Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Student Accommodation

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

1. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the steps that have been taken to address the student accommodation crisis; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49752/21]

First, I want to warmly congratulate the Minister and his wife, Caoimhe, on the birth of your son, Cillian. As the mother of two boys, I know the great joy that can bring and I wish you all well.

The student accommodation emergency is now at crisis point. I am being contacted by students and families with real-life stories of travelling up to seven hours a day to attend college because they cannot afford accommodation near the place where they study. Students are couch-surfing and staying in hotels and in overcrowded accommodation. That is the reality, but it is not normal in 2021. What specific measures have the Minister and the Government taken to address this crisis?

I thank the Deputy for her kind wishes, which I sincerely appreciate. I thank her also for raising this extremely important issue. At the outset, while it is a statement of the obvious, it is important to say that a lot of the issues affecting students are part of the broader housing challenges that we face as a society, and these are challenges the Government is committed to resolving. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is leading on our behalf with our new Housing for All strategy, which involves all Government Departments stepping up to the plate and doing everything we possibly can to increase housing supply.

We have taken a number of actions, working with students and, indeed, with the Deputy and this House on proposals that have come forward to try to improve the situation. For example, the Deputy would have supported legislation and would have introduced legislation to ask us to change the rules around deposits for students where students were being asked to pay, in my view, ridiculous levels of up-front deposits. We changed the law on that together, as an Oireachtas, and those changes have come in. The second thing we were asked to do was to change the notice periods so students would only have to give 28 days notice if they had to give up accommodation, for whatever reason, and we did that together as well. The third thing we were asked to do was to change the borrowing frameworks to make sure institutes of technology and technological universities, including colleges in the Deputy’s region such as Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, could start to access finance for the first time and to borrow. We have made that change in Housing for All and perhaps we can get into that in more detail shortly. We have also increased the student assistance fund, which can be used for students to meet bills they cannot otherwise afford, including rent, and we have put a record amount of funding into that student assistance fund.

We introduced a circular or, to be specific, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, introduced a circular in regard to making sure student accommodation is used for just that purpose of student accommodation. I am sure the Deputy and I can both agree that the snide, flippant and sarcastic comments of a senior official in recent days really showed a lack of understanding of the seriousness of that situation. Our circular is very clear in what we want to do and expect to do in that regard. The changes we made in the budget yesterday in regard to the non-adjacent grant will also help many students to see an increase in their grant of up to €2,000 as a result of the distance rules.

There is more that we want to do and more that we are doing, and I will get into that in my supplementary response.

I thank the Minister. I think Owen Keegan’s comments were more than a lack of understanding. I think it was absolute contempt for the students and for the situation they are in. I hope the Minister will join with me in asking for his resignation. I am going to join students today when they are demonstrating at 1 p.m. outside Dublin City Council to make their feelings known on this. I was absolutely shocked, in all honesty. When Seán in my office contacted me about it, I said: “You can’t re-tweet that” and “You can’t relay that. That has to be wrong”. Nobody in that position could say such a thing, could think such a thing. It is absolutely disgusting.

I have a copy of a letter from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to our local authorities and county councils. It just says there is a critical need for student accommodation, which obviously is true, and that local authorities and An Bord Pleanála must be satisfied there are good reasons for the transfer of student accommodation to tourism. That is an extremely weak response, particularly as it is a circular. That was sent around in 2016. We are now in 2021 and this is what is happening in terms of the conversion of student accommodation. It has to stop.

I do not wish the Deputy in any way to think my language is not strong enough in regard to Mr. Keegan’s comments because I find them absolutely reprehensible, I really do. It shows a real failure to understand the serious challenge that people are facing. It also shows complete and utter disrespect to students. The Deputy and I might not agree on everything but what we do agree on is working with students on a number of issues, and we have made progress on some matters. If we are to find solutions to these things, it is going to involve collaborating, working with student unions, working with colleges and listening to them. The idea that one of our most senior officials in our capital city would just dismiss their views with flippant, sarcastic language is, quite frankly, contemptuous.

Last week, we had a meeting between my Department, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and all the college representative bodies. We basically said that under the Housing for All principles, there is now an opportunity for people to start borrowing to build college-owned student accommodation and not just be reliant on the market, and we invited them to bring forward proposals. I am very excited by the pipeline of proposals that the colleges have. I am due to meet the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, next week to further this. I and the Minister are due to visit Dublin City University because the president of DCU made some very interesting and constructive comments about the cost of building and the implication that is having for some of the universities in our larger cities. I expect to be in a position to work with the sector to bring forward, in what is a very significant policy shift, a very large building programme of college-owned student accommodation, as opposed to the policies of the past, which had been too reliant on the private sector.

We are in the middle of an emergency and a crisis. I appreciate that the Minister says those things will be done. However, we had a chance to stop the conversion of student accommodation in 2016 and the Government did not do that. Those in the Government need to have a bit of humility, hold up their hands and say, “We did not act although we could have seen this coming as we knew we were going to be in this situation this year”. For the students who are now travelling for hours, couch-surfing, living in overcrowded accommodation or paying for hotels, all of these measures are not going to solve their problems in the coming weeks and months. We need to sit down and then send out a very strong message to those who are converting student accommodation that they need to make more student accommodation available and use it for the purpose it was meant for. We need to do everything we possibly can to ensure these students are safely accommodated because without the accommodation, they cannot access third level education.

I have already outlined to the Deputy some of the immediate measures we are taking to try to help in the here and now around financial assistance, around the student assistance fund and around the circular. That circular, which the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien issued, is very strong and makes very clear that student accommodation during the college year should be just for student accommodation. We also need to look at how we can get back to promoting the initiative where people can avail of renting a room, and there is some tax-free income that people can benefit from. There probably was an impact from Covid in that regard, which did not help the situation this year.

I have a whole folder here and I can give the Deputy a load of statistics about how the supply has increased or about how there is more purpose-built student accommodation now than ever before. I am not going to waste the House’s time reading that out because it misses the point. It suggests that I think everything is okay and I certainly do not. It is my position and the position of the Government that we need a significant policy shift when it comes to college accommodation and student accommodation, and that is what I am going to deliver with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and with the technological universities, the institutes of technology and the universities in the coming weeks and months. I accept there are lead-in times to all of these things but it is still the right thing to do. I cannot just engage in short-termism. I need to look at how we can get college-owned student accommodation built, not just in our capital city but also in the regions and with a particular focus on the new technological universities.

Student Accommodation

Matt Shanahan

Question:

2. Deputy Matt Shanahan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the status of the National Student Accommodation Strategy given that the last progress report was in the third quarter of 2019 and further noting the significant hardship the class of 2022 has experienced in finding sufficient and adequate places to live; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49585/21]

I congratulate the Minister and his wife on the new addition to their family. My question relates to the National Student Accommodation Strategy and its status, given that the last report was in the third quarter of 2019. Why has this accommodation strategy died? If it is not dead, it has certainly been let wither on the vine. We had an action plan. Why has it been dropped? Looking at Waterford, the plan appears to be to take no action. The goal of the Government appears to be to have no additional student accommodation in the city beyond what was developed a number of years ago. The Department was instrumental in disassembling Waterford Institute of Technology's capability to deliver student accommodation, most notably by removing its borrowing capacity. Having done that, the Department has provided nothing in exchange by way of new accommodation for students in the south east, in our regional capital city.

I thank the Deputy for his good wishes and his important question. I will not repeat the points I made when replying to Deputy Conway-Walsh but they stand with regard to this question too. I hope and expect that Waterford Institute of Technology will become a technological university shortly. I take the point that the Deputy makes but I disagree strongly with his assertion that my Department and the Government have done nothing to assist. With the publication of Housing for All, we have changed that policy or, one could argue, we have reversed that policy. We have made it clear that we want institutes of technology and technological universities to be able to access the borrowing framework and cheap money using the State's infrastructure. As recently as last week, my officials, including the Secretary General of my Department, met with the representative bodies, including the Irish Universities Association, IUA, along with officials from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and my advisers. They made it clear to colleges that we want them to come forward with proposals. I will shortly meet with the Housing Finance Agency and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. I am encouraged by the pipeline of products that I see coming from institutes of technology, technological universities and the traditional universities. While I accept some of the criticism, it is accurate to say that there is a significant policy shift spearheaded by my Department since its creation, making sure that institutes of technology and technological universities can access the borrowing framework.

We have a National Student Accommodation Strategy. I can read some of the progress that has been made. Supply has increased. As I said to Deputy Conway-Walsh, that is not the entirety of my position because I believe that the strategy is in many ways out of date and has been overtaken by circumstance. It was too reliant on the private sector providing purpose-built student accommodation. I would much rather have college-owned, sector-owned accommodation. The rub is that if we allow institutes of technology and universities to access the borrowing framework, I want them to address the affordability issue too. I do not want to see what I have seen in some colleges and universities that have built fancy accommodation which is unaffordable for our students. When I meet student unions, they say it is no good telling them that there are an extra 500 or 600 beds because the price is extortionate. In return for access to the borrowing framework, we ask that accommodation be affordable for students.

Affordability will certainly be a problem if there is not supply. I have looked at the report and there was no additional student accommodation for Waterford in it. The reason that WIT was one of the premier institutes of technology in the country was because it was able to borrow until the technological university was brought to the Committee of Public Accounts and had its feet held to the fire. There was much smoke but no fire. There was nothing to be seen. The Minister could have reinstated WIT's borrowing capability but he did not. Waterford Institute of Technology had borrowed for more than 20 years to make itself one of the premier institutes in the country and that capability was removed from it in this national accommodation strategy. I have the report in front of me. There is no additional capacity for student accommodation in Waterford. The number of students has grown by between 15% and 20% in the past five years. We need remediation. While I am on the subject, there were applications from WIT for almost €20 million for buildings that are over 40 years old. Water is coming through the roof of the engineering building. There is no sign of any funding to sort that problem out.

I commit to engaging with and reverting to the Deputy on the specific issue he raised at the end of his contribution. The point we are making is somewhat the same. The Deputy says I have not done anything to assist. I am saying that I have done exactly what I think the Deputy is asking me to do. Along with my Government colleagues and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, I have rectified discrimination towards our institutes of technology and technological universities. I do not just want to create technological universities for the regions that people can commute to. I see potential for regional development, where people, not just from Waterford but from my own county or other counties, would say that it is a great university in Waterford and that they want to go there, but they need to be able to access affordable accommodation. We have made a significant policy shift in Housing for All. It contains a clear commitment to support our technological universities to develop purpose-built student accommodation. That is the difference. Up until now, we have been reliant on private developers building student accommodation. I am saying that we want to work with the technological universities to build or at least own accommodation themselves. I am happy to work with the Deputy on the matter of the south east.

As I said to the Minister, the key here is access to borrowing. The Minister says that he wants to do it through the technological university. We had the capability until the Department removed it from us. WIT was progressive. It was the first institute of technology in the country to provide its own student accommodation. That capability has been removed. We are waiting for the present accommodation strategy. The last report was in January 2019. It looks as if the strategy is withering on the vine. I cannot see any new capability to deliver affordable accommodation as the Minister is talking about. It sounds like something that is years down the road, when we are trying to increase the numbers that we take and add to the capacity of the university. Much work needs to be done on this. I will be happy to engage with the Minister but we need to see some clear action delivered.

The strategy is not withering on the vine. The targets of the strategy have all been exceeded. The 2019 target was exceeded and as of the second quarter of this year, some 10,700 bed spaces have been completed. I am making the point that we need to move beyond the strategy. This strategy measures how much private, purpose-built student accommodation was built. There is a role for that. I want the new strategy and new conversation to be about how we work with the regions and with all of universities, institutes of technology and technological universities so they can build their own accommodation. There is a significant shift that WIT will be aware of from its representative body's meeting with my Secretary General last week. We now have a mechanism to make sure that they can borrow again using the State's infrastructure to access cheap money. I am not going to be a bystander to this. If we are going to allow that, I want to have a conversation on what sort of accommodation it is and how it is affordable to students. There are examples in this country where the State's infrastructure or European infrastructure has been used and some of the accommodation that has been produced has had a prohibitive cost for students. That is not the direction of this policy. I am happy to engage with the Deputy further on this and make progress for the south east.

Third Level Education

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

3. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the reason that many third-level students remain studying predominantly online; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49753/21]

Why is there such wide variation in the amount of on-campus time that students get in different colleges and universities? Students are coming back to me who say they are paying full fees, have paid for their accommodation up-front and were promised an experience by the Minister, and now find that they have as little as one to three hours on campus in a week, even for study time. This has to be sorted.

I thank the Deputy for the important question. We have seen significant reopening of our third level. "Reopening" is the wrong word because as we all know, it never closed. It just moved online and people worked extremely hard to provide education in that context. Some 500,000 students are in further education and training, and in higher education. It is probably the single biggest movement in reopening for adults since March 2020. I thank everybody who has worked so hard, including student unions, management bodies and public health officials, especially Dr. John Cuddihy, who provided us with public health advice. I also thank my officials, education and training boards, and everybody else. Our colleges, further education, higher education and training centres have reopened safely. So far, things are going well. Hundreds of thousands of learners have returned to on-site activity. Recent figures provided to my Department on 4 October show that the average daily student presence on campus at that point was 111,971, or 48.7% of the student population, an increase of 420% in the number of students on-site compared with October 2020. There is no doubt that there has been a significant ramp up, which I know the Deputy accepts.

I would also make the point, and I know the Deputy would agree, that it is not just about the lectures and measuring the lecture time. On the social side, the college bars, canteens, clubs and societies are all back, as are the libraries, research facilities, workshops and tutorials. It is correct that there is a difference when it comes to lectures and that is in line with public health advice. The public health advice is very clear that each institution needs to carry out a risk assessment in relation to its own situation. We should remember that on 22 October next, public health advice is likely to change again and for the better in terms of being able to mix socially. Trinity College Dublin, which has taken an approach where some lectures have remained online, has made it clear that when they return after reading week there will be much more on site. I am very happy with how it is proceeding. The general feedback I get is good. I accept that it varies from site to site but when we talk about what is happening on-site we should talk about it in the round and not just about the lectures.

I think we have a problem and I am not sure the Minister recognises it. I ask him to re-examine this matter on the basis of the correspondence I am getting from students and parents. I have been contacted by a mother in Ballybunion who has one student in first year instrument engineering and another in third year biomedical engineering. Both are paying full fees of €6,000, and €12,000 for accommodation. One of them is getting one afternoon a week on a Tuesday as in-person face-to-face learning at Munster Technological University, MTU, on its Cork campus and initial professional development for four hours on a Monday and five hours on a Thursday. That is not consistent with what the Minister is telling me, and I have a great deal of similar correspondence. We really need to look at it. As the Minister said, an opportunity is coming in a couple of weeks, later in October. We need to use that opportunity to correct what is wrong. Absolutely, safety is paramount, but we have to ask institutions to do more. Some of them need to do more to be able to accommodate students like this.

I agree with much of what the Deputy says but I do not believe that any institution is doing anything wrong. I would not use that word because I genuinely believe that everybody is applying the public health advice to their institution. I attend a meeting almost every Friday of a steering group where we have input from around the country from all the representative bodies, the student unions and so on. I accept, and it is a statement of fact, that there is a different approach to lectures in different institutions. That is following public health advice. I also expect that there will be a further significant increase as we arrive at 22 October and beyond. We have to get to that date, but as of now, it is likely there will be a further easing of existing restrictions which will enable people to do even more. We are doing everything we possibly can in line with public health advice. Our sector has had 18.5 million free face masks provided. We saw 3,335 people receive vaccinations on campus as part of vaccination week. Next week we will run another vaccination week because many of the students or staff may require a second vaccine. My experience, and I have visited many of our colleges, is that students are getting back on campus for lots of things in addition to lectures, for example for sports and societies or to meet friends for a cup of coffee. From a mental health and well-being perspective that is important. My aim is the same as the Deputy. I want to see a full return to on-site education but I want it to be done in line with best public health advice. I know that would be Deputy Conway-Walsh's approach too.

I am very concerned about students' mental health and well-being. What is coming back to me is that many of them feel they have been misled and are disappointed, as are their parents and families. I ask the Minister to send a communication to all the third level institutions to ask them to do more and to have another look at this because it is an issue. I would not bring it to him before the House if it was not an issue that was ending up on my desk. I ask him to use October as an opportunity for the institutions to rethink because many students are being told it will not be looked at again until spring. I want them to examine it earlier and make the changes necessary to give the best full experience to students who have missed out on so much for the last 18 months.

On that I agree 100% and I will certainly do that. I will probably be meeting them again this Friday as part of our steering group. The reading week or mid-term break - it is called different things in different institutions - is an important moment to recalibrate and take stock. I understand that is what many institutions intend to do. Trinity College Dublin, which I mentioned as an example, will take one approach before reading week and another, perhaps more liberal approach, after.

I would say to all institutions that we have seen very successful outcomes when students have been back on campus. I hope that can build confidence as well. We have to be respectful, as the Deputy is suggesting, of the health and well-being of students and staff and of public health advice. The fact is that all the institutions are different shapes and sizes, with different infrastructures and different levels of movement but I am very confident that there will be even more on-site activity. I would make the point that there is a 420% increase in the number of students on campus this October compared with last October, but we are not complacent on this. We are watching on a daily basis.

Student Accommodation

Mattie McGrath

Question:

4. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the efforts he is making to provide dedicated student accommodation in the recently established university towns of Clonmel and Thurles, County Tipperary. [50015/21]

Tá an Teachta Michael Collins chun Ceist Uimh. 4 a chur in áit an Teachta Mattie McGrath.

I want to wish Deputy Mattie McGrath the best. He has had a surgical procedure and is out this week. I also echo the congratulations to the Minister and his wife on the birth of their baby boy.

What efforts are the Government making to provide dedicated student accommodation in the recently established university towns of Clonmel and Thurles in County Tipperary?

I thank Deputy Michael Collins for his best wishes and send my best wishes to Deputy Mattie McGrath and wish him a speedy recovery. He would normally be here very vociferously asking this question and I am sure he will be monitoring my reply very carefully.

I was delighted to see the Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest open its doors at the start of the month to become the third technological university in the State. The communities in areas where there are campuses of the new technological university will experience a range of benefits. Clonmel is now a university town. Thurles is now a university town. You can now access university education for the first time in County Tipperary. The universities will attract more students, help communities to create and retain skills and employment, and act as a catalyst for research, innovation and enterprise. This will be critical to fostering our SME sector as well attracting increasing levels of investment, including foreign direct investment. It will help educationally but also contribute to regional and socio-economic development which is so important in provincial and rural Ireland.  

The development of purpose-built student accommodation is an important part of increasing the attractiveness of the new technological university to prospective students. As I have discussed with others this morning, we are currently engaging with technological universities to invite them to prepare to send forward proposals on how they can develop their own purpose-built student accommodation.

I visited Thurles and Clonmel very recently and visited the Mary Immaculate College campus in Thurles. From memory, it has accommodation for around 200 students and has proposals to develop more. The chief executive of its county council was there. I see great potential in that project. There are also many exciting developments in Clonmel. We will shortly invite the Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest and other technological universities to bring forward proposals and work with them to make sure they can access the borrowing framework to deliver those projects.

While the establishment of a new technological university in the County Tipperary towns of Clonmel and Thurles and the resumption of on-campus learning is very welcome, these recent changes have resulted in an increase in the number of students seeking student accommodation in this area compared with previous years. The university towns of Clonmel and Thurles have no dedicated student accommodation. That is a massive concern to Deputy Mattie McGrath and to Councillor Máirín McGrath in County Tipperary. There is no accommodation for students of the Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest. In order to secure County Tipperary's future as an educational centre, there needs to be purpose-built affordable student accommodation in these towns. Like many other towns and cities around the country, there is already limited accommodation available. The cost and availability of student accommodation are barriers to accessing education. The lack of student accommodation is resulting in students commuting long distances, staying in hotels, hostels and bed and breakfast accommodation or couch-surfing. This leaves students unable to concentrate on their studies or simply not being able to start college at all.

I agree that I would like to see our technological universities develop accommodation. I see it as important for students and their well-being and for regional development that people will choose to come to the regions and access their university education as well as people from the regions being able to access it in their own areas. I see a huge benefit from a regional development and socio-economic point of view. I am sending out a very clear message on the record of the Dáil and before this House today that the Government, through Housing for All, is putting in place an ability for our technological universities to access borrowing through a borrowing framework. This is a significant policy shift and a significant improvement. My message to all technological universities, including the Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest, is to prepare their proposals and to prepare their ideas.

I know from my visit to County Tipperary recently that there is no shortage of ambition or ideas coming from Thurles and Clonmel. I look forward to working with Deputy Mattie McGrath to try and advance them.

I thank the Minister. Deputy Mattie McGrath and Councillor Máirín McGrath were watching the budget closely yesterday. They were more than surprised that there was no mention of student accommodation in this year's budget, despite the housing crisis receiving significant attention. This has been described as "disappointing" by the president of Trinity College's student union. The announcement of an increase of 3,300 in third level places without any action on student accommodation illustrates this Government's disjointed strategies. This situation is important to the people of County Tipperary. As I said, they welcome the technological university in the towns of Clonmel and Thurles, but accommodation remains a huge issue for the people of County Tipperary and the people of Cork South-West. It is a huge issue for people in the constituency I represent because people are trying to commute to Cork and back. These are massive journeys of an hour or an hour and a half.

I heard Deputy Danny Healy-Rae speaking about Kerry last night. He told the same story of people from Kerry who are going to university in Cork. They have to live at home because they cannot get accommodation. The price of accommodation is spiralling out of control. People in Cork South-West have come to me to say that their children who attend college in Galway cannot get accommodation, so they are all couch-surfing. It is no way for children to have to live when they are working on their education.

I clearly outlined in this House this morning my views on the changes and policy shifts that are needed for student accommodation. I also outlined the actions that I am taking in this regard along with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, and the wider Government. I get a little frustrated when people talk about yesterday's budget and then reference capital projects that were not included in it. Yesterday's budget was largely a current budget. We took a number of measures on the cost of living and affordability, including for students. Many students, including those in the Deputy’s constituency, will benefit from significant changes I introduced on the adjacency rate. Up until now, a student's family home had to be more than 45 km from their college in order to access the higher grant rate. That has now changed to 30 km. For some students, that will mean an increase of €2,000 a year in their grants. We did, therefore, take concrete measures yesterday. I accept that we have more to do to help students, along with all citizens, with the cost of living.

On the capital side of it, the national development plan, which was announced last week, significantly increased the capital allocation to my Department, to the higher education sector and to the further education sector. When it comes to student accommodation, the model that is likely to be used will ensure that these institutions can access the borrowing framework. The help that we are likely to provide to the technological universities will be in accessing finance. I want to sit down with the Housing Finance Agency to look at how we can progress the exciting proposals that no doubt will come from County Tipperary and the Deputy’s own region of Cork South-West. I look forward to keeping in touch with Deputies Michael Collins and Mattie McGrath on these matters.

Apprenticeship Programmes

Catherine Connolly

Question:

5. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the number of the 10,000 new apprentice registrations promised per year by 2025 that will be earmarked as craft apprenticeships pursuant to the Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021 to 2025; the analysis his Department has carried out with regard to identifying the sectors most in need of apprentices particularly in view of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [50133/21]

My question relates to the apprenticeship action plan and the target of 10,000 new apprentice registrations by 2025. How many of these will be earmarked as craft apprenticeships and what analysis has been done of the requirements of the various sectors for the different types of apprentice?

I thank the Deputy for her question. As she is aware, the development and promotion of apprenticeships is a significant Government priority in responding to the key skill needs across the economy. These requirements are identified through work carried out to project workforce and skills needs in key economic sectors. In particular, the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs plays a crucial role in analysing future skill needs in areas such as construction to meet housing and climate action targets. I understand that the analysis carried out by the expert group of workforce requirements relating to construction and securing a zero-carbon economy indicates that between 5,000 and 8,000 workers will be required annually to 2025 for those roles for which the existing craft apprenticeships are a key qualification pathway.

Apprenticeship provides a route to re-employment and skills development for workers affected by adverse economic and labour market impacts of Covid-19. In addition, it constitutes a pathway to upskill those in sectors that are vulnerable to structural change in the wake of the pandemic. A key objective of the Government's Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021-2025 is to ensure the apprenticeship system is equipped to meet these skills and human capital requirements, as well as those arising from the accelerating pace of green and digital transformation. The plan is intended to drive the further development of apprenticeship in order to increase its attractiveness to employers in meeting their workforce requirements. In considering the important role played by apprenticeship in responding to these needs, it should be noted that apprenticeship is an employer-led offering. The number of apprentices in any sector is therefore determined directly by employer demand. The plan is thus designed to deliver a flexible and responsive apprenticeship system which is attractive and easy to engage with for employers and potential apprentices and which delivers high standards of sought-after qualifications.

I thank the Minister of State. I have read the plan. I welcomed the plan. I asked what analysis has been done in regard to the number of craft apprentices within the figure of 10,000 per year. That is one question. My second question asked what analysis has been done of the requirements of different sectors. We all know that we are facing a climate change crisis and that there will be huge possibilities in that sector for apprentices, as well as in the housing sector. The Minister of State did not really answer my question. I appreciate that he is doing his best, but we are looking at a situation where the drop-out rate for apprentices is one in five. What analysis has been done on that? In July 2021, there were 10,000 people on waiting lists for off-the-job training. The craft apprentices had waited one year. I do not expect things to change overnight, because I know there was Covid-19, but prior to Covid-19 there was a housing crisis and a climate crisis. What plan and what analysis had been done prior to that on the need to target apprenticeships as a priority?

An integral part of the Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021-2025 is the establishment of the national apprenticeship office and a stakeholder group to inform that office in doing its work of co-ordinating and researching the particular demands of the whole apprenticeship area. I have already referred to the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs. The development of any apprenticeship is a collaboration between SOLAS, employers, industries and trade unions. We have existing craft apprenticeships. The figures on estimated demand, which I quoted in my first response, arise from the report of the expert group. Housing for All has been taken into consideration in that regard. There are a number of new apprenticeships in development. There are 62 existing apprenticeships, and there are about 18 in development. Another 20, approximately, at the exploratory stage.

Has the national apprentice office actually been set up? Has it been resourced? If so, when was it set up? Please can the Minister of State confirm that? What is the plan to deal with the existing waiting list of 10,000 people? There are huge implications here for the apprentice’s money and educational pathways. I have the privilege of coming from a large family. We had a variation of vocations and jobs in our house. I know exactly the value of this. The problem with different governments was that they did not value apprentices. They did not value the trades. They put an emphasis on information technology. While that was good, it was to the detriment of trades. I have abhorred that all my life. Hopefully, this will now change, but I am a little bit doubtful as to the urgency of the Government’s reaction. Of course, we are dependent on employers, but we need leadership from the Government to value the trades, to put them on a level that is appropriate and to fund them.

I could not agree with the Deputy more. The Minister, Deputy Harris, and I have taken every opportunity to seek to promote the whole area of apprenticeships. In conjunction with the action plan, we are taking concrete steps to embed apprenticeship offerings and further education and training options into the Central Applications Office, CAO, process. This will mainstream apprenticeships and destigmatise them. There is a suite of actions contained within the action plan to address gender balance, for example, and to promote more diversity in participation across the apprenticeships. We want to mainstream and showcase apprenticeships as rewarding and worthwhile career paths.

The Deputy referenced backlogs in off-the-job training.

We are acutely aware of that situation. The Deputy will be aware that it arose because of the challenges presented by Covid-19. We have also resourced SOLAS in the area of craft apprenticeships to address this backlog. We expect 40% of it to be gone by the end of the year and that everybody will be back to off-the-job training by next year. A director for the national apprenticeship office will be appointed in November and the office will be up and running shortly after.