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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 15 Dec 2020

Vol. 1002 No. 5

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Student Accommodation

Rose Conway-Walsh


35. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if all public institutes of higher education have now agreed to provide refunds for unused accommodation; the actions his Department has taken to help students again battling with private accommodation providers for refunds; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43159/20]

I have been raising the issue of students paying for unused accommodation since the summer. Each time I have raised it, the Minister has assured me that at the very least, students with on-campus accommodation would get refunds. Will he confirm whether all universities are issuing refunds? I will come to the issue of private accommodation later. I really want to get this matter off the table. What the Minister is telling me is not what is happening on the ground.

I thank Deputy Conway-Walsh for raising this matter. I acknowledge it is an issue she has rightly pursued for some time. The short answer is that I have been informed that all universities are now offering refunds for university-owned accommodation. If the Deputy has individual instances where that is not the case, I ask that she bring them to the attention of my office and I will bring those to the attention of the individual institutions.

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 2020-2021 academic year. The Deputy will be aware that the university sector has been actively engaging with these issues and is trying to respond to an evolving public health situation. My officials and I have liaised with the Irish Universities Association on this matter and have been assured that all universities have confirmed that students who opted to leave their university-owned student accommodation as a result of reduced on-campus activity will be offered refunds. The processing of these refunds is a matter for the universities themselves. All students who wish to receive a refund for their on-campus accommodation should engage directly with their university’s accommodation office. I will continue to liaise with the sector to encourage the availability of fair solutions to students in university-owned student accommodation.

I know the Deputy will raise privately owned accommodation in her supplementary question. I do not have figures to hand, but from memory I think about 7,000 students have chosen to continue to live in student accommodation for a variety of reasons, including perhaps a lack of access to the facilities they require at home, a requirement to attend practical classes or a desire to avail of the library. I am not suggesting the Deputy is saying this, but there are students who have decided they wish to remain in university-owned accommodation.

Yes, there are students who have done this, and my son is one of those in the accommodation in Trinity College Dublin. I am not disputing that but it is not good enough that public institutions have refused to give refunds or are giving only partial refunds. Many have tried to give the smallest refunds possible. I have received recent reports that some universities, including Dublin City University, are refusing to give refunds unless they were requested by 5 October, which was two weeks before the level 5 restrictions were even announced. Other universities, including University of Limerick, are only issuing refunds for the six weeks of level 5 restrictions. Universities were instructed to move online to level 3 restrictions at the end of December. The refund for unused accommodation should be for the entire semester. The universities may be saying that they are issuing refunds but they are not being upfront about this. I ask the Minister to have another look at it. I will forward him cases where this has happened to people.

I thank the Deputy and will pursue the two specific issues she has raised and any individual cases that she wishes to bring to my attention. My view on this is the same as hers, namely, that in the case of college-owned accommodation, refunds should be issued. In fairness to our universities, I understand it has been a very challenging year for them but it has been an extremely challenging year for their students and they need to be as flexible as they possibly can in that regard. The Higher Education Authority is there to assist them.

Ultimately, we need to build a lot more student accommodation. We have a target of additional purpose-built student accommodation for 21,000 more students by 2024. As I said to the Deputy before at the education committee, I am concerned that we are too reliant on the private market for student accommodation. We are nearly pitting students against families or working professionals for limited accommodation, particularly in our cities. I am very interested in working with this House and with the education committee to ensure we fulfil the commitments in Rebuilding Ireland which is to have 21,000 additional places for students in purpose-built accommodation by 2024.

As the Minister said, most students are not in on-campus accommodation, but in the private rented sector. Private student accommodation has been the preferred model for successive Governments. When I raised the issue of private accommodation in recent months, the Minister said there was not a lot he could do.

I wish to commend the private accommodation providers who have issued refunds but many have not, and they need to be called out. I have spoken to the universities about this. I want them to be aware of this in order that they can take the providers who have exploited students off their lists so that in coming years students will not avail of their accommodation.

Telling students and families what they want to hear does not help them in any way. They need a Government which is willing to stand up for them. Many families have been pushed into poverty because of what is happening with student accommodation refunds.

I have tried to provide a variety of ways to assist students and their families financially within the resources and levers available to me. I agree that any student accommodation provider that is not acting reasonably will not be forgotten by students and their families. People should reflect on that. Figures show that in Ireland, unlike other countries, approximately 38% of students remain living at home during their time in college. Approximately 19% are in purpose-built student accommodation and the remainder are in private accommodation. I would like to see a significant increase in purpose-built college-owned accommodation. We need to find a solution for our technological universities. The largest university in the country is TU Dublin and yet technological universities do not have a mechanism by which they can build their own student accommodation. I intend working with my Government colleagues to find a solution to that.

Third Level Education

Matt Shanahan


36. Deputy Matt Shanahan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if his attention has been drawn to the fact that approximately €1.7 billion has been spent in the university sector and that less than 1% has been delivered to the south east, which accounts for 10% of the student population; if his attention has been further drawn to the fact that the south east has experienced a pronounced decline in that period; if he is satisfied with the current capital allocations process; his plans going forward to manage the process, ensuring it is delivering fair and equitable direct value equally to the regions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43567/20]

Approximately €1.7 billion has been spent on the university sector and less than 1% has been delivered to the south east, which accounts for 10% of the student population, in the past 20 years. The south east has suffered a pronounced decline during that period. Is the Minister satisfied that capital allocations are fully fair, transparent and equitable?

I thank Deputy Shanahan for his question. I acknowledge that we had a good meeting recently in regard to the south east and are due another one. I have not forgotten that.

It is a priority for my Department to support higher education institutions in their critical role as drivers of social and economic development in their regions. Within this overall context, the creation of technological universities represents a radical reconfiguration of the higher education landscape that will deliver significant benefits for regional development. That is really our entire purpose. It will be achieved through a strong focus on industry linkages, higher education access, and research-informed teaching and learning excellence.

The Deputy has raised concerns specifically in regard to capital investment in the south east, which I would like to address. From 2008 to 2019, some €996 million was provided in capital funding across the higher education sector, of which 4% was allocated to the south-east region. Currently, the two higher education institutions in the region, Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, and Institute of Technology Carlow, which together have formed the technological university for the south-east consortium, account for 7% of the national higher education student population. I presume the 10% figure to which the Deputy referred relates to primary and secondary level students. It is clear, therefore, that many young people are leaving the south-east region when they go on to higher education, which has knock-on impacts for the region's growth and development. This needs to be addressed, including by means of the greatly enhanced opportunities which technological university status will provide and through the increased capital investment that will be required to support the realisation of those opportunities.

I am pleased to inform the Deputy that there are two major Exchequer-funded projects in the pipeline that will significantly enhance higher education infrastructure in the south east and support the development of the new technological university. An engineering, ICT and teaching building is planned for the WIT campus, the largest of all the projects in the entire country under the higher education public private partnership programme, PPP. A science and health building is planned for IT Carlow under the same programme. My Department is also engaging actively with both institutions regarding their future development plans, including expansion within the context of the planned technological university.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I acknowledge that we have met on this issue and I look forward to doing so again. There has been an almost 40% growth in the university sector over a 20-year period. Much of that was financed by the European Investment Bank, EIB, to the national universities, funding of which the institutes of technology cannot avail. The Minister mentioned capital structures to be built in Waterford. These are PPPs that have been bundled into a later phase in 2021 and will probably not be delivered before 2024 or 2025. I cannot see any fairness in that when other PPPs were expedited to be done before the end of this year. That is the point I am making. I am looking at a lot of allocations and I cannot observe a method or process by which I can see transparency or understanding of how capital is allocated. To be frank, there is a fair degree of political patronage in it.

Certainly not from me. I think Deputy Shanahan would be in favour of political patronage if it were to do with the south east, so there is a slight irony in that remark.

My Department is working with both WIT and IT Carlow on a number of projects, including, as I said, the engineering, computing and general teaching building in WIT. It is the largest project in the entire country within the PPP bundle for the higher education sector and it will increase the capacity of the Waterford campus by 1,037 students. However, that is not where my ambition for Waterford stops. I very much recognise that there will be a need to expand the campus footprint within Waterford, and I know the Deputy has an interest in that. As I said, there is also the plan for the science and health building in IT Carlow.

The Deputy makes a fair point in asking why those projects cannot happen more quickly. My understanding is that prospective tenderers for the bundle are currently being shortlisted and construction is expected to begin in 2022. If I have enough time in my final response, I can outline the process that needs to be followed in this regard.

I remind the Minister once again that WIT is the top-performing institute of technology in the country, with three of the top-performing gateways garnering the most EU research funding within the sector. The Minister will understand our frustration. I assure him that I certainly would welcome his political patronage on this issue, as would all the people of the south east. The most important issue is that, at the end of process he is proposing, we have a university of scale and one fit for purpose. It must rival the institutions in the other regions. To date, as I said, some of the funding allocations appear to have gone to areas that already have national universities. I remind the Minister that we in the south east, including Waterford, do not have such an institution. This is our opportunity to have a fully functioning university of scale. We will then be able to contribute to the national Exchequer at the rate at which we want and deserve to contribute.

I am absolutely determined to deliver a technological university for the south east. It is key from an access to education point of view for Waterford and the south-east region. It is also a key driver of regional development and balanced regional development. It will be a game changer for the south east. As the Deputy knows, I have made a number of appointments and decisions in regard to a project board for the technological university for the south east, TUSE. I have met the presidents of WIT and IT Carlow and I commend, on the record of the House, both institutions. I acknowledge and echo the Deputy's sentiments in regard to the excellent work being done in WIT and its excellent record of achievement.

On capital funding for Waterford IT, it was €1 million in 2018, €1.4 million in 2019 and €2.4 million this year. Operational funding was €37.96 million in 2018 and €40.91 million last year. We are continuing to increase investment in Waterford and the south east. Together, we will deliver the technological university and I hope to receive an application in that regard by April of next year.

Student Support Schemes

Rose Conway-Walsh


37. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if the €250 payment will be extended to include all students in full-time third level education; the way in which students in final year who have already paid their fees can avail of the support; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43160/20]

My question relates to the €250 payment to students, for which €50 million in funding was announced in the budget. Can the Minister clarify why €43.5 million, rather than €50 million, was provided in the Supplementary Estimate? Will he comment on the number of students excluded from the payment, including part-time students, students on full-time post-leaving certificate courses, PLCs, and students who choose to study abroad or in the North?

I thank the Deputy for her question. In recognition of the challenges facing full-time third level students, the Government has approved once-off funding of €50 million to provide additional financial assistance in this academic year. The funding was provided in budget 2021 in recognition of the exceptional situation students have experienced due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Financial assistance will be provided to all EU full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students attending publicly funded higher education institutions.

The scheme will ensure students who avail of the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant, including students abroad, will receive a €250 top-up of their grant. That payment is due this Friday to students whose bank details are known to SUSI. Students who do not avail of the grant but attend publicly funded higher education institutions in the State can reduce by €250 any outstanding student contribution fee payments or receive a €250 credit note for their institution. As I understand it, the nub of the Deputy's question concerns the students who do not fit into either of those categories. For example, for final-year students who have paid all their fees, a credit note for next year is of no use. In a small number of cases, alternative arrangements will be made for the payment of the moneys to students at the discretion of institutions. This means that for students who do not get a SUSI grant and for whom a credit note is not useful, it will be possible for the institutions to decide to provide a cash payment. The preference from an accounting point of view is very much the SUSI top-up, followed by a credit note or rebate off the student's outstanding fees. However, in other scenarios, where a credit note is not of use, there will be a discretion and flexibility given to the higher education institutions.

These measures are designed to ensure that students who are not in receipt of SUSI support will benefit from the measure. It is also the intention that they will address circumstances where students are in final year, have paid their contribution fee and may not be on campus. I expect institutions to start communicating directly with their students in the coming days as to how they can avail of this provision. It will be up to each institution to operate the scheme within its institution.

I welcome the Minister's response and the fact that students studying abroad and in the North will get this support, albeit, as I know the Minister understands, it is very little in terms of the high fees they have to pay. For students in their final year, is there a cut-off date by which the institutions have been asked to pay this money? How many students will be paid before Christmas? Part-time students should be considered for inclusion because they have many expenses which can prohibit them from education. It is important to get this money paid out.

Will the Minister explain why €43.5 million was allocated in the Supplementary Estimate rather than the €50 million indicated in the budget?

On the financial question, I will get the Deputy a note on that. A €50 million scheme was approved by Government.

I have dealt with how SUSI students will receive their funding and I will not dwell on that. In regard to non-SUSI students, if we may call them that, higher education institutions will contact eligible students as soon as is practicable. I have made clear that I would like this contact to happen in advance of Christmas. Students do not need to contact their college or apply for the credit as it will automatically be applied by the institution. All higher education institutions have been asked to apply a credit note in the name of the registered student as soon as possible. In a small number of cases, as I said, where credit cannot be applied, a payment may be facilitated at the discretion of the institution. I expect individual institutions to communicate directly with their students on this in advance of Christmas. It may be the start of 2021 when some people receive the credit note or reimbursement, but the SUSI payments will go out on Friday.

I thank the Minister. Do the institutions already have this money? Is it being front-loaded?

Cross-Border enrolment on this island is still far too low. In the past ten years there has been a decline of almost 40% in the number of students from this State studying in the North. Students from the North of Ireland make up less than 1% of enrolment in this State. We need to work collectively to reverse those trends, and we should start by not punishing students and giving the same leeway to those studying in the North. We need an all-island approach to education. We can offer better options to students by working together as an island. I ask the Minister to work with us to make sure of this.

We must also make sure that students in the North can avail of the Horizon 2020 programme after 1 January. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that.

I share the Deputy's passion for making sure that everybody on the island of Ireland has access to higher education and that we co-operate and collaborate. I really believe in this. I had a very good meeting with Universities Ireland, which represents all the universities on the island of Ireland. I have asked their representatives to come up with a list of areas where they believe we can collaborate. I would love to see a situation where students from the North could do a module or two in the Republic and vice versa. That is a really good way to build peace and relationships and to get to know other communities.

In the context of Brexit, the Deputy will be aware that I have committed to ensuring that students in Northern Ireland can continue to access the Erasmus+ programme. It is really important to be outward-looking and to engage with other countries and their education systems. I have Government approval for a scheme whereby any student in Northern Ireland can do this. Such students would need to register temporarily in an Irish institution. This is a very important commitment for the Irish Government and I am very pleased that we are delivering on it.

Student Accommodation

Danny Healy-Rae


38. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the provision being made for third level students who paid accommodation fees before the announcement was made that the colleges would not reopen in view of the fact many have not been refunded the accommodation fees paid up to Christmas 2020; the advice for third level students for the 2021-2022 semester in relation to paying for accommodation up to summer 2021; if students will be refunded if colleges do not reopen for on campus lectures; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43551/20]

What provision is being made for the third level students who had paid accommodation fees before the announcement that the colleges would not reopen? Many have not been refunded accommodation fees that have been paid for the period up to Christmas. Will the Minister make a statement on the matter? What is the Minister's advice to third level students for the coming college semester? Should they pay for accommodation until the summer? Will they be refunded if colleges do not reopen for lectures on campus?

I thank Deputy Healy-Rae for what is genuinely a very important and timely question. Many students are asking me, as they are probably asking the Deputy, what the college year will look like. I have to be very honest with people for the sake of clarity and certainty, even if it is an answer we may not like to give.

At level 3, level 4 and level 5 of the plan for living with Covid-19 the bulk of college activity will remain online. I have engaged with students, unions and university leaders and I am conscious of the importance of providing clarity for the reasons outlined by the Deputy. People need to know what January will look like, insofar as anyone can provide certainty with this awful virus.

I have asked our colleges to try to bring in students in small groups, if they want to come in. I am pleased to say the colleges have agreed. I am particularly conscious of the needs of first year students, who last sat in a classroom in March. Through no fault of their own they could not attend school after that, finished school without a leaving certificate and eventually got into college in the face of many challenges. They may not have set foot on a campus. I would like them to be invited in for induction and to meet a few lecturers and see what life in college will look like after Covid-19. Our universities are making arrangements for that to happen.

Regarding student accommodation, as I outlined to Deputy Conway-Walsh, I have asked that refunds be provided for all college-owned accommodation, with flexible options offered to students who cannot take it up. Some students have decided to take it up because libraries, labs and sports facilities are open. I have also put several financial supports in place for students, including the provision of 17,000 laptops. We cannot tell students to learn online and not provide them with the necessary resources. I refer also to the financial assistance payment, the details of which I have outlined in answer to the previous question.

I thank the Minister. The question still needs to be answered. Are students advised to go to college? They might not be allowed to go to college in the coming semester. The Minister is telling parents not to pay for student accommodation while we are under level 3 restrictions. That must be made clear to them. Many parents had more income in 2019 than this year because of the coronavirus. With less work or no work, they have less money or no money. We must be honest with them. Another question also remains. Will the Minister do anything for the families who paid for accommodation from September to Christmas, which is nearly upon us? The colleges were only open for two days. Surely they should have been informed that the colleges were not going to open before they went back.

I know the Deputy is trying to provide certainty for people and I agree with it. I am not telling anybody not to take accommodation. Some students will decide to take accommodation to use the library or because they want to live away from home. People have a variety of reasons to do different things. I am telling people what college life will look like at level 3, level 4 and level 5, which is where we are going to be in the new year while we roll out vaccines. It is likely that the bulk of lectures will take place online.

I expect rebates or refunds to be given in circumstances where accommodation is owned by the colleges. My Department does not have a lever to pull where privately owned accommodation is concerned. I have made some arrangements to assist students financially in other ways. For example, we have doubled the student assistance fund from €8 million to €16 million. Students facing financial challenges may be able to approach this fund for assistance.

I thank the Minister. As he says, whether to pay is up to the parents. It is likely that the colleges will not open and will remain as they were from October to Christmas, unless we go to level 2 or level 1. We need to be honest with people. As I said, this is especially true in Kerry, where parents and students are very far away from colleges in Limerick, Galway, Cork and Waterford. Parts of Kerry are even very far away from Tralee. They need to know what is happening. The Minister has clearly said that the colleges will not open under level 3. The advice must be that parents should not pay for accommodation unless they decide to do so themselves.

I know what the Deputy is saying. I do not mean to be pedantic but in the interests of clarity, I note that colleges will be open but the lectures will take place online. I say that because they were not open in March. The libraries and sports facilities are now open. Students can go into the campuses in small groups to meet a lecturer, attend a tutorial or debate a point. I want to see those things happen in the new year. Practical classes are taking place. This is different from the situation earlier in the pandemic.

I am looking forward to coming to Kerry in January. Ireland's newest university, Munster technological university, will open its doors on 1 January. That will arise from the merger of the Institute of Technology Tralee and Cork Institute of Technology. This is a very significant investment in higher education that will have huge benefits for the south west of our country, helping to provide the skills we need and providing people in Kerry and Cork with the opportunity to be educated in their own counties. Keeping young people in those counties will benefit them. I look forward to being in Tralee in January.