can grow and develop. I call on the Minister of State to impress that on the HEA and the board of governors of LYIT. We need to ensure this can happen for the future.

The Deputy may be aware that there is already a significant level of co-operation between a number of institutions in the region. An alliance agreement between Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, Letterkenny Institute of Technology and the Institute of Technology, Sligo was signed in July 2012. It commits the partners to the development of significant and meaningful collaborations on a comprehensive range of activities. I hope the co-operation that is under way will lead to a far more fruitful use of scarce State resources and offer students a number of different and interesting educational options. I remind the Deputy that all higher education institutions, including LYIT, are responsible for the internal allocation of the funding provided to them by the HEA. Decisions on the future funding of the tourism college in Killybegs will ultimately rest with the governing body of LYIT.