Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Grant Payments

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

1. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if the holiday earnings disregard is applied to the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, for SUSI applicants; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36806/21]

I want to know if the holiday disregard of €4,500 will be applied to the PUP payment to create equity. If students were working as they normally would, they would get disregard. I want to know before I leave here today if this disregard is going to be applied and that at a minimum €4,500 would be disregarded.

I thank the Deputy for the question. The student support scheme is a critical financial support for students participating in higher education. As of earlier this week, Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, had received almost 74,000 applications from students. To date, almost 53,500 applications have been assessed, with more than 47,000 deemed as eligible for support for the next academic year. As in any statutory scheme, a core principle is that there is a consistency of approach and equitable treatment for applicants as part of the means assessment process. This applies to people who are dependent on different types of social protection payments. The pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, has been treated as reckonable income since it was introduced in March 2020. Income from the Covid-19 payment, therefore, has the same standing and is treated in a similar fashion to other Department of Social Protection payments, such as jobseeker's benefit or jobseeker's allowance. This means that a student or family on the PUP should be treated in the same way as a student or family who are dependent on jobseeker's benefit or allowance.

The holiday earnings disregard does not apply to these social protection payments and, therefore, it would not be fair, equitable or, possibly, legal to apply a different approach to the PUP. However, an important feature of the scheme is the change of circumstance provision. If an applicant has experienced a change of circumstances during 2021, they can apply to SUSI for their application to be assessed or re-assessed under a change of circumstances. Such a change in circumstances will clearly include no longer being in receipt of the PUP. Students will no longer be able to receive the payment from early September, in line with normal circumstances where students do not qualify for unemployment payments while at college. Therefore, no students will miss out on the SUSI grant as a result of them being in receipt of the PUP because they will not be receiving it from September onwards. I know entirely what the Deputy is trying to get at. It is a very important point that she is trying to highlight, in not wanting someone to have lost out because they received the PUP. The fact, though, that a student will not be in a position to receive the PUP from September means they will qualify under the change of circumstances for the payment to be disregarded.

Please take it from me that the exceptional circumstances are not working. People and families who were in the same financial position last year as they are this year are being excluded by SUSI, which is unacceptable. I understand in terms of social welfare, disregards, and uniformity across the board, but we are in a global pandemic. We have made all kinds of exceptions. We have put through emergency legislation and everything else. Why are students being singled out? The Minister is putting money in their pockets with one hand and taking out twice as much with the other. The same issue applies to medical cards. I spoke to a mother yesterday evening whose son had lost his medical card because of PUP. If students had known at the beginning that if they accepted PUP, many of them would be excluded from medical cards and SUSI, they would never have taken that payment. The payment is directly connected to employment.

There are crossed lines of communication here, so let me be clearer. Full-time students will not be in a position to receive the PUP from September. Therefore, they will be entitled to have their SUSI application assessed as though they have not received the payment. That is the purpose of the change of circumstances. I met my officials as recently as yesterday on this. I acknowledge that Deputy has pursued this matter in a number of occasions and it is important. If students were going to receive the PUP beyond September we would have the issue of which the Deputy speaks, but because students are not going to be eligible to receive PUP from September, all of them will qualify to have their SUSI application reassessed under the change of circumstances with their PUP payments not factored in.

I will arrange for SUSI to provide a briefing for Oireachtas Members on this. I will also arrange for SUSI to communicate directly with students and put information directly on their website in respect of this. Our intentions are the same. No student will lose out as a result of them receiving the PUP.

Basically, the Minister needs to communicate with SUSI. People who are applying at the moment are being told that they are over the limit. They need to know. Parents and students need to plan now as to whether they can afford to go to college and continue their education. Waiting until September and hoping that everything will be okay is going to delay and clog things up. Parents and students have enough worries as it is, without being excluded from this. Dealing with SUSI, in terms of change of circumstances, is not as simple as the Minister portrays. We are in such exceptional times that there should be an exceptional blanket at a minimum of €4,500. Why can that not be done? I know the Minister referred to social welfare norms but, because it is an exceptional payment, surely there is some mechanism between the Minister’s Department and SUSI for it to be done.

Not to surprise the Deputy, but I am doing more for students than she has asked me to do. Not only are we going to put in a disregard of €4,500, because full-time students are no longer entitled to the PUP from September, if they apply for the change of circumstances, that will mean their application will be reassessed without their PUP payment being calculated as part of it. SUSI has kept on additional staff. The Deputy probably knows that SUSI takes on staff for certain periods. It has extended that period to deal more students who will use the change of circumstances this year. The change of circumstances is a well-established procedure. We have seen that it can operate at scale. For example, last year or this current year, more than 10,000 applicants declared a change in circumstance. Approximately 40% of those were related to Covid-19. However, I take the Deputy’s point about this needing to be simple and straightforward for students. It needs to be well-publicised and well-advertised. I will arrange for SUSI to provide a briefing for Oireachtas Members on this and, most importantly, to communicate directly with students, through student unions, their websites, etc, on how they can available of this. However, I genuinely believe that the change in circumstances route will address the issue the Deputy highlighted.

Technological Universities

Verona Murphy

Question:

2. Deputy Verona Murphy asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the level of funding his Department has secured to support the establishment of a County Wexford campus for the technological university of south east Ireland, TUSEI; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37070/21]

What level of funding has the Minister’s Department secured to support the establishment of a County Wexford campus for the technological university for the south east of Ireland?

I thank the Deputy for the question and for consistently raising with me the need for a Wexford campus as part of the technological university for the south east. It has been a long-term objective of what is currently Institute of Technology, IT, Carlow to secure and develop a suitable, permanent campus site in Wexford. In the broader context of higher education progression and integration, this is an objective that I strongly support. I do not see this as an option or something nice to do; I see it as essential to the functioning of the new technological university for the south east. Should the application made by IT Carlow and Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, to establish a multi-campus TU serving the south east ultimately prove to be successful, which I expect it will, then any new campus of IT Carlow located in Wexford would, in turn, become the campus of the designated TU, which would mean that Wexford would have a university campus. As the Deputy knows, IT Carlow submitted an updated business case earlier this year to the Higher Education Authority, HEA, to purchase a site in Wexford. Following a review of the business case, I am delighted that the HEA board approved the proposal, including the value for money parameters. The proposal has further been approved by me and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, in line with the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA, code of governance, which applies to institutes of technology. As the site acquisition process is ongoing, I cannot answer the direct question on the funding details, because they are commercially sensitive.

I can confirm, however, that a proposal has been approved by me and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and that funding from my Department has been earmarked in line with the value for money considerations outlined in the IT Carlow business case. IT Carlow is engaged in efforts to secure the site and has been liaising with Wexford County Council, which has informed me it is also very supportive of the planned development. IT Carlow has also outlined, at a high level, its plans for a phased campus development in Wexford. However, that planning is still at an early stage. The scope and scale of the infrastructural development remains to be agreed. This will be agreed upon by the Higher Education Authority, HEA, and by my Department once it is submitted. We must secure a site. I have to do it in line with the value for money parameters set down by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform but I want to see every possible route and tool the State has in its toolkit used to make sure this happens.

I thank the Minister. This is a matter that is very close to my heart. I commend the Minister on the progress he has made as Minister responsible for higher education based on moving along the project for the technological university of south-east Ireland, TUSEI. It has been difficult. There have been differences between WIT and IT Carlow but everybody's interventions helped, and all the stakeholders eventually got it together. This week, the international board is meeting WIT and IT Carlow to assess them.

I am aware of the support of Wexford County Council and of Carlow IT's ongoing negotiations on purchasing a site. Bearing in mind the Minister's successful intervention previously, I ask him to organise a stakeholder meeting in this regard so we can move the project along in a timely fashion. The last thing I want is for the TUSEI to be sidelined on establishment if somebody comes in with other ideas. In addition to arranging a stakeholder meeting, the Minister might come to Wexford and visit the current campus.

That is an excellent suggestion. I would be very happy to take the Deputy up on it and arrange for a meeting with Oireachtas Members from Wexford, perhaps the chief executive of Wexford County Council, the president of IT Carlow and their like to meet me. I would be very happy to try to do that this month, at least online. I will take the Deputy up on her offer to visit the existing campus. She makes an important point because there is an existing campus. We want to get it much better facilities but there are students today accessing third level education in Wexford.

We have made a lot of progress together and I acknowledge the support across the political spectrum. The Teachers Union of Ireland ballots have now been passed overwhelmingly in both WIT and IT Carlow. The international panel process is ongoing, as the Deputy says. We are very much on track, subject to the international panel's view, to have a new university for the south east designated and open its doors on 1 January 2022. I, too, want to make sure Wexford is a part of it. Wexford will be a part of it but I want to make sure we can secure the site. This will require many approaches. I will be very happy to work with the Deputy on it.

I thank the Minister for his commitment to engage with the council or IT Carlow, either during the recess or beforehand online, before we all take off on our holidays. I appreciate that greatly.

I am a graduate of the Wexford campus of IT Carlow. Had I not been able to attend night classes at the age of 35, I might never have had a law degree. There are many people like me in the south east, including Wexford.

Wexford has been left behind by the IDA. A part of the community feels this is because a significant cohort of students do not stay in the area to work after completing their education. On behalf of the people of Wexford and the south east, I look forward to having a new TUSEI campus in Wexford in order that we can keep students in the area and in employment after their education and encourage the IDA to bring new facilities. I thank the Minister.

I thank the Deputy. She does not need me to tell her about the success of the Wexford campus because she herself has been a beneficiary. I very much believe this technological university for the south east will be transformational, not just regarding access to education, although that will be the case, but also regarding the foreign direct investment potential the Deputy referred to. I have met the IDA on this. It, too, has signalled to me that a university for the south east could be very important. I encourage the community, including the business community, and all the people of Wexford and the rest of the south east to prepare for this new university and determine how they can harness its full potential. I encourage the local authority to work very closely with IT Carlow on considering the use of all its powers to make sure we, together as a State, secure the new site. I have approved a proposal. I have earmarked funding within my Department. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has approved it, as has the HEA board. We stand ready to do what I have described but it has to be within the parameters set out in terms of value for money.

Third Level Education

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

3. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science when the independent economic report on the Cassells report will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37069/21]

When will the independent economic report on the Cassells report be published? It is widely accepted the higher education sector has been chronically underfunded since Fine Gael came to power in 2011. In the words of the Irish Universities Association, the State embarked on a sustained period of disinvestment in higher education. The European University Association's Public Funding Observatory report on 32 higher education systems refers to Ireland as an extreme case "where universities were confronted with strong student growth while experiencing grave funding cuts".

I thank the Deputy. I would not agree that the underfunding started when my party came into government. Unfortunately, the underfunding of higher education is an intergenerational issue that needs to be rectified. I accept, however, the point on the need for a sustainable model of funding for higher education. My Department's statement of strategy, which I published on 8 March, contains a commitment to put in place that sustainable funding model for higher education. This is essential in ensuring our higher education institutions can effectively meet high standards of quality and performance and achieve critical outcomes for society and the economy.

The report referred to in the Deputy's question was commissioned by the European Commission's structural reform support programme in November 2019. The independent consultants appointed by the Commission, Indecon and LE Europe, were required under the terms of reference to undertake a detailed review of three specific funding options contained in what we commonly know as the Cassells report. The consultants were also tasked by the Commission with examining the steps necessary to adapt higher education and further education and training provision in Ireland to ensure alignment between graduate output and qualifications and the current and expected future skills needs of the Irish labour market to provide the country with the right set of skills to ensure inclusive, smart and sustainable growth. The terms of reference agreed by the Commission also required the consultants to identify options for putting in place a new funding system for the higher education system in Ireland that would provide equity in access, efficiency in the investment of public resources, and sustainability in the face of strong demographic growth.

The final deliverable arising from the project has been submitted by the European Commission recently. Following its completion, my Department has now commenced its examination of the analysis, findings, conclusions and recommendations to develop proposals for the Government to seek to meet the commitment contained in the statement of strategy. Once the examination is concluded, the report will be submitted by me to the Government for consideration. It will then be published.

That is the long answer. The short answer is I expect to be in a position to publish the report in the autumn. I want to receive the advice from my officials on the analysis, prepare proposals for Government and then publish the report. Then I expect a robust and comprehensive debate in these Houses.

I am glad it has come back to the Minister. Maybe he will confirm when it came back to his Department.

A major part of the State divestment was based on passing the costs on to students and families, as is evident from the fact we now have the highest fees in the European Union. We need a sustainable funding model, as the Minister said. The Cassells report made this clear in 2016, yet we are still waiting for the report five years later. It is urgent. The Minister told me in September last year the report would be completed by the end of 2020. When I asked about it again this year, he told me it would be in March. Today he is telling me it will be in the autumn. He will forgive me if I am a little sceptical. It has to be produced. The Minister knows that unless the new legislation we are now scrutinising is underpinned with serious investment, we will not do the job that needs to be done. After years of reports, including evaluation reports, it is beginning to look like there are delay tactics. The work really needs to be done now.

The Deputy knows that every time she says we have the highest fees in the European Union, I am going to point out this is only because Northern Ireland left the European Union, sadly, as part of Brexit. The fees for students in the North, where the Deputy's party is in government, are a hell of a lot higher.

The timeline is a matter for the European Commission. In fairness to it, I believe it would say Covid has had an impact. The report is now with my Department. There are several parts to it. What I will not do is build a shelf to stick it on and let it gather a load of dust. What I am preparing over the summer months is a plan to bring to the Cabinet. This is a report whose recommendations must be implemented.

As I have said before in this House, I do not believe in student loans. I believe they are a barrier to access.

Many say they work on paper but I am yet to see where they work in practice. I do not accept the analysis that nothing has happened since the Cassells report. Since then, expenditure allocated to higher education has increased by more than €500 million, which is an increase of approximately 40%. In 2021, total planned current expenditure funding of the higher education sector, exclusive of research provision, is in the order of €1.98 billion.

The Minister knows that the higher education institutions are carrying a debt of almost €1 billion as it is, and he knows what needs to be done in human capital and everything else that is needed. Related to that, how many labs have been put in since last year? The infrastructure was proving a problem in meeting the demands of higher numbers. The London Economics review of the Augar review, which is an appraisal of the English further and higher education systems, argued for a less market-orientated approach to third level education in England. The Minister referred to the North but he knows there is a block grant situation there. As the Tánaiste said, the solution to that is an all-island education system and we have to work towards that. I was pleased when the education committee recently appointed me as rapporteur on a report examining the barriers to all-island education. I agree with the Minister that there should not be fees in the North or the South.

Thank you, Deputy. Táimid thar am.

I genuinely welcome the work that the Deputy is going to undertake. I was pleased that I could announce with the Taoiseach €40 million from the shared island unit for all-island research which will make a real difference, not only in investing in research but also in building the links and personal relationships between individual researchers and the institutions North and South. I look forward to that work.

I accept there is underfunding in higher education and that we need a sustainable funding model but I want to be clear that there will not just be new money for old rope. I know Deputy Conway-Walsh will agree on that. Deputy Verona Murphy spoke of her ability to obtain a law degree at night, presumably part-time, in Wexford. If we are to fund higher education sustainably and properly, it has to work for the citizens, not just for institutions, structures or university presidents. Alongside the list of funding requirements needed, the State will also have a list of asks as to how our higher education system could be more integrated with further education, less elitist and more agile and flexible. I know the Deputy will agree with that.

Apprenticeship Programmes

Danny Healy-Rae

Question:

4. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he will ensure that sufficient funding is put in place to provide for additional apprenticeships for students given that all courses are now oversubscribed as there is significant demand for apprenticeships and this demand needs to be addressed and in view of the fact that employers need to be subsidised adequately to ensure they will accommodate such students in the workplace. [37067/21]

Will the Minister ensure that sufficient funding is put in place to provide for additional apprenticeships for students given that all courses are now oversubscribed as there is significant demand for apprenticeships and this demand needs to be addressed and in view of the fact that employers need to be subsidised adequately to ensure they will accommodate such students in the workplace?

A key strength of the apprenticeship model, as highlighted in the recent action plan for apprenticeship, is that it is a demand-led approach to meeting workforce and skill requirements in our economy. In the case of craft apprenticeship, for example, the number of places is determined by employers, with off-the-job training provided to all registered apprentices. Apprenticeships established since 2016 have one or more intakes per annum with the take-up determined by employer engagement and available apprentice jobs provided by employers.

The detailed and comprehensive Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021-2025, which was launched on 19 April last, sets out new ways of structuring, funding and promoting apprenticeships to make apprenticeship accessible to employers and learners. The actions set out in the plan seek to deliver on a target of 10,000 apprenticeship registrations per annum by 2025.

The Government is committed under the action plan to working with employers to promote, enable and support the recruitment of apprentices. Measures to support employer engagement in apprenticeship, particularly within the SME sector, will be integral to the delivery of the target of 10,000 new apprentice registrations per annum by 2025. These financial and non-financial measures will include an annual grant for employers not benefiting from the existing mechanism of State-funded craft apprentice training allowances for off-the-job training. This employer grant will be administered by the new national apprenticeship office and the level of grant will be announced by the end of the year.

There is a very substantial allocation of resources to apprenticeships drawing on the resources provided by employers through the training levy into the national training fund. The 2021 budget allocation for apprenticeship is €198.4 million which is a 7% increase on the 2020 allocation.

I thank the Minister of State for the reply. I wish to thank the Minister for incorporating apprenticeship into third level as it is very important provision. However, there is a severe lack of electricians, plumbers, carpenters, blocklayers, plasters and mechanics in all the trades. There are severe shortages of skilled drivers for machinery excavators, bulldozers, dumpers and lorries. School bus drivers are hardly to be got at all. I am appealing for the Government to go harder at this because we need a skilled, trained workforce in all areas including building houses or commercial premises. We need more young people coming into this. There is €3,000 for employers until December but it is not adequate. We need that to continue further into the future.

About 60 different apprenticeship schemes are available and a further 18 schemes are in development across a range of areas, including some that the Deputy mentioned. I take the Deputy's example about school bus drivers. This is something that I have raised with the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. That is an acute issue because drivers are prohibited from doing this work on reaching 70 years, although that is a separate issue that should be dealt with.

As I said, some €198.4 million is available through the national training fund, which includes the cost of the apprenticeship incentivisation scheme that the Deputy alluded to. In 2021, some €12 million in Covid-related costs for additional classes was provided, compared to an allocation of €169 million the previous year.

I thank the Minister of State for his understanding of the rule that applies to people at the age of 70. It is very severe and many good drivers are left behind. We need to have more young people coming into all areas. I believe SOLAS should be resourced to manage the registration for employers. Its key focus should be to link employers and apprenticeships and to develop relationships around them. Career guidance teachers need to do more to advise and encourage youngsters at second level to take up the trades and go into these areas, and advise them how to become involved in the prosperity of our country into the future. We need young people to get involved in all these areas of construction, etc., to help our country to grow.

The Deputy is 100% right. Along with the Minister, Deputy Harris, and our Government colleagues, I have set out to bring apprenticeships into the mainstream - into the middle of our further and higher education offerings. The Deputy mentioned guidance counsellors. We are in discussions with the CAO, which will also bring guidance counsellors into the equation, to give people the opportunity to apply for an apprenticeship through the CAO. Part of the apprenticeship action plan, to which I alluded earlier, is the establishment of a national apprenticeship office.

It will oversee all of the apprenticeships, including the pre-2016 apprenticeships for the craftspeople, bricklayers, plasterers and electricians to which the Deputy referred, and the new ones that have been developed since then. They will have an oversight role and a liaison role in respect of SOLAS, the Higher Education Authority, HEA and all the stakeholders in the apprenticeship space. They will co-ordinate all of that, as requested by the Deputy

Third Level Education

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

5. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the amount of time students can expect to have on campus when they return in September 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37166/21]

Will the Minster set out the amount of time students can expect to spend on campus when they return in September? It is certainly welcome that third level students will be back on campus, but so far little detail has been provided. As the Minister is aware, representatives from the Irish Universities Association, the Technological Higher Education Authority and Education and Training Boards Ireland are appearing before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science today when I will have the chance to get greater detail. Will the Minister provide details on the associated funding to help the institutions to return safely? The HEAs are taking on a huge responsibility in the reopening and the safe return to campus. What funding can they expect?

We have been discussing the required funding for the safe return to college, not just for the institutions but also for the students, and the great work that has been done by the student well-being engagement group that I asked the Union of Students in Ireland to chair. The short answer to the Deputy's question is that I expect to receive approval for additional funding from Cabinet on 19 July. We will have clarity on that then. My officials are engaging with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, as we speak, on that matter.

I thank the Deputy for her support on this issue and for attending the webinar we hosted when we invited Opposition spokespersons, students' unions, university presidents and staff representatives to attend to be briefed on our document entitled A Safe Return: Plan for a safe return to on-site Further and Higher Education and Research in 2021/22, which has been endorsed with the Chief Medical Officer and is in line with public health guidance. Our students and staff are going back to campuses, but it has to be done in a safe way.

The plan reflects the essential nature of higher and further education and training and research activities, and in that context it provides for comprehensive on-site activity for the next academic year, with almost full scale on-site activities. Institutions and providers in the sector have committed to ensuring all learners across all areas have significant scheduled on-site learning in the forthcoming year. Indeed, Government has now deemed on-site education to be essential.

Under the plan, larger scale lectures will take place on site if the public health situation allows. To be honest, that is the outstanding question and we said we would return to Cabinet, probably on 19 July, to make a determination on larger scale lectures. Obviously, if they do go ahead, safety measures will need to be in place, including rules around social distancing, face masks and ventilation, in accordance with prevailing public health advice.

Contingency planning in the event of a more restrictive public health environment is also being prepared by the sector. I know we have been through this in other forums, but we are saying that, at a minimum, a student can expect to come back to campus for everything other than large-scale lectures. At a maximum, we will manage to bring back such lectures. We are telling our students that, a minimum, no matter what happens with Covid-19, we are getting them back to campus for certain activities. That is the difference between this year and last year. We are able to do it on the basis of the success of our vaccination programme and the advice of the Chief Medical Officer.

I thank the Minister for his response and for the briefing he mentioned. I refer to my previous question in respect of extra lab places and being able to facilitate social distancing or whatever needs to be done there. We will all be looking forward to 19 July for this funding and otherwise. However, as the Minister is aware, funding is also very important to ensure support for well-being and mental health is provided on campus.

If a student is a close contact, will he or she have to isolate even if that student is fully vaccinated? I know there is talk in Britain at the moment that perhaps students in such cases will not be classed as close contacts. Has provision been made for those who are medically vulnerable or who have to isolate? Will lectures be part-delivered online and part-delivered in person for those who can attend the lecture theatres? I ask for some clarity and reassurance around that issue. Students have many questions regarding what it will be like in practice for them when they return to college.

The short answer to any questions about what students or staff members will have to do is we will follow the prevailing public health advice at the time. The way I think of it is that if we look on colleges as small towns, in effect, or indeed not so small towns in many ways, the rules that would apply in any town should apply there as well. For example, if a restaurant can be open in a certain scenario outside the gates of the college campus, then the college canteen can open on the same basis. If the pub down the road can be open, then the college bar can open. If sports activities can take place in the local town, then sports activities can happen according to the same rules. That is basically what we are trying to do. We have seen the success of how we safely reopen and manage Covid-19 in a town or a village and we are trying to apply that model to campuses. Therefore, anything to do with rules around social distancing, ventilation, close contacts and how vaccinated people will be treated will all be based on the prevailing public health advice.

There is significant optimism from our Chief Medical Officer, to whom I have spoken directly on the matter. We should remember we are living in a country where we expect to have all adults who wish to be vaccinated fully vaccinated by the end of August, weeks before colleges start back.

I thank the Minister for his response. I completely understand we cannot make predictions, particularly in respect of the Delta variant and the impact it might have. However, in respect of people making plans for accommodation, and I know we have improved it somewhat during the year, I ask that we provide as much certainty as possible, notwithstanding that there will be variables.

I must return to the issue of the number of extra lab places and physical infrastructure that will be put in place for students. I know money was allocated last year. What was that capital spent on? What were the outcomes of that? How many more students will it facilitate? How many more new students are we facilitating this year? Are the lecturers in place for that? Have additional lecturers been recruited across the board? I need reassurance that we have the capacity to address what we are trying to do so that we do not run into a bottleneck of problems come September or October.

There will be statements on this issue next week in the Dáil. I do not have the figure for lab places to hand. We give devolved capital grants to each institution. I would have to approach the institutions through the HEA to obtain that information. I can certainly do that for the Deputy.

The Deputy referenced recorded lectures. I accidentally overlooked that. It is something I would like to see happen. I have heard staff representatives say that they are not against it, but, understandably, they wish to and have every right to engage on it. I would like to see that happen with the institutions. There are definitely benefits to recorded lectures for students who are medically vulnerable. There are also possible benefits for any student who can benefit from both attending the lecture and being able to look back over the recording later.

The other issue we have not touched upon yet is that of rapid testing. While many people are talking about or considering doing rapid testing, we are doing it. There is a programme under way in four institutions, where up to 8,000 staff and students are being tested twice a week with at least two different tests. They are also reaching out to more institutions. We will see the benefits of that quite quickly. By the autumn, and certainly before college resumes, we will be able to make a decision on whether there is a need for a broader roll-out of that programme. It is an extra tool we could have in our toolbox. I will provide the Deputy with the information she requested.