I am delighted to be here today again addressing Dáil Éireann on the work of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. We have been working very hard in recent months to establish a new Department.
Indeed, the Department was only formally set up in law last August and we have tried to pursue an ambitious agenda of work since then. I believe that if we get this right, this Department will be a powerhouse for good, working to ensure we build a stronger, more inclusive third level education system for this country, one that will serve our society and our economy well into the future. We want to ensure that after this Covid pandemic, instead of emerging with a return to the status quo, we are instead in a position to build back better, to emerge stronger in the aftermath and to ensure that our education system can provide equal opportunities for all, whether that is having the right skills to enter employment or to access education.
On Monday of this week, my Department launched its first statement of strategy. A statement of strategy is something every Department is legally required to publish, the significance of this one being that it is the first for the new Department. This statement of strategy is a three-year plan developed with our stakeholders after public consultation. It outlines some of our priorities, including improving the transition to further and higher education for school leavers. I believe passionately in this. We do not have an integrated tertiary education system in Ireland. We have a higher education system and a further education system and while they talk to each other and help each other out, it is not integrated and we need to fix that. We are going to publish in April a new ten-year strategy to improve adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills. People are getting locked out of participation in society and the economy due to an inability to read, to write, to understand their ESB bill and to look after their own health needs in terms of health literacy and digital skills. We live in a country where one in eight adults lacks basic reading skills and one in five of us struggles with numbers. These are not the fault of individuals. It is a failure of ours, as a State and as public services, to address this issue and we need to do that.
We are going to overhaul the apprenticeship system. There is huge potential to make progress when it comes to apprenticeships, a model of earning and learning that works for many, but we are not where we need to be in that space yet. We have a plan to increase the number of registered apprentices in our country to 10,000 each year from 2025. We need to look at things like gender equality in apprenticeships. I got a briefing note recently that stated we had 26 female apprentices in Ireland in 2015. I genuinely thought it was a typo and I thought we were missing at least one or two zeros, but it was not a typo. We had 26 registered female apprentices in our country in 2015. We are now up to 1,000 but that is 1,000 out of 6,000 or 7,000, so we have a long way to go in that regard. There is a real chance to build a robust apprenticeship system that will work for businesses, big and small, and, crucially, work for citizens in getting where they want to be.
We are going to introduce new legislation to reform higher education governance and to have a sustainable approach to funding. The governance laws in higher education date to the 1970s, and 1971 was the last time the Oireachtas really looked at this area in detail. It is not fit for purpose and it needs to be modernised. I look forward to working with Members across the divide in this House and the other House to try to pass overarching governance legislation for the higher education sector by the end of this year.
We are going to undertake a national engagement on research and science, and develop a renewed national strategy to succeed Innovation 2020. The phrase “A once-in-a-generation opportunity” is a bit clichéd but it is true. The whole country is talking about research, science and innovation. Things that used to be done behind the scenes are now done very publicly, with people like Luke O'Neill and Kingston Mills just two who have become household names. We have a chance to excite a whole generation about science and research but we need a new national strategy in this regard. We do not need silos and fiefdoms and we need to all pull together. We are going to have a national engagement this year on what that strategy should look like. Again, I look forward to the input of Members. We have a chance to grow our international reach and position Ireland as a leader in higher education research.
We intend to establish technological universities right across the country and to advance North-South co-operation in higher education and research. There are things that it simply makes sense to do on an all-island basis and we need to do much more of that.
To focus on some of the particulars, I want to first talk about the Central Applications Office, CAO. I want to talk to leaving certificate students this year who are thinking about their transition to third level next year. As of 1 February, more than 79,000 applicants had applied to the CAO, which is an increase of around 6,000 since this time last year. There are some interesting elements to that and I want to share them with the House. There has been a doubling of applicants from other EU countries in comparison to this time last year - I call it the Brexit effect and it probably is attributable to Brexit. It is encouraging to see more people choosing Ireland as a place to study but it is also important to acknowledge that an awful lot of people who apply from abroad do not actually end up taking up places, so that is a factor. We have also seen what I am calling a Covid effect. We have seen the number of mature applicants, that is, people who want to return to education and access higher education, significantly increase as well. First preference data show that some subject areas have increased in popularity. There have been increases of more than 20% in first preference choices for medicine, nursing and pharmacy courses, and a 70% increase in first preferences for environment-related courses. Of course, my Department has been aware of the fact that demand on the higher education system is increasing and we have been preparing for that. Some €18 million of additional funding was allocated in the last budget and that is going to deliver 4,100 additional college places this year, made up of 2,700 additional undergraduate places related to demographics and 1,400 additional places through what we call the human capital initiative.
We want to do more. Once there was clarity on the leaving certificate, we established a working group within my Department, engaging with all the stakeholders, to see what more can be done. I really think we can do something good here if we work right across the Government and not just in a departmental mode. Some of these extra places will also require placements so, for instance, if one wants to create an extra place in nursing, it requires a clinical placing. It is the same in medicine, in that if one want to create an extra teaching post, it requires a teaching placement. We are working across Departments in this regard and I intend to update the Government in April on what more we can do for this year's leaving certificate students in terms of expanding the size of our further and higher education system.
I also want to go into a little detail on my plan to reform the pathways between further and higher education. I do not understand why we live in a country where we narrow the conversation when someone is 17 and tell that person to fill out a form and let us know what he or she wants to do with the rest of his or her life. That sort of mindset needs to go out with the dinosaurs. Why are we putting this pressure on young people to decide everything, or at least to feel they need to decide everything, at that younger age? We need to show them all their options. We need to show them further education, apprenticeship and higher education options. I want to expand the CAO form. I want to create one single portal through which students can apply to further or higher education but I also want to have joint programmes between further and higher education. I want people to have a single credit system whereby they can move much more easily from further education to higher education and, indeed, dip in and out of education as they require it. Not everybody has the luxury of packing their bags and heading off for four years to college. Some people have a whole variety of commitments and they need to do education on a part-time basis, remotely or in a flexible way, over a longer time.
I see Deputy Cairns is present. She arranged for me to meet a group from Skibbereen who made the point that no matter how many technological universities we open in the country, Skibbereen is always going to be far away from them geographically. The question is how we bring education into the community. The Deputy had some ideas with the Ludgate Hub in that regard. These are the sort of things we need to do if we are serious about creating an integrated tertiary system and I want to work with the Deputy on that. This is an area of reform that is long overdue. I am not sure how we have allowed ourselves, as a country, to get to this point where the points race seems to be the be-all and end-all every year and people only look to their other options if they do not get the points they require. We need to show everybody all of their options. We need to start the conversation by asking people what they would like to do and then show them four or five different ways of getting there. With the exception of a few professions, there are always four or five different ways of getting to where someone wants to get to in life. It is one of our big flagship projects in the new Department and I look forward to working with the Deputy on that.
I will be meeting the CAO today, after this discussion, and I look forward to keeping the House updated on that. We want to move forward collaboratively. We want to work with everybody on this, including with guidance counsellors, SOLAS, the CAO and university leaders. However, I am clear that now is the time to make these reforms.
Under current Covid restrictions, higher and further education has remained primarily online. I want to talk a little about higher education in the context of Covid, which has posed significant challenges for students across the country. The majority of students are now accessing education at the kitchen table or in the box room, not on the college campus. It is not the college experience they would be expecting and people are finding it very difficult. Contrary to a narrative that sometimes takes hold, students are not all out having house parties and street parties. That is a very small minority. Most students are really suffering and struggling this year. We have seen, from time to time, a small minority of students who let the side down but we have seen that in lots of different age groups and different demographics. The scenes in Limerick were disappointing and were a slap in the face but they are not reflective of the wider student population.
I was very disappointed to see some Members of this House engage in some sort of bizarre populism over the weekend by saying, “Shut down the universities. Close the doors”. It really shows a great ignorance as to what is actually going on in our universities, where very little is happening on campus. What is happening on campus is required to ensure people can graduate including access to labs, access for vulnerable learners, access for practicals and access for apprentices. Closing our colleges would mean students could not graduate and apprentices could not complete their courses.
Some of the people calling for this would be the first to wonder, three or four years hence, why we have a shortage in nursing graduates or of certain other people coming from the universities. We cannot do that, and we cannot punish the many for the actions of the few. We are working on a plan for a significant increase in on-site activity for the next academic year. We have meetings every Friday morning with students' unions, university leaders, ETBs and others on how we can do that in a safe manner and linking with public health.
I will briefly return to one of the other key priorities of the Department, the progression of a number of technological universities. Technological universities, TUs, are not just for education. They are also for regional development. They are an opportunity to end the mindset that all roads must lead to a large city. I have spoken about this to the Acting Chairman, Deputy Cathal Crowe, in his constituency. There is an opportunity here to bring higher education into rural Ireland and to make it available in counties, without everybody having to pack their bags, leave their counties and head to the perceived big smoke. The next step in the evolution of Irish higher education is to bring together the institutes of technology, take the best of that ethos and work together to form new technological universities and ally them with the strengths of universities in terms of access to research, state-of-the-art facilities and international reach.
I have received an application for TU designation for Athlone and Limerick institutes of technology. If ultimately successful, this would see university education provision introduced and expanded in the midlands and the mid-west, opening opportunities along the Shannon. Later this month, I expect to receive an application from the Connacht Ulster Alliance and next month, all going well, an application for a technological university in the south east. We do not have a university in the south east of the country. It is the only region in which there is none. We must fix that. Deputy Cullinane is present, and I had a good meeting with Members of the Oireachtas from the south east on that topic this morning. It is an opportunity to transform the region, to drive investment into it and for all the counties of the south east to benefit. I am very much looking forward to that and to the Government supporting those initiatives through increased capital funding.
I must return to the issue of a sustainable funding model for higher education. This has been kicked around for far too long. We must start making decisions on this and to fund higher education properly and sustainably. A comprehensive economic evaluation of the funding options presented in the Cassells report, the report of the expert group on future funding for higher education, is under way and almost concluded by the European Commission DG reform programme. This review commenced early last year and I am expecting the work to be completed in the latter half of the second quarter of this year. My Department will continue to work with stakeholders on this comprehensive analysis, but the time for shirking is over. We must confront these challenges. I look forward to publishing all the information, having debates in the House and making a decision.
I look forward to answering the Deputies' questions and to going into detail on any and all aspects of the work of my Department. I will hand over to my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins.