Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Technological Universities

Verona Murphy


25. Deputy Verona Murphy asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the timeline for the amalgamation of Institute of Technology Carlow and Waterford Institute of Technology to form the Technological University for the South East Ireland. [22600/20]

I seek an update from the Minister on the timeline for the amalgamation of Institute of Technology, IT, Carlow and Waterford IT to form a technological university in the south east of Ireland.

I thank Deputy Verona Murphy for asking this question which she has asked of me many times in the last eight weeks. I know it is a priority for her and for all Oireachtas Members from the south east because it is potentially a transformational project in the context of regional development and access to higher education. I assure the Deputy that it is a priority for me as well. Indeed, the progression of technological universities is a key national strategic objective in terms of advancing the higher education agenda but also in terms of skills, access, research and regional development. The programme for Government specifically references the establishment of a technological university for the south east and it falls on me to do everything within my power to make sure that happens.

Obviously, as autonomous higher education institutions, it remains a matter for the governing bodies of the individual institutions engaged in a consortium seeking technological university designation under the requirements of the Technological Universities Act 2018. The Technological University for the South East Ireland, TUSEI, consortium of IT Carlow and Waterford IT continues to actively develop its application for technological university designation.

As the Deputy knows, in late July I announced that I had appointed Mr. Tom Boland as the independent programme executive director for the TUSEI project. He and his team are now tasked with driving the necessary change management process and ensuring an application is submitted to me under the 2018 Act. I recently met Mr. Boland and this month I will meet him, the presidents of the two relevant institutes of technology and the chairs of their governing boards. When I met Mr. Boland I underlined the Government's expectation that significant progress should be made in the months to year end on developing a robust project plan. It is key to have a project plan with milestones, accountability and implementation with a view to submitting a high quality application under the Technological Universities Act as soon as is feasible. Subject to speaking to the presidents, my understanding at this juncture is that an application is being readied with a view to submitting it by quarter 2 of 2021. In other words, I will need to be in a position to designate this by next summer if we are to go ahead with a commencement date in January 2022. It is my intention and Mr. Boland's intention that 1 January 2022 will be the start date for this new technological university. There is a hell of a lot of work to be done in order to achieve that.

I wish Mr. Boland well in his task. I will be available to assist on the project as a representative of the Wexford constituency. The south east is experiencing a period of significant change due to rapid population increase. In an economy that is diversifying in light of the shifting annual European and global environments, new patterns of population distribution particular to the county as a whole have come about, with easy access to the regions though the road infrastructure being one of the contributing factors. A technological university of international standing will be a key component of the infrastructure which is required to drive sustainable regional economic and social development. In particular, Wexford must have a new university campus in the immediate future to enable the county to retain a trained and highly skilled work force that will attract a fair portion of foreign direct investment which is badly needed there. I envisage that the campus would host the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, courses which are essential as the cohesive force for a centre of knowledge. The Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Communications, Climate Action and Environment already being in situ in Wexford will enable research and innovation to assist such courses in the region. Can the Minister confirm that he is committed to establishing a university campus in Wexford?

Absolutely. It is key to the success of this project that there be a Wexford campus. That has always been the intention and it needs to happen. The consortium recently designed a change management programme and established a project office with three full-time executives and support staff. That office has been working on making progress and updating the draft application which is now being reviewed in the context of the recent success of the Munster technological university consortium application process. In other words, it is learning from technological universities that have already been through the process.

As evidence of the priority attached to this project, I brought a memorandum to the Government on 22 July, informing the Cabinet on the progression of the TUSEI proposals, the appointment of Mr. Tom Boland and the plans that we wish to put in place to create a real momentum around the project. There have been too many false dawns relating to it. We are still aiming for technological university designation on 1 January 2022. That is the goal and the moment of transformation for the south east. There is a significant amount that I can and will do. I will give it a lot of time and energy. There is also a significant amount that we need the individual institutions and the stakeholders in the south east to do. I know they will undertake that significant body of work. Everyone needs to put their shoulders to the wheel and get a lot of heavy lifting done between now and the end of the year.

I am a former student of Carlow IT and have heard the Minister speak at length in recent days regarding further and higher education. I undertook a bachelor of arts degree in law in 2006 as a night student in Carlow IT. As a full-time worker and the mother of a teenage daughter, I would not have had that opportunity if that course was not available. Students from Wexford have access to the Carlow campus but I passionately believe that we need a new technological campus in order to service further and higher education needs, as the Minister stated. Not everyone can take the conventional route and head off to college or university in the big smoke. Particularly in these times of financial strife, parents wish for their children to have the opportunity to stay in their native county to study.

In light of the week that is in it, I am very pleased that Deputy Murphy has told of her experience of the benefits of further education because it can be transformational. There are many pathways to get to where people wish to go. I have heard many stories this week of persons who missed out on a place in university that they desperately wanted. They were disappointed at the time, but did a year in further education and then got a place in university the next year. They benefitted from that year. I encourage everybody in that situation to follow a similar course.

On the Deputy's point regarding regional development and the cost to families, this is another key game changer. We know that the longer people can stay and live in an area, the more likely they are to set up their family there, buy their home there and make their life there. From a balanced regional development approach, these technological universities are potential game changers. I know Deputy Harkin will shortly ask me about a technological university for the north east. The technological universities are key from an educational point of view and if we are serious in this House about regional development and caring about the regions. The days of everyone having to go to the big smoke, as the Deputy called it, in order to access to higher education must come to an end.

Mental Health Services

Brendan Smith


26. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans to provide additional mental health supports to students returning to higher and further education. [22632/20]

I wish the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, well in their very important work. All Deputies are aware that the reopening of schools in recent weeks has shown there is a wide understanding of the strain that Covid-19 has placed on the wellness and mental health of young people and society in general. That strain does not end when a student leaves second level. I ask the Minister to outline what much-needed additional supports will be provided and deployed for students in further and higher education for the coming year.

The Deputy is correct that there has been an effort by some Deputies - not him or me - to pit one generation against another with regard to Covid. The reality is that it has had a serious impact on all generations, including young people. I was very moved by the "Prime Time" television programme broadcast last night which showed all the milestones young people have missed as a result of the pandemic.

It is important, right and proper that the Government invests in helping students to make the transition from school into further or higher education. There are four areas in which we have tried to invest. One is the SUSI grant process and ensuring the applications are being processed and turned around. We have received 2,500 more applications so far. We are also making sure the system is flexible enough to understand that an applicant's family's income may have changed suddenly this year as a result of Covid and that that needs to be factored into the consideration. I have been meeting the staff responsible for SUSI regularly on that issue. The second area of investment relates to the issue of realising one cannot tell a student to pursue online learning without ensuring that he or she has access to a laptop. Families that one might presume could afford to put together several hundred euro in order to secure a laptop may be having difficulty doing so. We have invested €15 million in buying technological devices, including laptops, for students. They are being divvied out among all the institutions and will all be available before the new academic year starts.

We have doubled the student assistance fund. Its funding is usually approximately €8 million per year but this year it will be approximately €16 million. It is a fund which people can go to their local access office to draw down if they fall on hard times, have difficulty with a bill or lose a part-time job. There is €16 million in that fund.

As I outlined to Deputy Pringle, we have allocated an additional €5 million to student mental health, €2 million of which was allocated on budget day for extra spending this year, with the remaining €3 million allocated more as part of the July announcement. That has been divided among the individual institutions through the HEA. They are being asked to focus on hiring more counsellors and psychologists to ensure there are good supports for students. We are continuing to keep a watching brief on this issue. We will keep working with students' unions, listening to staff and putting in more supports as the need arises.

As the Minister stated, Covid is not generational. Rather, it has affected every cohort in society. He referred to SUSI. My colleague, Deputy O'Connor, has tabled a very good question regarding the need for flexibility in respect of some independent students who had to move home and may not have the utility bills for a certain period that are an important part of the application process.

It is an unfortunate reality that September and October usually see an increase in referrals for mental health. It is probably the case that, this year, that increase will be exacerbated by Covid and the uncertainty it has created for all generations. The most recent report on mental health by the Union of Students in Ireland found that a significant cohort of students suffer from depression and anxiety. In the current circumstances, the normal safety nets which exist for students have come under strain. Students who are remote learning to a much greater extent will find it difficult to connect with or spend time with friends. The supports which are available on campuses may not be as obvious in these circumstances. A more proactive approach will be needed to support those students. I ask the Minister to confirm that the supports will become more proactive. We need to ensure that there is connectivity with the students who will be off campus.

I support my colleague. The Minister mentioned a financial package of €5 million for additional student counsellors and to recruit additional psychologists for institutes. I am concerned that the Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board, Cavan Institute and Monaghan Institute will miss out on this very important funding. I ask that the Minister consider this in future allocations. Not every county has a third level institution and the area of further education is equally deserving of investment to create a safe, respectful and supportive environment.

On overhauling SUSI, the programme for Government commits to a fundamental reform to student support structures. I hope we can make progress on this in the coming period.

Deputy Brendan Smith is correct that we must be much more visible in terms of students knowing how to access these supports. I encourage everybody, including every Deputy, to direct people towards yourmentalhealth.ie. For the first time, we have a 24-7 text line for people who are experiencing mental health challenges. We must also talk more about how this pandemic is having an impact on everyone's mental health and well-being. Sometimes students, and everyone else, can feel they are the only ones feeling that way but that is not the case.

I will examine the issue Deputy Niamh Smyth raised regarding Cavan Institute and Monaghan Institute. The counties the Deputies represent, like my county, do not have a university but they do great work through further education. I will talk to SOLAS and revert to the Deputy on the matter.

I assure the Minister that, having fought for them over the years, we now have two very good institutes of further education in Cavan and Monaghan and I am very glad to be associated with the development of both. We would be glad to welcome the Minister and Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, whenever it is suitable.

We are all aware that the members of the class of 2020 have had a very difficult time. They experienced uncertainty with the leaving certificate and will now go to further or higher education colleges. Some of them have not yet received a timetable setting out how much time they will spend on campus and how much will be done through blended learning. Those starting out in college now have particular challenges. They may not get the on-campus experience which is part of lifelong learning and a particular part of learning for that age cohort. We must ensure that students who are off campus are not left behind. We must also avoid an increased drop-out rate among students in further and higher education arising from the additional challenges facing this particular class. These young people have gone through a difficult time as a result of the uncertainty with the leaving certificate. I compliment everyone in the Department of Education and Skills and the Minister, Deputy Foley, on dealing with a very difficult situation. I ask the Minister to ensure this cohort of new students is given particular attention and that additional supports are provided to ensure that as well as blended learning, these students are also able to blend into college life as much as possible.

I look forward to visiting Cavan and Monaghan with the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and seeing the two institutes in question. The Deputy is entirely correct and I have been making the same point to the Irish Universities Association and the education and training boards. One cannot orientate someone into college via Zoom. Students need to be brought in to the college. To be fair, the institutions are positively discriminating, for want of a better phrase, in favour of first year students and often fourth or final year students and those who need to do practical classes. It appears a common sense approach is being taken. To become attached to an institution, students need to be able to visit it and get a feel for the place. This will be a very different college year and some of the normal college experiences the Deputies and I may have had will not be available this year because we have to keep staff, students and their communities safe first and foremost. A different experience should not mean a lesser one, however. That is the challenge we must continue to work with.

All first year students have been given start dates. The Deputy's point about uncertainty provides me with the opportunity to again encourage everyone to get on to some course this year, whether it is in further or higher education or an apprenticeship. The world is very uncertain and the routine and structure of that could be very helpful as we work our way through what will be a difficult few months.

Student Support Schemes

James O'Connor


27. Deputy James O'Connor asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if his attention has been drawn to the dilemma for candidates applying to the SUSI system for doctoral funding as an independent candidate who cannot claim to have been living independently from the previous October due to circumstances in relation to Covid-19; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22639/20]

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment to this new position. I am no stranger to some of the work he is doing in the Department and I wish him well.

This is an incredibly important time for many undergraduates and postgraduates. The lives of all citizens have been changed by Covid-19. Today I highlight the ability of young people to access higher education funding under the SUSI system. Many young people have moved home from across the globe and elsewhere Ireland due to Covid-19. They are now ineligible to be classified as independent candidates under SUSI as they have not been deemed as living independently since the previous October. Does the Minister recognise this dilemma? Has his Department brought forward steps to address this particular issue for doctoral funding?

I congratulate Deputy O'Connor on his election. I think he is the youngest Deputy in the House, as I once was, although I have now reached the ripe old age of 33.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, on which he also wrote to me. The decision on eligibility for student grant applications is a matter for Student Universal Support Ireland. For student grant purposes, students are categorised according to their circumstances either as students dependent on parents or a legal guardian or as independent mature students. A student may be assessed as an independent student, that is, assessed without reference to parental income and address, if he or she has attained the age of 23 on 1 January of the year of first entry to an approved course and is not ordinarily resident with parents from the previous 1 October. Otherwise, he or she is assessed as a dependent student.

A student’s status for grant purposes is defined at his or her first point of entry to an approved further or higher education course or at his or her point of re-entry to an approved course following a break from studies of at least three years, and continues to apply for the duration of his or her studies. Therefore, for students seeking entry to the 2020-21 scheme as independent, 1 October 2019 would be the relevant date for determining their status. This obviously predates the exceptional circumstances arising from the response to Covid-19 earlier in the current year.

Applicants who do not meet the criteria to be assessed as an independent student for grant purposes, or who cannot supply the necessary documentation to establish independent living for the required period, may still apply to SUSI to have their grant eligibility assessed as a dependent student. The relevant information, including details of parental income, would be required.

Students in third level institutions experiencing exceptional financial need can apply for support under the student assistance fund. This fund assists students, in a sensitive and compassionate manner, who might otherwise be unable to continue their third level studies due to their financial circumstances. This can be accessed through the access officer in the third level institution attended. We have doubled the funding in the scheme which is administered on a confidential basis.

I get the sense that Deputy O'Connor has a particular issue on the need for common sense to prevail this year. I would welcome his taking the opportunity to expand on that.

The system to qualify as an independent candidate under SUSI sets a very high bar. Having to live independently since the previous October, and having to be over the age of 23 years when first entering higher education or having a three-year gap in higher education to qualify as an independent candidate, can be very difficult for many families. I do not think we can suggest that these criteria are solely for the purpose of means testing in the current economic climate. I ask the Minister to recognise that the criteria deter young people from continuing in higher education.

Covid-19 has shown the importance of continuing to support research and development. I welcome the creation of the Minister's Department and hope he gets the opportunity to address this problem.

Will the Minister explain further the rationale for the eligibility criteria? What alternative funding has the Department made available or does it plan to make available to meet the current shortfalls? Many young people will continue to pursue higher education if the necessary funding is provided.

I endorse Deputy O'Connor's remarks. I know of people who had to change their plans and move home. They now hope to go on to education but they are unable to produce a utility bill as evidence of independent living. They had to move to their parents' house due to the emergency and that should be taken into consideration.

The determining date will be 1 October 2019 but if it is necessary for me to provide further clarity or assistance on that, I will be happy to do so. Deputy O'Connor makes a valid point. Through this example and other correspondence he has sent me, he highlights the need to overhaul the entire student support scheme. He has asked me to stand over the logic of the system. I can read out long explanations for how the logic was arrived at and why the legal position, underpinned in this House in statute, is in place. However, times change and lives change. The way in which we live our lives changes, as does the education system. That is why, when we negotiated the programme for Government, we included a firm commitment not only to review but to radically overhaul the student support scheme. This is an area I will examine in that context.

Budget 2021 will be announced in October. We cannot do everything in one day but the budget may provide space to carry out the comprehensive review of the student support scheme over the coming months. The student assistance fund is the alternative funding available in the meantime, which we have doubled to €16 million this year.

I thank the Minister for that information. I appreciate that he is going to review the Student Support Act 2011. This is an opportunity for the Minister to think outside the box and look at what other countries are doing to provide funding for PhD candidates. The Netherlands offers a very interesting example, which is very different to Ireland. PhD candidates there are treated as employees of their university or third level institution. Perhaps there is an opportunity for us to look at alternative ways of addressing this problem that could be sustained in the future, not just during the pandemic. Now is the time for radical action on this. The Minister himself has said this is an issue. I look forward to working with him on it in the future. I sincerely hope that in the next number of weeks, he will take the time to address the problems I have outlined to him today.

I thank Deputy O'Connor. I am more than willing to work with the Deputy on this, knowing his knowledge, interest and past experience in the area. I assure him that we will look to best practice in other countries. I hope the establishment of our new Department provides an opportunity to bring a new focus and energy to these issues in a way that may not have been humanly possible when they were part of the broader remit of the Department of Education and Skills.

The Deputy's implied point about precarious employment is a very valid one. We are beginning to see the impact of that in several areas. I refer particularly to the issue of harassment, which has been discussed in recent days. I have heard that precarious employment often leaves people feeling very vulnerable in certain scenarios. That is not good enough. I will certainly look at the issues the Deputy refers to concerning the treatment of PhD students and how they can be protected and offered a degree of security and certainty.

Student Support Schemes

Marian Harkin


28. Deputy Marian Harkin asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the supports being put in place to support third level students returning to education to ensure their health and well-being during these challenging times. [22644/20]

I thank the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. My question concerns mental health and well-being. That has already been interrogated very thoroughly by Deputies Brendan Smith and Pringle. Rather than going over the same ground again, I would like to ask about the 2,700 additional places the Minister referred to and the further 800 that have been announced. The services are already overstretched and under-resourced. Is the Minister confident that the new funding he is allocating will help to deal with this problem?

I thank the Deputy for her willingness not to repeat the debate we have had. I know the issue of mental health is very serious and important. Some €121,000 will be allocated to IT Sligo and €164,000 will be allocated to Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT. I will provide the Deputy with a full breakdown of the funding by institution. The additional places we have announced in recent days will come with additional resources. We will not ask the institutions to provide these services for free. I do not say that in a flippant way. We will provide them with the funds and resources necessary for those students. Roughly speaking and from memory, the 1,250 extra places will come at a full-year cost of €12 million. An incremental cost will arise from the 800 extra places I have announced this morning.

The point the Deputy has made is a very fair one. This is all a question of balance. We are asking our universities, along with everybody else, to live and work in a very different way. We are asking them to maintain social distancing and offer blended learning. When the intake of students is increased, that challenge becomes harder. The higher education institutions have come up with these figures. We have not dictated what they will provide from Dublin. Because of the extraordinary year, we have asked them to look at the full resources of their campuses to determine whether they can safely provide any more spaces. The latest figure of 800 represents what they can do. Let me be truthful with this House and with students and parents throughout the country. There will not be capacity to do more beyond the announcements made this morning and last week. That is an honest evaluation of our position.

I thank the Minister. I have spoken to Sligo IT's representatives and the €120,000 will be most welcome and useful. That will mostly be used for mental health services but it will also go to other areas like access. I hear what the Minister is saying. The services were already overstretched. With the increased intake of students and the particularly difficult year students have had, we must seriously consider increasing resources for mental health services, perhaps in the budget or later.

I would like to raise another point which is directly related to mental health and well-being, namely, gender-based violence in third level institutions. I know this is an issue close to the Minister's heart. It certainly contributes significantly to issues of poor mental health and well-being at third level. A recent survey found that more than 6,000 students, mostly female, reported rape during their time in college. That is absolutely shocking. Some 10% of males and 28% of non-binary students have had the same experience. How is the Minister addressing this issue in the specific context of mental health?

I thank Deputy Harkin for raising this issue. We can talk about mental health in a general sense, and it is important that we do so, but the sexual harassment and sexual violence taking place in our institutions must be called out by all of us. It is an issue for both students and staff. I intend to approach this with a degree of priority and focus that may not have been there in the past. My predecessor, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, started some really good work on this issue and I want to build on that.

I have several ministerial vacancies on governing authorities. Starting as early as today, the type of people I will appoint to those governing authorities will send a very clear message to anybody in a leadership position. My representatives, the representatives of the people of Ireland on those governing authorities, will be there to keep an eye on those issues and ask questions in that regard. We must do more. Our general frameworks are important but how they are implemented in the institutions is key. I have written to each university president to state that within six months, he or she must produce an action plan for dealing with this issue in his or her institution. The HEA will oversee its implementation. This is a big issue. It is not confined to third level, but it is a challenge in this sector and we must address it.

Everyone has been very co-operative. If we continue to be co-operative, more people will have time to ask their questions.

I will be briefer this time, because I did run over slightly. The Minister has said he will call this out. Recent media reports have shown that this is not confined to the student body, but extends to lecturers, professors etc. It is a problem throughout the sector. Calling it out is fine and I take the Minister's point about governing bodies. That will matter. However we will also need resources and programmes to help those who have been victims of gender-based violence and to prevent any incidences of such violence on third level campuses. Again, I point out to the Minister the importance of resources devoted specifically to this.

There is a reason I have asked for several actions to be taken by the group chaired by the National Women's Council of Ireland in advance of planning for the coming budgetary year. I want to do more. Funding for third level institutions also comes from research agencies such as Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council. We must make sure those agencies are aware of any allegations of wrongdoing on the courses they fund. Let us be honest - we must ensure a linkage between people getting on top of this issue and levels of funding. That is why I want the HEA to have an oversight role. I do not want this to be done in-house. I want action plans to be published, with metrics that can be measured by the HEA. Later this year we will introduce the general scheme of legislation on the governance of this whole sector to the House. I hope we can all work on that together to achieve the necessary increases in oversight. I have not lived under a rock for my whole life but the prevalence of this issue is causing me significant concern. However it is not beyond us to get on top of this and bring about the cultural change that we need. I accept that this will require resources.

Third Level Fees

Richard Boyd Barrett


29. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans to abolish third level registration fees in view of the fact that many students will not be attending lectures as normal, will have extra IT costs due to online learning and will find it more difficult to find work; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22648/20]

By any standard, the students who enter higher education in 2020 will have a very greatly diminished student experience. Against that background, it is completely unjustifiable to charge the highest student contribution fee in Europe. It is completely unjustifiable to charge students anything at all but to charge them €3,000 a year when they have no ability to get part-time work, their family incomes may have been hit and they will have a diminished student experience is unacceptable. The Minister should abolish or dramatically reduce those fees.

I am aware of Deputy Boyd Barrett's views on this. I intend to address the funding for higher education, an issue that has been avoided for many years. A new Government and a new Department provide that opportunity. Issues around the registration fee are decided on through the budgetary process. I hope the Deputy will acknowledge that I have taken several measures to provide students with additional resources to meet the costs they face. We have doubled the student assistance fund, a progressive measure by any standards, from €8 million a year to €16 million a year; introduced the first dedicated technology fund to purchase 17,000 laptops for students; and increased mental health supports by €5 million, with a further €3 million included in the budget day announcement.

The previous Oireachtas was asked to look at the issue of the Cassells report and decided to ask for an economic evaluation of all the options. That work is due to be concluded at the start of 2021 and I will act on the findings. I do not believe we should go down the route of levelling students with lots of debt as they start out and I am not convinced that the student loan model works, either. More Exchequer funding is the general direction of travel. We increased Exchequer funding from €1.4 billion in 2015 to €1.8 billion in 2018. The cost of providing education will be higher this year. In a Covid world where we have to have fewer people on campus, a different way of doing things, IT licenses and all that, the cost will go up. We are not increasing the student contribution fee. I would like it reduced over the lifetime of the Government. There is a budget next month and, in the meantime, we are targeting a lot of additional resources at students most in need.

Germany, Iceland, France, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Slovenia and the Czech Republic have no student contribution fees. Spain, a country that was hammered by austerity, has an annual student contribution fee of €500 yet we are charging €3,000. Now we are going to be charging that for a hugely diminished third level experience for the class of 2020. Any additional funding is welcome but the key metric is funding per student. Under various Fine Gael Governments, that has dropped by 43%. The numbers in higher education are going up. They have doubled since 2000 and another 40,000 additional students in higher education are projected over the next decade. The actual funding per student has crashed. If the Minister wants to know why there is a mental health difficulty, at least part of the answer is the enormous pressure and stress, financial and otherwise, put on students because of the chronic underfunding of higher education.

We both agree on the need to increase funding for higher education. Let us be honest, though. Approximately 80% of the higher education budget is going on fixed staff costs and that is right and proper. The Deputy would be the first to tell me if that was not being addressed. We cannot pretend that the cost of providing the education system this year is decreasing, in fact, it is increasing. What we can do is look at ways of providing support. One of the things that is never said in these debates is that 44% of students in Ireland have their student contribution fee in full or in part paid through the Exchequer. Not every student is paying the student contribution fee. Some 44% of people are not; the most vulnerable, most disadvantaged and lowest income people are not paying it. I want to review the student supports and see how we can take more people out of the net of paying the contribution fee. Work is under way in that regard.

I just pointed out a number of European countries where they do not have a contribution fee. That is the standard we should reach rather than having the highest fees. The level of investment per student in this country for most categories of students is less than the amount of public investment into horses. I like horses but I prefer students. I think they are more important and they add something very significant over their lifetimes additional to Exchequer revenues and so on. We need to dramatically increase the investment. Where could the Minister get it? I will give him a simple idea. I have said this many times. Some €700 million and rising is going in research and development tax relief to a handful of multinational corporations that are already supremely profitable. Has anybody done a cost-benefit analysis of whether that €700 million is better going to Google, Facebook and Apple or to our public universities? I bet no one has but we should. I think we would find it would be a lot more socially and economically beneficial to this country.

I like horses and I too prefer students. That is why as Minister with responsibility for further and higher education within the first eight weeks in the job the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and I have made a number of measures and initiatives to significantly increase the supports going to students. The model we have in place at the moment ensures that those on the lowest incomes, those most at risk of disadvantage, do not pay student contribution fees. We almost have a situation where nearly half of our students are not paying a contribution fee at all. I want to look at how we can build on that and how we can build a sustainable model based on public funding. There is a review due back at the start of next year which we have commissioned with the European Commission. It will provide us with a pathway as to how we can address this issue which, in my view, due to political cowardice across the divide has been avoided for far too long.

Third Level Education

Thomas Gould


30. Deputy Thomas Gould asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans to incentivise young persons typically excluded from higher education due to socioeconomic status to engage in education past school in view of the high youth unemployment rates. [22606/20]

In light of recent high figures of unemployment, I ask the Minister of State his plans to incentivise young people typically excluded from higher education due to socioeconomic status to engage in education past school. Covid-19 has shone a serious light on the need to get young people into higher education to improve their chances of employment and the quality of that employment and to break the cycle of poverty.

I thank the Deputy for his question. My priority is to offer accessible and inclusive further and higher education and training for all. Supporting inclusion is one of the three key pillars around which the new further education and training, FET, strategy is built and the core vision of the national access plan for equity of access to higher education is to ensure that the student body in higher education at all levels reflects the diversity and socioeconomic mix of Ireland's population.

A number of direct financial supports are in place across further and higher education to incentivise young people to continue to engage in education past school whatever their socioeconomic status. These include the payment of income support in place of social welfare in FET, the student grant scheme and the student assistance fund. In July, the Government announced an additional €168 million funding package for further and higher education, which includes €15 million allocated to technology devices for students, a doubling of the student assistance fund, €3 million extra funding for mental health services for students and more funding for students with disabilities. The July stimulus package offers a €200 million investment in training and education. Under this package the Government is making available 35,000 additional places in further and higher education, and introducing the apprenticeship incentivisation scheme to support employers to take on new apprentices.

I would encourage young learners to contact the free and confidential guidance services available through the education and training boards and the access offices and guidance services in higher education institutions to explore their options.

We have heard an announcement here about additional places in third level to be offered to students. Will students be included who are exploring alternative routes to third level through schemes like the higher education access route, HEAR, for socioeconomically disadvantaged students or the disability access route to education, DARE, scheme for students with additional needs? These are wonderful schemes and it is important this year especially that they are not excluded from the new plans. Covid-19 has shone a light on the disadvantage that people face. On youth unemployment figures, more than 13,100 people under the age of 24 were unemployed in July. That is getting more people into third level education is vital at this stage.

The Deputy is right. No student or anybody seeking education or further training should be excluded. Certainly what myself and the Minister, Deputy Harris, are working towards is providing more places right across the whole range of disciplines, apprenticeships and courses. I just want to point out to the Deputy that the youth guarantee is a commitment by all member states of the EU to ensure that all young people under the age of 25 are offered good quality employment, continued education, apprenticeship or traineeship within a period of four months of becoming unemployed or leaving formal education. Under the youth guarantee, young people under the age of 18 who have left school without completing secondary education or who have failed to find employment should be provided with a second chance.

I accept some of the points the Minister of State made. For the people I represent, sometimes the barrier to education is not just points. There are many more issues that affect people.

There are transport, accommodation and finance considerations, and people who are involved with care-giving duties. In the area I represent, only 10% of the people who go to third level education consider themselves from disadvantaged areas. My constituency includes a rural area and a city. Across the constituency, there are different types of people at third level. We need to get more people into third level education. The experience of people living in areas where people do not typically go to third level is that when they go to third level they feel isolated and alone. We need to work with these young people to ensure they can stay on at third level.

I agree with the Deputy. The experience of people in the area I represent, which is predominantly rural but close to the urban setting of Limerick city, is similar. We have some larger towns and people in my constituency have experienced and articulated to me some of the challenges Deputy Gould outlined.

The Youthreach programme is very important. Many of the people we speak of are younger people who have left school for various reasons. The programme is delivered in two ways, namely, through Youthreach centres and community training centres, which are doing some very good work. I encourage those who have issues with access to use this avenue.

The Deputy raised the issue of barriers. The back to education initiative provides part-time and further education training programmes for young people and adults who have left full-time education with less than an upper second level qualification. That support and help is there for people also.

I thank the Minister of State. With the Minister's co-operation we will get two more questions in.

Technological Universities

Verona Murphy


31. Deputy Verona Murphy asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the status of the progress of the Connacht and Ulster alliance of Sligo Institute of Technology, Galway and Mayo Institute of Technology and Letterkenny Institute of Technology on forming a technical university. [22602/20]

I am the spokesperson for the Regional Group and obviously our interest is in the regions. Will the Minister give an update on the progress of the Connacht-Ulster alliance of Sligo IT, Galway and Mayo IT and Letterkenny IT on forming a technological university?

I thank Deputy Murphy for the question. I am sure she will not mind me also acknowledging that Deputy Marian Harkin raised this with me earlier in the interests of her constituency.

The establishment of technological universities, including a technological university in the Connacht-Ulster region, is an important part of the Government’s higher education policy as underscored in the programme for Government. Technological universities will provide increased choices for students, an enhanced student experience and greater access for students in tackling educational disadvantage, with technological universities offering a broad range of higher education provision from apprenticeship to doctoral degrees. Technological universities will also support an increased intensity of research-informed teaching and learning and research activity, which will provide increased opportunities for collaboration with industry, attraction of foreign direct investment, retention and expansion of skills and, crucially, deliver regional development and socioeconomic benefits to the region.

Under the statutory framework detailed in the Technological Universities Act 2018, it is a matter, in the first instance, for the relevant institutes of technology participating in a technological university consortium to progress their plans and, when ready, to make an application to the Minister seeking an order establishing a technological university subject to their meeting the eligibility criteria prescribed in the 2018 Act.

The Connacht-Ulster alliance of GMIT, LYIT and IT Sligo has advised my Department that it is making significant progress towards meeting the relevant technological university criteria and it is understood that the alliance plans to submit an application under the relevant legislative procedure by the end of this year. It is working its way through that. The governing bodies met in November 2019 to accelerate their proposals. The consortium has to date received €5.9 million in Exchequer funding through the higher education landscape funding to assist in its technological university development proposals. A steering group is in place along with four working groups and 19 sub-groups, involving more than 150 staff and students from across the range of the consortium. A huge amount of work is under way. My message to everybody is that we need this train to leave the station soon. We need the delivery of this technological university for the north west.

I thank the Minister. Technological university status is essential, as is having third level education remain in the region. It must happen sooner rather than later. A technological university of the west and north-west will be one of the largest multi-campus universities on the island, bringing together students, enterprise and communities spanning a unique geographical region in transition on the periphery of Europe, which has a predominantly dispersed rural population. Until that university status is achieved, which will allow for further future independent development financially, will the Minister commit to ensuring the alliance is completed in the quickest possible timeframe?

I spoke to the Minister earlier on this. I believe that the Connacht-Ulster alliance is on target to reach the qualifying metrics. I have two brief points. Extra intake of students means the metrics will change slightly with higher numbers required. The Minister might take this into consideration because it could happen that by the tiniest margin some colleges might not reach the qualifying metrics. There are three colleges - and I earnestly hope all three will reach the criteria as it would be brilliant for the region - but if it were to happen that only two reached the qualifying metrics this year, I hope those two colleges could go ahead and the third could join at an appropriate time.

I thank Deputies Murphy and Harkin. I note those metrics and will reflect on them. In the period between now and December the Connacht-Ulster alliance plans to finalise its memorandum of understanding with the Teachers Union of Ireland; hold monthly meetings with representatives of professional management and support staff; verify key achievements of technological university criteria and metrics; consider the final reports from their due diligence consultants; continue internal and external communications and consultations as part of stakeholder engagement; prepare business process alignment, including for IT services; and finalise and submit an application for technological university designation to me under the Technological Universities Act 2018 at the end of this year. Clearly there is a lot of work going on and I commend the alliance on that. The main issue for the consortium relates to attainment of the research-related eligibility criteria under the Act, and it is working towards achieving that objective. Currently, the research metric is at 3.4% but I am informed that projections for enrolments in September indicate achievement of this metric. The consortium believes it is in a good place in that regard. Processes are also in place to quantify and document the achievement of staff qualifications. I will keep the Deputies informed.

I will not labour the point other than to say that the region has a predominantly dispersed rural population. The need for the technological university will provide a critical mass in academic debt to attract, educate, nurture and retain the region's workforce post education, and to ensure job security for the future for the region.

Further and Higher Education

Bernard Durkan


32. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the extent to which he remains satisfied regarding the adequacy of the number of suitably qualified science and technical graduates to meet the continued requirements of the workplace; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22626/20]

This question relates to the ready availability of suitably qualified graduates, academic and technical, to meet the requirements of the workplace.

I thank Deputy Durkan for the question. There is an exciting opportunity with the creation of this new Department. For the first time, we are bringing further and higher education together with research, innovation and science. This is an education Department but it is also a business Department. It is about trying to get those two working together. Education is about a lot more than just business but it is also important, as we invest more and more in education - and we need to do more - that we continue to ensure we produce the graduates and skills we need now and for the future.

The tertiary education system has a number of key strategies in place at all levels to ensure we meet existing and future skills demands. These include policies designed to ensure a pipeline of suitably qualified science and technical graduates, and initiatives to equip young people and the working population more generally, with the skills and capacity to meet these demands. These strategies and initiatives include the National Skills Strategy 2025, Technology Skills 2022, Springboard+ and the human capital initiative.

Deputy Durkan will also be aware of the focus we put on this in the July stimulus package with investment in more places in these areas. We have allocated 1,450 additional higher education places this year specifically targeted at areas of keys and demand needs in the economy including in science, ICT and engineering. I could not agree more with the Deputy. I am satisfied the strategies are in place but as is always the case with strategies, it is about implementation.

Is the Minister satisfied that in future years the effect of Covid-19 will not materially affect the supply of qualified academic and technical graduates to the workplace?

I am satisfied that the great work done by the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Department of Education and Skills ensured that this year we could have a calculated grades system that provided a pathway from second level education to third level education.

That will ensure that the pipeline of high quality graduates in key areas continues and that there is not paralysis for a year, which is good. I am also encouraged by the fact that more and more young people are now talking about science and seeing science in action. More and more people want to be the next Professor Luke O'Neill, Professor Kingston Mills, Dr. Ronan Glynn or Dr. Tony Holohan. As we talk further about the pandemic and Covid and its impact, I hope a new generation will become excited to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, subjects. I also hope it will excite and encourage more women and girls to take up those places.

Sin deireadh le ceisteanna chun an Aire breisoideachais agus ardoideachais, taighde, nuálaíochta agus eolaíochta. Nach iontach na hainmneacha atá ag na Ranna Stáit nua seo?