Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science: Statements

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.

I thank the Minister for outlining the important work being undertaken by the Department. I will speak briefly on the topics of literacy, numeracy and digital literacy, for which a strategy is currently being developed, apprenticeships, skills and eCollege.

Work is well under way by SOLAS on the development of a ten-year adult literacy, numeracy and digital literacy strategy. This new strategy will provide a framework to build on and streamline the substantial work that is already being done across a range of Departments and agencies to increase awareness of services for the public and to capture the contribution that can be made across government to deliver better literacy, numeracy and digital skills in the adult population. The extensive research and consultation phases of the strategy's development are almost complete. It is intended to send the completed strategy to the Government in the coming months.

With regard to apprenticeships, the Government has set a target of 10,000 new apprentice registrations annually by 2025. A new apprenticeship action plan will set out a clear and ambitious roadmap for the next five years which will more fully integrate apprenticeship into the further and higher education and training landscape. It will be finalised in the coming weeks. The apprenticeship incentivisation scheme, which provides an employer grant of €3,000 payable over two years, has supported employers to take on apprentices and retain them during this difficult time. Almost €4 million has now been paid out under the scheme, supporting over 1,100 employers employing 2,000 apprentices. Apprenticeship will have a very important role to play in our post-Covid recovery and that is why we will continue to invest in and expand the apprenticeship system over the coming years.

As regards apprenticeship backlogs and the Covid-19 return to on-the-job training, a small number of critical and time-sensitive phase 2 apprenticeship classes returned to training on 1 March with strict Covid-19 measures agreed via the further education and training, FET, stakeholders forum. If all goes well with that cohort, another group will return on 15 March next. The Minister and I announced capital funding of €10 million for both SOLAS and the HEA to alleviate the backlog in off-the-job training for apprentices. This investment will provide almost 4,000 additional training places, which will both ease the short-term backlog and add capacity to the pipeline over the longer term. It will also support the Government’s commitment to expand apprenticeship registrations to 10,000 annually by 2025. The funding will also provide additional Covid-related capacity in electrical and plumbing, as well as addressing equipment requirements for other apprenticeships such as hairdressing and pipe fitting.

I will also comment on the opening of retrofitting centres. The greening of the economy and upgrading our housing stock in terms of energy efficiency will be vital to our future. Developing green skills and addressing the climate challenge are key priorities in the new FET strategy. The further education and training system will be central to delivering the relevant skills through expansion of its network of centres of excellence. To date, two centres of excellence are up and running in Waterford and Wexford ETB and Laois and Offaly ETB. A further three centres are under development and are expected to be operational in the coming months.

In the context of skills to advance in the hospitality sector, two new industry-recognised programmes have been created for the hospitality sector, which were announced by me and the Minister on 12 February last. To support recruitment for these programmes, the Irish Hotels Federation is leading a series of roadshow events to highlight the hospitality and tourism initiative developed with strategic partners. Limerick and Clare ETB has also commenced the roll-out of programmes to support the sector. Six other ETBs plan to commence delivery of programmes in March with a further seven ETBs commencing in April.

Finally, I will comment on eCollege. The eCollege courses are temporarily being made available free of charge to all as an additional support to those impacted by Covid-19 containment measures. There were 33,281 eCollege enrolments in 2020. Up to 4 March 2021, there have been 13,395 enrolments on eCollege courses.

I will be happy to take questions from the Deputies.

I am sharing time with Deputy Cullinane.

The Minister will be aware that, until now, people with disabilities have been forced to choose between academic scholarships and disability payments, including two very impressive women from my county, Mayo. Catherine Gallagher is planning to do a PhD in political communications at Dublin City University, DCU, and Muireann Cosgrave is in the process of completing her undergraduate course in analytical science in DCU and has been offered a PhD position in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. Most PhD students work part-time to get by, as the stipend given as part of the scholarship is often far below the minimum wage. This is simply not an option for many people with disabilities. In addition, people with disabilities often have extra expenses and costs for a variety of reasons. I sincerely hope there is cross-party agreement that these barriers in higher education should be removed.

Can the Minister assure Muireann, Catherine and other students with disabilities that this barrier has been permanently removed? What is the exact methodology for removing the barrier? The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, said she would remove it in recent days. What guidance can the Minister give to current PhD students who have had their disability payments removed? Will there be a retrospective aspect to the change being made now, which I welcome? What other financial barriers, either in terms of grant funding or removal of social protection payments or other income, has the Minister identified that deter people with disabilities from pursuing their educational goals and fulfilling their potential?

How quickly can the Minister, Deputy Harris, enforce the change, legislatively or otherwise, to remove those barriers?

With regard to medicine, exactly how many extra places did we create for medical students last year and how much funding did we allocate to medical places? I am really concerned. One of my constituents, who is a postgraduate who wants to go back to do medicine, contacted me recently. He has calculated that it will cost him €100,000 to do the four years in medicine. At a time when there is such a demand for doctors and clinicians we really need to look at that. The banks who give out loans for this purpose seem to be the ones who benefit rather than anybody else. Perhaps the Minister will answer specifically on the number of places and the places this year that will be funded.

On mental health and well-being, I conducted a survey on third level students' health and well-being. I sent the results with policy recommendations to the Minister's office. Four out of five college students have said that their college experience has been negatively impacting their mental health. More than 90% can report struggling with loneliness, with stress and with feeling disconnected. One in every four first year students are not aware of the mental health supports and counselling services available in their college. This is very worrying. Students shared stories of struggling to get an education while living and studying in completely inappropriate environments. Many are in cramped flat-shares with large numbers of other students or are living at home with families that are also juggling working from home and home schooling siblings. Many students are without proper Internet connections, laptops and desks that they need. I have instances in my constituency where the broadband has been down for three weeks flat. All of those students, right throughout national school, to secondary school to third level, cannot access their online studies. One student explained having to study while sitting on the bed as parents and siblings use the other desk spaces for home schooling and for working from home. This means that between studying and sleeping, students are in the same spot sometimes for 20 hours per day. This has obvious implications for the students' mental and physical health. Another student explained that due to sharing a cramped flat with other students he was relegated to sitting on the floor in the corner of a room as he did not have space for a desk. He spoke of struggling mentally and physically after enduring three-hour lectures in one position. Other students spoke of the particular challenges of being parents and trying to juggling care, home schooling and looking after their own education in cramped houses. The results of this survey are alarming and should be a wake-up call about the level of stress and hardship faced by students. The situations that students shared with us are heartbreaking and very concerning. The mental health implications are alarming. Sadly, more than one quarter indicated that they have no one with whom to share their thoughts and feelings. Yet so few, only 12%, have accessed the mental health support and counselling services offered in their colleges. Waiting months for counselling appointments due to limited staffing and resources is a major barrier. We cannot allow this pandemic to inflict long-term damage on the students. Mental health services need to be quick and easy to access. In the Minister's strategy document, however, which focuses on how human capital powers Ireland’s knowledge economy, the subject is barely addressed. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the exact definition of "human capital" refers to "employees, and all of the knowledge, skills, experience, etc. that they have, which makes them valuable to a company or economy". I ask the Minister, what about the intrinsic value of students and young people as human beings? Students are not commodities and they should not be treated like hamsters on a wheel but I am afraid that they are being treated so. There is a looming mental health crisis among students and I urge the Minister to act urgently. I hope the Minister will review the information that I have sent and the policy recommendations that we have made.

Will the Minister support the Residential Tenancies (Student Rents and Other Protections) (Covid-19) Bill 2021 that is being put forward by the Union of Students in Ireland, USI? I acknowledge all of the work that has been done on that, and especially by my colleague Deputy Ó Broin. Perhaps the Minister could answer those questions. If he has not time to answer all of them maybe he will give the answers in writing.

I thank Deputy Conway-Walsh for the constructive questions and points. Let me be clear at the outset: nobody believes students are commodities and nobody has a monopoly of concern for them. In the past two weeks, I have been meeting virtually with students in Cavan, Longford and in Donegal, with six student unions and in the Deputy's constituency in Ballinrobe. The Deputy is right that it is an extremely tough and difficult time for students and for everybody in the State. I genuinely welcome the work the Deputy has done on the mental health and well-being study and I thank her for sending it to me. The Deputy will be aware that I have established a group, chaired by the USI, namely, the well-being and student engagement group. We are currently seeking submissions to see what more can be done to support students now. We will feed the Deputy's findings and submission into that process. It is trying to do two things, one of which is to map out the services that are already there. I share the Deputy's view that not every student can easily find or access some of the existing services that are there. Second, we will identify what more needs to be done. We have provided €5 million of funding for student mental health services. I am hearing from some students the significant benefit of that but I accept there is more we need to do.

I take the point about broadband and some of those broader challenges around remote working and remote studying. I am concerned that there would be any student in higher education without access to a laptop. We have purchased 17,000 laptops. If the Deputy will give me some examples of that issue privately I would be very happy to follow up directly on that.

The Deputy had two specific questions also. On the disability piece I acknowledge the advocacy the Deputy carried out on behalf of Catherine Gallagher and Muireann Cosgrave. This falls within the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, and I am pleased that she has moved swiftly in planning to amend the regulations. The idea that a student who does well will have supports taken away, thereby leaving him or her between a rock and a hard place is, I believe, a clear poverty trap. I thank the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, for the actions she has taken on this. There are a couple more things that I can do within my Department. There is a review of Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, under way, with public consultation opening on Friday. This is a chance to look at any of the anomalies there. A new national access plan is being prepared this year and we are very eager to engage with the Deputy on that. I have also asked my Department specifically to draw up proposals to ensure we can get more people with disabilities into higher education.

I will gather the data on the medical students figures from each of the medical colleges and I will write to the Deputy with the numbers of places created last year and the cost.

The student accommodation Bill is a matter for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. This is not to pass the buck, it is just a statement of fact that it is housing legislation. I believe the issue should be looked at very seriously. There is a lot of sense in what students are trying to achieve in this regard. I have spoken to my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and he is actively considering it.

We are on the cusp of something really big and exciting for the south east. I have been involved in politics for 20 years. For all those years and more, there have been campaigns for a university for Waterford and the south-east region. In less than a year this can be a reality and can happen. On 1 January next year, we could have a technological university for the south east, operating in the interests of every county and every person living in the south east. If this university is put in place, it will benefit young people and future generations who will not have to leave the region to get a university qualification. They can get it in the region where they live. It will benefit all the people who live in the south east and it will benefit businesses because of the research and development potential that will flow from the university. It is time for the people of the south east to unite behind this project. It is not a time to drop the ball. It is not a time for negativity. It is a time to see what is in front of us, to get this over the line and to push in the same direction to make it a reality for the people who will benefit from it. This is bigger than any party, any politician or anyone playing political games. This is about the future of the south east. It has to happen. We have to get it over the line.

I have some questions for the Minister on issues of concern that have arisen as part of the process. The first question in on capital funding.

Will he confirm there is existing capital funding in the region of €150 million currently approved for all the institutes in the region and for a new campus in Wexford? Up to €50 million of that is money earmarked for Waterford. Can the Minister also confirm, if he is in a position to do so, that he can give a commitment that future additional capital funding for Waterford specifically will be sizeable and significant? Can he also confirm that, in appointing a new chair, that appointment process will be transparent and publicly advertised and that he will engage and consult with Oireachtas Members in advance of that? Can he also confirm there will be no change in the terms and conditions of employment for any and all new staff members in respect of the transition to a technological university? Can he also confirm whether decisions will be made on the structure of the new university in line with national policy and the national planning framework to ensure that the cohesion of the south east is built on solid foundations, with Waterford city acting as a university city, which it needs to do? Can he also confirm whether course provision in the future university will be a matter for the academics and the governing body, not a matter for politicians? If possible, I ask the Minister to give clarity on those issues.

I thank Deputy Cullinane. I thank him for coming to the meeting earlier and I genuinely thank him for not playing politics with this issue and for being constructive on it. I hope it sends a message to the people of the south east, when he and I are agreeing with such enthusiasm on an issue, that we see the real significance of this to the south east. This is a game changer for the south east, not just educationally but from the perspectives of foreign direct investment, skills, research and jobs. The only region in the country not to have a higher education institution is the south east and we can change that now. On 1 January 2022, we can open the doors of a university for the south east. That is the prize. That is what we are all working for on a cross-party basis and I thank the Deputy for that. We are, in his own words, on the cusp of something good.

To turn to the Deputy's specific questions, first, with regard to capital funding, approximately €150 million already has been allocated to a variety of projects in the south east as part of the technological university. Second, I am 100% committed, as is the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, everybody in government and I believe everybody in the Oireachtas, to expanding the size of the footprint in Waterford in the new technological university. Specific sites are being looked at and specific proposals are being worked up by the governing authority. Third, I will publicly advertise for the chair and membership of the governing authority. I will engage with Oireachtas Members and it will be done in a transparent way. Fourth, there will be no change whatsoever to the terms and conditions for any existing staff member and anything to the contrary is misinformation, disinformation and untrue. Fifth, decisions will be made, as they should be for all public services, in line with the national planning framework and, sixth, politicians - me or anybody else - will not be deciding what course goes where. It will be done in consultation and leadership with the academics and decided by the governing authority.

Let us not allow anybody to play politics with this. All of us have a chance here to leave a lasting legacy for the people of the south east, and for the children who are in school today, to be able to go to university in their own region and not have to travel outside it. We know the benefits of that and I look forward to working with the Deputy on it.

I thank the Minister for his opening statement. The focus on higher and further education is welcome in terms of the three-year strategy but I want to focus on the apprenticeship element of it. For too long, apprenticeships have been at the back of the class when it comes to further education and skills. We in the Labour Party welcome the light the Minister is shining on it and the position in which he is putting apprenticeships in the firmament of further education and skills. That is vital because this country has a proud of tradition of strong apprenticeships. Our craft apprenticeship system, for example, is the envy of many countries around the world not only in terms of its traditions but also the way in which those apprenticeships and the modules have evolved over years and how our workers who emerge from those are among the highest skilled, if not the highest skilled, throughout the world in terms of crafts.

In looking at the language of the Minister's three-year strategy in terms of a complete overhaul of apprenticeships, I would like a commitment from him that while we need to examine, improve and broaden apprenticeships, the ones that are working well and are the envy of the world will be protected and honoured in the new system and that we will not be undoing the great work that has evolved over decades in terms of those apprenticeships.

We need to look at employers that traditionally have been very strong in providing apprenticeships. I think of our airports and skilled apprenticeships in terms of aircraft maintenance and so on. We need to look at our local authorities, which have been hollowed out in terms of providing apprenticeships across a whole range of crafts and skills. That has to be reversed because if we are to meet our climate targets, one of the low-hanging fruits being the retrofitting of our homes, our local authorities and skilled workers within them will have to play their part. We need to be focusing our apprenticeships on that area.

We need to look also at what the trade union movement has done in this area over the years. In terms of the Minister's action plan for apprenticeships, what role are the trade unions playing as a stakeholder in this regard? I hope it is a strong one and that they are recognised specifically in that document as trade unions and that they will be a real part of that because they have done a great deal of the heavy lifting over the years in this country to keep apprenticeships strong. I would like to hear the Minister's thoughts on that.

I want to speak to a specific area that is looking for some recognition and I would like the Minister's advice on it. It concerns workers who operate in the water and drainage systems. These are workers who currently have no recognition from the State in terms of any level of qualification, be it FETAC levels 5 or 6, Look Beyond or anything else. That is important work. It is skilled work. It requires knowledge of pumping, sewerage and pipe systems. It requires plumbing and electrical knowledge. It requires critical thinking and, ultimately, it requires problem solving skills. However, although domestic properties, people in business or hospitals would not be able to operate without having those skilled water and drainage companies and workers, at present they are not recognised. I have written to SOLAS on this in the past week hoping that we could develop some form or model of apprenticeship that would befit these workers. They work in every county in the State. They need and deserve recognition. As citizens, we need them as much as we need any other workers in this country, and we do not need to go into detail as to why that is the case, but it certainly is the case. I look forward to the Minister's response on those two issues.

I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, to expand on the apprenticeships but on the water and drainage systems, the Deputy has highlighted a very important issue. I would be very happy to meet some people from that sector with the Deputy and SOLAS over the next couple of weeks to see if we can make progress.

I thank Deputy Duncan Smith. With regard to apprenticeships, there are no boundaries or limits to what we can look into in terms of the feasibility of running and developing an apprenticeship programme. That is to follow on from what the Minister, Deputy Harris, said about that. What the Deputy outlined is absolutely the case. These are critical skills that are required in a modern environment.

The whole area of apprenticeships is a key commitment in the programme for Government. The Minister, Deputy Harris, and I, as well as our Department, are keen to destigmatise the area of apprenticeships, mainstream it and put it centre stage in terms of being a viable and rewarding qualification and career path for people to earn a livelihood and to live their lives in a fruitful and rewarding fashion.

We are developing the apprenticeship action plan, as the Deputy is aware, and we will be seeking to have up to 10,000 annual apprenticeship registrations by 2025. We consulted widely on the development of this plan. There were more than 60 written submissions. There was a survey of 3,750 registered apprentices and more than 340 employers. They were obtained through our regional skills fora managers so it was an all-encompassing process. Everybody was consulted, including the trade union movement to which the Deputy alluded. We will shortly be launching the apprenticeship action plan, which will include the notion of an apprenticeship consortium.

This will consist of employers, sectoral employee representatives and education and training providers developing and updating the skills required for each of the apprenticeships. We will also place centrally in the whole concept a national apprenticeship office to help co-ordinate and review on an ongoing basis the whole area of apprenticeships. I hope that suffices.

I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for coming before the House. As a regular visitor to the committee on higher education, I find it is always great to engage with them, as we have done on numerous occasions in the past few weeks.

The Minister touched on an area in which I have a particular interest. I was really pleased with his recent announcement on pathways to higher and further education. It is a particularly exciting opportunity within his Department and the Department of Education because it has been so long required for students. As the Minister quite rightly pointed out, for 17-year-olds to make choices at that young age in what could potentially affect the rest of their lives, there really needs to be a somewhat broader focus than the narrow focus of the CAO system. In tandem with the review of the leaving certificate, which my committee has agreed to undertake, it is a particularly exciting time for what is potentially an enormous beneficial change to the education sector in Ireland. I was also particularly pleased to hear the Minister talk of apprenticeships, further training courses and such, which form part of the State's offering. I have referred the Minister before to my proposals in my constituency, particularly in Swords, which is ready-made for such a training facility to be provided given the population and the proposed population growth in the near future. The training and apprenticeship opportunities the Minister of State has just outlined, specifically the national apprenticeship office and the plan being brought forward, are a really welcome development. I think the Minister will accept that education is the great leveller. It really does not matter what socioeconomic, cultural or ethnic background one comes from; education is an opportunity to realise the best that one can be. Therefore, the provision of the options the Minister has outlined is extremely useful.

I also wish to comment on the SUSI review. As the Minister will be aware, I have engaged on this matter in my constituency and there has been some really great feedback from that. There is great potential for beneficial change to be made there. When we look at expanding approved institutions, the barriers to graduate medical students, for instance, have been raised with me. They are important issues we can flesh out, most likely in committee at a later stage.

The Minister referred to foreign students, who are an integral part of our third level offering. It is heartening to hear there have been some improvements, though of course there is still the issue of fees, specifically when it comes to those students who come in from abroad but have not been able to attend in the same way, especially with those courses that require in-person learning.

My time is up but I will just say that for the first time in my ten years in this House, there are aspects to the education programme, apart from the schools building programme, that I am excited about. Those are some of the aspects I find particularly engaging at this time in the development of the new Department.

I welcome both Ministers. Following on from Deputy Farrell's contribution, it is an exciting time to be part of a new Department. As a former teacher and educator, it is the apprenticeship side of things which really excites me. I think apprenticeships will finally get their long-overdue respect. They need to be a focus of the Government in rolling this out. I note the good work done by both the Minister and the Minister of State in speaking positively about the need to improve our apprenticeship programme and to deviate from the norm when it comes to third level provision. I know the benefit of an effective apprenticeship programme. Many of my friends and family have benefited from undertaking trades in the past. I note that both the Minister and the Minister of State have spoken about this topic in the past. This is about more than just conventional trades, and I welcome the expansion that is envisaged. That said, we need to do more to advertise the attractiveness of apprenticeships, particularly among younger people. Once health regulations can be adhered to and a normal school environment resumes, I encourage the Department, the various ETBs and SOLAS to engage directly with schools in an almost roadshow-style campaign to inform students of the options and the benefits of pursuing apprenticeships. Too often apprenticeships are dismissed and students favour the traditional educational route. Above all else we need to inform people of choice. If we are serious about encouraging apprenticeships, we need to take action and be proactive in this regard.

Following on from that, I wish to ask the Minister about the development of a comprehensive green further education and skills development plan and where that process is at. We all acknowledge the massive retrofitting programme that is to be rolled out across the country in the next few years and the thousands of jobs that are likely to be created in plumbing, electrics, insulation, etc. I welcome the commitment to increase the total number of new registrations to 10,000 per annum in that regard. I ask the Minister to comment on the green further education and skills development plan and where it is at.

Finally, I will also mention SUSI. I know a review is under way and is due sometime in the summer but I wish to highlight again, as I have done via parliamentary question in the past, the plight of graduate entry medical students. I know the Minister will not be able to give a commitment here or predict what the outcome of that review will be but I ask that that be given its due consideration as part of that review process. Graduate entry medical students need to be considered for grant funding in the future.

I welcome the ambitious reform agenda and vision the Minister is setting out for his Department. I welcome in particular that commitment to further education, literacy and apprenticeships, which is really important, but the Minister will not be surprised if I return to the issue of the technological university for the south east, TUSE. My constituency colleague, Deputy Cullinane, has already covered quite a bit of ground on this. This was discussed extensively at the Oireachtas committee recently and the Minister described some of the commentary on the location of the headquarters of the new university as "misinformation, disinformation and downright nonsense". I largely agree with the Minister's view on this. There are certainly individuals seeking to make hay on this politically, but we can expect rumour to fill a void if there is an information gap, and the Minister can understand if the people of Waterford and the south east are twice shy because we have been bitten more than once by successive Governments. I really welcome the clarity of the answers the Minister has given on the floor of the Dáil today. That has been the clearest indication we have had to date. I have been speaking to TUI members in WIT and they have flagged some of their concerns with me. The academic staff, as the Minister will be aware, backed the memorandum of understanding put to them in 2019 by a huge margin, 93%. That is the level of goodwill that exists in respect of this project, but they have felt sidelined since and they are deeply worried about the public commentary as well. These are people who are hugely invested in the WIT project and the TUSE project. It is their hard work. These are the people who made WIT the leading institute of technology in the country, despite all the obstacles that were put in front of them. I have been clear and unequivocal in my support for the TUSE project from the beginning. In the Minister's words, it is a game changer. I ascribe to that view and I welcome Deputy Cullinane's views on the matter as well, but we need to see the definite shape of the project coming in at sharper focus as we close in on the deadline.

I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for engaging with Oireachtas Members this morning. My direct question is this: what plans does the Minister have to engage with these union groups and listen to their very valid and genuine concerns about things such as capital funding, the composition of the new board and the future configuration of the new university and to give them reassurance, as the Minister has done on the floor of the Dáil today?

I will start with Deputy Ó Cathasaigh's question because it is time-sensitive.

I want to acknowledge what the Deputy has acknowledged, but the last time TUI members were balloted on this matter, they voted overwhelmingly in favour of this project. That shows their commitment and the scale of their ambition. I would add that the only thing that has happened between 2019 and now is that things have gotten better in respect of our level of commitment to the Technological University for the South-East of Ireland, TUSE, and to Waterford. There is now a firm commitment in relation capital funding and the expansion of the Waterford site. There is very firm commitment from the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, me and everybody in Government. I know I am working closely with the Deputy on this issue. I have tried to give assurances in the floor of the House today and at my meeting with south-east Oireachtas Members earlier in terms of configuration around courses being decided by a governing authority on the basis of academic input and not politicians. I have also tried to give very clear assurances in relation to terms and conditions. There is no plan B - this is the chance. If we can get this through, and I receive the application by 28 April, we will make it happen. We will have honest, thorough and open engagement through every phase of this. I am happy to engage with the Deputy further. Do I have one minute and 17 seconds?

I wish the Deputy had, but there is another speaker.

There was great excitement in Longford this week with the confirmation of the allocation of €10 million plus in URDF funding. It has come a number of months after €1 million was allocated to the Longford-Westmeath Education and Training Board, ETB, to develop a digital learning hub in Longford. The ETB is located on the Battery Road in Longford. It is at the very heart of the Camlin Quarter regeneration plans and it currently services 150 post leaving certificate, PLC, students there. There is a fantastic opportunity now for the ETB to develop a state-of-the-art third level campus in Longford town. There is a great tradition of construction in Longford, and the hope and expectation is that we can develop a purpose-built college for apprentices in the construction trade in Longford. For far too long, Longford has been in the shadows and this week we have finally started to emerge from those shadows. I certainly believe that such a campus would represent a new start and a new direction for Longford. I appeal to the Minister and the Minister of State to engage their the Department and Longford-Westmeath ETB to push ahead with what is doubtless an ambitious project, which at the same time could represent a landmark change in the delivery of education in County Longford.

I thank the Minster for his statement. First, I wish to raise a few issues that I have been dealing with locally in respect of social care students. I welcome the Minister's earlier response to me in relation to this issue. As the Minister knows, the social care students have 800 hours of placement to be completed within their course time. Obviously, at this time, because of Covid, and indeed for the last year, there have been huge difficulties in completing those 800 hours. I was quite concerned to learn that clearly talks and engagement have been underway since March 2020, according to correspondence I received from the Minister, and clearly the alternative arrangements that are needed have not come to pass just yet. I appreciate and welcome the fact that the Minister has sought to intensify those engagements, because obviously students need certainty in relation to this issue and they are under pressure in respect of these placements. Therefore I would appreciate if the Minister could provide an update on that. If he does not have an update, and I appreciate that this may be the case, perhaps he might come back to me in writing. There are a number of students who are trying to get through the course and they are under pressure in relation to these hours, so I would appreciate certainty for them on that issue.

I welcome what the Minister has said on the Residential Tenancies (Student Rents and Other Protections) (Covid-19) Bill 2021, that it will be looked at, and I hope it will be considered. That is welcome because we know that many students and families were really caught out, particularly by privately-owned student accommodation providers. I dealt with a number of them myself and some would not even respond or engage. It was really difficult and it left families caught out. I hope that as an Oireachtas we will take steps to ensure that student renters are protected and that they have far greater protections than they have had up to now.

On the review of Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants, I know that the Minister has said that the consultation will begin on Friday. I have seen reference made to the adjacent and non-adjacent rates which will be, and must be, looked at. I have previously raised with the Minister the issue of adjacent rates for students who live under 45 km from their college in rural areas where there is not that public transport link. In many cases, it is not available at all. Whatever comes out of this review, there must be consideration of the rural issue and how the grants are working for students who live in rural areas.

On the back to education allowance scheme, I appreciate that is a matter for the Minister for Social Protection, but of course the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science has a role to play in helping people and supporting them in accessing education. Cost should never be a barrier, but of course we know that it is. It is the case here and in many other places as well.

The qualifying period for those currently in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, has been waived so that they can access the back to education allowance. It has not been waived for those in receipt of jobseeker's allowance and benefit etc. For a whole range of benefits, including the one-parent family payment, claimants must be in receipt of payments for nine months before they can qualify for the back to education allowance. I ask the Minister to engage with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, on this issue. We should be making access to education as easy as possible. If someone loses a job, I do not see why the person needs to be on jobseeker's allowance for nine months before he or she can access education. If the person wants to go back to education, that is brilliant and should be supported and encouraged.

Finally, another matter that has been raised with me by a number of constituents and students in particular is the Gaeltacht fees for students in Hibernia College. They cannot have the usual Gaeltacht experience because of Covid, which is understandable, but they are still being charged €650 per fortnight. They must have the Gaeltacht experience at home this year because of Covid. It will take place at their kitchen table or in their bedroom at a cost of €650. I ask the Minister to engage with the Minister for Education on this issue.

I thank the Deputy for her points on the issue of social care workers and for her correspondence with me on this matter. I checked it out today because I thought she might raise it with me. Obviously, it is a matter for the professional regulator, CORU, but I appeal to all those working through Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, to show flexibility. As we all know, there is a global pandemic ongoing. We need graduates coming through and this needs to be achieved in a way that protects professional standards but which shows a flexibility that recognises the reality of the pandemic. I am hopeful that can happen. We have seen progress with a lot of professions. The work for social care workers is truthfully going on, but I accept the urgency if it.

On SUSI grants, the adjacency rates will very much be looked at as part of the review.

On the social protection issue, we have actually ensured that the Department of Social Protection is represented on the steering group for that review to address some of the issues raised by the Deputy.

In respect of the Gaeltacht issue, as the Deputy has rightly alluded to, it is a matter for the Department of Education, but I will certainly engage with the Department on the matter.

First, in response to one of my September parliamentary questions, the Minister stated that all higher education institutions, HEIs, were to publish action plans on tackling sexual violence and harassment by February. I am wondering if all HEIs have complied and if not what steps the Minister is taking to ensure compliance. I would also like to note the Minister’s work in this area and the progress being made on the framework for consent in HEIs.

Second, I wish to state that the review of SUSI is most welcome. However, in the meantime, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed. Students of private teacher training colleges are mostly not eligible for SUSI. The State is applying a double standard, as we are happy for them to be trained as teachers through these colleges but are unwilling to support them in their studies. Also, graduate-entry medicine students cannot access this support. These courses are only for graduates, but they are not classified as postgraduate courses meaning that these students cannot avail of either undergraduate or postgraduate supports. This situation needs to be rectified before the new academic year.

Third, and perhaps this is an issue for the Minister of State, the ability of students to progress in their apprenticeships is being affected by the pandemic. Not only are there expected delays in on-the-job elements, but some students are waiting for results of off-the-job phases, meaning that they cannot progress. It is confusing that this is the result of the pandemic, because it does not make sense. I ask the Minister responsible to look into these delays immediately and assure students that they will be supported through their apprenticeships if they take longer than expected.

I know the Minister is aware that for any number of reasons, including poor broadband in rural areas, some students do not have suitable study environments at home. I ask that he works with colleges and universities to facilitate these students being given priority in accessing campus facilities. I look forward to continuing my work with the Minister on remote learning in places such as the Ludgate Hub.

Before Christmas at the Oireachtas Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, the Irish Universities Association, IUA, highlighted that the employment control framework, which has capped the number of permanent staff in the sector, is unsustainable. At a time when student numbers are growing, we need more teaching staff. For years now, staff have been overstretched and more work is poured on early-career lecturers in precarious employment. The IUA is seeking a development structure whereby universities can manage their own workforce within a defined budget. What is the Minister's response to this?

Finally, I would like to bring to the Minister's attention that I and most Opposition Deputies have co-signed Deputy Conway-Walsh's Residential Tenancies (Student Rents and Other Protections) (Covid-19) Bill 2021, which will provide greater protections for student renters and their families. The pandemic has highlighted many of the issues with this form of renting. I hope the Minister, in conjunction with his colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, will actively support the progression of that Bill.

I thank the Deputy for her questions. In regard to the action plans for dealing with sexual harassment and violence, she is right that they were due at the end of February. I am awaiting a submission from my officials in this regard. My understanding is that the plans are all, or almost all, in, and I expect to be in a position to give a public update in that regard this month. There has been a lot of good work done in this area, from what I am hearing, across the sector, but there is a great need for that work. I will come back to the Deputy directly on this issue but, as I said, I expect to be in a position to give a public update this month.

In regard to SUSI, the Deputy has highlighted two legitimate issues. One relates to teacher training and the other concerns graduate-entry medicine. The Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, is looking to meet with me on the second issue. I know that organisation well from my engagements in my previous Department. I will take that meeting with the IMO on the issue of graduate-entry medicine and the anomaly, which it is fair to call it, that the Deputy highlighted in this regard.

The Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, will comment on the apprenticeships issue.

On access to campuses, we have a category called "vulnerable learners" and we do not define what "vulnerable" is. There can be a whole variety of reasons that students cannot learn well at home. As the public health situation improves, God willing, we will look to expand the interpretation of that category. I take the Deputy's point in this regard and I genuinely look forward to visiting the Ludgate Hub with her. It could be an example of a model that we need to roll out. I recently visited an initiative virtually, the Longford Women's Link, which enables women to access Carlow Institute of Technology services from Longford. For many of the women to whom I spoke, it would not have been possible to access higher education if they needed to travel. We are on to a winner in terms of the policy objective the Deputy is pursuing in this regard.

Regarding the employment control framework, the issue raised is a legitimate one. My Department is finalising an engagement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on this matter. I recently met with the Irish Universities Association to update its members in that regard.

I will engage with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, on the student accommodation Bill to which the Deputy referred.

In regard to the apprenticeship backlog and the return to on-the-job training, a small number of critical and time-sensitive phase 2 apprenticeship classes returned to training on 1 March, with strict Covid-19 measures in place that were agreed through the stakeholders forum. If all goes well with that cohort, another group will return on 15 March. As I said in my opening statement, we recently announced capital funding of €10 million for SOLAS and the HEA to alleviate the backlog in off-the-job training for apprentices. I will ask SOLAS to give more up-to-date feedback directly to the Deputy on this matter.

For some people who are doing the apprenticeship programmes, the problem is that they have not yet got their results for the off-the-job training they did. This means that when they are on the job, that time is not being counted towards their apprenticeship. Will the Minister of State look into what the hold-up might be in this regard? It involves the desk work and other activity that could be going on during the pandemic. For a person doing an apprenticeship in mechanics, for example, who has completed the off-the-job activity and started the on-the-job training, the latter will not be counted because the results of the off-the-job training are not yet received. I ask the Minister of State to look into this issue as quickly as possible.

I will revert to the Deputy on the matter.

The Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, are the right people to undertake the radical reform that is badly needed in this sector. The Covid crisis has underpinned some of the notable failings that exist and the need for accelerated reform in the area. I want to focus on four issues that strike me in this regard.

First, five years on from the start of the review of the leaving certificate, little has changed. We know that the examination is not fit for the nation's ambition, is creating stress for students, and is trapping teaching and learning in a straitjacket that is constraining its relevance to the modern world. Second, the junior cycle system and the predictive grades process have shown that it is possible to change the system radically without the roof falling in. We need to be ambitious in dealing with these issues.

A second point on which we need to focus is that there are many really important services on the front line in our economy for which there are inadequate career paths in place. I note, in particular, childcare, other caring areas and several more. That needs to be rectified.

Third, the Covid crisis has revealed that we have not been as effective as we should be in harnessing digital technology to transform teaching and learning. Many schools were caught flat-footed in this regard and that needs to change.

Finally, the voice of the student, which has been heard during the Covid period, must remain a strong one in advocating and pressing for reform. The Minister and Minister of State have significant leverage in making changes happen in the four areas I have outlined, even if they are not directly responsible for them.

I take the opportunity to raise three further issues, all of which are the responsibility of the Minister and Minister of State. First, I ask that they make creating a world-class apprenticeship platform a central plank of the recovery plan. I am talking about something on a far more ambitious scale than we have seen to date. Where is the public service in its commitment to develop and create new apprenticeships or even to take up those that are already in place? Where are the sectors that are clamouring for work permits in their development and implementation of apprenticeship programmes? Where are the large corporations in this regard, many of which are in sectors that, traditionally, have never had an apprenticeship scheme within their operations? We need to put pressure on those sectors to respond.

We also need to make it easier to get an apprenticeship. Sectors with low margins and high labour content need the €3,000 grant and perhaps even more. Support must be targeted at those particular sectors. There are opportunities in this area but they will not evolve automatically as employer contracts if those companies are under pressure for their margins. We need to have a CAO-type application system for apprenticeships, with perhaps a long period at the start of apprentices' period of study off the job while a sponsor is found.

Finally, I ask that the Minister and Minister of State insist on common-entry grades for third level colleges in order to prevent the type of crazy points race we have seen.

I have a question on a particular issue, to which I hope the Minister can respond. In the 17 years since I graduated from the University of Limerick, UL, the campus has grown exponentially but it no longer has the space to develop further. There is not adequate land to do so, nor is there sufficient road access from both sides. The campus straddles two counties, encompassing a part in Limerick city and a large portion that is now in County Clare. In fact, the majority of the campus has been developed on the Clare side of the river. This has been great, with huge co-operation between the two local authorities.

Last month, the Government approved phase 1 of the Limerick northern distributor road from Coonagh to Knockalisheen. This has been dubbed an information highway that will ultimately allow road connectivity between the Limerick Institute of Technology and UL campuses. UL management will tell anyone who will listen that it is totally inhibited from growing, expanding and developing at this time because of a lack of land to develop and a lack of road infrastructure on the Clare side of the campus. There are two actions required to address this, namely, the development of a road axis and the establishment of a strategic development zone on the Clare side. Has the Minister been made aware of these demands and, if so, how is his Department engaging with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the local authorities in advancing them?

I thank Deputy Crowe for making me aware of these issues. I am very happy to engage with him, the local authority in Clare and other appropriate stakeholders in this regard. Expanding higher education is going to be a core requirement in terms of meeting demand and preparing for economic recovery. If there is no room for UL to expand in Limerick and it wants to look elsewhere, I would be very willing to engage with the Deputy and other parties to see whether we can assist in that regard. Perhaps we could meet to discuss the matter further.

I wish to raise two issues, namely, SUSI grants and students' well-being and mental health. The student grant limits need to be reviewed. Families are quickly finding themselves over the limit and students, therefore, ineligible for grants. While the pandemic is putting a downward pressure on incomes and there probably will be more people qualifying this year than in other years, it really should not take a pandemic for people to qualify for a SUSI grant. The income limits must be reviewed. I understand that the Minister recognises this and is taking steps to address it. Can that review be pushed on quickly in order that its findings are in place for people taking up college places next September? The review also needs to recognise that living 30 km to 40 km from a college is not living adjacent to it. The non-adjacent distance provision needs to be reviewed.

Students' well-being and mental health have to be a priority. No matter what college year they are in, they have been feeling increasingly disconnected from campus and their colleagues. They feel isolated at home. Internships may be cancelled or diluted but still contribute to the grade, thus putting additional pressure on students.

The Minister has recognised the issue of mental health among students and additional funding has been made available. Is the Minister measuring the success of this, however? How is it delivering for students? Students will quickly outline that they feel abandoned by the college and isolated at home, studying in their bedroom or the kitchen. Parents see their children becoming increasingly isolated, disconnected, stressed and worried. How is the Minister measuring the success of what he is doing? Is it being measured? It really needs to deliver for students. They are under such pressure, which is growing further.

I welcome the Minister to the House to discuss the plans to improve and reform further and higher education and the research and innovation sector. As we have seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, the ability to innovate and adapt to the challenges posed has been critical. These skills should be at the heart of the culture we foster in higher education. After Covid, the relevant sectors and institutions must be supported. Alongside our elderly, young people have suffered particularly badly during the pandemic. They have missed months of school and college. Apprenticeships and placements have been put on hold and those affected have lost critical time in their lives in which to build relationships and friendships.

There are almost 415,000 people in the education and training sector, 27,000 of whom have a disability. They must all be supported as their courses and programmes resume. Where possible, clarity needs to be provided on arrangements, further focused financial supports need to be introduced, and mental health and well-being programmes need to be enhanced. This year's and next year's first-year students have been particularly impacted.

Student unions, sports campuses and college authorities should be provided with additional funding to provide refresher weeks to help develop and strengthen networks on campus when students return. What are the Minister's long-term plans for a capital programme? When does he expect we will see the access plan for higher education and the review of the student grant scheme?

Will the Minister confirm what arrangements are being put in place for further education colleges? They are due to have practical Quality and Qualifications Ireland coursework completed by May. Will this deadline be pushed back? Will the Minister engage with further education and training boards and principals to offer them clarity on that?

I thank the Minister for the announcement he made this week on further education and apprenticeships and on how they will be managed. Perhaps the term "further education" itself adds to the perception that there is a difference between higher education provided in universities and that provided through the education and training boards, ETBs, or apprenticeships. We have some concerns in this regard. There is a lot of autonomy in respect of both admissions and the tailoring of courses at ETB level. In many cases, there is a very close relationship with second level schools, where open days are facilitated and where there are interviews. There are tailored admissions policies. I would like to make sure these arrangements are maintained in any reform that takes place.

There have been great strides forward in modern apprenticeships but we want to make sure employers are key and that the application process recognises the reality that apprenticeships are employees as well as students. In 2018, with Dublin facing a skills shortage, as will probably still be the case after Covid, we organised the Dublin City Apprenticeship Summit. At the summit, it was identified that there is a stigma, often evident among parents, including mothers, regarding what apprenticeships and ETB courses can bring. This was part of the Department's independent review of career guidance services. I invite the Minister to come to Coláiste Íde, Finglas, one of the best ETB centres, so both of us might persuade students and parents, including mothers, that the courses in question are sometimes a better way forward and can provide a better fit and, often, a more lucrative career.

I would be delighted to visit with Deputy McAuliffe. He has made some really valid points, including on the use of the word "further", which I am going to reflect on. I would be very happy to take him up on his offer.

I am sharing time with Deputy Paul Donnelly.

I have two questions. The first relates to the critical skills list that is linked to work permits. It has not been updated in ten years. It strikes me as a little odd that there are no skills coming off the list. This is a deficit that needs to be addressed. Clearly, the training is not happening. If the Minister examines the area, as I am sure he has, he will see there are many subgroups, working groups and groups doing this and that but none sitting down to consider how we can deliver training to those who currently need it here and how we can start to reduce the length of the skills list as a consequence. I ask the Minister to consider reducing the length of the list proactively.

My second question relates to apprenticeships. I have to hand a letter from Connect to the Department. It asks whether it is possible that the role of the education and training provider, as the Minister refers to it, could go to a private company? I suspect it could. More than that, I suspect it may form part of the plans but, as ever and as the Minister will know, I am not a pessimist. Rather, I am an optimist with experience so I am willing to be convinced that the Minister is not going to privatise the role although I fear it is his intention.

I have missed our question time so much. It is good to be back. The Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, can answer on apprenticeships.

On the critical skills list, the Deputy made a really serious point. We now have a Department — mine — dedicated to the skills agenda. We are reviewing the skills infrastructure. We have a national skills council and regional skills fora but the system needs to be more cohesive. To answer the Deputy's question, the agency charged with responsibility is SOLAS, but I will revert to her specifically on it. I accept the challenge, however. It is a fair one.

I have not seen the correspondence to which the Deputy referred. I will review it. I assure the Deputy that there is no agenda on my part or that of the Minister to privatise anything.

Is it being ruled out?

We have no intention of privatising the role.

I welcome the plans to ensure apprenticeships are respected. As someone who comes from a working-class background, I know many who work in the trades. There has been a rush away from trades and apprenticeships, and this was really exacerbated by the recession. When the economy collapsed, half a million people left the country. Many of them were tradespeople who never come back. The system was badly damaged then. We currently have 6,928 apprentices waiting to complete their off-the-job training. This is one-third of all apprentices. Unlike other students who have seen their studies disrupted, apprentices cannot advance and complete their training without the off-the-job training process. Many apprenticeships have been working through the lockdown and have not been told anything about when their off-site education will resume. They hope they will make up for lost time to qualify for their trades. They face a serious issue. It needs to be addressed.

The second issue I would like to raise with the Minister concerns funding for the student union in TU Dublin following the amalgamation. The union's funding has been severely cut. The tag lines of its emails are interesting and quite shocking. It states its student adviser staff has unfortunately been reduced to four due to funding cuts by TU Dublin. It states it will get back to me about my query as soon as it can but that, due to the funding cuts, it may take longer to do so. Surely it should not be the case in the middle of a pandemic that a union doing its absolute best to deal with the myriad problems students are facing is having such cuts imposed on it, resulting in the loss of a critical number of staff.

As someone who also comes from a working-class background, I agree with a lot of what the Deputy says about the importance of apprenticeships and trades and of helping people to have a livelihood in our country.

On the TU Dublin issue, I would be very happy to take it up for the Deputy. I share his concern. If he forwards the correspondence to me, I will revert to him directly.

I am sharing time with Deputy Barry. The Minister may not know it but he has People Before Profit to thank for the opportunity to debate this issue. We specifically requested it at the Business Committee. Such is our commitment to this matter, we have also tabled a motion that will give the Minister another opportunity to discuss it tomorrow. I will have more time to set out our stall in that debate.

Covid has brought us to a moment when long-overdue, radical reform and overhaul of the further, higher and third level education sector and access to it is due. There are many different aspects to this. I agree with the point about the words "further" and "higher". There is an implicit class distinction there that we need to eliminate. That is part of the problem which starts with the leaving certificate. The latter creates stress, mental health pressures and a hurdle over which one has to jump at a young age in order to get to higher education. It is fundamentally perpetuating an inequality and a hierarchy and is limiting access to education in a way it should not. If we are serious about an overhaul, we have to get rid of all barriers. We would consider it unthinkable to ration access to primary and secondary education. Why on earth would we ration, through leaving cert exams, fees and other barriers, access to further and higher education, apprenticeships or whatever? It makes no sense. It creates competition, pressure and a hierarchy. It leads to people dropping out and it is bad for our society at every level. Those barriers should be removed and that starts with the leaving cert. It has no place anymore, as it is blocking entrance for some to further and higher education.

Fees in this country are now the highest anywhere in the European Union. There is no justification for that or for anything that puts pressure on people to drop out of education. Nor is there justification for the thousands of people working in higher education in temporary, insecure positions who would love to be working full-time in a better, radically reformed higher and further education system. Should we not, as an objective, say that all the barriers must go? Education to the highest level is a right for everybody and barriers, whether exams, financial barriers or others, must be removed.

I agree on the removal of barriers. I welcome the detailed debate we will start tomorrow on how to go about doing that. The first thing to do is to radically overhaul the CAO system. It is narrowing the conversation far too early. It is making FET and apprenticeships seem like the poor relation and something one only comes to if one does not get the necessary points. It is creating a points race. I do not think the leaving cert, as currently construed, is fit for purpose. I agree with the OECD findings in respect of it. Work has been going on to review it for about five years and that needs to conclude quickly. I look forward to the chance to tease through a number of these issues tomorrow. I thank the Deputy for giving me opportunities to do it twice this week.

I will speak about the State's 400 student radiographers. Our student radiographers spend four years in college. Over the course of those four years, they spend approximately 200 days working in our hospitals for free. They have been doing difficult and dangerous work in the pandemic. They do direct Covid-related work, for example, the taking of X-rays. Not only are they not paid, they do not receive sick pay if, for example, they are infected. They do not receive paid leave. They have in many cases had to give up part-time jobs in order to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. They can be asked to work in any hospital anywhere in the State. Sometimes there is a small travel and accommodation allowance but in all cases it is significantly less than the costs that accrue. Does the Minister agree that our student radiographers do valuable work? Does he agree there has been an injustice done to them? Through their union, SIPTU, they have asked for direct talks with the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly. Is that something the Minister present would support? Would he be prepared to attend such a meeting were it to be set up?

I had the pleasure of being Minister for Health for four and a half years. I will leave that meeting to the current Minister for Health but I would be happy to hear about its outcome. These matters fall to the different parts of the public service and different employers. Anybody doing work as distinct from being in a clinical placement should be paid. When I was Minister for Health, student nurses were hired as healthcare assistants and were paid. Whether one is a teacher, dentist, nurse, midwife, radiographer - I could go on - placements in the public or private sector are part of the education system. I would differentiate between the placement as part of the necessary experience one needs to qualify and graduate versus the doing of work.

The Deputy referred to students having to give up part-time jobs. The Government has made a conscious decision that any student who has had to give up or has lost a part-time job should remain on the pandemic unemployment payment. There were calls from some quarters - certainly not the Deputy - for that to end. Those were calls that we did not heed. I am always happy to engage with students across a range of issues, including student radiographers.

I am glad to have an opportunity to speak in this important debate. We must recognise that we have to change from the way we were to the way we will be in terms of standards and levels. We have to raise our game in order to compete with the best, not just nationally but internationally. On the international market, those people coming from a different place with a different background are competing already and up and running in that business. In a previous incarnation, I had the opportunity of interacting with graduates of polytechnics in eastern Europe and I was amazed at the level to which they had perfected their experience, knowledge and qualifications. That must continue. We must do it to a greater extent in this country.

I compliment the Ministers on the work they are doing. Are they satisfied that we have in place sufficient structures to incorporate the best that we require in the areas of apprenticeships, academic qualifications, research, science or whatever it is? We must perfect everything. We must extend our knowledge and our competence beyond anything we had before if we are to compete successfully and effectively in the international market.

As to whether we have everything we need in terms of structures, the establishment of this new Department and the decision of the Taoiseach to facilitate that has been a good step. No longer are higher and further education a little bit of that Department and research, science and innovation located in another. Having a Minister, a Minister of State, a Secretary General and civil servants working on these issues full-time has been important.

We have brilliant agencies, such as Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council, the Higher Education Authority and SOLAS. We need to make sure none of us work in silos. One job for me and the Minister of State is to put the policies in place and make it clear as to who must do what. It is not this plan, that plan and the other plan but one plan for Ireland that is needed in these areas and a clear understanding of who is responsible for the delivery of each element of it. Less than a year in, we are making good progress. This is an important year in terms of putting those building blocks in place in policy and reform and we are up for it.

The past year has been difficult for our third level students. They have sacrificed so much during a very important time in their lives, mostly to protect the health and safety of others. This age group has missed out on key milestones in their early 20s as a result of a year of distance learning.

I will raise with the Minister two higher education issues affecting my constituency of Tipperary, particularly my home town of Thurles. Thurles is well-known for its highly regarded educational institutions both at second and third level. We also have the national apprenticeship centre in the town. In addition, Thurles is well connected to Cork and Dublin via rail and road with very good public transport infrastructure, which is ideal for students. The town is centrally located, strongly connected and a highly respected hub for education in the midlands.

I thank the Minister for agreeing to meet Dr. Finn Ó Murchú of Mary Immaculate College, St. Patrick's campus, in Thurles, regarding the development of university level courses. There is major potential for the establishment of a home economics course on the St. Patrick's campus. At the moment, the only place people can avail of this course is Sligo. Numerous people have contacted me to say they would like to see a greater range of teacher training courses locally. St. Patrick's in Thurles is in an ideal location for this. There is clear potential to expand the choice and location of such a course and it is clear that Thurles would be the prime site for this due to its central location, transport links and reputation for third level educational standards. I look forward to continuing to work with the Minister and other key stakeholders with a view to developing the range of teacher training options available for third level students in Thurles. I again thank the Minister for agreeing to meet with Dr. Ó Murchú.

I welcome the news that the Government is working to deliver university status for Thurles. This is yet another area where we have clear scope to invest in third level education in the county. The amalgamation of Limerick and Athlone institutes of technology into a technological university, TU, for the midlands and mid-west comes as very welcome news for the town of Thurles. This will allow for enhanced educational programme offerings to be made to third level students, not just in Tipperary but in the entire region.

I welcome the three-year strategy launched by the Department in recent days with the objective of ensuring that everyone, regardless of background, age, gender or address, achieves their best potential, whether that is through education or the workforce. This is welcome.

I will raise with the Minister the technological university for the south east. As we move into the final stage in this crucial week, I want to say "well done" to everyone for their hard work. I know how hard everyone is working on this.

As the Minister knows, the south east is the only region without a university. We must all work together to achieve this. We cannot make it a political football. The Minister's commitment on funding is important, as is the fact that jobs will be safe, which I also welcome. The application for the TU has to be submitted by 28 April. There will then be a review by a panel of international experts. That is an important part of the process and it is crucial that we are on track to complete it by 1 January 2022. This is a good news story, which will be game-changing for the south east. We had a virtual meeting of all Deputies from the south east this morning. I welcome that.

Another priority for me is Carlow. The Minister will be aware of our fabulous third level institutions. Key to achieving the Minister's objective is the full integration of Carlow College, St. Patrick's, into the higher education system in the south-east region. I have had considerable engagement on this with the college and stakeholders, the Minister's office and the Department of the Taoiseach. Carlow College, St. Patrick's, plays a significant role in the higher education landscape in the south-east region, with a concentrated expertise in the delivery of programmes in the arts, humanities and social science. I am working to ensure no stone is left unturned in progressing this into full integration. Can the Minister update me on this process today? This is a really good news story.

I welcome the Minister. I acknowledge his competence, interest and dynamic approach to third level education and also his new initiatives. I endorse his policy in supporting Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT, in becoming a technological university. It is a critical demand for our area. As we know, Dundalk and Drogheda are two large urban conurbations on the Belfast-Dublin corridor, which will be the base for new industry coming here. The technological university proposal makes a lot of sense to us.

Drogheda is a budding city at this stage. How can we ensure there is investment in third level courses in Drogheda, the biggest town in the country? I appreciate the Minister may not be able to respond on my second point as he only has one minute left. I ask him about his concept of integrating the education systems in the North and South by offering opportunities to students from the South to go to the North, even if only for some of their semesters, and, obviously, the converse as well.

The Minister has two minutes to respond because I cut him off earlier.

I thank Deputy O'Dowd for his constant work with me, particularly on North-South issues on which there is potential to do an awful lot more. The Deputy is correct on the exchange of students between North and South as well. There is no reason people from Queen's University Belfast could not come to DkIT and vice versa. That is good on many levels, educational and otherwise.

I am very much interested in meeting the Drogheda and District Chamber, further education providers and the Deputy to discuss how we can make sure, as we roll out more in the further education and training space, such a large conurbation as Drogheda gets its fair share and is ready for the recovery, and also work out how DkIT will fit into the landscape of higher education. I very much welcome the chance to take the Deputy up on that invitation and have those meetings.

I thank Deputy Murnane O'Connor for her leadership on the south-east university project and for attending the meeting this morning. I am not playing politics and I want to work with everyone to get this project over the line. Carlow College, St. Patrick's, plays a major role in third level education and I look forward to seeing its future protected. The Deputy knows what I mean by that. I know work is going on with Institute of Technology Carlow. I will keep working with the Deputy on that.

I look forward to meeting Deputy Cahill regarding the home economics course and the opportunity to do more for Thurles. I thank him for his support on the roll-out of Athlone and Limerick institutes of technology and the benefits that will bring to Tipperary.

I will put a number of questions to the Minister. If time does not allow for a response now, perhaps he will get back to me in writing.

I have been approached by a number of people who are currently undertaking apprenticeships and are concerned about the college aspect of their courses. One young man in particular told me he was due to start the college part in September 2020 but has been told he will not be able to enrol until 2022. That is two years later than planned. Obviously, the course was closed for a time, numbers were reduced and there was a backlog as a result. This is concerning, however, because many young people are asking if they will have to work longer on very low wages until they get their qualification. Can something be done to clear up this mess? Perhaps more resources could be provided to allow more students to undertake the college aspects of their apprenticeship and qualify at their normal time.

The second issue I raise is the recognition of Irish Sign Language as a subject. The Minister is probably aware that there is a course in deaf studies in Trinity College Dublin. Many of those who graduate from the course choose to go on and teach it. It is a four-year honours level degree course. It is not recognised as a teaching subject by the Teaching Council, however. Can this issue be addressed? Perhaps it does not fall under the Minister's remit. If not, he might direct me to the Minister with responsibility for this issue. Irish Sign Language is recognised as an official language of this State and should, therefore, be treated on a par with all other languages.

A number of students who are undertaking social care subjects - this may also apply to a number of other courses - must go out on placement work. I have written to the Minister on this issue and he indicated that he is seeking a solution. Has any resolution been found? Has any progress been made on that score?

I was concerned to hear this week that the number of students applying through the CAO process to pursue courses in teaching has declined. I am aware that schools have been finding it difficult for a number of years to get teachers on any sort of level, be it full-time, part-time or as substitutes. This is a serious issue. If educational standards in our school system fall, it will have a knock-on effect on the prospects of every student. This issue needs to be addressed urgently. What can be done by the Department to encourage more young people to go into the teaching profession?

I will ask the Minister of State to respond on the apprenticeship matter. I will take up the issue the Deputy raised regarding Irish Sign Language. As she suggested, the Teaching Council is obviously independent of me and Government. I will, however, get a view from my officials regarding the course in Trinity College Dublin and revert to the Deputy with some suggestions as to how we might be able to raise that. She makes a very fair point.

On the social care work issue, as I believe I outlined in my letter to the Deputy, I have asked Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, to engage with all regulators. CORU is the regulator in this area and it is not for me to direct it. We are asking all our regulators to show flexibility considering we are in a global pandemic. We are not asking them to lower professional standards but to try to come up with other ways.

We have had good progress with some professions and regulators, as well as some ongoing work with others. The Deputy's point about the CAO and teaching is interesting, a point which struck me as well. To reassure the Deputy, there will still be many more people applying for teaching than there are places. I do not think it will result in or contribute to a shortage of teachers. My Department is undertaking work with all the institutions and across the Government to see what more we can do to provide additional places and placements for this year's leaving certificate cohort. I am due to update the Government on that next month. I will keep the Deputy informed on that.

I compliment the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, on their innovative and creative approach to their new Department.

The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science has the capacity and ability to play a central role in our national recovery plan. These are exciting and refreshing times for institutes of technology. I am delighted with the progress made in establishing a technological university between Limerick Institute of Technology and Athlone Institute of Technology. This venture includes Thurles and Clonmel campuses.

The umbrella group representing all stakeholders did a wonderful job of work. Discussions and negotiations went smoothly. They were united in purpose and the merger is on track. This is a massive opportunity and ground-breaking initiative for Limerick Institute of Technology and its Thurles and Clonmel campuses. Thurles and Clonmel will become university towns and it will have a hugely positive impact on the educational and enterprise landscape of Tipperary.

Has the external independent evaluation of the application been completed? What is the timescale for the Government's sanction? Will the Minister outline his thoughts and vision for this new entity and the impact it will have on Tipperary and the regions?

I thank Deputy Lowry for his questions. I also thank him for keeping in touch with me, the Government, Limerick Institute of Technology and Athlone Institute of Technology on this project.

This is transformational. When we talk about Limerick Institute of Technology and Athlone Institute of Technology, people automatically think about Limerick and Athlone when the former obviously has a clear and firm footprint in Tipperary in both Thurles and Clonmel. This is going to be transformational for County Tipperary. As Deputy Lowry said, Thurles and Clonmel will become university towns. Young and not-so-young people in Tipperary will be able to access university education in their county. They will no longer have to pack their bags to head to some other county or city. It is transformational not just for education but in many other ways. We know that the longer somebody stays in their county, the more likely they are to put down roots there, to raise their own family there and to get a job there. Hopefully, this will rejuvenate, regenerate and revitalise rural and provincial areas. Tipperary will be very well-placed in that regard.

The Government's commitment to this comes with an assurance of wanting to do more on the capital side, as well as looking for opportunities to expand and grow the university presence as we form technological universities.

The international panel concluded its work around the end of February. It is now in the process of finalising its report which it will submit to the Higher Education Authority. It will then get input from Quality and Qualifications Ireland. Then the report is submitted to me with the recommendation to grant or not. I would be very hopeful of a positive recommendation. A significant amount of work has been done. I thank all the staff in Limerick Institute of Technology and Athlone Institute of Technology, particularly the two presidents for their leadership. The Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and I will be keeping in close contact with them. Obviously, the Minister of State has a keen interest in this. I know that the hopefully soon-to-be new technological university is eager to be designated as quickly as possible. That is certainly my aim as well. We will be in a position to put a specific date on that once I receive the report.

It is all systems go. It is a really exciting time, not just for the midlands and mid-west but also for County Tipperary. Thurles and Clonmel could, this calendar year, potentially be university towns.

I thank both the Minister and Minister of State for attending this afternoon. I thank the Minister, Deputy Harris, for his time earlier this morning for a meeting on the technological university for the south east. It is an exciting project which I am passionate about. It will be exciting to see that develop over the next 12 months. Hopefully, we will have announcement on it in January.

I concur with Deputy Lowry on the innovative response and how both the Minister and Minister of State are driving the Department. Their decision to streamline the CAO system is welcome. Students will now be able to apply through the CAO for an apprenticeship and level four and five courses. Hopefully this will increase the take-up and awareness of apprenticeships. For some reason, we have developed a recent obsession to push everyone into college courses. Apprenticeships have often been overlooked by those who would be better suited to them, not to mention the severe lack of apprentices in many years. Will the Minister investigate further why the obsession with college courses has developed to the detriment of apprenticeships and other employment focused training? That has been my experience as a former president of the Irish Road Haulage Association. I am sure we can all point to examples but it would be good if the Minister could just look into that to ensure one does not circumvent the other.

A recent Irish Independent article quoted the Higher Education Authority's figures on third level dropout rates. These figures show dropout rates of 25% across the third level sector. Dropout rates rise to 45% among those studying computing courses. That is a concerning and alarmingly high figure. The overall figure for college dropouts being one in every four students must also be ringing alarm bells in the Department. It is a major issue which we need to examine. Hopefully the new CAO reforms might help address that to some extent. However, we could and should be doing more.

One reform I believe is worth investigating is an optional transition year between second and third level. We already have a transition year between junior and senior cycle in secondary schools. A strong case can be made that the transition between second level and third level is a far more significant and difficult one for students to make. They are moving away from home for the first time, possibly, meeting new people, living with other students, being expected to cook and run a household. It is learning to live in a totally different way than what is expected at second level. There are significant challenges for third level students. It would be worth investigating a similar type of optional transition year system between second and third level. Under such a system, students could sample different course options, getting used to the challenges of living away from home and generally familiarising themselves with the college way of life before making a final course decision.

The hope would be that such a scheme would help reduce the number of college dropouts and the number of people who end up enrolling in courses that they regret. The leaving certificate classes of 2021 have missed a significant chunk of their face-to-face school time over the past two academic years. This will no doubt have a knock-on effect for those students heading off to third level in September in which case it may result in higher dropout rates and more difficulties for students settling into third level life.

On grade inflation under predicted grading systems, it is well documented that students who sat the leaving certificate in 2019 or prior to that who are looking for a CAO place in 2021 will not have the benefit of such inflation. Are any steps being taken by the Department to address the imbalance and to ensure that deferred CAO applicants will not be negatively impacted by this? A written response to this would be perfect.

In his opening statement, the Minister commented on not wanting people locked out and ensuring access to education for all. I want to raise a particularly vulnerable group, namely, children who are leaving the experience of State care. This vulnerable group has complicated and broad-ranging needs. No two individuals really are the same in this case. If we look across at our nearest neighbour, many universities like Portsmouth, Greenwich, Keele and Birmingham have introduced a specialist designated staff member to deal with this group of students.

I have written to the Minister already on this. I would appreciate if the Minister could give us an insight into whether we could provide funding to set up a designated staff member to reach out to young people in care to ensure they reach their educational potential and if he would possibly be able to even meet Empowering People In Care, EPIC, the independent advocacy group which is pushing the needs of young people in care.

I thank Deputy Costello for his paper and the proposal that he sent me and the amount of work that has gone into this. I will take up his offer to meet EPIC with him. I would welcome that opportunity. We want to break down barriers. We want education to be for all. I accept we have much work to do on that. Let us do that. The Deputy's proposal merits serious consideration.

I wish to share with the Deputy some of the initial thoughts from my Department on this. Each higher education institution already has what we call an access infrastructure in place and this provides for both pre-entry and post-entry work required to support students from target groups or vulnerable groups to access higher education. This year we will be developing a new national access plan. It will be an opportunity to examine all of these issues as well.

It is important to say, although this line often bugs me, that all higher education institutions are autonomous. It bugs me because it sounds like we are passing the buck but that is not the intention of the comment. It is more that we will need to bring them into the conversation in terms of how they apply their access policy. There are a number of supports already in place through access offices and their teams support students who are care leavers. However, I take the point that there is not a specific workforce for this.

Having read Deputy Costello's paper quite thoroughly, I see real benefit in sitting down with him, with EPIC and with others who have an interest in this and seeing if we can make progress in the context of the national access plan. I thank Deputy Costello for his work and considerable thought on this. I look forward to engaging with him.

I am happy to be here today to discuss some of the issues facing students right around the country. I do so as the youngest Member of the Dáil. Of course, the Minister and I had something in common when we were first elected - recently I was admiring that photograph on the Minister's Twitter account of his election ten years ago this week - in that we were both elected to Dáil Éireann at an extremely young age. That brings with it not only the responsibility to our constituents but also for our age bracket and group in society. As the youngest Member of this House, and indeed one of the youngest parliamentarians in the world, I am quite conscious of that.

This pandemic has brought enormous challenges to Deputy Harris, as the Minister at Cabinet representing this Department, and I acknowledge that. However, one area I would like to see a greater focus placed on, and I hope the Minister would agree, is the issues faced by students who are renting in terms of their leases and their rights, which are incredibly precarious in many circumstances. The Union of Students in Ireland has been doing exceptional work in this regard. Obviously, I am quite limited, as I am supporting the Government, in how I can support votes that may be before the Dáil but one issue I would like to see the Government support is the effort by the Union of Students in Ireland to address some of the issues faced by students in terms of their tenancies. Unfortunately, many people were left out of pocket because they were dealt cruel hands in terms of how their landlords were treating them. The way in which many students were treated across the country was unacceptable. I would ask the Minister to focus on that area.

In the limited time I have left, I would also ask the Minister to give further consideration to some of the aspects of the Cassells report, which identified many of the funding shortfalls that fall within the Department's remit. Obviously, the universities are under extraordinary strain to receive funding from the Government. This has been clearly outlined, including in a number of steps within the Cassells report to address that. The Minister, the Department and the Government must give priority to that because Ireland needs to continue its efforts to remain a global leader in the area of education and higher education.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, for facilitating today's statements and questions and answers.

The only higher education topic of discussion in Mayo, and stretching from Donegal to Galway, is that of the Connacht-Ulster alliance. The new technological university for the west and north-west of Ireland will be one of the largest multi-campus universities on the island. When approved, it will span a unique geographical region on the periphery of Europe which has a predominantly dispersed rural population. I ask the Minister for information regarding the application for technological university status and the expected timeline of the application by the Connacht-Ulster consortium. In addition, I would like to learn of the benefits that this will have for the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, Mayo campus in Castlebar.

I was delighted to hear about the Minister's engagement with Ballinrobe Youthreach centre. The feedback was excellent. They really enjoyed their virtual experience. I would also like to learn what more can be done to support organisations such as Ballinrobe Youthreach in their valuable work.

I note the publication this week of the Department's statement on its three-year strategy. One ambition is to implement a new access plan for higher education and a review of the student grants scheme. I would welcome any additional information on this. I will give my remaining time for the Minister to respond.

We are short a speaker in this slot and the Minister has a little extra time.

I will respond to Deputy O'Connor as well, if that is okay.

I thank Deputy Dillon for his questions. I am really excited about the development of this new university for the west and the north-west. It will be transformational, not only in terms of access to education but also in creating a real powerhouse for jobs, investment and regional development. When one looks at the map of Ireland, one can see the need for that level of investment. It will change the economic profile of the region. Of course, it will make Castlebar a university town. The Deputy and I had a number of meetings with GMIT. Let me be clear, GMIT and the Castlebar campus will be major players. It will be a major campus as part of this university and I look forward to working with the Deputy to drive investment into that Castlebar facility as well.

I really enjoyed my visit to Ballinrobe Youthreach. It was a chance to meet students, to thank them, to hear from them about their Covid experiences and how challenging the year has been. It was also a chance to meet the staff who are passionate and determined. They have a couple of capital projects they would like to do to improve their facilities there. I am eager to work with the Deputy, and have discussions with the ETB, on that.

On the national access plan, we want to deliver a new one this year. We have made a lot of progress on access to higher education for people with disabilities but not enough and we need to do more.

The SUSI review will open for public consultation on Friday. We want to get an output by the summer in order that we can start planning for the Estimate campaign and, obviously, the budget, which will take place in October.

While Deputy O'Connor and I both shared the title of baby of the House, as former baby of the House, I was of the much older age of 24 when I got elected to this House, unlike the Deputy, at 22. I congratulate the Deputy on his achievement in being elected to the Dáil and advocating for the people in his constituency but also for younger people.

On the USI Bill, I take seriously the issues in it. I am talking to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, about them. While the Bill tries to provide a temporary solution to what I hope is a temporary problem, the bigger body of work for us to do together is build more student accommodation owned by college campuses. We saw the benefit of that this year where we could give refunds much more easily on the accommodation owned by campuses. We have not done enough on that.

On the Cassells report, as the Deputy will be aware from his past life, we have increased investment in higher education by almost half a billion euro since 2015. We are get the European Commission's economic evaluation back in the second quarter of this year and I look forward to trying to settle the question of a sustainable funding model.

I thank the Minister for taking the time to do a virtual visit of Cavan Institute last week and to meet the distinguished principal, Ms Ann Marie Lacey, the staff, the chief executive of Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board, CMETB, Mr. John Kearney, and the students themselves to hear their first-hand inclusive and real-life positive experience for everyone who attends Cavan Institute despite Covid.

Cavan Institute enrols in excess of 1,000 students year on year and has grown from strength to strength. I previously outlined to the Minister in our meeting that the principal and the deputy principals have been relentless in their efforts to attract students, to provide a broad spectrum of courses and to provide a positive learning experience for everyone who attends. They deliver more than 60 full-time courses each year and have outstanding support services and an excellent track record in transitioning students to employment and higher education.

In the absence of higher education in the Border region, Cavan Institute has responded by collaborating with a range of higher education colleges to deliver some of their courses on an outreach basis in Cavan Institute so as to continue to meet the needs of the students and the local economy. Moreover, it has responded excellently during Covid in supporting students and staff to transition successfully to online learning.

My question to the Minister here today is about the building list. Cavan Institute has been on the building list with the Department of Education for nigh on eight years and has not progressed. As the Minister heard, this is a priority for Cavan Institute and CMETB, as it has outgrown its current facility, which no longer meets the institute's needs with a growing number of students.

When can we expect progress on this?

It is my opinion that Cavan Institute is best placed to become the hub for the delivery of integrated FET services in Cavan, particularly in view of its expertise and the level of support services available for learners. Unless we have the physical infrastructure to support that, it will not be possible.

I thank Deputy Niamh Smyth for her question and for coming along on my virtual visit to Cavan Institute. I am really looking forward to visiting the facility in person. I fully recognise the need to progress that capital project and I am very eager to work with the Deputy and her Oireachtas colleagues who represent Cavan and Monaghan in order to get that done. Cavan Institute is an example of best practice and I am already telling people about and using examples of what I learned on my visit. I refer to the pre-law course as one example in that regard. Ann Marie, John and the whole team there are doing a great job. I know the Deputy worked for the ETB, so let us meet on the capital project and try to make progress on it in the coming months.

I have two issues I wish to raise with the Minister. The first relates to the reinstatement of the educational disadvantage committee. We know that the recent HEA report shows clearly that students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to progress to third level or even to apprenticeships. We need to ensure that we have measures in place. One way of doing this and a cost-effective solution would be to reinstate the educational disadvantage committee which did great work when it was in place. This is a matter I have raised on a number of occasions in the Dáil and I introduced a Bill a few years ago in respect of it. I would like that this proposal might be reconsidered.

On my second issue, namely, SUSI grants, I understand that students in part-time work can only earn €4,500, which is a disincentive for them to work. As this is such a low amount we need to do more and to raise that amount. I ask the Minister to look at that when he comes to the review of the SUSI grants.

I will certainly give consideration to the issue of re-establishing the educational disadvantage committee. If the Deputy wishes to communicate with me further on that in writing, I will be happy to look at what she has to say. Most importantly, I want to put money into tackling educational disadvantage and I am very pleased that we now have a ring-fenced fund for mitigating such disadvantage. We have never had this before and need to make it a regular part of the landscape.

On SUSI, the Deputy makes a fair point. The review is under way and we have set up the steering group. The consultation will open on Friday and I very much welcome the Deputy’s submission on that and will be happy to engage with her further.

On Monday last, the Government unveiled plans to reform the CAO system of access to third level education. This news is certainly welcome and the three-year plan will lead to an increase in the number of apprenticeships to 10,000 every year by 2025. The programme should be much more ambitious in respect of apprenticeships, however. I propose that the target should be 15,000 apprenticeships by 2022. There is a severe housing shortage and we need apprentices to be fast-tracked in order to help with the demand in this regard.

While it has been great that the students have been able to commence their studies in college, I am of the view that this was just a box-ticking exercise on the part of some universities. Of all the cohorts of students, none has been more affected by Covid-19 than this year's first-year students. First, they had the controversy relating to the leaving certificate to deal with. The results which followed were like no others in the history of the State. I was speaking to a parent who has a child in first year at university who has only been on campus for one hour since September. This young person has not met anyone else in their cohort and does not even have as a text buddy. The IT colleges have put in a much bigger effort for first years and have brought them in as often as possible, circumstances allowing.

We now have a Minister and a junior Minister in charge of this aspect of education. I have not heard them mention broadband as a priority for students. In recent days I had a student from Mary Immaculate College in Limerick contacted me. This person was set to do a live interview with a tutor but the broadband faded and the interview could not be completed. Another student was working towards deadlines and the broadband connection failed. Students are not even sure if their tutors believe them. This a very significant issue.

The laboratories in the universities are operating online at the moment. Laboratory classes can be small and surely this is a provision that can be made at this time in colleges, particularly with proper social distancing.

I too want to highlight the lack of broadband connectivity in rural areas to help students. I am aware that several students are travelling to hubs or to the homes of neighbours who have broadband or whatever in order to try to access their courses. I ask the Minister to recognise the difficulties that exist in rural areas.

I ask that the Minister be on the ball this year when and if students have to access accommodation. We had the story last year where students sought accommodation, got it and paid for it but when they went to attend classes, the colleges did not open at all. That cannot happen again. I appreciate that the Minister will let students know in a timely fashion what the scenario will be.

We need more places for students, as the Minister is aware. Students completed the leaving certificate late last year. These students will be coming on stream together with those who will be sitting the leaving certificate later this year.

I acknowledge and appreciate the new dimension for apprenticeships. I want the Minister to explore that and to advise students that there is a need for apprenticeships, whether that is for carpentry, plumbing, electrical work or whatever because we need these apprentices for housebuilding. There is a serious shortage in all areas of apprenticeship. We need to encourage students to go that way because we will need them if the economy is to keep going and if we are to continue to build houses and improve infrastructure. I wish to stress to the Minister that we will need apprentices in all areas.

I agree with the Minister’s comments to the effect that universities have failed to provide accommodation on campus. This has certainly contributed to the housing crisis. I have first-hand experience of it in Galway where students were left to the market in this regard. I welcome the Minister’s comments on that issue. I also welcome his initiative on apprenticeships and the opening up of the CAO.

I had intended raising something with the Minister but it has resolved itself. I have picked two other topics which I will raise with him. One is in respect of Limerick and it involves a series of questions. The Minister has come back to tell me that universities are independent, which I fully appreciate. He has made an effort in his replies regarding a particular report that was commissioned by the university and that was compiled by an external entity. I asked the Minister if he had been made aware of its content and he said he had not as the universities were independent. He then came back in December with an interesting reply to confirm that the report had been shared with the governing authority of UL and it is expected that a copy of the outcomes and recommendations will also be shared with the HEA. As regards the actions resulting from any review, under the Government’s framework, which is operated by institutions in conjunction with the HEA, institutions are obliged to notify the HEA of any weaknesses in internal control that has been identified. This was in December and we are now in March. Is the Minister aware if this has happened and has the university identified weaknesses and passed them on to the Minister? I will give the Minister time to reply on this.

We know, and the Minister took a particular interest in her case, that Dr. Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin had to go outside of the structures. In this case in Limerick, I understand - I do not believe that I am breaching any rule here - that one of the people involved has written to the Committee of Public Accounts. Evidence was given when I was a member of that committee and the person involved has now stated that they were under pressure to say certain things. The individual has set out the position and that is where matters stand. Can the Minister comment on this issue? I recognise that universities are independent. I have spent four years of my life on the Committee of Public Accounts, which was a privilege and which provided me with the equivalent of a university education. What I learned was that anything can be written down but that does not necessarily mean it will be complied with. There is a role for the Department here. I am giving the Minister two minutes to reply and I will have one minute at the end to comment.

My other point relates to precarious employment.

We made some progress in Galway on gender equality as a result of the sterling work done by the women there, starting with Micheline Sheehy Skeffington and followed by other courageous women, but that was only on one particular aspect. I am told the vast majority of staff in precarious employment are women. I have tabled parliamentary questions and the Minister has come back to tell me that universities are independent and that he does not know. How can we ever tackle anything while recognising their independence if the Department is unaware or not made aware or if there are no structures? I, for one, am not happy that the vast majority of academic staff in precarious employment are women. I am not happy that some of them are men either but the majority are women. Perhaps the Minister will take a minute or two to reply.

I thank Deputy Connolly for her two very specific questions. With regard to the UL issue, I will honestly have to come back to the Deputy to see whether the HEA has now been made aware, and I thank the Deputy for the reminder on it because I want to know. My logic in my letter to the Deputy in December was that once the HEA had become aware, there was then a route from me to become aware because it is an agency of mine. I will seek an update, and I say this on the record of the House, from the authority as to whether it has been made aware of it and I will revert to the Deputy directly on the matter. I will be very eager to know the position.

The broader point, and I do want to say this, is about governance. There is a reason I need to bring forward governance legislation. There is a reason I am bringing it to Cabinet in April. There is a reason I want to pass it through both Houses this year. I am not satisfied that I have to keep giving Deputy Connolly these answers. Universities are autonomous, and I get that, but the governance structures have to be better. The HEA has to have the power to go in and get answers. The HEA has to have statutory powers on governance and performance frameworks. Quite frankly, it does not have some of these powers now. When I bring forward the legislation I really will need the help of Deputies to get the best piece of legislation we can in order to have robust modern fit for purpose governance structures in terms of the composition of governing authorities, their size, the power of the HEA, my role as Minister and the role of the Department. I am working actively on this and it will be our major piece of legislation this year.

On the issue of precarious employment, I am not happy about it either to be honest. I can give the Deputy the whole answer about autonomy, and they are autonomous, but aside from this there is a role for the Department in terms of bringing together all of the funders. They are autonomous but they are funded through the HEA, Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council. I am setting up an advisory group in the Department to look at a number of these issues around precarious employment, career pathways and supports for researchers. I will be happy to put some of my thoughts in writing to the Deputy on this matter.

I thank the Minister for the reply and for promising the update. With regard to precarious employment, we will have another group to look at it. Surely the mechanisms are already there. We are reliant on thejournal.ie and whistleblowers coming forward to tell us the position, or I have to go forward as a Deputy under freedom of information. Surely all of this should be at the Minister's fingertips. Surely this is what we should be working towards.

With regard to Limerick and, indeed, Galway and the other universities, I have to say whistleblowers have a particularly difficult time in Ireland. While we may have brought in legislation to facilitate it we have not had a sea change on it. It seems with regard to each institution, and I will not single out any one, if it does not round on the whistleblowers it certainly isolates them, sends them to Coventry and makes their lives difficult. All of the time it seems to be about protecting the institution and not valuing the information coming forward and dealing with it speedily and effectively.

In the context of any governance legislation I bring forward to protect whistleblowers, openness and transparency will always be really important to me. I served on the Committee of Public Accounts. I saw the great lengths whistleblowers had to go to in this country and where they were not always protected and I accept more work is to be done. I am delighted people make protected disclosures but, to be very honest, I am not happy with the level of protected disclosures that people feel compelled to make because they cannot get the answers and the openness they would like. I am very eager to work with the Deputy on this through the governance legislation. I have quite a long note on the Cush report on precarious employment and some of the measures we are taking and perhaps I will write to the Deputy on it in the interests of time. I am happy to pick it up again.

Sitting suspended at 4.35 p.m. and resumed at 4.55 p.m.