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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 8 Jul 2021

Vol. 1010 No. 3

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Third Level Fees

Verona Murphy


6. Deputy Verona Murphy asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the proactive steps his Department is taking to address university fees, which are the highest in the EU; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36821/21]

I understand there might be slight duplication on this. Based on the figures that are available to me, it seems that since the UK, including Northern Ireland, as the Minister pointed out, left the EU, Ireland has taken over the title of having the highest university fees in the EU. What proactive steps is the Minster's Department is taking to address university fees, which are the highest in Europe currently?

I thank the Deputy for the question. First, I would like to see our registration fees reduced. We need to do it in a way that is sustainable. I often think that when we talk about our registration fee, we sometimes ignore our reality, which is that not far off 50% - I think it is around 48% - of students have their registration fee paid in full or in part by the State through the SUSI grant scheme. I say that because if there is a student watching this debate, he or she might think that his or her family would not be in the position to pay the €3,000 fee. I want that student to know that for almost one in two students, the SUSI support scheme covers the cost of registration in full or in part.

In respect of what I am doing proactively about the issue, there are two things. First, a review of SUSI is being completed. We have completed the consultation on it. I am due to receive the interim report very shortly, probably during the parliamentary recess, and the full report around September. It will look at how we can further improve the SUSI scheme. We have had many discussions in this House about how to treat part-time students, income thresholds and people who live far away. The costs of those who can commute to college every day are significantly different from those who have to rent accommodation. The SUSI review and how we can improve the system is part of the proactive steps we are taking. We have already taken some measures this year in terms of increasing the level of grants for postgraduate students.

The second part of it is how all of this knits together with the sustainable funding model for higher education, and how we make sure as part of that that we address the issues of access and inclusion. Both the SUSI review and the sustainable funding model will come to the fore very much in the autumn. I hope we can make progress on both fronts.

I believe we have the right system in place here in Ireland.

However, I also believe we can take steps to ensure the State pays the majority of fees while reducing the student contribution. I appeal to the Minister to continue to examine ways in which that student contribution can be reduced. Deputy Harris is the first Minister I have heard speak about value for money in this Chamber. I am a big believer in the taxpayer getting value for money, so I appreciate that. Investment in education yields a massive return through creating a highly skilled workforce and helping to drive innovation and research. With this in mind, I hope the Minister's Department can take these points on board and bring about some reforms in that regard.

Absolutely. Let me be really clear. While I am proud of the SUSI support scheme, which supports tens of thousands of students who may not otherwise be able to access higher education, that is not to say that I believe the current system is satisfactory, because I do not. A key commitment in the programme for Government was to carry out a comprehensive review of SUSI and how it operates. That is now coming to fruition. It is interesting to note that we had over 9,000 responses to that survey, mainly from students. There were also 250 written submissions from groups ranging from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to IBEC. All of them gave their views on establishing a student grant support scheme that would be fit for purpose. With that report landing alongside the sustainable funding model in the autumn, I believe we will be able to get to the point the Deputy has spoken about. I often make the point to Cabinet colleagues and to anyone else who will listen that while we spend a lot of money on education, it is an investment. It is an investment not just in our people and our citizens, but in our future economic well-being. The battle for the future well-being of this country will rely on human capital and investing in people. I know the Deputy and I share that view.

In the interest of not repeating my points further, I will address the Minister and the Minister of State regarding the Minister of State's remarks on sectoral requirements. There are massive sectoral requirements, particularly for skills based in rural Ireland such as fishing, farming and haulage. We have to look at approaches other than the apprenticeship model. I do not wish to labour the point but, when I was president of the Irish Road Haulage Association, we brought an apprenticeship programme to SOLAS but it never got off the ground. The education and training board subsequently took it up. It is a very successful programme which is oversubscribed. In light of the skills shortage in that sector, I appeal to the Minister to look at the European model which involves lowering the minimum age to apply for a licence to drive heavy goods vehicles, HGVs, and commercial vehicles to 16. One can attain a licence to drive an agricultural tractor at that age. When one is driving a tractor, one is virtually driving a computer. They are massive machines. I cannot see the difference. We have to look at this matter. These jobs are set out as eligible for critical skills permits. It is much better to have home-grown workers. It would be much better to entertain the CAO process, to lower the figures and to look after our own, particularly given the current high unemployment rate.

I will address the Deputy's remarks. She is right with regard to regional skills needs. One of the functions of the new national apprenticeships office will be to identify such needs and to liaise with all relevant stakeholders. The Deputy cited the road haulage industry in that regard. We have seen that the new sector-specific apprenticeships we have developed, led by consortia, are often specific to particular parts of the country. The education and training boards in these parts of the country take on the challenge following demand from the sector within those geographical regions. It is something of which we are very aware and conscious. I note the Deputy's remarks with regard to lowering the age at which one can drive HGVs. That is a big undertaking but it is something we can flag to SOLAS. Other agencies would also be involved, such as the Road Safety Authority. It would require a lot of work but it is certainly something at which SOLAS could look because everything should be reviewed constantly.

We are over time. I am going to move on. The Minister of State might get a chance to come back in.

Third Level Staff

Rose Conway-Walsh


7. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he has engaged with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on the employment control framework and the increase of precarious work in higher education; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36804/21]

Has the Minister engaged with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on the employment control framework and the increase in precarious work in higher education? I know he recently called for a halt to precarious part-time employment in higher education but this implies that the blame lies with the colleges. In the past, most of my questions to the Minister have been dismissed on the grounds that employment is an issue for the institutions themselves rather than for the Department but the institutions have no option but to hire staff under casual or temporary contracts in order to meet student demand, given the restrictions on them.

I hope that I have never dismissed the Deputy's questions. I have been engaging with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The issue of the contractual arrangements of those working in the higher education sector is very important. I have raised it with the HEA and with those who fund research, such as the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland, because they also have a role to play. I have also discussed the issue with staff representatives and other bodies within the sector. There are many different factors giving rise to non-permanent staffing arrangements. I understand that these are a feature of many higher education and research systems. I have sought to ensure the necessary information is examined to see how the issue can best be addressed and to ensure that Ireland is best in class in this regard and certainly not an outlier when compared with other educational systems. The HEA is undertaking analysis to establish the scale of precarious employment in higher education over time, the reasons behind it and any impacts it is having on the sector. It will also make any necessary recommendations. Detailed engagement between the HEA and the employers in the sector will be critical in assessing the situation and addressing underlying issues.

With specific regard to work undertaken by PhD students, as advised in previous replies to parliamentary questions, my Department has engaged with the HEA, research funders, the Irish Universities Association, the Technological Higher Education Association and other representatives and relevant information has been compiled and examined. We have established a subgroup of the national advisory forum for Ireland's framework for doctoral education. This subgroup is now considering the matters further, including at a very recent meeting held in the last few days. The matters under consideration include existing practices and examples of national and international best practice.

In parallel, and in direct response to the question, my Department is engaged with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the HEA with a view to finalising a new higher education staffing agreement. This will update the current employment control framework and give particular consideration to the different categories of staff covered, alignment with new funding streams and contractual commitments in the sector and the need for staffing decisions taken in higher education to be affordable and sustainable from the perspectives of higher education, the Exchequer and wider public service staffing and pensions. My Department will continue to interact with the sector, the HEA and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on these work streams to make progress in light of the employment data across the sector.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I am glad that something appears to have been done. I know the Minister will accept that until the issue is addressed, the problem will continue. Under the employment control framework introduced in 2011, universities are prevented from hiring full-time staff over and above the existing numbers in most cases. One provision in the employment control framework means that posts funded by sources other than the Exchequer are only to be filled on a fixed-term basis. The culture report published five years ago recommended that this be deleted. Sinn Féin has no objection to the use of fixed-term contracts where there is a legitimate requirement for their use. However, we do have a concern that fixed-term contracts are being used to fill positions that should be permanent. Staffing embargoes and underfunding mean that the student-academic staff ratio is currently 20.6:1. The student-staff ratio at third level in Ireland is the fourth highest in the OECD, where the average is 16:1.

I thank the Deputy. There are really three things to say. The first thing is that, as I have said, we are engaging with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the HEA with regard to that employment control framework. Of course, employment controls are needed. We all know that. There is no publicly funded agency that can hire without reference to the impact on the public sector pay bill, pensions and so on. The Deputy is not suggesting there should be. I would not be engaging if I did not accept that we need to see changes with regard to a new staffing agreement. That is the prize we are trying to obtain for the sector. That is crucial. That is one thing.

The second thing, about which the HEA was asked at a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts on 1 July, relates to the issue of precarious employment and casualisation. Following on from that engagement between the HEA and the committee, my Department will be engaging further with the HEA to request and to undertake an analysis, including of data already to hand, and to reach definitive conclusions - which is important because there is a lot of data - regarding the overall position.

With regard to the third thing, with the indulgence of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I will again make reference to the subgroup of the national advisory forum for Ireland's framework for doctoral education. It is now looking at what we can do for PhD students.

I thank the Minister. I welcome that but this is something to which we need to return every time we engage in here because, until such time as this is fixed, it will have an impact, and not only on lecturers. The Minister referred to PhD students, who are really and truly exploited across the board because of the way the system is set up. We have to change the system. Will the Minister provide a timeline whereby we can see the impact of the work being done to change this?

It is not acceptable that students are working and being taught in an environment where this exploitation is happening. Moreover, on an individual level, people cannot get security in regard to family, mortgages, credit and so on because of their precarious circumstances. It is not right and it needs to be fixed.

I very much welcome an ongoing focus on this, as I know the Deputy will ensure there is. I will too, which is why I want the three work streams I have outlined, namely, the new staffing agreement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; the work we have asked the HEA to do in regard to precarious employment and its prevalence and impact on our higher education system; and, crucially, to return to the issue of PhD students, our engagement with the HEA, the IUA and THEA to gather further detail on practices in the sector, particularly in regard to how this affects PhD students.

This information has been received and collated and, as I said, the subgroup of the national advisory forum for Ireland's framework for doctoral education has been established to consider the matters further, examine best practice in regard to PhD students and identify good practice in Ireland that could be more widely deployed throughout the sector. The group met on 3 March and briefly updated the overall national advisory forum on 24 June. The next steps are being considered by the group and the Department and I will be happy to keep the Deputy informed.

Cross-Border Co-operation

Brendan Smith


8. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the measures that will be implemented to intensify co-operation on a North-South basis in the areas of further education and higher education; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36830/21]

As we know, the Good Friday Agreement established a number of all-Ireland implementation bodies, including the promotion of tourism on an all-Ireland basis and the management of rail and waterways. At that time, a number of areas were identified for further collaboration and co-operation on an all-Ireland basis, including education. Unfortunately, that has not been give the priority in the meantime, North or South, that it needs. There is an opportunity, particularly with the shared island initiative, to drive forward teaching, learning and research on a cross-Border and all-Ireland basis. Will the Minister outline the specific measures he will implement to drive that agenda?

I thank the Deputy for the question and recognise his obvious interest and commitment to this issue as a Border Deputy and a long-serving Member of the House. I strongly believe, as does the Government, that there is significant potential for enhanced North-South collaboration throughout the further and higher education and research system. This is an issue to which I have attached high priority. I have had many meetings about it with counterparts in Northern Ireland, the Social and Democratic Labour Party, SDLP, Deputy Conway-Walsh and the British ambassador. It is an issue on which we need to make much progress because such co-operation can help us better understand people and communities, as well as resulting in benefits to education and research.

This week, the Taoiseach and I launched a dedicated North-South research programme, which will provide a €40 million fund for research collaboration as part of the shared island initiative. I sincerely thank the Taoiseach for this work, which is funded through the shared island unit in his Department, and for his personal commitment to this. The initiative will be managed by the Higher Education Authority on behalf of my Department and will support collaboration among individual researchers, research teams and institutions North and South. The requirement for taking part is that involves somebody in the North and somebody in the Republic. This will no doubt help research but will also help build those relationships.

My Department is also committed to working collaboratively to ensure the delivery of the commitments made in New Decade, New Approach. This includes supporting the development of all-island research hubs, as well as facilitating close collaboration between education providers, including potential capital investment in Magee College, a matter I might return to in my follow-up reply. We need concrete proposals because the Irish and British Governments both gave solemn commitments under New Decade, New Approach to the development of Magee College and I want to deliver on that.

Officials from my Department are also working closely with colleagues in the Department for the Economy in the North on the development of a cross-Border skills initiative. For the first time, Ireland has included a skills initiative on a cross-Border basis in the forthcoming PEACE PLUS programme, which will offer further opportunities in both the further and the higher education spaces.

I thank the Minister for his positive response and for his determination to make progress in this area. I represent a constituency where, fortunately, there are two good colleges of further education, in Cavan and Monaghan. The Minister may recall that at our virtual meeting at Cavan Institute, we spoke again about the potential for co-operation. In our neighbouring counties, there are institutes of further education in Enniskillen and Omagh, which are long established and teach to a high standard. There is potential to co-operate on that cross-Border, all-Ireland basis.

As we know, further education is of great importance, particularly to less advantaged communities. Some communities in Northern Ireland believe they have not benefited from the Good Friday Agreement and, unfortunately, many people have not got the educational attainment or the skills they need. I have seen through my constituency work the value there is, perhaps for people who did not complete second level education, in getting a second chance, going on to further education and, sometimes, getting a pathway to higher education and good employment. We must drive that agenda North and South.

Absolutely. I very much believe that the PEACE PLUS initiative and the cross-Border skills programme will possibly be the first time we have had to do that at scale and with a degree of intensity that has perhaps been lacking in the past. I am very much looking forward to that and the programme will be finalised this year. It will give opportunity, not just in the higher education space but also in that of skills. For many people living in counties on both sides of the Border, there will be a considerable need for upskilling, reskilling and preparing for new jobs and for the disruption coming to the economy. I intend to seek a meeting with the new Minister for the Economy in the North, whom I congratulate on his appointment this week, to examine how we can work together to advance some of those commitments.

I knew the Deputy would mention Cavan Institute because it is very important to him. I was delighted we had that virtual meeting and I look forward to making progress together on the capital commitments for Cavan, which I will visit with the Deputy soon. My colleague the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, will lead on our apprenticeship action plan, which also has commitments in regard to all-island apprenticeships for the first time ever. Let us keep in touch on this agenda. There is a great opportunity to make progress in this space.

I acknowledge that my colleague the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, is working on apprenticeships and I welcome that. I welcome also the Minister's commitment in regard to Magee College and the great co-operation between Letterkenny Institute and Magee College. Having listened to the director of the former and the president of the latter, the level of co-operation taking place in the north west is heartening. In the north east, similarly, there has been very good co-operation between Dundalk Institute of Technology, Queen's University and Ulster University, which have undertaken research projects. Dundalk Institute of Technology and Ulster University carried out a large project on renewable energy, while Queen's University and Dundalk Institute of Technology conducted a project on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD. What is already in place can be built on.

One interesting project that Dundalk Institute of Technology carried out, and it might be one to which the Department could give some consideration, sought to improve pathways from further education to higher education, including on a cross-Border basis. I was the chairman of the first board of the then Cavan College of Further Studies, and it gives me great pleasure and a sense of attainment when I see the numbers going through that college and the people getting a pathway to higher education or to good work. We need to maximise the potential of further education.

On the pathways point, the Deputy and I met a guy called Jack, whose story I tell everywhere I go. He got his first choice on the CAO and started his course, which, as is the case for many people, was not for him. He decided to leave that, returned to Cavan Institute and completed one year of pre-law there. He got a great grounding in law, decided it was for him and now he will start at Maynooth University in September studying for a law degree. That is what colleges of further education, such as that in Cavan, can do. We have to get them to parity and equity in terms of recognising their ability to transform lives.

On research, I fully agree with the Deputy. What the Taoiseach has done this week with the €40 million allocation will be potentially transformational. The scale of that funding will enable us to do much more on research on a North-South basis. The Deputy is correct; we are not starting from scratch. This can be a precursor to the delivery of all-island research centres, a key commitment of the Government. In regard to Magee College, we remain fully committed. We need clear proposals we can fund and we need to get on with funding it. I have had a number of meetings with Magee College in that regard.

EU Directives

John Lahart


9. Deputy John Lahart asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the status of arrangements under the third country researchers directive; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36847/21]

In the context of the EU third country researchers directive and how might it be impacted by Covid developments, will the Minister make a statement on its status and how foresees it going from September?

Openness and international collaboration are essential components of a globally relevant research system. Under the third country researchers directive, Ireland offers a fast-track work permit, or hosting agreement, for third country researchers from countries outside the European Economic Area, EEA. The third country researchers directive allows researchers to carry out research projects with a recognised research organisation in Ireland using a permit that can last for anything from three months to five years.

Under this permit, entitled the hosting agreement scheme, non-EEA researchers do not need a separate work permit. Researchers or their host institution can still apply for the critical skills employment permit or other work permits if they wish to do so.

My Department manages the accreditation of these research organisations. There are currently 85 accredited research organisations under this scheme in Ireland. Euraxess Ireland manages the operation of the hosting agreements under the auspices of the Irish Universities Association and on behalf of my Department. This key service is of great benefit to non-EEA researchers on contracts, and for their employers. By availing of a hosting agreement, entry visas are fast-tracked and researchers can work in Ireland without recourse to the usual work permit. Euraxess Ireland keeps a database of all hosting agreements issued by the research organisations, which is directly linked to the Garda National Immigration Bureau. The Euraxess office issued a total of 761 hosting agreements in 2020. This comprised of 576 new agreements and 185 renewed or extended agreements. Researchers on hosting agreements contracts working in Ireland in 2020 currently represent 62 different nationalities. This is, therefore, quite large scale. The hosting agreement scheme is one of the many ways my Departments wishes to foster an environment where excellent research is promoted and encouraged in this country.

The Minister has already answered one of my supplementary questions. He will know that there is simply no question that investment in knowledge has been our hallmark and one of our greatest enablers over the decades. He has referred to this in previous answers. Similarly, in looking to the future, he will agree with me that investment in research will be a critical driver of innovation and provide the foundation for Ireland's future economic growth and societal well-being.

I am grateful to the Minister for answering my first question. What measures are in place to develop our research infrastructure further to be sustainable and to best meet evolving needs? Does he see particular challenges in terms of the inward travel of those students from next semester onwards?

In relation to the future benefits, I refer to two important pieces of work that we are undertaking this year. One is our new national research and innovation strategy for Ireland in which we will specifically map out the actions we intend to take. Being honest, one of the things we will have to do, if we are serious about research, is to ensure that we fund it at a level that is, at least, the European average. We are not where we need to be. This is one of the reasons the Taoiseach established this relatively new Department and that he is making sure that we increase the level of funding in research. The second piece of work is a proposal that I will bring to Cabinet, probably as soon as Tuesday, to develop a new international education research strategy for Ireland. That will provide an opportunity to engage with the research community, and to engage abroad, in relation to the role Ireland can play from a research point of view.

I refer to Deputy Lahart's question about the impact of Covid. There was a lower number of new hosting agreements in 2020 than 2019, which is probably not a surprise. In 2019, there were 853 new agreements and that dipped to 761 in 2020. This, perhaps, gives us some indication of the impact of Covid, although my colleagues tell me that it is still too early to fully judge this.

In relation to people coming into the country, normal travel rules will apply. If a person comes from a country that is not on the red list, he or she can come to our country and get on with it like anybody else. If a person comes from a country that is on the red list, mandatory hotel quarantine will apply.

I thank Minister for answering my questions. I wonder whether he can indulge me in terms of a contraflow question relating to Irish researchers or postgraduate students. I want to bring this matter to his attention, but I am sure it has come across his desk. I spoke to a number of his colleagues during the voting block last night and they have experience of receiving the same query. It relates to Irish students who have attained positions in American universities. They have to do an interview with the American Embassy to secure their visa - that is why I referred to "contraflow" - but the dates given are sometimes many weeks into the semester and beyond the date by which they must commit to or travel to the USA. I do not expect a full and comprehensive answer from the Minister, but I want to put it on his radar as it seems to be a growing and emerging issue.

Deputy Lahart is entirely correct and this is an issue that has come across my desk as both the Minister and a Deputy. It is a cause of concern for many of our students. I have been engaging with the United States Embassy here and I have engaged with my colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and asked that he politically escalate the matter. I welcome the fact that President Biden has appointed a new ambassador to Ireland - one of his first ambassadorial appointments - and I expect she will take up office shortly. I hope this will ensure that we have greater engagement on this. I am very conscious of the time sensitivities around this. I am liaising closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs to see if we can make progress and I will keep the Deputy informed.

Can the Minister provide a statement on this?

Yes, absolutely. The Minister for Foreign Affairs or I will try to provide a statement on this shortly.

Apprenticeship Programmes

Rose Conway-Walsh


10. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the status of the apprenticeship waiting lists; the number of apprentices who are waiting for off-the-job training; and the number who have been waiting for over a year. [36803/21]

I wish to inquire as to the status of the apprenticeship waiting list as they are now. What is the number of apprentices who are waiting for off-the-job training and the number of apprentices who have been waiting for more than a year? In March of this year, after the beginning of the pandemic there were 6,928 apprentices on a waiting list to access off-the-job training. By May, that figure had increased to more than 9,000. Some of the apprentices I have spoken to feel abandoned and that apprenticeships are being talked about into the future, but this is happening to them right here right now.

I thank Deputy Conway-Walsh for her question. I assure the Deputy and apprentices that apprentices are not being abandoned and that it is a matter that we are acutely aware of. Craft apprenticeships account for 25 of the 61 existing available apprenticeship programmes. Off-the-job training for these programmes is delivered in training centres or institutes of technology and technological universities. These were the programmes most impacted by the shutdown of on-site learning activity in 2020 and 2021. Given the practical nature of apprenticeships, training centres and workshops were closed for the nine out of the last 12 months. Figures from the end of May indicate that more than 10,000 apprentices were waiting for access to phases 2, 4 and 6 of off-the-job training. Of these, 3,500 craft apprentices have been waiting for more than 12 months. Craft apprentices were prioritised for a return to on-site learning on 8 March 2021. Delivery of off-the-job phases is proceeding and will continue over the summer, subject to public health advice, with restricted numbers. This approach will assist institutions and providers in preparing and organising the safe return of larger numbers in the autumn. The Government has committed to a significant increase in on-site attendance in the tertiary education sector in the next academic year following consultations with the sectoral stakeholders.

Following the Government’s approval, we published a safe return plan to on-site further and higher education for 2021 and 2022. The plan reflects the essential nature of further and higher education and training, including apprenticeships. It provides for comprehensive on-site activity for the next academic year with almost full-scale activities on site. To support the plan, the sector has developed a pack of actions and commitments to ensure a return is safe, with the specific reference made to the backlogs. Under this pack, institutions and providers have committed to addressing backlogs and deferring learning outcomes. Similarly, stakeholder bodies have committed to engaging with institutes and providers to achieve significant increases to on-site teaching and learning and assessment.

Is the Minister of State really telling me that the situation is worse than it was in May? We are now at the level of 10,000 apprentices waiting for phases 2, 4 and 6. I am quite shocked at that. I understand the Minister of State said that things will be fixed in the autumn, but this is like saying we will all have jam tomorrow. While I know there is not enough time here today, I would like to see a very detailed plan for the autumn in that regard. This has serious implications for their education and income. Through no fault of their own, many apprentices will be trapped on apprentice wages for years longer than they should be, despite the amazing efforts of administrators and teaching staff across the country. Apprentices are being let down and we need to address this. I am quite shocked at those figures. I have been in contact with numerous apprentices who have been unable to access the off-the-job training to complete and advance their apprenticeships. It is quite shocking that the here and now is not being dealt with.

I reiterate that nobody is being abandoned. What is being done to rectify the issue? To date, €2 million has been allocated in capital expenditure to SOLAS and the Higher Education Authority to facilitate 4,000 additional craft apprenticeship places across the system. This is in addition to €12 million already allocated to support additional classes and teaching capacity to ameliorate the Covid-19 measures. Spaces arising from these measures will begin to come on stream in the second half of this year. There will be provisions for on-site presence for apprentices during the summer months. Appropriate protective measures will be put in place and numbers on site will be controlled.

An oversight group is now in place, comprising SOLAS, the ETBs and SIPTU representatives. The group is overseeing the development of an emergency approach to training for the three programmes with the longest waiting lists, which are electrical, plumbing-----

I thank the Minister of State. He will get a chance to come back in.

What are the targets for September in terms of what will be done over the summer? This week I was contacted by a young man from Mayo working as an apprentice plumber. He has not been able to access the phase 4 training in his apprenticeship. This means he will possibly be stuck on apprenticeship wages longer than the four years it should take. No other cohort of students are treated in this way and apprentices should not be undervalued. It gives completely the wrong message. We want to attract people to apprenticeships, to do all-Ireland apprenticeships, and to create equity and parity in apprenticeships, and the way we are dealing with this is not good enough. What are the Department's targets for September? What will that 10,000 look like then? What will it look like in October? Apprentices need assurance here and now. They need to get on with their lives, learning, training and earning. We need to facilitate them in that with equity and fairness.

I was alluding to the oversight group which comprised SOLAS, ETBs and SIPTU. Revised emergency curriculum and assessments, which will be 18 months long rather than the existing 12-week programme, will be delivered in a blended approach. Three technical teams are being put in place to devise an emergency curriculum over the coming weeks, and it is intended to pilot elements of the approach in August for full roll-out in September and across 2022. The objective is to train an additional 50% of apprentices in the three largest programmes annually.

The Deputy mentioned phases 4 and 6, which are our institutes of technology and technological universities. A substantial portion of the initial additional capacity being developed for those phases will come on stream in September. Subject to final confirmation, it is intended to facilitate all phase 6 electrical and plumbing apprentices delayed by nine months or more for training in September. In addition, it is expected the vast majority of the equivalent phase 4 apprentices waiting nine months-plus will be scheduled at that point. We will send the Deputy the remainder of the reply to give her the update on that.

Questions Nos. 11 and 12 replied to with Written Answers.

Third Level Education

Niamh Smyth


13. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the progress regarding implementation of the Framework for Consent in Higher Education Institutions: Safe, Respectful, Supportive and Positive - Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment in Irish Higher Education Institutions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36845/21]

This question asks the Minister to outline progress regarding implementation of the Framework for Consent in Higher Education Institutions: Safe, Respectful, Supportive and Positive - Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment in Irish Higher Education Institutions, and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Our higher education institutions have a duty of care to their students and staff and a responsibility to foster a campus culture that is clear in the condemnation of unwarranted, unwanted and unacceptable behaviours, which act as barriers to their safety and active participation in college life.

In April 2019, the framework for consent in higher education institutions, called Safe, Respectful, Supportive and Positive — Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment in Irish Higher Education Institutions, was launched by the then Minister of State, Mary Mitchell O'Connor. To assist institutions with implementation of the framework, funding of more than €400,000 has been allocated to a number of initiatives. In addition, the Higher Education Authority has allocated funding of in excess of €500,000 to such areas as consent workshops, the development of the anonymous report and support tool, and the UCC bystander intervention programme. Prior to and since the launch of the framework, institutions would have undertaken activities in this area as part of their student services remit within their overall funding allocations.

In August 2020, in my first letter to presidents of higher educations institutions, I asked them to strengthen institutional action in this area. It is not enough to have a national framework. We need to know what is being done in each college to have a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment and violence. I have asked each of them to put in place an action plan on tackling sexual violence and harassment. I am pleased to say the action plans have been received by the HEA. Institutions must, for the first time, report annually to the HEA on their progress in implementing these frameworks.

In April of this year, I launched the first ever surveys into staff and student experiences of sexual violence and sexual harassment in our higher education institutions. The surveys were conducted by the HEA and sent to all staff and students by the higher education institutions. A report on these surveys should be available to my Department in a number of months.

I want to see our higher education institutions embed the framework for consent into all their policies and procedures. I also want to see the domestic violence leave policy that NUI Galway has introduced come into all our institutions. I have written to all presidents of publicly funded higher education institutions suggesting this.

It is important we have inclusive education where people feel safe at work and when they are studying. In autumn, I read that less than half of the sexual assault and harassment concerns reported by students in the academic year 2018-19 were investigated by colleges. I am aware that considerable supports have been allocated to a number of initiatives in the area. If reported cases have been increasing over the years, investigations by universities and colleges must also be increased. The voices need to be heard. I ask the Minister to address that. I welcome the funding. This is important. It is all about communication and funding is the key.

I agree with the Deputy. What extra benefit do we expect to see from the action plans as opposed to just having a national framework? The big change is that, for the first time, the higher education institutions cannot just produce a plan. They also have to report against the delivery of the plan to the Higher Education Authority, just as they would report against budgetary matters and the like. That is important. It is us as a State saying we believe this is such an important issue that we want institutions to report their progress annually to the HEA. The action plans must be published and available for all staff and students. Institutions cannot hide behind or under a national framework but must say what is being done in the individual institution.

The plans will vary somewhat from college to college because they need to take ownership of them, but they have a number of common features. These will include consent classes for students, which is important, and development of an anonymous reporting tool so it is even easier for people to report sexual harassment and violence. That will help create that culture of zero tolerance. Sexual harassment is a real epidemic in society. It is not unique to third level but I want to see third level lead in how we solve this issue and adopt a zero tolerance approach.

I welcome the action plan that will be in colleges and the Minister's commitment to foster a culture in higher education where it is clear that unwanted behaviours are not acceptable. That is so important. It is crucial that meaningful participation is supported to allow the voices, needs, views and experiences of those most impacted by issues to be heard and for future supports to be targeted to meet their needs around safety, reporting and access to supports.

The recent survey on this issue in our higher education institutions is welcome but I understand the response from students and staff has been low. That is a real concern. Do we need to look at changing measures? What are we doing to enable adequate stakeholder consultation? What about the timeline? There is concern, given the low uptake from students and staff. Will the Minister come back to me on that?

I will, indeed. I do not have the exact numbers but the report on the survey is being prepared and will be available to me in October. Many thousands of people have applied but I am not sure what the percentage uptake is. I will find that out for the Deputy.

Our students unions and individual institutions have shown leadership on this, whether it is the active consent programme in NUI Galway or the bystander initiative in UCC and the work being done by Louise Crowley there. I attended a meeting of the national advisory committee within weeks of being appointed to office and was encouraged by the work being done by the National Women's Council of Ireland, which chairs it, the Union of Students in Ireland and staff representatives. They have taken ownership of it. While there is a lot more to do and I was not satisfied enough was being done, I would not want that to be misinterpreted as dismissing the leadership being done by many students and staff in saying they want to adopt a zero tolerance approach. The Department will support them in advancing that urgent agenda.

I compliment staff and students for what they are doing because this is so important-----

The Deputy has used up her time.

Do I not have one more minute?

No. We are moving on.

Good try, though.

Question No. 14 replied to with Written Answers.

Student Accommodation

Aindrias Moynihan


15. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the engagement he has had with third level institutions to ensure that 2020-21 first year students who did not attend their courses due to distance learning will have the necessary supports in place to transition to on-campus learning for the 2021-22 academic year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36800/21]

People who were in first year of college have had an unusual experience and are not facing into a normal second year. That needs to be considered. What engagement has the Minister had with the colleges to ensure they are not falling off a cliff? They have a different experience of learning, accommodation, being on campus, engagement with friends and so on. It is important that this is taken into consideration and that they get the necessary supports.

I thank the Deputy for this important and timely question. The Government has committed to planning for a significant increase in on-site attendance in the tertiary education sector in the next academic year. Following intensive consultation with sectoral stakeholders, staff, student representatives and university management, I published A Safe Return: Plan for a Safe Return to on-site Further and Higher Education and Research in 2021/22, the central tenets of which are the protection of and provision of supports to students and learners. The plan was written by students and staff. Its purpose, among other things, is to enable maximum on-site provision of activities, to support the ongoing public health requirements and crucially, to address the core of the Deputy's question, to support the ongoing needs of students and learners.

Institutions and providers are currently progressing their own detailed plans and work. This will include planning for orientation and for reorientation, which I think is the Deputy's point, and transition programmes to assist students in familiarising themselves or refamiliarising themselves with the on-site environment and learning. The approach to providing support for students returning to campus and the need for resources to support these students has been examined by a group I established called the student and learning well-being and engagement group, which was chaired by the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, and supported by my Department.

My Department is finalising the funding that we will require for that safe return with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. As part of that, we will look at some additional measures that we can take to support students returning to college after a year of Zoom and to support students setting foot in college for the first time who may have left a structured education environment in March 2020, when sixth year moved online. This funding will provide additional supports for students and will help with the plans that individual institutions have for orientation and reorientation to help students to refamiliarise themselves. I expect it will include additional funding for student mental health because, while people are excited to return to campus, I am conscious that it is an anxious time for many and that additional supports will be required. I hope to have clarity about that in the week of 19 July.

I thank the Minister for the overview. It will be a different experience for people returning to college. We know from the USI's mental health survey before the pandemic that 38% of students were already anxious, with 29% experiencing depression and one third having a formal diagnosis of mental health difficulties. That was before the pandemic. When the pandemic, the remote experience and the return to college are laid on top of that, an additional mental health challenge is placed ahead of colleges, students and their families. It is important that support is provided and is there from the beginning. It probably needs to have been started already rather than waiting for people to return to campus. People need a clear message about when they will be returning to campus and whether it will be blended learning. Accommodation is a significant issue. We need to look at how accommodation is prioritised for first years. The people who are now going into second year will be at a loose end.

I do not disagree with anything that the Deputy has said. I have asked institutions to continue doing what many of them already do, which is to set aside a certain amount of on-campus accommodation for first year students. They did that last year and it was helpful. We recently passed legislation which has done two things to help students with student accommodation. It was largely based on the USI Bill. It makes sure that students can no longer be asked for months of rent upfront, which was a real barrier. It changes the notice period so that if a person starts a course and cannot continue, he or she only has to give 28 days of notice in student accommodation rather than being out of pocket for many months. We have significantly increased mental health funding, with an additional €5 million for student mental health supports. I take the point the Deputy makes. We want students to know about this and about what will be in place for them long before having to go back to college. I genuinely believe that the Cabinet meeting on 19 July will help to provide further clarity. The outstanding issue is about whether it will be possible to have large-scale lectures. Other than that, we have said that almost everything else will be able to come back. I will do everything I can to expedite the provision of the funding so that we can provide it early.

There is already a shortage of accommodation for students. I acknowledge the efforts that are being made with legislation. Prioritising accommodation for first years recognises the change for them coming into college. People who are going into second year this year have not had the opportunity to live away from home, make friends, get a network, book accommodation and so on. They are facing a situation that will be different from previous years. Reserving accommodation for first years does not acknowledge that. People facing into second year need support with accommodation too. That needs to be recognised in advance. Those bookings need to be made already. Second years often book their accommodation in March, April and May because they know where it is, how much it will cost and who their friends will be. That option has not been available to these people. They should be recognised and prioritised.

The Deputy makes a fair point. It is up to each institution to consider reserving some accommodation for first year students. The rationale for that is that they will not know what college they are going to or what course they will be doing until well after second, third and fourth years know what they are returning to because of the delay with leaving certificate results. This year, we have tried to provide as much certainty and clarity as we can much earlier than we were able to last year. Last year, these matters were still being discussed in August and maybe even in early September. The Government has published its plan for the safe return to on-site campus activity. We have said what people can expect to happen on site at a minimum. We have also said that we will provide clarity about large-scale lectures on 19 July. I agree about the need to increase purpose-built student accommodation. We have been too reliant on the market and therefore pitted students against, for example, families trying to rent the same houses. I hope, as part of our housing for all plan, to be able to accelerate the delivery of college-owned student accommodation.

Question No. 16 replied to with Written Answers.

Further and Higher Education

Ruairí Ó Murchú


17. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he will provide greater clarity on the opening of further and higher education campuses in September 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36775/21]

We are looking for clarity about the opening up. There has been a change with the vaccine roll-out. We have the worries about the Delta variant and such. What plans are in place for the necessary due diligence to ensure we have the opening that students deserve following the difficulties they have had?

I thank the Deputy for this important question. The Government has worked intensively with representatives of staff, students and the management of institutions, as well as the Chief Medical Officer, to devise and publish a plan that shows how we will get our students safely back to college campuses, whether in further or higher education. We have said what people can expect at a minimum. I outlined to the Deputy's colleague, Deputy Conway-Walsh, the concept of treating a college in the same way a town or village would be treated. What is safe to do in a town or village needs to be safe to do on a college campus. We have also said that a maximum, we will get the large-scale lectures back, and that we will make a call on that based on the prevailing public health situation in a couple of weeks.

The Deputy referred to vaccination and that is the key. We believe in and know that the vaccines work. Our Chief Medical Officer has said that when people are vaccinated, they should be able to get on with their lives. We are planning to have all adults vaccinated by the end of August, according to the CEO of the HSE. That should provide great assistance in ensuring additional safety. The Deputy will be aware that while some people are debating, talking about and thinking about rolling out rapid testing, we have got on and done it in the higher education sector. We are rolling out an extensive pilot with thousands of students and staff being invited to take part every week. This may be an additional tool. I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of it but it makes sense to look into it. Towards the end of summer, we will be able to decide if we can roll it out further. I will report to the Cabinet with an update on 19 July. That will hopefully provide the further clarity that the institutions will need to get on with the process of issuing individual timetables for students. I am sure the Deputy is looking forward to Dundalk Institute of Technology and such colleges seeing students back on campus.

A number of students have contacted me about that. We all accept the difficulties that everybody has been through. To put it mildly, this period has been a surreal experience for anybody in third level education.

I welcome that we will probably be looking at clarity regarding this situation on 19 July.

I also welcome the work being done to roll out antigen testing and the pilot project. Can the Minister outline any detail regarding the timeline for that pilot, the numbers involved and how the project stands now? I ask that because antigen testing is something we see as a tool for potential use across wider society. It should probably have been instigated earlier, if only from the perspective of providing the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, with the documentary evidence he says does not exist now.

I fully agree that there has been far too much faffing around regarding antigen testing. As the Minister with responsibility for research and science, I would say that. We need to try everything possible to get people's lives back on track. Roughly speaking, and going on my memory, four institutions - Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, National University of Ireland Galway and University College Cork - are leading on this pilot project. An opportunity to partake will be given to 8,000 staff and students who have been good enough to do so. Some of those involved will be tested randomly, while many will be tested twice a week in a structured way with at least two different tests.

As we come towards the end of the summer, that will then give us an indication of what it may be possible to learn from that project. We can then offer that information to broader society and to other sectors. I welcome the work being done by my colleague, the Minister for Health in respect of his expert group yesterday. If there is found to be a benefit, I will examine rolling out antigen testing more widely across the sector. I thank Dr. Breda Smyth, Professor Paddy Mallon, Professor Kingston Mills, Dr. Mary Horgan and many others who have been leading this project for us. It is well under way now.