Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Third Level Fees

Rose Conway-Walsh


20. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his views on whether it is fair to expect students to pay the highest fees in the EU at a time when many students have lost work and many households have seen a drop in their income, particularly if courses are to be conducted partially or completely online; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22244/20]

The question is on college fees. The Minister will know that there was a problem here already in that our fees are the highest in Europe. Many countries, including Austria, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Greece, have no fees at all. My question is on high fees generally but also the fees being charged this year. Many students feel that it is grossly unfair to charge the same fees while they are not availing of the same campus facilities and so on. Can we have a reduction in fees?

I thank the Deputy for the question. One of the few jurisdictions that has higher fees is Northern Ireland. I presume the same logic would apply in terms of the Deputy wanting to see a reduction in fees in Northern Ireland where Sinn Féin is in government and where the fees are £4,395 sterling per annum and students, therefore, are leaving colleges in Northern Ireland heavily indebted through a student loan system that I view as wholly unfair.

Under the Department’s free fees schemes, the Exchequer provides funding toward the tuition fee costs of eligible undergraduate higher education students at an average annual cost of €6,500 per student. Students pay a student contribution of €3,000 per annum, which can be paid in instalments, but importantly and rarely commented on, the State pays the contribution in full or part for an estimated 44% of all students eligible for free fees funding through SUSI. This means that 44% of our students are either having their contribution fee fully or partially paid by the State at an estimated cost of €180 million for 2019-20. In addition to the student contribution funded by the State, we are also providing €340 million through the SUSI grants in 2019 and 2020.

The programme for Government commits to develop a long-term sustainable funding model for higher level education.  In addition, I intend to specifically examine student supports to ensure all students have access to educational opportunities and supports that will help them to fulfil their potential. While the balance of costs and benefits of higher education will be considered as part of the reform of higher education funding, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which, in fairness, the Deputy is correct to raise, has an immediate burden on students. For this reason, in July, I announced €168 million in funding to support the sector and students, including a doubling of the student assistant fund from €8 million to €16 million, a €5 million fund for mental health supports and a €15 million fund for technology supports to purchase laptops for students. I accept we have a lot more to do in removing cost as a barrier on this island and I intend to take a number of steps to try to help remove those barriers.

I welcome that the Minister has acknowledged that fees are too high and I agree that they are too high across the island and need to be reduced. There is no comparison between the two jurisdictions given we do not, as yet, have control of exchequer finances in the North. In a recent survey of students carried out by Sinn Féin, 70% said that they have lost employment opportunities. This has compounded everything this year because they do not have the jobs now that they previously had. One of my questions regarding Covid payments for students and whether they are to be continued and be taken into account in regard to fees, has been transferred to the Department of Employment Affair and Social Protection. A reduction in fees by, say, €500 this year would cost €39.3 million. While I welcome all of the announcements the Minister has made, they need to relate to tangible measures that students can access because too many people are excluded from SUSI as it is and they have significant bills coming in the door next week.

I agree with the Deputy. Opportunities that are often available to students will not be available in the current college year, the most obvious being employment opportunities. Many students work part time to supplement the cost of living and the cost of going to college. For this reason, we decided to make a targeted intervention this year in doubling the student assistance fund. This fund is available through access offices in colleges and universities around the country for students who fall on hard times, in addition to SUSI grants. We also made sure that there was a flexibility in SUSI in terms of a sudden change in a family's income arising from Covid. It is also why we changed the rules relating to supports for people in direct provision to access SUSI grants as well. Let me be clear: I fully accept that there is more that needs to be done. The programme for Government references the need for a fundamental overhaul of the student support system and that is something I hope we can advance in the coming months.

I thank the Minister for his reply. On the student assistance fund, I ask that this be made very accessible, particularly for people who on the face of it may appear to have a gross income that should sustain their needs, but it will not. I refer particularly to cases where there are two front-line workers in one family, yet they cannot afford to send their children to college.

The only way to do this is to look at the fees and have them reduced rather than having the different packages available. Sometimes it can be so complex that people cannot get access.

Colleges really need to look at what they are providing this year and the cost of those provisions. This of course relates to the gross underfunding of institutions, and they are trying to get students to carry the can for the chronic underfunding within the institutions themselves. There is gross unfairness in that because of an unaffordability element that really concerns me.

I very much welcome the survey done by the Deputy and it is important to directly hear the voices of students. In 2015, the State was investing approximately €1.4 billion of Exchequer funds in higher education and that has now risen to €1.8 billion. When we add the SUSI costs, the figure rises to above €2 billion. We need to do more and the programme for Government commits us to doing more.

We can consider the SUSI support schemes. I remember when SUSI was introduced. It brought about much improvement as it removed fragmentation around the country but there are anomalies that we need to address. These must all be part of the normal budgetary process. I can give an example. SUSI does not take into consideration childcare costs, and this could present a barrier to many families, particularly one-parent families, in accessing education. We must introduce reforms relating to postgraduate supports and for part-time learners. This is an indication of my thinking as we approach the budgetary process for this year and in the lifetime of this Government.

Higher Education Institutions

Holly Cairns


21. Deputy Holly Cairns asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his views on providing targeted funding for colleges and universities to establish hubs or micro-satellite campuses to enable rural students to complete courses online; and if he will provide further funding for students to access existing rural digital hubs. [22805/20]

One of the main barriers for students in rural Ireland is broadband. With most courses involving blended learning now and some courses and institutions going exclusively online, now more than ever it is essential that as many students as possible have access to broadband. Will the Minister provide targeted funding for colleges and universities to establish hubs or micro-satellite campuses to enable rural students to complete courses online? Will he consider providing funding for students to access existing digital hubs?

I was delighted to see this question as I had an exciting meeting the other day with representatives of HEAnet, the organisation that is involved in rolling out technological solutions for students. The Deputy knows that eduroam is a Wi-Fi system used not just by students on campus in Ireland but around the world. HEAnet is in the process of developing proposals to see how this eduroam Wi-Fi system can be made available off campus as well as on campus. The Deputy's question concerns how to roll out connectivity with hubs. I welcome that I can work with the Deputy on this and I would be very happy to organise a meeting between her and representatives of HEAnet to see how we can feed in her suggestions in this regard.

Higher education institutions have been undertaking detailed planning and contingencies for their reopening and communicating these to students, trying to move from emergency remote learning towards a more structured model of blended learning, combining both online and on-site provision. The details of these arrangements are being finalised, with all higher education institutions having published their academic calendars with information on the dates for orientation and the beginning of teaching for the autumn semester.

In July, as I mentioned, I announced funding for students, including a €15 million fund for technology supports. With respect to the Deputy’s proposal to utilise hubs or micro-satellite campuses for online learning, some higher education institutions already operate more than one campus and are considering all relevant approaches to a return to college where appropriate. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, a number of higher education projects were already receiving funding from the Higher Education Authority, HEA, under the innovation and transformation fund to assist students to access courses virtually. For example, Letterkenny Institute of Technology runs the iNote project, building digital capacity for flexible learning delivery in the west and north west. Dundalk Institute of Technology provides a virtual hub to support all learners under its Gateway to Success project and the Institute of Technology, Sligo, provides online and blended degree programmes for students unable to be on campus due to location or disability.

Connectivity can be an issue for some students and rolling out the national broadband plan is a key element in resolving this. There is something we can do with HEAnet in trying to take the Deputy's idea of creating hubs in communities and extending the eduroam Wi-Fi system to such areas. I am happy to work with the Deputy on that.

I am delighted to see the Minister's enthusiasm and I hope he will be as enthusiastic in funding this. A network of hubs and satellite campuses would not only be important during the pandemic but would also enable greater participation more broadly. Considerable accommodation and living costs are a barrier for some students, and mature students, part-time students and parents would benefit from local facilities as well. Through their links with universities and colleges, hubs and campuses could also facilitate more research of rural issues and serve as incubators for innovation. Representatives of the third level institutions I have met are very enthusiastic about the idea and would be willing to work with the Minister on it.

This year's students will need targeted support, such as funding to avail of existing hubs, which have to run on a commercial basis. I welcome the idea of working with HEAnet but there are existing facilities like the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen, the newly opened Bantry Bay Works and so many more that provide student rates. It would be good to work with them and support local business. The businesses already provide student rates but the Minister's intervention could help subsidise this further and roll out such a process across rural Ireland, which would make a significant difference to many families. Will the Minister consider providing funding for existing local businesses to try to support them as well as pursuing the HEAnet project? I am open to looking at that too.

I suggest we engage on this matter if the Deputy wishes to send me some proposals in this regard. We fund the HEA through the innovation and transformation fund and I have a long list of projects I could read out that it is already funding. The Deputy has identified a real need, particularly in some of the more rural parts of the country.

HEAnet is funded through the HEA and it is seeking pilot projects where it can roll out connectivity. That includes going from on-campus sites to those which would be off campus. The people from HEAnet would be excited to hear the Deputy's proposals, as I am, and if she sends me some details, I will be happy to engage on the matter.

That would be great. I know the hubs in my area are very enthusiastic about remote campuses. In addition, students are concerned about committing to accommodation and other costs associated with moving when it is uncertain how much classroom learning they will be doing or how much will be online. The provision of additional places is welcome but it puts further pressure on institutions to implement social distancing, which will inevitably push more courses online. Waterford Institute of Technology has already announced that all lectures and tutorials will be delivered remotely with only laboratory work and workshops taking place on campus. All students need the certainty that Waterford Institute of Technology has provided.

Will the Minister provide greater clarity to students and institutions on what will be the format for the new college year? Households with overstretched budgets and students cannot afford accommodation that they may not use. The campus student experience is so important and if the majority of courses go online, there will be limited access to campus facilities. In such an absence, a smaller remote campus could go some way towards creating that kind of campus experience.

The Deputy has honestly highlighted what is a very delicate balance. Deputies in the House are quite rightly calling on me to ensure we provide extra college places and it is perfectly appropriate. At the same time, we must meet the needs of existing students, and all in a world of Covid-19, where health and safety must come first. As I stated, I expect all students to receive details of their on-site versus off-site learning mix in the first two weeks of September, and I am conscious we are through one of those weeks now. It is the commitment given to me by the universities.

With accommodation, I very much welcome that a number of institutions are now providing more flexible arrangements. For example, if a student is on-site two days a week, he or she may book a room for two days rather than having to take a lease for five or seven days per week over the full college year. I encourage more of our colleges and universities to do that.

Third Level Admissions

Rose Conway-Walsh


22. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his views on whether it is fair to expect students to pay the highest fees in the European Union at a time when many students have lost work and many households have seen a drop in their income, particularly if courses are to be conducted partially or completely online; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22596/20]

Rose Conway-Walsh


51. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the way in which the Central Applications Office, CAO, will ensure that students who sat the leaving certificate in 2019 are not disadvantaged by the model used to produce predicted grades; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22597/20]

I thank the Minister for his indulgence in taking Question No. 51 as well. He knows it is important that we create a level playing field for leaving certificate students and ensure they are not put at a disadvantage with the predicted grades scheme. I know the Minister has said there are extra places, which I very much welcome. He mentioned the creation of 5,000 places but going on the Department's predictions of what would be needed even before Covid-19, according to the 2018 report, an additional number in excess of 4,000 places were required by 2020. Did the Minister take this and other factors into account in creating the level playing field that is now required?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 22 and 51 together.

I was very grateful to Deputy Conway-Walsh for wanting to transfer questions in order to highlight this matter as I know the issue is important and timely. This year has been one like no other, and it was a year when a leaving certificate class could not do a leaving certificate exam. At every twist and turn, everybody in this House and across society has wanted to see a system that is as fair as possible put in place to protect the integrity of the leaving certificate and to ensure we could have a pathway for as many people as possible to move on from school to college.

That was not always guaranteed if one did not devise a system for doing it. Many Members of the House, including the Deputy, rightly called for the removal of the school profiling piece of the standardisation and that has happened. That will have a knock-on effect on grade inflation, but the school profiling needed to be removed. What can the Government do? We had already increased the number of places for higher education in the budget by 2,700. On top of that, we funded 1,415 additional places for key skills needs in areas of the economy such as ICT, engineering and science. The Deputy will recall that last week I received approval from the Government for 1,250 extra college places and, rather than try to decide in the Dáil or in the Government where to direct them, we asked the HEIs to identify their high-demand courses and to allocate those additional places to match those courses if they had the capacity or flexibility. That was welcomed across the board.

I have been working in the last few days to see if it is possible to create more capacity, even at this stage, and I am pleased to inform the Deputy that, through our engagement with the Higher Education Authority, HEA, and the institutions, I am in a position to confirm that there will be a further 800 additional college places on top of the 1,250 we announced last week. I hope this will go some way towards relieving pressure. To be clear, I expect the points to rise. Higher grades will result in higher points. There is no way around that. However, the most practical, sensible thing we can do is try to provide as many places as possible. I thank all the institutions and universities throughout the country for their leadership on this because, as Deputy Cairns said, it is not easy to ask people to create more places in a Covid environment, but I hope this is welcome news to many.

Yes, the extra 800 places are indeed welcome and I hope this will go some way towards alleviating the anxiety people among the prior leaving certificate students are feeling today. It is a pity we have left it to such a late stage because these students have had months of anxiety. I was first contacted in June about this, and we must never let this happen again. I acknowledge what the third level institutions are doing to try to facilitate what needs to be done here. Should we be in a situation on Friday or Monday next in which those extra places have not alleviated the issue, could the Minister consider some of the other points that I and my colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, have put forward? The Minister said there were some legal issues with some of the suggestions. I have written to the Minister separately to seek clarification of that legal advice, particularly with regard to seeing if we could have the prior leaving certificate students assessed on the points that were required in the year they did their leaving certificate.

I acknowledge the Deputy's and Deputy Ó Laoghaire's constructive engagement on this issue. I have looked at all the options because this year calls for us to look at absolutely everything we can possibly do. The clear advice available to me, and I am happy to write to the Deputy on this, is that the ring-fencing of places is legally fraught for a variety of reasons, principally on the basis that if a 2020 student missed out versus a 2019 student, and there are a number of issues in that regard, the idea of recalculating grades to bring 2019 in line with 2020 does not work. The 4.4% is an average figure. It does not mean everybody in 2020 rose by 4.4%. The clear legal and policy advice available to me was that the most logical and sensible thing to do, based on my engagement with the institutions, was to increase the number of places.

Let us be honest, however. Every year people apply to the CAO from different years. Many are happy and get their first choice. I expect many more people to get their top preferences this year than in any other year. We also know it is a day of disappointment for other people. All Members of the House must point out that there are many pathways to get to where one wishes to go. I encourage people to have their plan A for Friday but also to have their plan B, that is, if they do not get their choice to look at what else they might like to do this year. There are many options. They should talk to a teacher or guidance counsellor and get that good advice.

Like the Deputy, I encourage people to look at all the pathways that are available. I am concerned about the students who are contacting me who went through all the options last year. One student, for example, got 517 points. He had to have his grades re-examined and by the time he did so he was too late for a college place this year. It is those students who worked the hardest and gave the highest level of commitment but who were disappointed last year who felt sure they would be getting those places this year. I am concerned about the physical and mental health of these students. We must do everything we can to alleviate that and facilitate them. We also must be looking at the class of 2021 to ensure that we have learned from this year and that these things never happen again.

I agree with much of what the Deputy said. Let us hope a year like this year never happens again. It has been an extraordinary year that nobody could predict. I welcome what the Deputy said. There has been an effort by some, not the Deputy, perhaps to pit one year group against the other. Every student and year group has experienced a difficult impact as a result of the pandemic. The class of 2020 has had a rotten year. The people of 2019 are now concerned. There has been anxiety and stress for everybody. We are all trying to alleviate that as best we can, while accepting that every year there are students who are disappointed that they do not get their choice. We are saying that they may get a second or third choice and there are always ways of moving from one choice to another choice. My strong advice is that they try to get themselves into the system. I note that over 15,000 people last year applied for health and welfare courses and 5,700 or 5,800 got places. Every year people apply for their first choice and do not get it. Some of those who accept their second choice go on to have the careers they wanted. There are always ways to get to where one wishes to go. We are continuing to do what we can to maximise the capacity but, to be honest, we are now very much at the outer limits of the additional capacity we can add to the system this year with the additional 800 places today.

Third Level Costs

Mattie McGrath


23. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the reason full fees are applicable for students in third level institutes when full services are not available to the students, for example, access to libraries and printing facilities; the supports available to students who struggle with online learning due to limited broadband facilities; if he will work with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to introduce protections for students in student accommodation in terms of deposits and refunds in view of the difficulties encountered by many as a result of Covid-19; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22958/20]

In view of what the Minister said, I wish to ask about the situation regarding students returning, college fees being demanded up-front and the students not getting refunds. There is also the fact that there is limited broadband in rural areas. Will the Minister talk to the Minister with responsibility for housing about the huge difficulties with accommodation?

I thank the Deputy for this important question. The short answer is that I will. I have already spoken to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, about this. He was planning a meeting with the Union of Students in Ireland, USI. That either has taken place or will take place shortly. The union has a number of proposals that it wants the Minister to consider and he wants to engage with USI on that. I will support him and the union in any way I can in progressing that.

With regard to students having to pay fees up-front, as I said earlier approximately 44% of people who will go to college this year, or almost half, will have either all or part of their student contribution fee paid through the SUSI grant system. Approximately 2,500 more people applied for the SUSI grant this year, a sign of the times. We have made sure that those grants have been processed as quickly as possible. We have doubled the student assistance fund. This fund is accessed through the local access office. If somebody is having a hard time because he or she used to have a part-time job at the weekend but does not have one now, he or she can seek financial assistance. We have provided funding for laptops. Almost 17,000 laptops will be purchased, and I can send the Deputy a breakdown for his area. These are being sent to the universities and will be there in time for the start of the college year.

On the issue of broadband, I will not take up time by repeating the points I made to Deputy Cairns. I believe there is work we can do in terms of looking at the WiFi access students have on campus and seeing if we can extend that off-site. There are some exciting pilot projects that we can run in the course of the year. I will be happy to meet the Deputy with regard to Tipperary and how we can possibly roll that out there.

In the first instance, I thank the staff in SUSI. They are doing an enormous job and they are under great pressure this year. They have got on top of their game in the last number of years and they do excellent work. I also welcome the leaving certificate results. Everybody involved with that, including the Minister, Deputy Foley, all the staff, families, students and schools, worked together and put their shoulders to the wheel. It was a good outcome.

Covid-19 has changed the issues in the third level sector and those facing families with third level students. The scandalous position students and their families were put in from last March must not be repeated in terms of their lack of protection from unscrupulous accommodation providers. Unfortunately, they exist. The failure of accommodation providers to issue refunds was scandalous. I know that the Department providers did provide refunds, but some private providers did not. That is totally unfair to hard-pressed families. It puts awful pressure on the students and parents. In August, tens of thousands of students and their families were put under pressure to pay the deposit and three months rent up-front. That is shocking in the middle of Covid with people out of work and everything else. Indeed, some colleges told students that they would be on campus and that everything would be working. That was wrong and they should not have done so. They were not available and they should not have given that misleading information. The students clearly were not able to be on campus.

I welcome the Deputy's kind words for the staff of SUSI. I met them last week and it is incredible that almost all of them have to work remotely to keep everybody safe and follow public health guidance. They are still managing to process a serious amount of applications so I join the Deputy in thanking them.

I asked for a note from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government on private accommodation in light of the Deputy's question.

Students who are renting private accommodation under a lease are entitled to the same legal protection as any other tenant. Tenants' rights are set out in the Residential Tenancies Act and information on tenants' rights and responsibilities is available on the website of the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB. Student accommodation licence terms including cost, duration, refund and cancellation policies should be set out in the licence agreement signed at the beginning of the academic year. I have asked higher education institutions to provide flexible renting options for students seeking accommodation and welcome the fact that a number of them are doing so. I also hope that private accommodation providers will show flexibility to students in current times. Quite frankly, I believe we should not be as reliant on private providers as we currently are and I hope we can make progress on increasing college-owned student accommodation in the coming years.

I appeal to the Minister to work with the Minister with responsibility for housing, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, because while there are many good providers, both public and private, there are also rogue operators who make enormous demands of students. Then there is peer pressure, with students worrying that they do not have a place. The scramble for accommodation every year is unbelievable.

I was contacted by a woman in Tipperary whose daughter attended grind school. She worked very hard and achieved a good result in her HPAT selection test, with a view to studying medicine. However, her results were downgraded in four subjects. She knows that her teachers provided better grades and she wants those grades to be provided. She also has an issue with the appeal date. As the Minister knows, the CAO offer of places is on Friday but appeals cannot be submitted until Monday. Can the appeal process be opened earlier? I am sure there are many other people in a similar situation. This is an excellent student who put in huge effort. Her parents supported her with fees for the grind school and everything else but there is an anomaly in the system. We cannot have people in such situations being discriminated against either.

The appeals process and the standardisation is a matter for the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, and I will pass on details of the issue raised by the Deputy regarding that family in Tipperary to her. My understanding is that the appeals process opens on Monday but in addition to that, the marks that teachers gave to students will also be provided to all students from next week. I would make the point that a standardisation process needed to be put in place. We are already dealing with the issue of grade inflation but one can imagine how much more significant that issue would have been had there not been a standardisation.

On the issue of the window, my understanding is that the universities have aligned their own timetables, in terms of start dates and the like, to take into consideration the window of the appeal but I will write to the Deputy to confirm that.

Mental Health Services

Thomas Pringle


24. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the funding which will be made available to each of the third level colleges and institutions to address potential mental health issues that may have arisen in students from the Covid-19 situation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22957/20]

This question relates to the mental health supports that are available to students in the various colleges around the country, particularly in the light of Covid-19 and the extra pressures on young people in terms of their mental health. Studies conducted by USI prior to the Covid-19 outbreak showed that over 25% of students had to wait more than four weeks to see a mental health professional within their colleges. What will be done to make that situation different this year?

I thank Deputy Pringle for raising this important matter, which he also raised with me last week during a debate on these matters. This is a very serious issue and as the Deputy is aware, I have allocated an additional €5 million for mental health supports. Admittedly, €2 million of that was a budget day announcement of additional funding and then a further €3 million was announced as part of the Covid-19 reopening plan, giving a total of €5 million more.

In advance of this question, I got a breakdown by institution in tabular form which I will provide to the Deputy. Of particular interest to Deputy Pringle will be the data for Letterkenny Institute of Technology, which has received an additional €171,000 through the Higher Education Authority, HEA. The purpose of this additional funding, recognising that this is a time of great urgency in terms of student supports, is to increase access to counsellors and psychologists, to implement the consent framework and other initiatives identified in the national student mental health and suicide prevention framework. Student counselling services are the dedicated mental health support services available in all of our institutions. They provide psychological counselling to students experiencing personal adjustment, developmental or psychological problems that require professional attention. They assist students in identifying and learning skills that will help them in effectively meeting their educational and life goals.

The HEA has been assisted by a broad range of stakeholders, including the HSE, the National Office for Suicide Prevention, the Union of Students in Ireland, Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland and institutional representatives, as well as my Department, in preparing the national student mental health and suicide prevention framework, which I intend to publish in the coming weeks. This will provide a further resource, as we start the new academic year, for supporting student mental health. What I am hearing from students across the country is that in general, the quality of mental health supports is very good but as is often the case with mental health, the main issue is access. What we are trying to do with the €5 million is increase the number of professionals in post who can provide services.

As the Minister himself said, access is the key. There is no point in having fantastic mental health services if only 2% of the students who need them can actually access them. USI conducted a survey on access and prior to Covid-19, over 25% of students were waiting more than four to six weeks for mental health supports, which is over half of a term. That was the situation prior to Covid-19 and we are going to see an increase in demand now, given what has been happening. I am doubtful as to whether the €5 million referred to is an actual increase in funding. What will it actually mean in terms of delivering extra services? I do not think it will come anywhere near what is required when one considers that in terms of the rest of the education budget, we are talking about hundreds of millions of euro. A sum of €5 million for mental health seems to be minimal. I hope I am wrong and that it will benefit students because I believe there will be an increase in demand for services this year. We must step up to the mark and make sure that the demand can be met.

It is objectively one of the largest increases we have seen for student mental health services in many years but whether it is enough is always a fair question. Do I want to continue to invest more? Of course I do. The Deputy asked what will happen with the funding and what the institutions will do with it and that is a key question. I have outlined in my answer what we want them to do with the funding. We want them to hire more student counsellors and psychologists and to beef up their services in order that students can get better access to what are, generally, high-quality services. We have given an allocation through the HEA to each individual institution and I will provide the Deputy with the full breakdown by institution. There is a degree of local flexibility in terms of what institutions can do because the situation varies from institution to institution. That said, I am not fond of money going into black holes or out into the ether and having to chase it for ever more so we have asked the HEA to report back on how that money has been spent and I will be able to keep the House updated in that regard.

That is vitally important because we must make sure it meets the needs of the students. Figures from USI indicate that 38.4% of students experienced severe levels of anxiety, 29.9% experienced depression and 17.3% experienced stress. That was in the pre-Covid era so we are going to see an increase in all of that. There is also the added difficulty in reaching students and making services available to them when they are not on campus. We must keep a close eye on this to make sure that the funding provided is actually achieving what it is setting out to achieve. We must monitor it closely because that will be key to service provision.

I assure the Deputy that we will do that. I am more than happy to keep the Deputy and the House updated in that regard.