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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 4 Oct 2016

Vol. 923 No. 1

Priority Questions

Third Level Institutions

Thomas Byrne


17. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views on the recent decline experienced by Irish universities in international rankings; his plans to improve and enhance Irish third-level institutions; and his further plans to deal with the funding issues in the third-level sector. [28473/16]

I am glad the Taoiseach is here to hear this question because the issue of third-level funding that I raise in this question is a key priority. People are saying it is a Fianna Fáil priority but it is a national priority that we have adequately-funded third-level colleges. I would like the Minister for Education and Skills to set out how he proposes to react to what has been happening lately and to the decline in our institutions' rankings.

While there has been a decline in the rankings of some Irish institutions, Ireland performs ahead of most European countries relative to its population size and has the highest level of tertiary attainment rate for 30 to 34 year olds in Europe.

We have to be cautious about how we interpret the results of these commercial global rankings. It is clear that performance in rankings is often highly reliant on surveys of opinion and of citations in journals which do not adequately capture the full range of activities taking place in our third-level institutions. Nonetheless, they are widely read and can be influential.

I want a strong higher education system that serves the needs of all students, enterprise and other stakeholders through high-quality teaching and learning, upskilling and reskilling, research and innovation, as well as supporting the most disadvantaged to participate in higher education as part of the overall goal of delivering the best education and training system in Europe by 2026. It is important that we choose the goals and objectives and then benchmark ourselves against best international practice. The first systems performance report prepared by the Higher Education Authority, HEA, and published in 2014 shows that the higher education system in Ireland is performing well against a range of international benchmarks.

I have acknowledged that funding is a key concern. The report of the expert group on future funding for higher education clearly outlines the funding challenges and offers a number of approaches and recommendations for consideration for the medium term. Higher education funding in the short term is also the focus of discussion as part of budget 2017. As committed to in the programme for Government, I referred the report to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills as part of the process for formulating a plan for the future. This will ensure that all views can be heard.

We will require a broad consensus to enable us to move forward with a realistic and achievable strategy for funding the system into the future. I hope to work with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills as it analyses all of the options put forward by the expert group and allows the voices of all stakeholders and those on all sides of the debate to be heard.

In addition, the Department is working with the HEA on a revised system performance framework for higher education institutions which will establish clear goals for the system for the next five years across priority areas such as access, research and developing our pipeline of human capital.

The Minister is in complete and utter denial about the crisis facing our third-level sector. That is obvious from his reply but it is also obvious in the action plan on education that he published where there are two lines devoted to the crisis in third-level funding and the Cassells report. When that plan was published, one of the first things I looked for was what it said about third level. I had to keep reading in order to discover if I was missing something. It is not there and that demonstrates the Department’s lack of commitment. The Minister talks about having the best education system in the world and about international standards but he dismisses the rankings. I agree that rankings are not perfect but the more the Minister starves the system of funding, the higher the pupil-teacher ratio will become, the further the rankings will drop and the less attractive universities will be to foreign non-EU students who provide huge funding by paying higher fees. This is a vicious circle which has to stop in the forthcoming budget.

We will discuss the Cassells report. Even if he wanted to, the Minister could not implement the report overnight but he can - on the night of the budget - implement a change in direction to ensure that the sector and the system are adequately funded. He says the system is performing well and that it is doing so against incredible odds. However, it is not performing well in the rankings, which, imperfect though they might be, do mean something.

The Deputy chooses to interpret things the way he does. If he reads the action plan for education he will see that we place a high priority on meeting the skill needs of the future, not only in universities but also in respect of matters such as apprenticeships and traineeships. We place a high priority on increasing by 30% the number of young people from disadvantaged areas that get through to higher education. We recognise higher education is absolutely pivotal to our long-term success as a nation.

In approaching the important issue of funding, it must be recognised that there is a short-term need and a long-term need. We must look to this budget to find resources to meet the short-term need. We have to recognise that we are working against a background where, in total, there is approximately €600 million for use in respect of housing, health, homelessness and all of the other issues Government must address. There is also the long and medium-term strategy and the Deputy seems to be dismissing the need to address those medium-term issues thrown up by a county man of his, Peter Cassells. Those are important issues and if the Deputy and his party firmly believe that proper long-term funding is required for higher education, then they must come forward with proposals within the context of the Cassells report as to how we will make that approach work.

The content of the Cassells report will not be discussed in this Chamber but, rather, in the committee rooms. That process will take some time. I compliment Mr. Cassells and his committee on the work they did. When he spoke to the Fianna Fáil Party he advised us to take our time with this and he was right. We cannot, however, take our time in recognising the immediate funding crisis. I urge the Minister to do everything that can be done in the budget to change that direction. We know that the problems will not be solved overnight but we need to signal that Government no longer works only in the short term to get votes but plans for the future. The Minister and I have had our education. If we invest money in third-level education, there will be no personal benefit for many people but it will have benefits in the future and for the children growing up now and for the country. It will also send a signal that we are going to do things properly by looking to the future and that we are not interested in short-term political gain but, rather, in the medium and long-term gain to which the Minister refers.

It is important to recognise some of the successes of our third-level system. We have the highest degree of third-level participation in Europe and the highest number of graduates in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, subjects which are key to technological progress. We rank as one of the best countries in converting research in which we invest in our universities into genuine innovation that can transform enterprise or public services. We have real successes but we have a funding problem. We do not have a sustainable funding model for the third-level sector and we need to design that.

I welcome the Deputy’s indication that his party has not yet made a decision and is going to take its time before doing so. Some of the public commentary suggested that his party had taken a decision ahead of the committee meeting, which would have been disappointing. I agree that we need short and long-term strategies. The Deputy has to be realistic that the short-term strategy will be constrained, as Peter Cassells recognised, in a competition with many other deserving needs. That is the situation in which we find ourselves, like it or not. I seek to build both a short and a long-term strategy in co-operation with parties across the House.

School Guidance Counsellors

Carol Nolan


18. Deputy Carol Nolan asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to restore guidance counselling services in secondary schools. [28421/16]

There is a commitment in the programme for Government to restore guidance counsellors to secondary schools. That is an invaluable service. Will the Minister outline the plans to restore that service, but also the timeframe?

Both the Action Plan for Education 2016-2019 and the programme for Government have a specific action to enhance guidance counselling at second level as resources permit.

A significant move was made last month with the restoration of half of the cut in the provision for guidance counselling. This was equivalent to the restoration of 300 posts.

The delivery of the 50% restoration through a change in the staffing schedule allows each school to determine how best to allocate the additional resources to meet the guidance needs of the school. The circular issued earlier this year by my Department outlining the allocation of teaching resources clearly stated that this additional resource is to complement existing resources in order to best meet the guidance needs of the school in line with the school's guidance plan.

I favour having a separate and transparent allocation for guidance. I hope to build on the current increase in provision for guidance, but this will have to be considered each year in a budgetary context.

I am also reviewing other areas of policy that can assist schools in having a series of initiatives to support the resilience of students.

I thank the Minister for that response. As he is aware, guidance counsellors provide an invaluable service in schools, both in terms of the well-being of students and personal one-to-one counselling. Guidance counsellors have seen cuts of up to 53% since 2012. One-to-one counselling has also been cut by 27%. We need to restore that, but it must be ex quota. I have heard many teachers say it is unfair that their guidance counsellors are competing with teachers from other subject areas, therefore, it must be allocated outside the normal staffing schedule in schools.

That is a widespread view. We need to make sure that resources are devoted to counselling. At the same time, I am conscious that in an increasing number of schools there is group work and class based activity at senior cycle, which is designed to provide support within the counselling remit. I do not want to undermine that. I understand some schools are considering counselling as a whole school activity and not confined to one individual teacher. Obviously, I will be guided by expertise in this field. I am aware that other Deputies also are of the view that this should be a separate support. The key is to ensure that young people get access to counselling. In terms of the manner of its delivery, we need to hear from experience on the ground to shape our final decisions.

I am particularly concerned about the lack of clarity on ex quota allocations. The Education Act states that students should have appropriate access to career guidance. We need to prioritise this issue and get it right.

I agree wholly with the Deputy. The issue is not whether we need to restore counselling and the level of counselling that must be provided in the school. We must be conscious that some schools provide models whereby the counselling is not delivered through one individual. If that is a working model that is delivering, we need to have some level of understanding of how it works on the ground. The first allocation made this September was not deemed ex quota but was accompanied by a guidance that was required to make sure it was used to rebuild the counselling support. We need some room to make sure that we are guided by the expertise in this area, but I fully sympathise with the objectives both of Deputy Nolan and Deputy Byrne who have raised this issue consistently.

Student Grant Scheme Eligibility

Thomas Byrne


19. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views on the restoration of postgraduate grants and their necessity to open up access to postgraduate studies and to ensure that a steady stream of persons achieve a postgraduate qualification for societal good and to ensure attractiveness to foreign investors. [28474/16]

I am glad Deputy Nolan agrees with the Fianna Fáil position on the ex quota guidance counsellors. We are glad to have that support. It is one of the items in the confidence and supply agreement we have with the Government.

My question raises another issue that is in the confidence and supply agreement, namely, the restoration of postgraduate grants. I have seen at first hand that employers in my constituency are crying out for graduate students. I am told that in some sectors in universities, graduate studies have got very quiet because of that. Some employers are paying for them, but that is not sustainable on a broad basis.

Financial supports are currently available for approximately 2,300 postgraduate students who meet the eligibility criteria of the student grant scheme.

Postgraduate students who meet the qualifying conditions for the special rate of grant under the student grant scheme are eligible to have their postgraduate tuition fees paid up to the maximum fee limit of €6,270. Alternatively, a postgraduate student may qualify to have a €2,000 contribution made towards the cost of his or her fees. The income threshold for this payment is €31,500 for the current year, increasing relative to the number of family dependants.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to increase financial supports for postgraduate students, with a particular focus on those from low income households. The options for progressing this commitment are currently under consideration in my Department within the context of overall budgetary constraints and the large number of competing demands for available funding.

Funding for postgraduate students also needs to be viewed in the wider context of the overall funding available for the higher education sector. As we discussed earlier, the recently published report of the expert group on future funding for higher education, which is going to the Oireachtas, raises the issue of how best to support students in a sustainable model of funding for the higher education sector.

I thank the Minister for that answer. It is a key priority for us. Almost all postgraduate maintenance grants, with the exception of the special grant, as the Minister mentioned, were removed in 2012. The special grant is for the extreme low end of the income spectrum and those most in need, but there is a huge number of other people who cannot afford to pursue postgraduate studies. In many cases, employers are looking to hire highly specialised graduates with postgraduate degrees, whether it be master's or doctorates. Apart from the societal and personal good that postgraduate study does, it is essential for our economic future to give as many people as possible the opportunity to pursue postgraduate studies. Taught postgraduate degrees are extremely high in cost. The removal of the grants was utterly inconsistent with the Government's stated approach, namely, that it was building a high skills, so-called smart economy. It was the opposite of smart. They say that smart flies Aer Lingus. The truth is that smart does not abolish postgraduate grants. It has an observable negative effect on participation rates in postgraduate education, and as told anecdotally by those students in and out of university.

The total number of postgraduate students is 37,000, made up of approximately 22,500 full-time and just over 15,000 part-time. That figure has grown by 8% since 2010-11.

I recognise the importance of postgraduate study. It has been influential in the significant role played by Springboard in recent years where a postgraduate option to allow people retrain has been very successful: its participation has been up to 9,000 per year. Not all of those would be classified as postgraduate in the traditional sense, but there have been a number of investments in this area. I recognise the need to invest in this area and to start that process of supporting students to a better level who want to do postgraduate study. It is part of the programme for Government. I know many other Members share the Deputy's ambition with regard to this issue. It is an area we will have to address over time with resources as they become available.

We certainly look forward to sitting back on budget votes, with substantial progress having been made on some of these items. In fairness to the Minister, he recognises that the confidence and supply agreement is the basis on which the Government operates and that the policy options we have negotiated with the Government, and the Fine Gael Party in particular, need to show signs of being implemented. That includes the ex quota guidance counsellors mentioned and postgraduate grants.

While Fianna Fáil is aware of the financial circumstances that exist, we also are aware that a massive shift in direction must be undertaken. Fianna Fáil hopes and expects that substantial progress will be made next week when its Members will be happy to press that new "Staon" button, if there are any votes that require it.

I will not comment. I am aware Deputy Thomas Byrne and his party have made comments about the budget across a range of different areas and I would not like to be doing the totting of the total from higher education and postgraduates to pensions and so on.

According to the Irish Independent, it is a quarter of what Ministers themselves have sought.

However, I recognise this reflects genuine pressures and needs. There has been almost a lost decade in which investment all Members of this House would have liked to have made could not be made. The Government must try to cut its cloth to make the investment over the coming years in those areas in which it can have the greatest impact. I recognise that priorities have been set out here and the Government must try to accommodate them as best it can over a period of three to five years.

Three years of a confidence and supply agreement.

National Educational Psychological Service

Carol Nolan


20. Deputy Carol Nolan asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to enhance the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, specifically the capacity to increase the level of assessments undertaken. [28420/16]

I wish to raise the issue of plans to enhance the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, but, of more importance, the capacity to increase the level of assessments by that service of children and, in particular, of children with special needs.

I thank the Deputy. My Department's National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, in line with best international practice, operates a tiered consultative model of service and it supports schools in a continuum of support process. This means each school takes responsibility for initial assessment, educational planning and remedial intervention for pupils with learning, emotional or behavioural difficulties in consultation, as appropriate, with its assigned NEPS psychologist.

In the event of a pupil not making reasonable progress or where he or she requires further additional support, NEPS may become directly involved with the student, offering service to identify need and appropriate intervention which may or may not involve assessment of the student or undertaking intensive intervention, including assessment. In 2015-16, NEPS undertook such case work, including assessment, with 7,974 pupils in primary and post-primary schools. In addition, 1,673 assessments were provided to schools through a panel of private practitioners. Furthermore, NEPS psychologists in the period consulted teachers in respect of an estimated 25,000 pupils, providing advice as to appropriate interventions in solving issues raised.

The Deputy may be aware that the programme for Government commits to the expansion of NEPS psychologist numbers by 65 individuals, which constitutes a 25% increase. The effect of this expansion will result in a deepening in the application of this model of service to schools and will shorten the lead time in providing a range of services to schools, including those involving assessment.

I thank the Minister for his response. However, I am aware of many frustrated principals, teachers and parents nationwide. While there has been an increase in the number of NEPS psychologists, there has not been an increase in the number of assessments. For example, the number of assessments has declined since 2008, from a total of 10,585 assessments to 9,824. This represents an average of just two assessments or referrals per school per year and that simply is not good enough. Children are slipping through the cracks and teachers, parents and schools are trying to fund-raise to help parents pay for psychological assessments. That is not good enough because children need these assessments. They need the recommendations offered by the assessments to secure resources in secondary schools. In particular, children with dyslexia need such an assessment, which is vital to securing spelling waivers or other accommodations when sitting State examinations. Consequently, I ask for the number of assessments to be increased and for a clear target to be set.

I accept the Deputy's point that NEPS is an important service and the Government needs to invest more, which is why there is a commitment to an increase in the resources within NEPS of 25%. On the other hand, there is a genuine debate about whether assessment is the best route to support children with needs. That is why NEPS works through a model that is not all about assessments, as I described in my answer to the question. There is a new model approach to resource teaching that would reduce the reliance on assessments. One problem with assessments, as I believe the Deputy indicated in her question, is there can be unequal access to them, and if they become the gateway, we might not be using the resources in the best way. This is an area in which the Government wishes to increase the resources but it also wishes to ensure it gets the best impact. Over time, the new model may be better for the school and the children and may represent better use of the resources of NEPS.

I appreciate the new resource allocation model will assist in addressing some of the issues I have outlined. Will the Minister indicate a timeframe for its implementation? A budget will be announced within the next two weeks and a new school term has started in which children are faced with lengthy waits for early intervention. The assessments are essential to secure resources at second level and while they might not be the overall solution, they certainly are a vital part of it. Will the Minister give a clear commitment that the issue of the level of assessments will be considered as a high priority in terms of increasing the capacity of NEPS and that resources will be targeted in this area?

First, I can indicate the Department is in the process of recruiting some additional NEPS psychologists. Initially, that will be within the existing permitted cap. That work is being done and will increase the capacity to meet demand. I can also tell the Deputy that 47 schools were involved in the pilot approach for the new resource allocation model. Evaluation of that pilot is under way and will be available shortly. It appears to be positive in its response and it is hoped the Department can build on that. Again, it is a matter that is tied up with budgetary issues and so there is a combination there. The Department must evaluate when it will be in a position to implement that. However, the initial soundings from the pilot are highly positive and, clearly, I would be keen to move forward on that basis.

Schools Building Projects

Joan Burton


21. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Education and Skills the projects which have been delayed with regard to the planned capital programme for 2016; the reasons for the delay; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28638/16]

This question pertains to the worrying delays in the capital programme in respect of building new-build schools and rebuilding older schools at primary and secondary level.

The six-year capital plan for 2016 to 2021 announced last November by the previous Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, detailed the major school building projects that are scheduled to proceed to construction over the lifetime of the plan. As of now, with more than two months of 2016 remaining, five projects from the 2016 list are at the most advanced stage of architectural planning, namely, stage 2B, approved but not yet authorised to go to tender.

The Deputy will be aware that from January 2016, following their authorisation under the previous Minister, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, a total of 116 major projects are either under construction or progressing to construction in 2016 and, of these, 28 have been completed. As a result of this, projects now fully account for the funding that was allocated for 2016 under the previous Minister and carry a significant contractual commitment into 2017. The five projects mentioned were not at a sufficiently advanced stage for them to proceed when the projects were authorised to proceed under the previous Minister last April. My officials will continue to monitor closely expenditure on existing contractual commitments over the coming months and, as funding allows, other projects will be considered for progression through the tender process with a view to starting on site as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister. I am very concerned that since the new Government came to office, the capital programme at primary and secondary level has been slowed down. In much more difficult financial times, the previous Government put a great deal of effort into getting new schools built and older schools completely rebuilt throughout the country to provide the best environments for students, teachers, families and communities as well as to provide local employment. When asked about this issue previously, the Minister has gone back to the time when Deputy Jan O'Sullivan was in office. As the Minister has acknowledged, she properly got a huge number of projects under way, as was needed in a country with a huge growing population of children at primary and secondary level.

Frankly, in the hiatus between the formation of the new Government and the Minister's appointment and subsequently, the Department officials appear to have decided to turn off the tap and placed St. Mochta's in Dublin 15 - a school I know particularly well and a project which has been ten years in the making and which, because of the financial collapse and other events, has experienced unfortunate delays - in a kind of limbo. Those officials decided to send letters - I do not believe the Minister saw them but if he did, perhaps he might indicate same - stating that the school might not get funding next year or the year after. That is not good enough. The Minister has a responsibility in this regard. If he needs extra funding, as I think he does, he needs to go to the Minister for Finance, procure it and ensure that these vital projects get under way.

I assure the Deputy there is no slowdown. In fact, there will be more spent on the capital programme for schools this year than was the case last year and there will be provision for 20,000 additional places for pupils in 50 major projects that will be completed by the end of the year.

The position in respect of a small number of schools is that when the last batch was released in April, 38 projects were allowed to proceed to tender and this absorbed the funding capacity. The project relating to St. Mochta's was not ready to be proceeded with at that time. We are now monitoring resources to see whether we can release projects relating to additional schools. That is clearly my desire in respect of schools such as St. Mochta's. I recognise that St. Mochta's has a particularly difficult history in this regard, given that work on the project has been ongoing for some years and that a number of design teams had to be disbanded, etc. I assure Deputy Burton that there is absolutely no slowdown. I also assure her that I am looking, as every Minister does, to the forthcoming budget to provide additional resources in an area that is a high priority.

Let me reassure the Minister that I and everybody else in opposition will support him in seeking extra resources to build and develop the schools that we need. There is no higher priority because children only get one shot at education.

Many families with three and four children have been involved with this school for a long period. It is a great school with a great reputation. I very much welcome the Minister's reassurance that this school is fully included on the list. Following a successful meeting with the Minister last week involving a deputation including the board of management at the school and a number of Deputies - for which I thank the Minister - significant progress has been made with the Department.

I want the Minister to reiterate the statement he made last week that this project is back on track and that the new building will be constructed as quickly as possible. It was included last year - rightly and to great celebration by everybody - in the 2016-2021 programme. We had expected work to commence during the summer. We now have good progress made in sorting out some of the technical issues which caused a problem. The Minister was helpful in that regard and I thank him for it. However, I want to know that we will see this project, which will take two years to complete and which will cost €10.5 million, proceed. I want the Minister to confirm what he indicated last week, namely, that it is absolutely back on track to be built.

First, I welcome any and all support for additional funding. It is encouraging to see so much support in the House for education funding. Sadly, that will have to compete with other demands.

I assure the Deputy that, as far as I am concerned, St. Mochta's is a priority. As I say, we are monitoring our expenditure closely to see if we will be in a position to release projects. As Deputy Burton recognised, we are also making a strong case for additional resources. I recognise the difficulties that have been faced by the board, the parents, the teachers and the patron at St. Mochta's over a difficult period. Their case was well made last week and I acknowledge the priority it should rightly be given.