With the agreement of the House, I will share my time with the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the impact of Covid-19 on the further and higher education sector. I was a little disappointed that, for the first time in my political career, some Members of the Dáil actually voted not to have me here today for questions and answers. I find that a little bit regrettable, as almost half a million people in this country are in further or higher education. Many of these are first-time entrants to third level and, as a result of this awful virus, some have never had an opportunity to set foot on their campuses or to attend a lecture in person. The airwaves are full of discussion about the impact of Covid-19 on our schoolchildren. It is right and proper that this issue is being discussed but we also need to discuss and consider the impact this pandemic is having on young people more broadly, including young people in third level education.
I want to talk about that this afternoon because Covid-19 has robbed many of our young people of important milestones, which they understandably thought they could expect. It has robbed them of the opportunity to experience a life beyond secondary school. These first-year students last set foot in a school last March and now find themselves experiencing college life in a box room or at the corner of a kitchen table, looking at a laptop or a Zoom camera. They may have missed out on the opportunity to leave their home towns, to become independent, to meet new people or to be creative. Their college experience has been greatly curtailed. We know this is absolutely the right thing to do from the perspective of public health. It is a matter of saving lives and keeping people safe. We do, however, need to consider how best to support these young people and we must move mountains to help them. My message to young people and first-year students today, which I hope all will echo loudly and clearly, is that this will not be their college life forever. It is a difficult moment in time but it will pass.
Third level is, of course, not just about young people. It is also about mature students, that is, people who had the guts and the courage to go back to college and learning, to avail of lifelong learning, to start a new career, to reskill or to upskill. It is about the student from the Traveller community who may be the first in his or her family to attend a third level course and who now wants to find a quiet space to do his or her work. It is about young people, like those I met yesterday, who left school early for any of a variety of reasons - because school sometimes does not work out for people - and who are now back in Youthreach, trying to get their lives back on track and to fulfil their ambitions. We have to discuss the impact this is having on them and we have to ensure that when we open our doors - which we all hope will be soon - they will be in a position to continue their journey in education.
This country is talking an awful lot about economic recovery, which is really important but we are not talking nearly enough about how we are going to repair society and societal well-being after this period. From the engagements I have had, I can tell the House that people are finding this time really tough. People are fragile and consequently, when we talk about recovery, can we talk about social recovery, as well as about economic recovery?
There is absolutely no doubt that Covid-19 has resulted in significant disruption for students and learners, as well as staff. I acknowledge the enormous efforts that have gone into ensuring that continuity has, for the most part, been maintained throughout the pandemic. Despite learning having to happen in a new and different format, it has continued. I thank the unions and all of our stakeholders who have stepped up to the plate and worked very hard. In the early phase, when on-site activities were suddenly suspended, there was a very rapid shift to emergency remote learning.
Over time, a blended model of learning has become the dominant mode with varying levels of on-site and online delivery aligned to public health advice at different times. Our institutions in the sector are very diverse and have a strong degree of autonomy. This diversity and flexibility have been key in driving responsive and adaptable approaches to the challenges created by the pandemic.
Over the summer of 2020, people worked hard to put in place plans for a more comprehensive return to on-site provision for the academic year 2020-21 but we all know what the virus did to those plans.
At present, the level 5 measures designate higher and further education as essential insofar as on-site presence is required for education activities that cannot be held remotely. We need to be honest with the students and staff of further and higher education. As long as we remain at level 3, level 4 or level 5 of our Covid plan, the majority of learning will remain online. In overall terms, the sectors have adjusted speedily to a more restrictive environment again, with all further and higher education institutions conducting most of their provision online. The balance between on-site and online provision will be subject to continual change in order to safeguard students, staff and the communities in which institutions are located. There is a discretion for things that must take place in person and it is important for that discretion to remain in place.
SOLAS and our education and training boards, ETBs, have issued guidance to providers on the delivery of further education and training, FET, and craft apprenticeship programmes during January. FET programmes, including Youthreach provision, and apprenticeships are being delivered almost entirely online during this period. The Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, has been working hard on this and will provide further detail on the arrangements for apprenticeship in his contribution.
Ongoing engagement with relevant institutions and stakeholders continues. Every Friday I meet all the relevant partners as we continue to monitor this very closely.
I am pleased to be putting in place a range of supports for students and the sector during these challenges. I am always open to engaging on how we can do more to ensure that educational opportunities remain and are made more accessible to everyone, particularly the most vulnerable in our society.
There is a commitment to support those in the research community, who may have been somewhat unsung in the past but who have come very much to the fore during this pandemic. They are crucial to tackling the social and scientific problems posed by Covid-19 now and as we move forward.
A once-off funding package of €168 million was created to support publicly funded further and higher education providers and to support students. It included a doubling of the student assistance fund from €8 million to €16 million, additional funding of €10 million for access measures in higher education, €15 million to buy laptops and other devices and equipment to assist students in accessing third level education online, a €3 million increase in focused mental health and well-being funding and an increase in the level of funding for the 1916 Bursary Fund to €5 million per annum, which will provide an additional 200 bursaries, bringing the total number for this year to 1,000 bursaries for the most disadvantaged students in the college system. It also includes an additional €20 million in funding for Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, next year, an allocation of €6 million to increase SUSI support for postgraduates and, for the first time ever, a ring-fenced fund for mitigating educational disadvantage of €8 million to allow SOLAS to look at how we support community education and the learners in our community who may be at the greatest risk of disconnection from our education and training system. As colleagues will be aware, we have created a €50 million fund to provide financial assistance to full-time third level students in recognition of the particular impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and I am pleased to see colleges now attaching that €250 credit to students' accounts. We have ring-fenced funding of €300,000 for targeted supports to address the implications of Covid-19 for Traveller progression within higher education and funding has also been secured for 2021. Moreover, there is an allocation of €25 million for capital works and equipment in higher education, which represents a significant increase on the €10 million provided in recent years.
We are working as hard as we can to put in place as many measures as we can. We have provided €47 million to provide support for contract researchers and research students whose work has been seriously disrupted by the pandemic and we need to ensure that work can continue.
My Department is not just a Department for colleges and universities. It is also a Department of skills to help people get back to work and to get the skills they may need to obtain a job. Unfortunately, Covid has resulted in many people losing their jobs. It may also have resulted in some people taking stock of life and asking what they want to do with life and where they want to get to. Many people have decided to take a leap of faith in many ways, go back to the education system, retrain and start a new career.
In an average year we train about 245,000 people in further education. We are increasing further education and training places this year by 50,000. This will mean that almost 300,000 people will avail of places on training courses this year. Some 8,000 people have enrolled on the ETB-led Skills to Compete initiative. More than 1,200 companies are on board to provide places under the Skillnet Ireland Skills Connect initiative in a wide variety of sectors such as medtech, financial services and the sustainable economy.
We have started some good work on apprenticeships, although we have more to do. For the first time ever, we are providing a financial incentive to any business that takes on an apprentice. As a result, we have seen a real stabilisation and recovery on our apprenticeship registration numbers following its introduction. This scheme is continuing in 2021.
Retrofit training is being rolled out. We can be as ambitious as we want on climate action but without the people to do the retrofitting, it is just talk. We need to ensure we can provide people with the skills to give them the opportunity to get jobs in retrofitting. I am delighted that this year, we will open four centres of excellence in retrofitting training, giving people in communities throughout the country a chance to get a new job and giving communities a chance to avail of retrofitting.
We have launched a range of focused measures in higher education through Springboard, postgraduate courses and modular skills.
There are many opportunities available but we need to get much better at helping people to navigate through the information and to find what works for them. Next week, I will launch a new portal, which is aimed at delivering better central, customer-focused information via a dedicated campaign page on gov.ie and with an associated communications plan. We want to get the message out there. We need to help people navigate their way through the courses available to find the course that works for them. We will launch that new site next week.
As we move through this year, our approach, which has been very much a collaboration between the Department and stakeholders in the sector, has been underpinned by a set of key principles: prioritising the immediate needs of the health system; prioritising learners’ interests; the importance of maintaining continuity in educational services; ensuring the integrity and quality of solutions; ensuring that, at a minimum, disadvantage is not exacerbated by the crisis and that we look at opportunities to narrow disadvantage; and sharing best practice, solutions and leveraging.
As the full academic year in pandemic circumstances advances, we are focused on sustaining that continuity. I want to ensure there is a common-sense and compassionate approach to examinations and an understanding across our system for students this year as well.
Improvements to connectivity will continue to be required and I was pleased to recently announce the roll-out of Wi-Fi roaming to further and higher education students in over 90 new locations across the country. I thank HEAnet for its work in leading this project, which will result in the eduroam Wi-Fi service being extended to libraries in Longford and Galway, as well as other places.
I acknowledge what an extraordinarily difficult time this has been for students, learners and staff, with an enormous impact on their well-being. Every night we hear the figures and every night we hear of that sense of crisis on our country. Many students, educational staff and others throughout the country are enormously stressed. I am keenly aware of the challenges they have been facing in our sector. As we move forward in our overall response, I will establish a new working group in my Department, led and chaired by the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, dedicated to identifying, refining and implementing strategies to enhance learner engagement and well-being. We need to hear the voice of students and do everything we can to help them.
I once again wish to plug a number that we should make famous. We have a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week mental health text line. The number is 50808, which is available for anyone who feels at any moment they have an issue, big or small, that is getting them down. They should never feel they are alone.
I want learners right across third level education to know that this is will not be the way forever. We will get back to a more normal, more interactive experience. In the meantime, those who are finding it difficult should reach out and seek assistance. I know I will have the support of everybody in this House in saying that we will continue to ensure we put the supports in place and do everything we can to assist. At the moment, the priority must be getting people through this pandemic, minding their well-being and keeping our education services going. Then we will build back our services as the public health situation allows us.
I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House and I look forward to answering questions and keeping colleagues informed.