I very much welcome the opportunity to update the House on some of the work of the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science just under five months on from its creation and the formation of the Government. I very much appreciate the support and interest from all sides of the Oireachtas for a new stand-alone Department to place a renewed focus on the further and higher education sectors and enhance and develop research and innovation.
The new Department has an annual budget of more than €3 billion, the sixth largest budget allocation of any Department, and it is responsible for more than half of the Government's total expenditure on research and development through Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council and the Higher Education Authority. In Ireland, we have 23 higher education institutions, including our universities, and a network of further education and training facilities throughout the country providing learning opportunities to more than 360,000 people every year. The opportunity to enter education and training or to retrain or upskill has never been more important as we face the challenges brought on by Covid-19 and the future world of work which the pandemic has brought very much into the here and now.
I want to provide an update on some of the key areas which will be of interest to colleagues. They are our work in further and higher education and training to provide places to meet the challenges of Covid 19; the apprenticeship and centralisation scheme; the development of a new adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills strategy; the priority of research, innovation and science during Covid and for the future; supports for students; and plans for the next semester at third level. I will arrange for a copy of my speech to be circulated to Deputies.
In regard to our work in further and higher education to provide places to meet the challenge of Covid 19, budget 2021 built on the July stimulus by providing funding for 50,000 further education and training places in 2020-21 and for the extension of the apprenticeship incentivisation scheme for the first half of 2021. The total package of €118.5 million to upskill and reskill people directly responds to the impacts of the current pandemic and areas of key skills priority, in particular the climate agenda. This includes additional places and skills to compete for those who have lost their jobs and in skills to advance for those in employment need to upskill or reskill.
Skillnet Ireland is showing real and tangible results in the areas where we need to see progress, with more than 40,000 people now enrolled in online training and education programmes since the emergence of Covid-19. In excess of 200 candidates have enrolled in the new future in tech programme, providing skills pathways for those transitioning to the ICT sector, since its launch in September. More than 1,000 people from in excess of 500 companies nationwide have undertaken Skillnet's clear customs training, which is a key element of getting Ireland Brexit ready in responding to the growing skills needs of Irish businesses and complementing other Government initiatives to facilitate smooth and efficient trade flows.
Recently, I announced more than 14,000 free or subsidised higher education places, funded in the July stimulus, which includes 11,597 places on short modular courses and 2,555 postgraduate places. The postgraduate places are available in courses in a wide range of skills areas, including data analytics, environmental sciences, engineering, tourism and hospitality, ICT, and health and welfare, including medical technology. Modular courses are short and focused and will be offered in a flexible manner, allowing people to gain important skills without taking a considerable period of time away from labour market. Each module will be stand-alone so that participants can gain skills and put them into practice immediately in the workplace. Modules are also accredited in such a way as to provide building blocks to a full qualification. This is exactly the kind of approach we need to deliver tailored courses to suit the needs of enterprise and lifelong learning. Details of these courses are available on hea.ie.
The apprenticeship incentivisation scheme is showing a very strong uptake, and I can share with the House that the latest figures show that 965 employers have submitted claims in respect of 1,667 apprentices. Apprenticeship registration figures for October show an increase of 196 new registrations compared with October last year, demonstrating the effectiveness of this approach and the value of extending the scheme, which I expect will support another 4,000 apprentices next year.
While we have a long-standing relationship with apprenticeship programmes in this country, what is less well recognised is the rapid change in the system over the past five years. When we think about apprenticeships, we often think about important and traditional craft apprenticeships such as carpenters, plumbers and electricians. While these programmes still exist and are still successful, there are now more options than ever before available for apprentices, including access to education and training in partnership with different employers across the economy. There are 58 different apprenticeships, ranging from two to four years in duration, and leading to qualifications at level 5 to level 10 in the national framework. Some 33 of these were launched in the past five years and another three are due to launch by the end of this year. They are in new and growing areas such as cybersecurity, wind turbine maintenance, technical artistry, accountancy, supply chain management, international financial services and insurance. The first level 10 apprenticeship was also launched over the summer, leading to a principal engineer professional doctorate qualification. We are working on a new plan that will see 10,000 new apprentices register every year by 2025, and we have recently completed a survey of apprentices as part of this consultation process. We will launch by the end of this year our new action plan on apprenticeships.
In planning for the future and working to meet the challenges of the shift to remote and blended learning, we have a lot more to do to ensure that no one is left behind.
I am genuinely worried about this. Many people in Ireland are locked out of society and our economy, and one of the reasons relates to literacy, numeracy and digital skills. One in five adults in Ireland struggles with reading everyday texts such as a paracetamol box, one in four struggles with using numbers, perhaps in comprehending an electricity bill, and one in two struggles with digital skills. We cannot genuinely call ourselves inclusive and talk about a knowledge-based economy if we do not face up to these facts. We need to talk about this much more. We keep saying equity of access for all but these numbers are stark and worrying and should be a cause of concern. We need to ensure we do everything possible to assist and improve those skills for people, which is why I have asked SOLAS, the further education and training authority, to lead in the development of a new ten-year adult literacy, numeracy and digital literacy strategy. I announced a consultation process last week, which is available on the SOLAS website, and I ask all Oireachtas Members to help take this consultation into their communities and give us their feedback. We do not need a glossy document; we need practical steps as to what we can do to get on top of this issue because it will leave people locked out of society and the economy if we do not get this right.
I wish to pay tribute to our research community, which has worked over recent months to support national and international responses to the challenges of Covid-19. I know that colleagues will join me and agree the importance of research, innovation and science has never been in such sharp relief. The sector has played a key role in our response to the pandemic and the sector itself has not gone unaffected. That is why I was pleased we were recently able to announce €47 million to support contract researchers and research students, whose work has been seriously disrupted by the pandemic. The establishment of the new Department comes at an exciting time for research, innovation and science, as we develop successors to central long-term strategies for the sector that are coming to conclusion.
My Department will take charge of the implementation of Innovation 2020, which is due to conclude at the end of the year, and its successor. Its overarching vision is for Ireland to become a global innovation leader driving a strong, sustainable economy and a better society, with a focus on talent, excellence and impact. It is important to acknowledge we have achieved much in respect of Innovation 2020. We are now the ninth most innovative country in the European Union and just a few weeks ago, our researchers reached the historic landmark of winning €1 billion from Horizon 2020. We now have the opportunity to take a fresh look at the pivotal role that research and innovation play, and will continue to play, in addressing the key economic and societal challenges we face, including climate change, digitisation and public health. We need to see research as an opportunity to provide the answers to some of the big societal challenges we face. The new strategy that my Department will deliver next year will reflect this.
I am very much looking forward to my continued engagement with the sector as we seek to build on the additional €29 million secured for research in the budget to support research responses to Covid-19, early-stage research careers and career pathways, excellent leading Irish investigators, scaling up and competing internationally, and building research partnerships. Crucially, it will be an opportunity for greater North-South collaboration, which I see as vital.
Immediately on the establishment of the Department, we began putting in place a major support package to assist the further and higher education sector and training support sector through the Covid crisis, along with new supports for students, including a doubling of the student assistance fund from €8 million to €16 million, and providing 17,000 laptops to students throughout the country who may require them. Students have had a particularly hard time, considering the impact not only on their studies but also on their personal lives, their lives overall and their income, with many losing their jobs or not being able to access a part-time job. I am also conscious that students may have had to buy additional equipment, such as a webcam, a desk, a chair or a computer, while experiencing a reduction in their income.
I am pleased that the Government this week approved a €50 million once-off fund to support students, which we flagged in budget 2021. This fund will ensure that students who avail of the SUSI grant will receive a €250 top-up to their grant before Christmas, while students who do not avail of the grant can reduce their contribution fee payments by €250 or receive a €250 credit note for their institution. If a student is in receipt of a SUSI grant, he or she will get a €250 payment before Christmas, but if not, and if the student is a full-time EU student in a publicly funded higher education institution, he or she will get a €250 credit note. That can be used to knock off any outstanding registration fees that are due for this year or it can be used for the next academic year's registration fees, or as a credit note for some of the costs experienced in college life. We will write to each of our higher education institutions to put in place that detail and to communicate directly with students. This is only a small step - I do not suggest it is any more - but I hope it will go a small way towards helping life a bit easier for people. I am grateful to the dedicated staff of my Department, the Irish Universities Association, the Technological Higher Education Authority, Technological University Dublin, SUSI and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, for all their assistance in bringing this much-needed support to students.
In addition to this funding and the doubling of the student assistance fund, we have increased the level of funding for the 1916 bursary refund to €5 million per annum. This will provide an additional 200 bursaries, bringing the total number for 2021 to 1,000 bursaries for the most disadvantaged students in our country. We have secured an additional €20 million in funding for SUSI next year to cover an increased number of applications to the scheme and allocated €6 million to enhance SUSI support for postgraduates. These supports were really taken back during the previous recession and need to be replenished, and this is the first step. We have put in place the digital support scheme of €15 million and, crucially - I am excited about this - for the first time ever, we have established a dedicated ring-fenced fund called the mitigating educational disadvantage fund of €8 million, given to SOLAS, to engage with community education. SOLAS will go out into our communities, through the education and training boards, and examine how it can support people who are providing education to learners at the greatest risk of disconnection from our education and training system.
Crucially, we have increased the amount of money being spent on well-being and mental health by an additional €3 million in recognition of the impact of Covid and the general need to improve those services. I recognise, however, that it is important also to consider more widely how we can facilitate learners in different circumstances. That is why I have announced a review of SUSI. SUSI has done great work but it is not fit for purpose in many ways. It does not recognise part-time learners or the cost of crèche fees. We need to have a conversation about this. The review is almost under way and will commence this year. It will report back to me next year in advance of the budget, and all Deputies, as well as students and everybody else, will have an opportunity to make their views known.
Everyone in the House will be aware of the significant efforts made by students, institutions and staff in dealing with the impact of Covid-19 on the further and higher education sector. The majority of semester one in further and higher education has been online for most people, although there have been exceptions for people who need to do practical work. We have kept open our libraries and laboratories, as well as classes for people who need face-to-face teaching for a variety of reasons. I am concerned that the necessary move to online and blended learning has been very difficult for some, particularly those in the first and final years of their courses. We are now preparing for semester two and the new year. Any decision we make will, of course, be made in consultation with the Chief Medical Officer and the Department of Health and in line with the best public health advice available to us. The Minister of State, Deputy Collins, and I met the presidents of all our higher education institutions today and we will meet student representatives and union representatives tomorrow. Our priority going into the new year will be to increase on-campus activity as much as and as safely as possible. I would like to see more onsite activity for first and final-year students in particular. These discussions are taking place with the institutions in my Department and I intend to provide certainty in respect of this next week. Our priorities will be continuing programmes and activities that cannot take place online but this conversation needs to be about more than education. It has to be about welfare, well-being and the first-year student sitting at home at the kitchen table or in the box room of a house who has not been on campus. If it is safe to get such students there for some activity and engagement, there would be a great benefit, although we have to manage it carefully and do so in line with public health advice. I heard a real enthusiasm and leadership from the presidents of our institutions in that regard today. It cannot be impossible to see an improvement in the situation and that is what I am committed to doing too. We want to create new ways to promote small-scale in-person contact, especially peer engagement, for new entrants to further and higher education. That is important. We need to do it in a way that gives our institutions flexibility and we cannot be overly prescriptive on it. The safety and well-being of students and staff will be at the heart of all our decisions.
I have tried just to touch on a small number of areas. There are many others, in particular the exciting agenda for technological universities throughout our country. I look forward to providing further updates to the House on these and many other matters in the coming weeks and months.