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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 15 Dec 2020

Vol. 1002 No. 5

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Questions Nos. 39 to 41, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Further and Higher Education

Pádraig O'Sullivan


42. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the status of the work of the European Commission and the consultants appointed by the Directorate General for Structural Reform Support that are aiming to investigate methods of increasing the sustainability of higher and further education provision in Ireland. [41757/20]

Will the Minister provide an update on the work of the European Commission's Directorate General for Structural Reform Support, which aims to investigate methods of increasing the sustainability of higher and further education provision in Ireland? As the Minster will know, this question is an important one. The sector needs a sustainable long-term trajectory, a need which Covid-19 has only reinforced. When can we expect to see developments in this regard?

This is an important question on an issue that has perhaps been overlooked or messed around with politically for far too long. The previous Oireachtas decided on another review, so an all-party committee got together, looked at the Cassells report and asked for an economic evaluation. That is the process the Deputy is asking me about.

The development of a sustainable funding model is essential in light of the centrality of further and higher education to our progress as a country, which applies now more than ever. Against the backdrop of rapid technological change, the future development of Ireland as an inclusive society and a knowledge economy will be critically dependent on the quality of our graduates.

We do not want anyone to be locked out of society or out of our economy and we need to make sure everyone is prepared for this.

In that context a comprehensive economic evaluation of the funding options presented in the report of the expert group on future funding for higher education is under way and is supported, as Deputy O'Sullivan said, under the European Commission DG REFORM programme. My Department is working closely with the European Commission and the independently appointed consortia of consultants. The key aim of this review is to investigate methods of increasing the sustainability of higher and further education provision in Ireland, including an examination of the funding options. This review commenced early this year, and work is now expected to be complete towards the end of quarter 1 of next year. My Department will continue to work with stakeholders on this comprehensive analysis of funding options for higher education and the assessment of the appropriate balance in provision across the tertiary education system. Completion of this work will allow for an informed debate on the appropriate policy approach to future planning and funding of higher and further education provision, which, as I said, is fundamental to Ireland's economic and social sustainability.

I look forward to keeping the Deputy informed. I am aware of his interest in this area. I expect we will have the outcome of the report at the end of quarter 1 of 2021.

While I know the Minister has been in situ for only a period of months, this issue has been dragging on for a number of years. The Commission was first asked to help with this work back in October 2018. The expert group started its work in 2014 to identify and consider issues related to the long-term sustainable funding of higher education in Ireland and to identify funding options for the future. The programme for Government commits to developing a long-term sustainable funding model for higher level education in collaboration with the sector and informed by recent and ongoing research and analysis. This work, which is an extension of the Cassells report of 2016, will be vital in achieving this. In some ways this report will dictate many of the Minister's actions in reforming the system in the longer term. Following the completion of this work, will the Minister provide us with an indication of what will happen next? Can we expect to see this work published to inform future debate?

Not to pre-empt the outcome of the report, but it is absolutely my intention to publish it, to engage with the Oireachtas on it and, ultimately, to bring proposals to the Government. I want to settle this question. I agree with the Deputy that this has been going on for a very long time. The Taoiseach had a very clear view on the need to attach a centrality of focus to further and higher education. This is why he established this Department, and I am determined we do just that. We have not been standing still since the Cassells report. This Government and the previous one have taken a number of measures to try to increase planned investment in higher education. For example, we are spending 25% more on higher education this year than we did in 2016. That is an amount in the order of an additional €370 million, bringing total funding for the sector this year to €1.87 billion, up from €1.5 billion in 2016.

We need to settle this question. We need the data, the economic evaluation and the debate and then we need to make a decision.

I am concerned that the future debate in this area will be distorted. We need to ensure a public understanding of the two separate issues which need to be addressed. The first is costs for students. It is welcome that the Minister has announced a review of SUSI. That will be important in ensuring that the support system in place will be able to meet students' demands. The second issue is the sustainability of the sector itself, keeping the doors open to these students, keeping talent in place and ensuring that Ireland contributes on the international stage. We know that these issues tend to be conflated but they are separate issues. Some of the parties opposite made no additional provision for the sustainability of the sector in their recent manifestos. If the Government were to deliver such an approach, it could be very damaging to the sector. Will the Minister speak to this and to the need to address both issues, that is, cost and sustainability, in the years ahead?

Again, I do not wish to pre-empt the outcome of the report. I have said before on the record of the House that I do not favour the model in place in Northern Ireland and do not want to see our students coming out of college laden with debt. I do not want to see the fear or perception of debt being a barrier to access for certain families either. I am very pleased we have the SUSI review under way. This is something one will never hear anybody say, but 44% of students attending higher education today have their registration fees paid in full or in part by SUSI. We are now spending, I think, more than €350 million a year on student supports in addition to the figure of €1.87 billion I mentioned that is being spent on higher education. When the two are added together, we are investing more than €2 billion in higher education each and every year. However, it is certainty of funding the sector craves as well as knowing what the funding model is. We already have a model whereby our employers contribute through a levy and a model whereby much Exchequer funding goes in and is matched by some of the registration fee. I really hope the economic evaluation will be able to present us with real options. The Deputy is right that we will need an honest debate. That is why we need to facilitate publication of the data and the information and that honest debate.

Question No. 43 replied to with Written Answers.

Technological Universities

Brendan Griffin


44. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his views on the way in which the new Munster technological university will benefit the region; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43310/20]

We have had some really positive news recently regarding the merger of Cork Institute of Technology, CIT, and IT Tralee to the proposed Munster technological university, MTU. Could the Minister outline to the House his views as to how this merger can benefit the region? It is one of the most exciting developments in the region in many years. I would be very grateful to hear his views.

I thank Deputy Griffin not just for the question but also for his support and work on the delivery of this technological university, not just in recent months but over a sustained period with my predecessor, Deputy McHugh, and others. This is a potential game changer for the south west of our country. The opening of Ireland's newest technological university on 1 January, just days away now, will mean that, for the first time ever, Tralee will be a university town. It will mean that people will be able to access university education in County Kerry. That will be a game changer. There are mums and dads who can now talk to their children about being able to stay in the county. We know that the longer people stay in their county, the more likely they are to continue to strengthen their links there, to put down new links and to start their own families. This is important for the regeneration or rejuvenation of any of our counties.

This is also a game changer for the skills agenda and being able to work with local businesses, local industry, to identify the skills we need to keep Kerry, the south west and the region competitive. Where are the jobs of the future, and how can we work with industry to make sure we provide those courses in the region? I had an excellent meeting with the regional skills forums, chaired by the CEO of Fexco, a company I visited with the Deputy a number of years ago. It is a really big Irish-owned multinational company that is committed to working with us to make sure we continue to support jobs and investment in the region. The Munster technological university will be such a significant development. It will be only the second technological university in the State and the first outside of Dublin. We know that by IT Tralee working with Cork Institute of Technology, the sum of the parts will be much more beneficial than any individual part.

MTU will benefit the region by offering a deep and broad range of teaching at all levels of the National Framework of Qualifications, from an apprenticeship to a doctoral degree. That will be available in Kerry from January. MTU will also support an increased intensity of research activity. I really look forward to visiting Munster technological university with the Deputy in January.

There is a very proud tradition of higher education in the county, from the Tralee RTC days to IT Tralee. The MTU is a very exciting next step and is, as the Minister has quite rightly pointed out, a massive opportunity for the region but particularly County Kerry, which I represent. We will now have university education available to people in the county. What is critically important now is that we ensure there is that synergy with local enterprise to ensure that the appropriate courses and skills are developed in MTU. It is also really important we safeguard the range of courses available on both campuses. We know how important the range of courses in IT Tralee are from a Kerry perspective and we would not like to see any reduction in that. I welcome the fact the Minister will come to visit in January. That is really important and shows his interest in the subject.

I very much look forward to visiting with the Deputy Munster technological university and its Kerry campus. I am particularly pleased that in the past week we have been able to announce the appointment of the new president for the technological university, only the second female president of a university in Ireland in about 450 years, a brilliant and eminent person by the name of Professor Maggie Cusack, coming to us from Scotland. I know she is really eager and enthusiastic about getting stuck in. I also pay tribute, as Deputy Griffin said, to the proud legacy of IT Tralee and what went before it. While we are moving to a new, exciting chapter, we would not have got to this stage of the journey were it not for the dedication of all the staff in IT Tralee who have worked so hard to get to this point. They are very proud of their heritage, their tradition and their track record, as am I. By coming together we are beginning a new and really exciting chapter in which we can approach the future with certainty and confidence. We need to do that, particularly in the aftermath of Covid and as we try to rebuild people's lives.

The Minister referred to opportunities for young people. As a father of two young children who, I hope, in the next 11 or 12 years will be looking at higher education options, having the university option in the county is enormous, and it will be a game changer for so many people. The Minister also referred to Fexco, just one indigenous company in the county that has proven to be a global success.

I recently referred to it as being where Laune Valley meets Silicon Valley. Fexco has done so much for the county of Kerry and can do so much more. That synergy between Munster Technological University and companies such as Fexco, as well as many other companies that have proven themselves to be highly successful in these counties, is really important. I know there is now a really strong focus on driving that on into the future. I hope the Minister can be at the forefront in driving that on. I wish to congratulate the new president of the university, who I am sure will do an amazing job. I again thank everyone in the Department for the work they have done.

It is really important that the region owns this project. I have no doubt on that, having heard from the Deputy and others in County Kerry. It is a massive opportunity and investment. When I go to Kerry with the Deputy, I wish to speak to chambers of commerce and schools about the difference this will make to the people of the county and their lives. It is something we can support in Dublin financially, and we will do so every step of the way, but it needs to be owned and driven by the region, as I know it will.

While we are speaking about higher education, I am very conscious of the role and the job my Department has to do in terms of further education, which could be training, apprenticeships or helping to get people back to work. When I met the south-west regional skills forum, which covers County Kerry, we discussed how we can help to get the hospitality and tourism sector back on its feet, to get people who have lost their jobs or been out of work due to this awful virus back to work, and to provide training and access to courses. I look forward to having a chance to explore those issues with the Deputy in January.

Deputy Murnane O'Connor has a brief supplementary question.

I welcome the investment for the technological university for the south east. It will bring many opportunities for the region. Has the Minister had any contact with Carlow College, St. Patrick's, with regard to bringing about the full integration of the college into the higher education system in the south-east region? I am eager to hear the response of the Minister. Does he have a timeline for delivery?

I thank the Deputy for her consistent, persistent and determined advocacy in respect of Carlow College. I wish for the people of Carlow to know that we speak about the issue on a regular basis. I am looking forward to speaking to Fr. Conn Ó Maoldhomhnaigh, the president of Carlow College. As the Deputy is aware, my officials wrote to Carlow College to suggest that it carry out a piece of work relating to its future, financial sustainability and the likes. I have been honest about this from the start in stating that my absolute sequencing here is to establish the technological university for the south east, of which I know the Deputy is a big supporter. Once it is established, there will be opportunities for others to join it in various ways at that stage. That option will be open to Carlow College. As the Deputy is aware, I have also discussed the matter with the president of Institute of Technology Carlow. I will continue to work very closely with the Deputy on this issue.

Higher Education Institutions

Paul Murphy


45. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his views on the practice of postgraduate students being expected to do unpaid teaching hours. [41659/20]

In October, the Minister admitted to me that it is common practice for universities to require PhD researchers to do five hours of teaching per week without payment. Similar to the situation with student nurses, the Minister tried to claim this was not work but merely an upskilling programme. These are workers working in universities through lockdown, running classes and laboratories, often by themselves, while students are paying the highest fees in the EU to be there. How can the Minister and the Government justify expecting them to continue to work for free?

I thank the Deputy for his question. As he will know, postgraduate programmes are comprised of a range of elements designed to further the training and development of students. In particular, PhD students, in addition to conducting research, participate in other activities to develop generic and transferable skills. These activities are, and always have been, regarded as an integral part of their training and typically include teaching. Development of these skills is important in equipping postgraduate students for their future careers, including for academic positions. The teaching contribution assists in the acquisition of transferable skills, as described in the published national framework for doctoral education and the PhD graduate skills statement provided by the Irish Universities Association.

PhD students may contribute to teaching, often at a level of up to five hours per week, in the course of their studies. Such duties are commonly part of their terms and constitute an important element of their skills development programme. A range of activities can be included under their teaching contribution, such as taking tutorial groups, demonstrating at practical classes, co-supervising undergraduate projects and student mentoring. Hours may be included that are spent in class preparation, advising on or monitoring student projects and correcting projects, notebooks or essays. This will vary according to the particular school and discipline. Where postgraduate students are in receipt of funding awards, participation in such activities can be considered a valuable activity within the career of the award holder. Although contributing to teaching is an integral part of the training of a research master's or PhD student, the core component of research programmes across all universities is the advancement of knowledge through original research, which must remain the primary focus of the activity of research students.

Where individual issues arise, these fall to individual institutions to address, consistent with the terms of the framework and skills statement. However, given the issue raised by the Deputy and the wide range of potential situations reflecting the diversity of institutions, disciplines, course fees and, in some cases, the relationship with research funding awards and stipends, I intend to bring together a group to engage with the Higher Education Authority, the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, research funders and all other relevant stakeholders to seek advice on this matter and consider any issues arising. There needs to be a common rule set relating to this issue. I accept there is a body of work to do. I am happy to do that work.

In the Minister's reply, there was much reference to transferable skills. It seems to me that he and the Department are at pains to avoid referring to work as work. Instead, it is about developing transferable skills. Although there are differences, there are also parallels with the situation for student nurses. In this case, the universities are reliant on free labour from PhD researchers. Without this work, universities would not be able to continue to function. The people in question are PhD researchers who are obliged to teach classes without payment. Does the Minister accept that is work? Does he accept it is essential work in terms of keeping colleges open and training a new generation, yet the PhD researchers are expected to do it for free? Another problem is that we are not told how much unpaid work is being done. NUI Galway has refused freedom of information requests on the basis that it does not even know how many unpaid hours of teaching are taking place.

Just in case the Deputy missed some of my reply, let me be clear. I wish to acknowledge the points he has raised on this issue. I acknowledge the work of Noteworthy on this issue. I have read the article it published on the issue, possibly since I last discussed the matter with the Deputy, and I am concerned about the inconsistency of approach. For example, I am concerned that postgraduate students in receipt of a stipend from Science Foundation Ireland receive approximately €8,500, while those in receipt of a stipend from the Irish Research Council get approximately €6,000. There are issues in that regard. I am concerned about the inconsistency of approach, as I stated. There needs to be some sort of common rule set. The Deputy and I may not agree on this issue, but the national framework for doctoral education is a very clear published document relating to the importance of some of this work as part of postgraduate education and training. However, I do wish to see a much more consistent approach. I wish to hear the voice of students and researchers as well as hearing from higher education institutions and research funders. I intend to bring that group together early in the new year and I am more than happy to report back to the House and engage further on the matter.

I ask that the Minister include a representative of the Postgraduate Workers Alliance on that group. It is a specific organisation made up of postgraduate researchers across the country and set up precisely to discuss this issue. Its presence at those meetings would be important. For me, there is something quite simple here, which is that where people are engaged in productive labour, they should be paid for that work.

There is a more general issue beyond PhD researchers deserving a living wage for all their teaching hours. It is also time to recognise their research work as work. In Sweden and certain other countries, PhD researchers are recognised as workers and paid a wage for their work, but here they are dealt with as students who must go begging and applying for grant aid to support their research. The result is that many who would like to do a PhD simply cannot afford to do so unless they have wealthy parents. Does the Minister agree that research should also be recognised as work and that the researchers should be paid a living wage for it?

I am very happy to hear from the Postgraduate Workers Alliance, receive a submission from it and engage with it. I would welcome its views on this issue. Frankly, I need to have as much information as possible and we need to take a co-ordinated approach on the matter. We now have a new Department dedicated to higher education. It is appropriate that we apply a policy focus to some of these issues. It is also important to state that there are various views on this issue. I have met researchers, universities and student groups. Many researchers see the teaching hours of up to five hours per week as part of their course and an integral part of their training and mentorship. As I stated, I am concerned about some of the examples of which I have heard and read in the media in recent times. I wish to see a researcher career structure put in place with clear progression opportunities. I also point out that there are opportunities under the Haddington Road agreement in terms of an expert group on fixed-term and part-time employment in lecturing for the broader issue relating to precarious employment, to which I am sure we will return.

Departmental Data

Bernard Durkan


46. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the estimated number of academic and apprentice graduates expected to be available for employment annually over the next five years; the degree to which these numbers can increase in line with demand; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43198/20]

This question seeks to ascertain the extent of the availability of both academic and technical graduates in sufficient numbers to meet the demands of the workplace in the years ahead.

The further and higher education sectors have 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 higher education graduates and apprentices - I am pleased that the Deputy mentioned apprentices - and initiatives to equip young people and the working population more generally with the skills and capacity to meet these demands.

The identification of skills priorities to help to inform and shape planning for graduate output is guided by the national skills strategy. The strategy provided for the establishment of the skills architecture that we have today, which is the National Skills Council and the nine regional skills forums. As I said to Deputy Griffin during a previous question, there is great benefit in talking to the regional skills forums, the industries in the area and the education partners to ascertain what is needed in the region in terms of future skills. Underpinning both the skills agenda and architecture are the skills forecasting and intelligence systems, made up of the contribution of a number of public bodies including, at present, the expert group on future skills needs in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the skills and labour market research unit in SOLAS and the statistical analysis and assessment carried out by the HEA. The detailed research and analyses carried out by these bodies feed into the work of the National Skills Council in defining the priorities and delivering responses in the area of skills needs.

My Department does not currently produce specific projections for the number of higher education graduates because a number of variables can impact graduate output in any year. However, it is interesting that the projections of enrolment at third level predict that full-time student enrolments will rise by approximately 13% over the next decade, and it is to be expected that graduate numbers will increase in a similar manner. The number of students graduating each year has increased from 66,500 in 2014 to 73,300 in 2018, an increase of 10% over that period.

In the programme for Government there is a commitment to a new action plan for apprenticeships. That is nearly ready to go to the Government and will be launched early in the new year. It will set out new ways of structuring, funding and promoting apprenticeships, with a target of 10,000 new apprenticeship registrations per year by 2025. This compares with a 2019 registration figure of 6,177. We are clearly increasing the scale of our ambition in this regard.

I thank the Minister for the comprehensive reply. To what extent is the Department in contact with IBEC and other employment providers in the community with a view to concentrating on the areas most likely to show deficiencies in available skills, given that in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic and Brexit there will be a requirement for increased investment in that area?

There will be and I am pleased, as the first Minister in this new Department, to have a significant increase in funding already. Outside of the higher education places, we will be training an additional 50,000 people in 2021 compared to this year. That is part of our response, and we have more ambition in that regard. We engage regularly with IBEC. Its representatives sit on a number of the bodies I mentioned. I have had a number of meetings with IBEC since taking office. I will give an example of how the link with industry produces a good idea. One of the ideas the Government came up with was providing a financial incentive for a business to take on a new apprentice, and I am very pleased that as a result of that cash incentive, which is €3,000 for a business that takes on an apprentice, the number of registered new apprentices has significantly increased. Some 77 apprentices were registered in April while 918 were registered in October and 840 were registered in November. There were more new apprentices registered in October and November this year than in October and November 2019. Working together is extremely important in that regard.

To what extent is contact maintained with the major employers with a view to identifying from them the precise skills they anticipate will be required in the future, both academically and technically? To what degree does the Minister believe that this can be provided for?

There is constant contact in the National Skills Council, which I attend regularly. It comprises key senior public officials and, crucially, industry leaders and representative bodies of industry working together. We cannot be complacent or rest on our laurels. Nobody owes us a living and the country must constantly be ready not just for the jobs of today but also those of the future. That has never been more pertinent than it will be in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, whenever that happens. The benefit I genuinely see, to be honest, is in the regional skills forums. Not every part of the country is the same. I had a meeting in the south west of the country with the regional skills forum and it spoke about the need for more engineering graduates. The benefit there is that the education providers, including the ETB and local colleges, as well as the employers are in the virtual room together and they can come up with the programmes that have to be provided. That will become even more apparent as we roll out the technological universities.

Research and Development

Bernard Durkan


47. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the extent to which the number of graduates specialising in innovation, research and science is likely to increase annually in the future with particular reference to increased skills in their respective areas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43199/20]

This is a similar question, but it concentrates on research, innovation and science. It relates to the old story that people traditionally emigrated from this country to take up positions abroad. There is now a climate in which people invest here and jobs are created as a result. To what extent will those higher qualifications in science, research and other areas be available?

While I am mainly referred to as the Minister for higher education in the Department of higher education, that is only part of it. It is the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. That is not just to have a number of words in the title. The key element here is to bring some of the functions that were in the old Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation together with the higher education sector to plan for the future. The Taoiseach and the Government feel very strongly about that. For the first time in the history of the State, more than 50% of publicly funded research is under the auspices of one Department and Minister. That makes sense. Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, will not be under the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment any longer as, from the start of next year, it will be under my Department alongside the higher education institutions, so we can work together on ensuring Ireland is a real leader when it comes to research, innovation and science.

Innovation 2020 is the current national strategy for research and development, science and technology. It acknowledges the importance of having a pipeline of skilled and talented individuals playing a critical role in innovation provision and development. The development of a country’s talent entails lifelong investment and commitment on the part of both the individual and the State. From pre-primary through to further and higher education and throughout an individual’s career, skills and knowledge must be continuously enhanced if individuals, employers and countries are to realise their potential. Innovation 2020 calls for strengthened science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, teaching and learning at primary and post-primary levels - this is important as it is too late to begin these subjects at third level - and more initiatives to promote young people's and the wider population’s interest and participation in STEM.

At postgraduate level, the Irish Research Council funds graduates across all disciplines and is an important component in the wider national strategic pursuit of a strong talent pipeline of research graduates. SFI has commenced a programme to support advanced PhD skills and training, in collaboration with industry, for the new economy. There is a number of SFI centres for research training linked to the higher education institutions and there is an ambition to do more. The six we have currently are supporting over 700 PhD students in ICT and data analytics. The first 120 students commenced in September 2019.

Is the Minister satisfied that the provisions in this area, insofar as they can be determined at this stage, are sufficient to warrant confidence in people from abroad seeking to invest in jobs in this country?

I am never fully satisfied. It would be a boring day in politics to be fully satisfied. I reckon the Deputy is never fully satisfied either. There is always more to do. This country has a proud tradition when it comes to research, innovation and science. Equally, however, we cannot rest on our laurels. We must do more in this area, we must be more ambitious and we must invest more in publicly funded research. Europe is moving in a direction of far more ambitious targets. I attended a Council meeting of research ministers some weeks ago, and this country will need to have big and serious discussions about the review of the national development plan, our national economic plans and the like.

Crucially, we cannot work in silos. Science Foundation Ireland does incredible work, as does the Irish Research Council. The higher education institutions, by their nature, are engines of research, innovation and science. All of them must work together. I am not interested in having a fragmented strategy for one agency or one part of the sector. We must have a plan for science, research and innovation for Ireland for the next number of years, and we are working on that.

Finally, is the Minister satisfied that we are capable of competing with competitors in Europe in respect of innovation, science and research well into the future, and that sufficient provision is being made now to cater for that?

That is something about which I am more than satisfied, given the ingenuity of the Irish people, the level of educational attainment in this country and our track record of working with industry and data on where the future skills needs and jobs will be.

As a country that looks outward at a time when others choose to look inward, and wants to build new links and do more together, Ireland is very well placed to be a leader in this regard, but nothing is guaranteed. It is going to take a lot of work and I think that is one of the reasons the Taoiseach and the Government were motivated to establish the Department as part of the programme for Government and to have for the first time ever a Cabinet Minister and a full Department dedicated to these issues. We have a lot of work to do.

The Covid pandemic has perhaps given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be excited about science in the general population. I hope it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Children right across the country are talking about Luke O'Neill, vaccines and science. It has become very real very quickly. I hope many of them go on to study science and innovation in college.

Third Level Fees

Darren O'Rourke


48. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his views on whether third level fees should be reduced to reflect the reality of students not physically attending college in 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41645/20]

I wish to ask the Minister his views on whether third level fees should be reduced to reflect the reality of students not physically attending college in 2020, and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I thank Deputy O'Rourke for his question. I know he is interested in all these areas. In considering this issue, it is important to note that the State currently provides very substantial financial support to undergraduate students in higher education towards the cost of their studies. I have just announced a review of Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, this week. Currently in Ireland, about 44% of students attending college have their fees paid for in full or in part by the student grant system. There is no doubt that this support has played a very significant role in facilitating access to and growth in higher education. However, I am not satisfied that this is enough. That is why I am carrying out a full review of SUSI, to report by next summer. What was previously the preserve of a relatively small proportion of the school-leaving population is now much more widely available, as reflected in the current transfer rate from second level to third level. The Exchequer currently contributes €340 million to meeting the tuition fee costs of eligible undergraduate students in higher education. In addition, the Exchequer pays the student contribution for approximately 44% of students at a cost of more than €180 million.

While Ireland was on level 5 of the plan for living with Covid, all further and higher education institutions delivered the majority of their classes online, with only essential activities held on-site. While I appreciate that this was very disappointing for students who had hoped to have as much time on campus as possible, these measures were necessary to support halting the spread of Covid-19. As we moved to level 3, I have been honest with people that the bulk of college will remain online. There is a shared ambition between my Department and the sector to increase face-to-face learning on a phased and incremental basis. Students will be brought into college in small groups for tutorials and the like but large-scale learning will remain online for the rest of the year. Priority groups should be identified by each institution, in particular first-year students.

I have taken a number of measures this year to support students financially in other ways. The Deputy will be aware that the student assistance fund has been doubled. A €50 million financial assistance package will result in an increase of €250 in the SUSI grants going out this Friday. We will provide 17,000 laptops for students for blended or online learning. Mental health supports will be increased by an additional €3 million. I have a view on the registration fee, which I have put on the record of this House previously. Next year, we will have the European Commission's input into our economic evaluation of options for a sustainable model of funding for higher education.

I am trying to capture the unique set of circumstances of Covid-19 and the implications of it. It is different depending on one's starting position. Has there been any assessment of the implications of Covid on students, regardless of what year they are in? For some, there will be savings on accommodation but for others it has been all pain. Students have had to convert their bedrooms, install broadband and buy new laptops. Has an equality assessment been done? Have we looked to the future in terms of where we might be later this year and going into the next academic year?

That is a very valid question. Senior officials in my Department engage on a very regular basis - in fact it is every Friday morning - with representative bodies of the universities, the institute of technology sector, the Union of Students in Ireland and further education and training providers. I often attend as well. We continue to monitor and tease out issues in real time and consider issues that may be coming down the tracks regarding Covid and its impact on third level. That structure has worked pretty well.

While I do not have an analytical report available to me at this stage on the impact, I have asked about drop-out rates and suchlike and the indication so far is that there has not been any increase in drop-out rates this year. I do not wish to mislead the House. I am concerned not about the educational piece, as Quality and Qualifications Ireland reports suggest that is going quite well online in terms of standards, but about the mental health and welfare piece, as I know Deputy O'Rourke is as well. I have agreed with the colleges that they will try to get students on campus in small groups for tutorials. That cannot be beyond them. They will each have to do it in different ways, subject to the public health guidance, but that should be our shared ambition.

I think there is an important piece of work to be done to assess the impact in as comprehensive a way as possible. Depending on his or her starting point, the experience of Covid might make or break an individual in terms of the realisation of the opportunity of third level education. Some people who might have hung in there might drop out so I would encourage a continuation of that assessment in a holistic way, not just for those who drop out but also in terms of mental health and well-being.

Could the Minister give us his sense of what the next semesters will look like? I raised it with him previously in terms of trying to get first years on campus. What do the next semesters look like? I know we are ambitious about the vaccine, but we must be realistic as well. I would welcome a response from the Minister.

I think Deputy O'Rourke is a scientist so I will bow to his knowledge on that. I am sorry, I did not realise Deputy Conway-Walsh wished to speak.

Could the Minister give us an assurance that students who are severely impacted by Covid, either by getting sick themselves or by related anxiety, stress or mental health issues, will not be penalised next year? Could there be a possibility for them to repeat and still be eligible for SUSI or not have to pay the fees again if they have medical evidence?

I am certainly not ruling that out. I think we are right to keep a watching brief on all of those issues. One figure that I do have, which is perhaps in some way indicative of the financial impact of Covid on economic well-being, is the SUSI figures. They are provisional at the moment. From memory, I think approximately 72,500 people were awarded a SUSI grant last year and the total is approximately 77,000 this year. We have seen an increase in the number of people and that is even with the constraints of the current SUSI system.

One could ask what is vulnerable. Any of us can be vulnerable. I encourage any student feeling vulnerable or anxious to contact his or her university. This is not March. The doors were closed in March, but that is not the case now. Libraries and laboratories are open. One can go in and attend lectures. One can go to tutorials in small groups.

In response to Deputy O'Rourke's point, I do not like to deliver bad news but it is important to be honest for certainty. Levels 3, 4 and 5 will see the continuation of the bulk of lectures, in particular, online, in all likelihood for the rest of the college year. I am highly optimistic for the next academic year, based on our shared hopes for the vaccination programme, but we are obviously keeping this under review on an almost weekly basis.

Question No. 49 replied to with Written Answers.

Third Level Costs

Rose Conway-Walsh


50. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the measures he has taken to urge universities to compensate postgraduate students for the move to online teaching and the much-reduced student experience promised in their prospectus and marketing campaigns; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43162/20]

This question relates to postgraduate courses. It is an issue I wish to raise again. We should also include the graduate-entry medical students, as they pay similarly high fees. We have seen significant and justified anger among postgraduate students because they have paid so much for a one-year course and now they are doing it from their kitchen table or from box rooms. What, if any, steps has the Department taken with regard to postgraduate students who have paid up to €18,000 in some cases?

I am pleased the Deputy mentioned medical graduates because I would not want to miss the Irish Medical Organisation too much due to the change in my brief. I am looking forward to meeting it in the new year on medical graduate training in Ireland. We need to have an important conversation about how we support medical students in this country. I look forward to coming back to the Deputy on that.

It is important to note that postgraduate study in the higher education system in Ireland takes place across a very wide and diverse set of disciplines and extends from taught master's programmes to advanced and specialised postgraduate research. While the introduction of strict public health restrictions impacted widely on postgraduate students, the shift to online learning necessitated by Covid impacted predominantly on taught postgraduate programmes. I am making the point that there is a variety of different types of postgraduate programme. While Ireland was on level 5, all further and higher education institutions delivered the majority of their classes online, with only essential activities on site. As I indicated, as we are now at level 3 we are hoping to be more ambitious in terms of the ability to increase face-to-face learning on a phased and incremental basis. It is also hoped to restart a number of social activities such as sports, clubs and societies to allow students to experience some element of college life.

We need to be realistic. Higher education institutions are autonomous, as provided for in legislation, and the determination as to the total level of postgraduate fee to be charged is a matter for each institution in accordance with its particular operational condition and circumstances. That is a matter of legislation.

The cost of delivering such a programme has not reduced as a consequence of the pandemic, and in many ways these institutions ran up a range of additional costs in continuing to deliver programmes, despite unique circumstances. We have been trying to assist them financially in meeting those costs, and we have provided much funding for that.

Conscious of the immediate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our students, I ensured that postgraduate students were included in the €50 million financial assistance fund. The variety of postgraduate courses vary and therefore the experience this year in college is varying significantly.

The issue is that institutions have overpromised and the Department must take some responsibility for that, as with the accommodation matter. Many of the students and parents I have spoken to feel they were misled. We cannot treat universities, institutes of technology and private colleges like primary or post-primary schools. They are marketing very expensive courses and that is what they sold. The students are not getting what they paid for. In many or all cases, they made promises that could not be delivered.

I understand Covid-19 adds an element of uncertainty but many of us back in September could see this overpromising. Students have a right to expect to pay less for a reduced service. These courses were sold on the basis of glossy brochures of the experience these students would have. It is not the institutions' fault they were not able to deliver the experience but they should reimburse some of that money at this stage.

I thank the Deputy. I doubt she means it like this but with my Department or the Government, there was no attempt to mislead anybody. I remember getting a letter from the deputy chief medical officer on the Friday telling us we needed to bring in additional precautions, and this effectively moved much college activity online. That decision was made and published on that Friday, so it was the moment we received the public health advice. The Deputy has been decent and fair enough to acknowledge that the situation has been very fluid with regard to the public health advice.

I take the Deputy's point about the cost of a postgraduate course in Ireland, which is significant. I have outlined the legislative reality and these are the laws passed by the House relating to how the fees are set by autonomous institutions. I have outlined the supports I, along with Government colleagues, have put in place in that regard. I want to do more in this space but we have significantly increased the level a person can earn and the amount that he or she can receive from next year as part of the maintenance grant while doing a postgraduate course in Ireland. These supports were decimated in the previous recession and we need to rebuild them.

I am sure the €250 support brought welcome relief to many students and I welcome the fact it was extended to postgraduates. We can consider the large sums involved in getting a master's degree, which can be anything from €8,000 to €18,000 per year. When the move online was announced at the end of September, students should have been offered the chance to defer or take a refund. Will the Department now support students in their calls for a rebate of the fees they have paid?

The UCD Smurfit business school students are lobbying for a 30% reduction in their fees and I know many British students are doing likewise with some colleges there. It is a reasonable demand. Graduate entry medicine, GEM, students are spending €16,000 to study medicine in UCD, and they saw fees increase this year. Will the Department engage with these students to find a solution?

We always engage but we do not make commitments I cannot stand over. The legal position with regard to the autonomy of our universities and the setting of postgraduate fees is a statement of fact. I always welcome the opportunity to engage, hear views and see how we can support people, and this is important. We have put in place a number of supports this year for students at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

In fairness to the higher education sector staff and students, they have kept the system going in what might be a less than ideal scenario, to put it mildly. They have continued to provide high-quality education, albeit not with the usual college experience. I am sure the Deputy reads the likes of the Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, report into how the standard of our higher education system has been maintained despite additional costs, challenges and the new way of providing that education.

There is a balance to be struck and this is a position in which nobody wished to find themselves. Our higher education institutions have tried to keep the show on the road in that regard. I hope 2021 sees us move to higher terrain.

Questions Nos. 51 and 52 replied to with Written Answers.

Technological Universities

Colm Burke


53. Deputy Colm Burke asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the status of the development of the Munster technological university; his views on the areas in which technological universities will fit in the further and higher education landscape in Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43219/20]

The Minister has dealt with many of the questions I have relating to the Munster technological university. He has already outlined to my colleague, Deputy Griffin, views on the areas in which technological universities will fit in the further and higher educational landscape, but will he make a statement on the matter?

I thank Deputy Burke, again not just for the question but for his very significant and sustained support for this project and his interest in the developments in higher education in the Cork area. We have had many conversations on this and I look forward to continuing to work with him on this and visiting Cork Institute of Technology, which will then be Munster technological university after an official commencement in January.

The creation of technological universities is an important part of the Government’s higher education and regional development policy, and both should be seen together. There should be as many opportunities as possible for people to access the full range of qualifications on the national qualifications framework, but the regional development policy should ensure that people in all parts of our country can access education and that jobs and investment come to those regions as well.

The establishment of Munster technological university on 1 January 2021, now just days away, will lead to us having a second technological university in the country following the establishment of the Technological University of Dublin on 1 January 2019. This shows the advances we are making in a new and exciting era in Irish higher education.

The establishment of technological universities creates institutions of sufficient size, capacity and critical mass to strengthen educational offerings greatly and attract greater investment for regions, as I have said. The benefits of becoming a successful technological university are significant in terms of increased reach, international recognition, research capacity building, foreign direct investment attraction, skills retention and creation, regional development, enhanced staff and student experience and opportunities, and socioeconomic progression.

I have no doubt technological universities will help retain talent in regions by strengthening the offer available to students who will be able to continue to masters and postgraduate level, including PhDs. A key mission is the building of research capacity and the promotion of innovation.

I commend Cork Institute of Technology, and I know the Deputy has worked closely with it, on its proud track record in the delivery of education in the Cork region. I thank the people involved for taking this very exciting step forward. I know when I had to sign the dissolution order for Cork Institute of Technology, it was a day for remembering all the good it brought but it was also an exciting day and a new dawn.

I thank the Minister. I also thank the people involved in ensuring this merger can go forward, and I very much welcome the work that the Minister and his Department have done over recent months and years in bringing this together.

It is important that we also organise and ensure we get out information to students in primary and secondary schools about the area of science and technology. We should look at getting this done in an organised way. The Cork region has nine of the top ten pharmaceutical companies and many of the companies leading technological advances. It is important that we continue to promote that expansion in the Cork and Kerry region. It is important to note where people from industry make a major contribution, including the chairperson of Cork Institute of Technology, Mr. Bob Savage.

The Deputy has mentioned the work done to bring these institutions together and I was thinking that my political epitaph might be that I brought Cork and Kerry together. It is significant and this is a very important step. I thank the people who have been working at this for years in Cork and Kerry. I thank my predecessor, former Deputy and Minister of State, Ms Mary Mitchell O'Connor, and the outgoing presidents of Cork Institute of Technology and the Institute of Technology, Tralee. I also thank Mr. Savage, who is chairperson of the governing authority, and everybody who has worked so hard to get to this point.

The Deputy's idea is absolutely right and we must start at the school level trying to excite people in science and research innovation. As I have said, there is a once in a generation opportunity to do that with so much focus on science and research in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. There are also questions around climate and digitisation as well.

A huge body of work has been done to get to this point, and the regional skills forum for the south west is key in identifying the skills needs. The Deputy mentioned the large cluster of pharmaceutical companies, and we must ensure we can provide graduates not just for now but also for the jobs of the future. I am looking forward to visiting Cork with the Deputy in January and engaging on these matters.

It is important to emphasise the size of this new technological university. It will have over 18,000 students and 140 different courses and obviously it will expand over time. It is important that we promote it as a university and get that message across to students in the Cork and Kerry region.

Deputy Ó Murchú wishes to ask a supplementary question.

My question relates to Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT, which will not come as a shock to the Minister. DkIT was slow to the game of attaining technological university status but we all accept the absolute necessity of same. I welcome the funding that has been provided to enable DkIT to make this journey and the fact that the HEA has put Dr. Ruaidhrí Neavyn in a prime position to ensure this happens. I ask the Minister to provide an update on his interactions with DkIT and the HEA and an update on the status of the process.

I echo Deputy Burke's comment that the establishment of MTU is the beginning of the journey. There will be expansion and additionality as the university grows.

Deputy Ó Murchú is entirely right. When one goes to the dance but does not pick a partner and everyone is partnered off, one is left alone. We have two institutes of technology, both of which are excellent, namely DkIT and IADT in Dún Laoghaire, that are currently not aligned with technological university development consortiums. I want to be very clear that they both have a major role to play. DkIT is in a crucial geographical location in the north east, as Deputy Ó Murchú well knows. Its close proximity to the Border is also key in the context of Brexit and all of the economic challenges that will bring. I am very eager to visit Dundalk and would be happy to do so in the new year. I have had a number of conversations with the president of DkIT and I am of the view that there are a number of opportunities for Dundalk but I do not wish to speculate on them publicly. There are a number of cross-border opportunities that would make sense and I would be interested in working with Deputy Ó Murchú on them. As he said, despite the fact that DkIT is not in any of the consortiums, we provided funding in October from the transformation fund to help it to explore its options.

Question No. 54 replied to with Written Answers.

Student Universal Support Ireland

Rose Conway-Walsh


55. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he will provide additional information on the €20 million in budget 2021 for SUSI that will see the funding returned to 2019 levels; the projections on demand upon which this is based; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43163/20]

I ask the Minister to provide further details on the €20 million in budget 2021 for SUSI, which will see funding return to 2019 levels, and the demand projections upon which this figure is based. I have raised this with the Minister previously at the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. The additional funding for SUSI announced in budget 2021 will bring funding back to 2019 levels but given the economic environment in which we find ourselves, will this be enough?

During the course of 2020, SUSI has experienced, not unexpectedly, an increase in the number of applications for grant assistance as well as the number of students seeking a review, understandably, based on the change of circumstances provision in the scheme. This is primarily due to the negative impact that Covid-19 has had on the tenure of employment and income levels. For this reason I sought and secured additional funding of €20 million for 2021 to meet the existing and expected demands on the SUSI grant scheme for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 academic years to ensure that we provide SUSI support to everyone who is eligible.

To date there has been an increase of 4% in the number of applications received by SUSI in comparison to this time last year. SUSI has received 100,826 applications for the 2020-21 academic year. This compares to 96,094 for the 2019-20 academic year. Not every student who qualifies for grant support proceeds to take up a grant. For 2019-20, the actual number of grant holders was around 72,000 as some students decided not to proceed to college, defer their college place or not complete their studies. Of the 100,826 applications processed to date this year, 77,710 have been assessed as eligible for grant support. This figure is likely to increase as some late applications are processed to conclusion.

My Department is satisfied that the €20 million in additional funding sought is in line with our expectations. As the Deputy knows, since the establishment of SUSI the Oireachtas has, on a number of occasions, increased its funding because it administers a demand-led scheme. The Oireachtas and the Government will continue to monitor the situation closely.

I welcome the Minister's recent announcement of a review of SUSI. I have been calling for such a review for a long time and the information we gathered in August of this year spoke to that very much.

I ask the Minister to focus on the situation facing mature students who have been forced to move back home due to the current housing situation. Currently we have mature students, often with their own children, being assessed on their parents' income. The burden of proof required to demonstrate financial independence in general is difficult and young people who are estranged from their parents are often excluded from the system. Student renters are often asked to demonstrate that their landlord is registered with the Residential Tenancies Board, something that is beyond their control.

Speed is of the essence here. While I welcome the forthcoming review, I am concerned about the students who will be coming on board next year. There are changes that we could make to the system here and now, rather than waiting for the outcome of the review, particularly with regard to students being assessed independently. I ask the Minister to consider things we could change now that would make life easier for students.

Since taking up office I have made three changes to SUSI. The first was the €250 payment. The second was the change to postgraduate supports, both to the level of grant and the level of income allowed. The third, and perhaps most important, was the change to the student support scheme for people in asylum. Only five people in asylum were able to access financial support last year but this year there are 25 such people accessing support, with 29 more potentially valid applications being assessed as we speak.

I agree with the Deputy's comments on mature students. The three areas that I would like to see action on in the SUSI review, while not wanting to pre-empt it, are mature students, part-time learners and costs. I am frustrated that the SUSI system does not understand costs and only understands income. An applicant could be a single parent with a certain amount of income but he or she could have childcare costs. Indeed, couples can also have significant childcare costs. The system has served us well in many ways but it is a bit outdated. It needs to be updated and I will take on board the points made by Deputy Conway-Walsh. There will be an opportunity for the Deputy and all stakeholders to consult and give their views, which will be given the most serious consideration.

I thank the Minister and assure him that I will make an input into the review.

I also wish to raise the matter of the exclusion of online and part-time students. This particularly militates against students with disabilities who cannot go on campus or engage in full-time courses because of their conditions. This discrimination is totally wrong. I am concerned about those who are looking forward to studying next year. Given the current climate, we need to encourage more people to engage in third level education and to engage in upskilling and the way to do that is make it easier for them to access SUSI grants. I do not want them to have to wait until 2022 before they can get onto their chosen course because at that stage they could have a year completed. I ask the Minister to make changes to the system sooner rather than later so that we can include as many people as possible.

I agree that not everybody can pack their bags and head off to college for four years, for a variety of reasons. That is not the way people learn in Ireland now and that is not the way we live in many ways and the system needs to be more flexible. I accept the Deputy's point that part-time rather than full-time learning is a much more viable option for some people and part-time students are included in the terms of reference of the review. The terms of reference are quite broad and have been welcomed by the USI. We will be putting a steering group together and the voice of the student will be represented thereon. I do not want this review to go on forever. It will make initial recommendations to me by the summer which gives us plenty of time, in advance of the budget, to prepare our list of asks. I will engage seriously with the Deputy on this.

I ask the Minister to include young people with autism or their representatives, including his own brother, to ensure that we meet the educational needs of extremely bright young people with autism.

I will make sure that this is considered as a core component. I note that some universities are now making a real effort to become autism friendly. We have some very bright students and very bright people in our country but they are not the challenge. Sometimes it is the institutions that are the challenge; they need to be more flexible and understanding of how people with autism learn because we all learn differently. While I am not yet sure of the composition of the steering group, I will make sure there is an opportunity for meaningful input.

Questions Nos. 56 to 88, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Third Level Fees

Rose Conway-Walsh


89. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if universities are in a position to assure students applying from Northern Ireland that under no circumstance will they be charged international fees; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43164/20]

My question relates to students from the North. I know the Minister gave me assurances with regard to Erasmus. Can he give me the same assurances with regard to Horizon Europe as it pertains to students from the North? What else can we do to ensure greater mobility of students across the island and to create a collection of opportunities for those students? I am also cognisant of the brain drain from the North of Ireland. One third of students from the North of Ireland go to Britain to study. There is no reason they cannot study on their own island.

The Deputy will appreciate the sensitivity of this time. Obviously, we will need to see the final outcome of negotiations on an arrangement between the UK and the European Union. I have met the UK universities minister and the Northern Ireland Minister for the Economy, who has responsibility for higher education. I will also be virtually attending a meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council with Government colleagues on Friday. I have made it very clear that I hope there will be an arrangement in place whereby the people of Northern Ireland and the UK can continue to access Horizon Europe. Regardless of the outcome, however, we are very eager to continue bilateral engagement between east and west and between North and South. There are very clear commitments in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. Some civil rights issues that were to be seen in Ulster University in the 1960s are still to be seen today. The Irish and British Governments have made clear commitments in that regard. The issue of all-island research centres also arises. I will be visiting Derry, and Northern Ireland more broadly, in January to begin to explore some of these issues further.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.