Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Student Accommodation

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

73. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the mechanisms he has explored to ensure students in both on-campus and off-campus accommodation will receive full refunds for unused accommodation; the institutes of higher education and accommodation providers that have agreed to give refunds; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31711/20]

It will be no surprise to the Minister that my question relates to accommodation. I will focus on the issue of on-campus accommodation because it is unimaginable that students have been left wondering whether publicly funded institutions will give them refunds for accommodation they are prevented from using. Students secured accommodation based on assurances from the Government and institutes of higher education and, understandably, they believe they have been misled. Some colleges have indicated they will give refunds, which I welcome. I believe University College Cork, the National University of Ireland, Maynooth and the National University of Ireland Galway have stated they will, while others have indicated they will not. Will the Minister update us on which universities he has officially contacted in this regard and on what response he has received?

Since I submitted this question, we have been told we will move to level 5. What will level 5 mean for students and should they expect not to get refunds for accommodation fees? My understanding is that most students will now be prevented from using the accommodation they have paid for.

I am conscious of the challenges faced by students regarding student accommodation this year due to both financial pressures and the blended learning format of the 2020-21 academic year, which Deputy Conway-Walsh rightly mentioned. Responding to these issues is a significant matter of concern for me and my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, and we are examining how accommodation providers can be encouraged to show greater flexibility to students during this challenging time.

The Deputy acknowledged that the university sector is engaging with these issues. Following the decision to minimise on-site teaching, five of the seven universities have confirmed that students who do not wish to proceed with their booking in university-owned student accommodation can cancel it without charge, while those who opt to leave their accommodation will receive refunds. I am awaiting confirmation of the policies of the remaining two, Trinity College and Dublin City University, DCU, but have made it very clear in meetings with the representative bodies of universities and institutes of technology, in the presence of student representatives, that the Government's position is that university-owned accommodation refunds should be provided. I am aware that DCU has adopted a flexible model whereby students can book and pay for accommodation for a number of days and nights rather than a full semester, which seems to be an intelligent way to do it. I also understand that at DCU, in cases where students paid a deposit but chose not to take up the accommodation, they will have the deposit refunded in full. I will continue to liaise with the sector through the Irish Universities Association to encourage the availability of fair solutions for students in university-owned student accommodation.

For students in the private rental market, I am urging providers to be flexible in finding solutions given the circumstances that students find themselves in. There are, however, no powers directly available to me under the current legal framework for private accommodation. Refund or cancellation policies in student accommodation should be set out in the licence agreement signed at the beginning of the academic year and, in the first instance, students should engage with their accommodation provider to try to reach an arrangement. I have asked my Department to continue to engage with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to monitor and report to me on developments and further actions that could be taken.

I welcome the fact that five of the seven universities have indicated they will provide refunds, although it is important that they are provided in a timely way. I urge the Minister to seek a commitment from Trinity College and DCU in that regard because it would go some way towards reassuring students. Third level students have suffered from a great deal of uncertainty in respect of their education, and while some of that is unavoidable, increasingly the students with whom I have engaged believe that much of it was not. They feel that the Department has overpromised and have noted that timetables were not issued until accommodation had been paid for. I have been advising students since July not to pay for accommodation upfront. One area in which we can provide certainty is that of accommodation and by acknowledging the financial stress it is causing.

Will the Minister commit that all colleges and associated accommodation providers will be instructed by the Department to provide full refunds at any student's request in respect of unused accommodation? We need to get the issue off the table once and for all, and the Minister needs to state that all campus accommodation will be refunded and when that will happen. The providers need to communicate with students in an accurate, honest and truthful way to let them know.

I want university-owned accommodation fees to be refunded where students cannot use the accommodation, or at least fair solutions to be found.

I have said that in crystal clear language to representative bodies on a number of occasions. I have also said it in the presence of Union of Students in Ireland, USI, representatives. It is my position and that of the Government and I expect it to happen swiftly. I welcome the progress that has been made and I accept there is more that needs to be done.

I will take the Deputy up on her offer to outline to the House what level 5 means for students and universities because that is important. Level 5 measures designate higher and further education as essential, insofar as on-site presence is required and such educational activities cannot be held remotely. This is not March in that we are not locking the doors of our universities as we did then. In overall terms, all further and higher education institutions should continue to deliver the vast majority of classes online. We all recognise that but reflecting the scale, diversity and variety of third level provision, higher and further education institutions are best to determine where on-site presence is required and my Department has been engaging with unions, student representatives and university leaders on this.

Teaching and research in laboratories, practical and skill-based tuition, workshops, including training of apprenticeships, engagements, including small groups of learners where learners might be vulnerable or require additional support, and scheduled access to libraries, which is very important for our students, are the sort of things that can continue on-site but the public health advice is that most should be done online.

Is the Minister's advice to students who are on campus at the moment to stay on campus within the bubbles they are working in?

I want to put it on record that I am deeply concerned about the quality of the education experience that students are undergoing at the moment. I do not want us to run into a situation months down the line where we find there are huge dropout rates. That will have a significant mental and physical health impact on students. We need to take a grip of it now and acknowledge that there is a problem there. We know the problems there are with online learning as it is but we know from research we have done that the education experience students are having right now is deeply worrying. We need to face up to it, deal with it and support those students collectively in that.

I agree with the Deputy that, in particular when it comes to things like mental health and well-being, we need to be really aware of these things. We need to support them and invest more in them and that is what we are doing. I also hope she will agree with me that we need to learn from the mistakes other jurisdictions have made where large numbers of students returned to campus and we saw what happened in terms of outbreaks of the virus. We need to be very careful and put the health and safety of staff, students and communities first. I know that is what students are saying. They have been extraordinarily responsible and helpful, contrary to the stereotypes that we hear from time to time. The USI campaign has been very helpful and it has worked with the Chief Medical Officer. Students asked me for certainty, as did university lecturers and staff. We now have certainty in terms of what this semester looks like. It is not what we would like it to look like and I accept the Deputy's challenge. I put this up to the universities. We have put a lot of extra money into mental health. The Deputy would argue we should do more and I take that point but I want to make sure that our students can continue to access that even if it is remotely. Things like mental health and the student assistance fund are now much better resourced than they were but we need to make sure the student who is at home can still access that support and our colleges need to reach out in that regard.

Student Support Schemes

Mick Barry

Question:

74. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his views on whether legislative change is required to ensure that all students who are long-term residents and or born here but who are not Irish, EEA, Swiss or UK nationals will be eligible for the free fees scheme to apply for SUSI grants and to be considered EU students in relation to fees; if he will undertake a review of the situation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31318/20]

The question asks the Minister his views on whether legislative change is required to ensure that all students who are long-term residents and-or born here but who are not Irish, EEA, Swiss or UK nationals will be eligible for the free fees scheme to apply for Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants and to be considered EU students in relation to fees; if he will undertake a review of the situation; and make a statement on the matter.

I thank Deputy Barry for this question. This is an area I have taken an interest in since taking up office. The fee payable by a student varies depending on a variety of factors, including the type of course and the student's access route, including previous education. The Department of Justice and Equality adjudicates on a person's entitlements to remain in the State and on the stamp that is awarded where permission to remain is sanctioned, the granting of certain permissions to reside in the State conveys certain rights, as provided for in legislation, including access to education in line with the rights of an Irish citizen. However, some permissions do not convey such entitlements. Determinations of these permissions are a matter for the Department of Justice and Equality and outside the direct remit of my Department.

The free frees initiative and the SUSI support system have been adapted in line with the enactment of legislation, with the most recent changes following the introduction of the International Protection Act 2015. The rules of the respective schemes are cognisant of the importance of access to third level education. My Department also operates an administrative-based student support scheme for asylum seekers which provides supports along similar lines to the SUSI grant scheme. This scheme was introduced in 2015 and is available to persons who are asylum applicants, subsidiary protection applicants or leave to remain applicants. Following a review of the 2019 scheme, I announced in August an amendment of the rules and the objective to have that scheme placed on a long-term footing. These changes were welcomed by the Irish Refugee Council. The requirement for prospective applicants to have attended three academic years in the Irish school system and to have obtained the leaving certificate in the State will no longer be required. Prospective applicants, however, will still have to meet the requirement to have been in the protection or leave to remain process for three years. It is an important step but we need to do more.

To directly answer the Deputy's question as to whether legislative change would be required, I believe it would be based on what I have just set out. I also note the work of the advisory group on the provision of support. The Deputy will be aware that Cabinet considered that today and my understanding is it is likely to be launched tomorrow. My Department will be guided by the commitment in the programme for Government to publish a White Paper on international protection issues by the end of this year so I expect will make further progress on this, guided by said White Paper.

The issue is that there are young people in schools in this country who were born and have grown up in this country and who, because of a racist referendum in 2004 and the legislation introduced on foot of it the following year, do not have Irish citizenship. As a result of this, they do not have an automatic entitlement to free fees under the SUSI scheme. This may have been an academic question until now but some of those young people are now 15, knocking on the door of 16, and very soon will be wanting to go to college. The annual fee in University College Cork to do nursing is €4,106 for someone who is an EU national and €16,264 for someone who is not. These young people are going to be effectively barred in the vast majority of cases from a third level education unless something is done about this as a matter of urgency. Will the Minister comment on the situation I have outlined in that example?

I will comment on it very clearly. I do not think it is fair or right and I want to fix it. My views on this are clear. I know one of the students the Deputy speaks of. It is the well-known case of Eric, the boy from Bray who some Department official thought it was a good idea to send him back of China. Eric had never been to China. He is as Irish as the rest of us but he was caught in this legal limbo situation. I agree with the Deputy that we need to address that as a country.

What I did almost immediately on taking office was to make changes to the student support scheme for asylum seekers, changes the Irish Refugee Council had sought for years and that have been welcomed. Do I believe that is the end of the matter? No. Do I believe we need to do more? Yes. How do I intend to go about that? My Department will feed into the development of the White Paper on international protection that the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, will lead on and which will be published by the end of the year.

The Minister gave the example of Eric, which was a well-known case of about two or two and a half years ago involving a potential deportation. It may not apply to Eric directly but there are people in a similar situation to Eric who will face being effectively barred from going to third level education for financial reasons unless the law is changed. The Minister seemed to indicate it needs legislative change. The clock is ticking on this.

My supplementary question is on the issue of young people who were not born here but have grown up here and are part of Irish society and Irish communities. There is an estimated 2,000 to 6,000 undocumented children living in the State. Is the Minister open to the idea that legislative change would include rights in this regard, not just for children born in the State, but for people who have lived here for a number of years?

I have a Bill which specifies three years. Something of that kind is required. Will the Minister comment on that?

I am the Minister with responsibility for higher education and believe that providing everybody with an opportunity to access higher education is a good thing. I believe there is a societal and economic good and that is where we should be trying to get to. Obviously, I have to fit my Department's work into a broader piece of work that needs to be done and was being done previously by the Department of Justice and Equality and is now to be done by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, led by the relevant Minister, Deputy O'Gorman.

I met representatives of the Irish Refugee Council recently on this matter and we agreed to reconvene my discussions with them on the publication of the expert group report which, I understand, is due to be published tomorrow. I will make arrangements within the next four weeks to meet the Irish Refugee Council again in the light of the report of the export group and the work the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, will be leading on the White Paper which is due to be published by the end of the year. I am conscious we are now in October so the White Paper is due to be published in the next eight or nine weeks. I will be happy to engage further with the Deputy then.

Student Support Schemes

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

75. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the steps taken to ensure all third level students have access to internet connectivity to allow them to participate in their online education; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31712/20]

My question relates to access to broadband. If students are being asked to study remotely, they need access to the Internet. Many students are currently lost as to how they will get that access. One in six third level students comes from an area with poor broadband coverage. I know that the Minister will say that the Government has provided laptops for them but there remains the issue of connectivity. That is a real issue and barrier for third level students accessing what we are asking of them in order to do their courses online.

The Deputy makes a fair point. It is one of the reasons I very much welcome the fact that, on the advice of public health, we can keep access to college libraries and the likes open, albeit on a scheduled and organised basis, because there may be some students in this country who decide they would rather remain in accommodation they have organised near the campus and continue to access those sorts of facilities. It has been, and is, a significant priority for me in the context of the shift to online teaching and learning that has arisen from public health restrictions to provide support to students to facilitate connectivity and examine options designed to seek to minimise the extent to which connectivity challenges can act as a barrier to full participation in higher and further education.

On engagement with the Union of Students in Ireland, I made it clear that the student assistance fund can be used to meet connectivity costs. Without getting into all the technological solutions, I agree with the Deputy that giving someone a laptop that they cannot access the Internet on is not enough. As part of the package of financial supports, we provided funding to purchase ICT devices and, in addition to that, we have significantly increased the student assistance fund which can be used to meet connectivity costs.

The big piece is obviously the delivery of the national broadband plan but in the interim, there are initiatives across a number of Departments to facilitate connection through community-based broadband hubs and liaison with telecommunication providers on packages, including unlimited data.

It is also worth noting that, at present, HEAnet provides a WiFi solution, Eduroam, designed by and for the higher education community which operates across education locations nationally. Eduroam allows a student to access WiFi wherever Eduroam is broadcast, enabling a student to seamlessly roam from one Eduroam location to another. HEAnet is currently working on options to extend the reach of Eduroam beyond the traditional campus locations to areas such as public transport, libraries, cafés and other public spaces. An extended Eduroam footprint would greatly overcome connectivity challenges and facilitate staff and students in effective teaching and learning activities. HEAnet has already made progress in this regard, with Eduroam now available at many teaching hospitals and several public libraries.

I recently chaired a meeting between HEAnet and relevant Departments and public sector bodies to explore the potential for further pilot projects that could be done quickly in the coming weeks and months. I anticipate receiving an update on that in the next fortnight or so which I will be happy to share with the Deputy.

I was looking for that update because there are people who are being told right now that it will be three to five years before they will get the connectivity they need in order to be able to study online. Could unused on-campus accommodation be offered at a subsidised rate to students who have no Internet connectivity at home? That accommodation should also be looked at for students whose home lives are not conducive to them participating fully in third level education. We need to find innovative ways around all of this to make sure that things are accessible.

I am also concerned that students are being charged for the use of digital hubs that have been publicly funded. One student I spoke to last week is being charged €50 a month for that service. Surely it cannot be right that we publicly fund those hubs and then seek to charge students at the same time.

I will check that issue and revert to the Deputy on it.

Among the potential sites for the proposed pilots to which I referred a moment ago are broadband connection points, public libraries, museums, municipal buildings, public transport, airports, some of which are already being availed of in that regard, and public areas. In other words, we should try to light up anywhere that is within the remit of the State or its agencies with access to Eduroam. That way, wherever our students or staff are, they can log on and access material as through they were on campus.

HEAnet is also going to explore with private commercial enterprises the possibility of making Eduroam available in time through public WiFi connections, especially in recreation areas to which students might gravitate, including cafés or other spaces where they might like to meet up. That can provide a safe space because, as the Deputy rightly said, not everybody can learn at home and I am conscious of that. I am due to receive an update shortly from HEAnet on the outcome of its engagement with all the public service bodies, including the details of the proposed pilot projects. I intend to then bring a memo to the Government to apprise the Cabinet of this initiative. I hope to be in a position to do that shortly.

I am concerned because the initial part of college life is important so that students get off on the right footing. I am also concerned about connectivity in the context of the provision of some of the mental health services. Students are telling me that they do not have a safe place where they can engage online or that connectivity is so poor that they cannot have a quality exchange and conversation with those who are there to provide them with mental health services. It is a real issue that needs to be solved.

I am somewhat reassured by what the Minister has said but what is the first point of call for a student who has no Internet connectivity?

Their institution is the first port of call, probably the access office. I am pleased that the public health advice allows us not to return to the situation that pertained for higher education in March. Education will overwhelmingly be done online, and there is no disputing that, but we have a flexibility in terms of vulnerable learners and people who may have issues accessing or learning at home for a variety of reasons that we need not get into because that is people's own personal, private business. There is flexibility to engage. In the first instance, students should engage directly with their institution and I would be more than happy to engage offline with any individual examples the Deputy has to try to assist.

Technological Universities

Michael Lowry

Question:

76. Deputy Michael Lowry asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his objectives and plans to grant technological university status further to an application by Athlone Institute of Technology and Limerick Institute of Technology; his views on the application which will incorporate the satellite campuses of Thurles and Clonmel, County Tipperary; the budget available to implement plans for this project; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31184/20]

My question is in respect of the proposal to grant technological university status to Athlone Institute of Technology, AIT, and Limerick Institute of Technology, LIT. Will the Minister outline his objectives and plans in that regard? I ask the Minister to look favourably on an application to establish a new technological university comprising these two institutes of higher education which incorporate the satellite campuses of Thurles and Clonmel in my constituency of Tipperary. I further ask him to confirm his intention to implement these plans.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and for the conversations we have had on it recently. I know the Deputy sees the benefit of the technological universities, as do I, not just from an educational point of view, which is massive, but also from the points of view of regional development and job creation. I already know there are companies in the Deputy's region that cite the availability of highly qualified graduates as a key draw to the region. If we can increase that even further, it can only be good for Tipperary and the mid-west.

As the Deputy knows, the development and progression of technological universities is a firm policy objective of the Government and is clearly underscored by commitments in the programme for Government. The 2019 technological universities research network report details the case and requirements for a step change in higher education reform whereby technological universities will assist in the delivery of national strategic objectives for regional socioeconomic development, higher education access and research and skills progression. The idea that all roads must lead to some big city is a mindset we need to move away from when it comes to access to higher education.

On foot of that report, the Government announced in budget 2020 the provision of €90 million over the next three years under a new transformation fund to support institutes of technology to jointly achieve technological university designation.

On 7 October I, along with the HEA, announced Exchequer funding of €34.33 million for the progression and development of technological universities nationally. The AIT and LIT consortium, which the Deputy referenced, was allocated €5 million in this first funding allocation and in total has received €7 million since 2019. Further funding allocations will be made under the transformation fund in the period to 2023. 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 consortium to progress their plans and, when ready, to make an application to me seeking an order establishing a technological university subject to their jointly meeting the eligibility criteria.

I want to acknowledge that Athlone IT and Limerick IT have been working very hard since 2019 on proposals to achieve technological university status. In this context, my Department understands that the development consortium is aiming to make a submission in accordance with the requirements of the Act in the coming weeks.

I thank the Minister. As he is aware, a huge body of work has been completed by the umbrella group representing all stakeholders. This detailed process involves scoping out structures, governance, programmes and staffing. After extensive consultation and comprehensive interaction, agreement has been reached on all of these key elements. How long does the Minister anticipate that it will take his Department to analyse, assess and evaluate the proposal? Will there be a need for external independent evaluation? Does he hope to be in a position to grant the necessary approvals? When does he hope to be in a position to grant the necessary approvals? Is he satisfied that his Department has adequate funding and a budget to resource his plans and ambitions, in particular this project?

I thank Deputy Lowry. I agree with him that a massive amount of work has been undertaken. I think more than 20 working groups are working across 30 different work packages to try to get to this point. I want to thank the project directors and the joint chairs from AIT and LIT for what have been years of work. It is up to them, but it is to be hoped that they will arrive at a point where they can submit an application to me very shortly. I believe they are trying to do that by the end of the year.

The timeline the Deputy referred to is laid out in the 2018 Act. Once I receive an allocation I have up to four months to appoint an expert advisory panel from nominations provided by the Higher Education Authority, HEA, and Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI. The panel reports to the HEA within four months of its appointment and the HEA must report to me within a further two months. That is ten months in total. I then have up to two months to make a preliminary decision. A period of up a year is involved. These are maximum deadlines. It all depends on many things happening and going right. In theory, if an application was submitted by the end of the year a decision could be made by the summer of 2021 and it would be possible that a new technological university, subject to all of the approval processes, could be established in 2022.

The Minister can understand my particular interest in this because this is a ground-breaking initiative for LIT and the campuses in Thurles and Clonmel. There is no doubt that it would have a transformative effect on the educational and enterprise landscape of the county. It has been proven in many other cases, such as Athlone and Limerick, that a local university producing highly qualified graduates will enhance the opportunities for inward investment and job creation, and that would obviously apply to Thurles and County Tipperary.

Our institute in Thurles has travelled a long way. It is because of the vision, creativity and dedication of staff that it has overcome much turbulence and adversity. I hope we are now on the brink of a new future as an integral part of a new identity and plan. I am grateful for the Minister's encouragement and support. I look forward to working with him and his officials to bring this initiative to a successful conclusion.

I thank Deputy Lowry. I will undertake to keep him informed. To give him a sense of the scale of the transformation, my understanding is that under the new European universities initiatives the AIT and LIT consortium will join what is called RUN-EU which is a regional university network in the European Union. This is the way to create one of several new European universities capable of transcending languages, borders and disciplines. It is a project that is being worked on at EU level and is expected to be completed by 2024.

The technological universities genuinely have the ability to transform our higher education landscape in this country. Technological University Dublin is now up and running. I and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, were there last week. The Munster technological university is due to start in January 2021. There is also the north west, the south east and the project that is dear to the Deputy's heart in terms of AIT and LIT and the benefits to Thurles, Clonmel and the mid-west region. There are three very big exciting projects under way, all of which have been committed to by the Government. A huge amount of work has to be done. In the case to which the Deputy referred, a huge amount of work is being done by many people and I want to acknowledge that and thank them.

Student Assistance Fund

Thomas Pringle

Question:

77. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if the student assistance fund will be available to students from Northern Ireland that are studying here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31699/20]

The budget 2021 announcement of an additional €50 million fund for college students was one of the few welcome announcements on what was an underwhelming budget day last week. In his official press release, the Minister stated that detailed work would be undertaken on how this once-off fund will operate for a submission to Government prior to its commencement. It has been reported that the fund will equate to around €250 per student. For those who have paid a €3,000 registration fee and those in receipt of the SUSI grant, will this assistance be available to cross-Border students and students from Northern Ireland?

I thank Deputy Pringle for raising this matter. There are two issues. I took the words "student assistance fund" from the question. In regard to the student assistance fund of €16 million, which is available in all colleges across the Republic of Ireland, I can confirm that students from Northern Ireland are eligible to apply for support under that scheme. The Deputy is familiar with the scheme so I will not take the time to go through it.

In regard to the €50 million once-off financial support scheme, it is my intention, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, to announce the design of that scheme in the coming days. I will share my thoughts on it with the Deputy. It is likely that there will be a once-off top up payment to people in receipt of the SUSI grant, which could include people from Northern Ireland. There is also the possibility of having a once-off return or a rebate of some of the registration fees.

The figure of €250 has been out there. People have arrived at that by taking a figure of 200,000 full-time students in higher education in Ireland and dividing it by €50 million which equals €250 per student. The long and the short of it is that if a student is in receipt of the SUSI grant or paid a student contribution fee, which students in the North would have, then he or she will be as entitled to access the scheme as are students in the Republic. They are likely to be the two vehicles. I can revert to the Deputy when I have details of the scheme, which is likely to be in about a week or so.

I thank the Minister for that important clarification. According to the figures from the HEA for 2017 and 2018, only 130 students from the Six Counties are studying in the South, which seems to be an appallingly low figure. Is that something the Minister would examine? Perhaps he can check whether that is an accurate figure. To my mind, it seems very low.

We should encourage more students to move in this direction. The fact that there will be financial supports for them is vitally important. How does the Minister intend to support a plan to have more students come here? I would like to hear his thoughts on that. It is not the basis of the question, but it is something he could think about.

I am delighted the Deputy asked me about that. I would be very pleased to meet him and other Deputies from Border counties, including Donegal. I have had a couple of really interesting meetings in recent days regarding North-South co-operation. I met the President of Queens University in his capacity as the president of Universities Ireland, which represents all the universities on the island of Ireland. I met the leader of the SDLP, Colum Eastwood, MLA, to discuss collaboration with Derry, which I know is an issue close to the Deputy's heart in Donegal and Letterkenny. I also met Diane Dodds, MLA, Minister for the Economy, which is where higher education rests in the Northern Ireland Executive.

In the context of Brexit, there are many opportunities and a necessity to do an awful a lot more in the research and universities space. If one takes out the politics, emblems and all that from the map of the island of Ireland, there is a gaping space in the north west.

My initial view is that we need to get on with getting the application in on the Connacht-Ulster technological university, which again, I am hoping will be in by the end of the year and at the very start of 2021. We have commitments under New Decade, New Approach on the Magee campus. I would be very interested and there is potential for a cross-party consensus on how we might move ahead with higher education. Deputy Conway-Walsh and I have spoken on this also. Perhaps in the coming weeks we could have a get-together and brainstorm on this issue.

That is something that would be worthwhile. On the Connacht-Ulster alliance, there is a campus in Killybegs in the tourism college which also needs to be protected into the future. Strangely, Letterkenny, has been the biggest threat to it.

We need to look at why it is cheaper for many students in Donegal to go to college in Belfast, because rents are so much lower there. Even with the student fees that one has to pay up there, it is far cheaper for them to be in college there. Perhaps that is also a reason students do not come south because the costs down here are too expensive for them. The reason we do not have movement of students down south is something that needs to be looked at. I look forward to future engagement with the Minister on this issue and I thank him.

I will commit on the record to come back to Deputy Pringle on the figure of how many students from Northern Ireland are studying in the Republic. My own instinct is that it will be much higher than that. I wonder is it a designation issue or how people self-designate but I will ask the Higher Education Authority, HEA, and will revert to the Deputy.