Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Third Level Costs

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

55. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the increase in expenditure in the current academic year on SUSI, the student assistance fund and mental health supports; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [59094/21]

Students, like many others in the State, are struggling to get by due to the cost of living. Between fees, rent and transport, students are finding it very hard to make ends meet. Many of them have been in contact with my office after hearing announcements or reading headlines stating that more funding is being made available. Can the Minister clearly set out the increases in expenditure from the last academic year to this one in the areas of Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, the student assistance fund and mental health supports?

I thank the Deputy for the question. Obviously, the support and well-being of students are a major priority for me and my Department. They are a major priority for all Members of the House and we have endeavoured to reflect that in the significant steps to increase funding for this purpose.

Like the Deputy, I am very conscious of the pressures on students, including those arising from the pandemic as well as from increased costs of living. As I will outline, I have secured significant funding to support the student population this year, for students in financial difficulty as well as for students who require mental health supports, disability supports or assistance for items such as laptops. In fact, my Department will spend over €400 million on student supports in 2021, including the student grant scheme which assists approximately 74,000 students annually to access third level education. This includes the implementation of measures I introduced in last year's budget to provide greater support to postgraduates in the SUSI scheme from the current academic year onwards.

I have also secured a comprehensive package of financial supports for the higher education and further education and training sectors to mitigate the impact of Covid in the current academic year. Funding of €3 million to underpin well-being and mental health and student services in our higher education institutions was secured. This was in addition to the €2 million that had been allocated in the budget. An additional €20 million was provided for the SUSI student grant scheme to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 through increased levels of demand. I have doubled the student assistance fund over the last two years to ensure students have support if they fall on hard times. This will provide €17.2 million for financial assistance to students experiencing financial difficulties while attending higher education. That figure was €8 million when I took office less than two years ago. A specific provision has also been made in the student assistance fund for part-time students who are lone parents or members of other priority access groups under the national plan for equity of access to higher education.

The student assistance fund is available to assist students who are unable to meet costs associated with day-to-day participation in higher education, including books, class materials, food, essential travel, childcare costs, medical costs and family difficulties such as bereavements. I believe these critical measures will assist many students.

The Minister has been Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science for two budgets. In October 2020 he announced an additional €20 million for SUSI which was very welcome. The Department spent the same amount on SUSI in 2020 as it had in 2019. We are on track for a slight increase in 2021, but nowhere near the €20 million announced in his first budget. Last month, he announced an additional €35 million for SUSI but only in response to my question did he clarify that this would in fact be an increase of €15 million next year because it would not kick in until September. I urge him to bring forward the measures he announced for SUSI to take immediate effect, particularly increases to the SUSI maintenance grant. Expecting students to wait until next September does nothing to address the cost-of-living issues they are facing now.

As the Deputy will know, the SUSI scheme is demand led. I can set the criteria and I can improve the criteria, but ultimately it is a demand-led scheme. Money can only be drawn down from that scheme where applicants qualify for that scheme. As of 21 November, just a few days ago, SUSI had received almost 97,000 applications. Almost 94,000 of them have been assessed of which 74,600 have been assessed as eligible for support for this year. This is SUSI's tenth year in operation. I share the Deputy's view that the SUSI scheme needs an overhaul. I expect to receive the report of the SUSI review group probably by Christmas. That group contains student representatives, Department of Social Protection representatives, and representatives of the universities and institutions.

I notice the Deputy's reference to headlines. This is real money. Some 17,000 additional laptops were provided free of charge to students in higher education. There is extra badly needed funding for mental health services with a doubling of the student assistance fund now in place. It was €8 million when I took office and is over €17 million this year.

I welcome the review of SUSI and I am glad to hear that it will be on his desk by Christmas. It is important that it is published immediately so that things can come into effect for next year. The Minister can see how people get lost in the millions and millions, double counting of figures and all that. People feel they are left behind in all of the millions. In July, as part of the package for the safe return to campus, the Minister announced an extra €10 million in financial supports for students and €3 million for mental health services on campus. A similar announcement was made in the same week as the budget last month. I welcomed these commitments at the time because I know the difficulty many students are facing. It now seems that instead of the €10 million extra that was announced there will be €1 million less than last year in the student assistance fund for this year. Instead of the €3 million in additional funding on mental health services, there will be no increase at all. Six colleges, Technical University Dublin, Munster Technical University, Waterford Institute of Technology, Dundalk Institute of Technology, Letterkenny Institute of Technology and Institute of Technology Carlow, will receive less this year for mental health services than last year. Students need clarity on this.

The Deputy said students need clarity on it; I believe students have clarity on it. Tomorrow I will meet all student union presidents throughout the country in a meeting convened by the Union of Students in Ireland, USI. We regularly and I personally engage with student unions. I take the point about the millions. It is peculiar for the Deputy to suggest that because we are providing such a large amount of funding, it is difficult to navigate. I am saying to student unions on the ground and to college presidents that when we allocate money here in Dublin it is important that a conversation about how that is spent on the college campus involves students. Taking the mental health funding as an example, we have allocated an additional €3 million. This is real hard-earned taxpayers' money announced in the budget.

We are asking the college presidents to engage with the students' union to decide how best to spend that money in their college campus because that will vary from college to college. While I do not suggest there is not more that we need to do, by any fair metric more than €400 million being spent this year on student supports is a very large sum of money and represents a significant increase. Since this new Department has been established, students have been able to draw down from many more funding streams. I look forward to the SUSI review which will be instrumental in addressing the reforms required.

Third Level Costs

Ivana Bacik

Question:

56. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his views on the student protests which took place on 23 November 2021 led by a union (details supplied): the way he plans to reduce the cost of the student contribution and student accommodation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [59096/21]

I ask the Minister to make a statement on the student protests which took place on 23 November led by the Union of Students in Ireland. How does he intend to reduce the cost of the student contribution and address the rising and alarming cost of student accommodation? I ask in the context of the socially distanced protest outside Leinster House which I was glad to support last week. It had an acerbic title for a demonstration but with an important message.

I do not think we are allowed to repeat the title of the demonstration in this House.

And I did not.

The Deputy did not and I am well aware of it. Students being able to demonstrate in a socially distanced and Covid-appropriate way is an important part of students highlighting issues of concern to them. I thank the Deputy for her question.

I have engaged closely with student representatives on issues concerning the costs of higher education. USI will concur on that point. We have agreed to a schedule of monthly meetings. Tomorrow, I have a meeting with student union presidents from throughout the country. We are in regular and ongoing dialogue with the USI and with student unions around the country. In advance of the current campaign and protest, I met USI officers in my Department to discuss issues, including funding options for the higher education sector and how students most in need are supported.

It is not often highlighted that at present State supports mean that an estimated 45% of students are eligible for free tuition fees. In other words, not every student in this country pays the registration fee and a very significant proportion do not. As I said in response to the previous question, in 2021, we will spend more than €400 million on student supports, including supporting 74,000 students through the student grant scheme.

I am extremely aware of the rising cost of living and of the student accommodation crisis. I am often expected to stand up here as a Minister and explain away the challenge, but I have no interest in doing that. The model for student accommodation is broken. We have been too reliant on the private market. In politics it is important to put up one's hand when a policy is not working and concede that point. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and I are working and will work with student unions to put in place college-owned affordable accommodation.

Until Housing for All was published, a technological university or an institute of technology could not borrow a cent to build student accommodation. I recently went to DCU. It has an opportunity to build many more student accommodation places, but it needs a model that works. The Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, was there with me. I would like to see a cost-rental model put in place for students and for colleges. In the new year, I expect to bring forward proposals on this. A working group, chaired by my Department, is working on it. I will come back with more details in a moment.

I will not repeat the title of the protest, but it was an effective way of conveying students' immense frustration and dismay at the spiralling cost of accommodation in particular but also the cost of the student contribution. I have seen the figures for students' eligibility for free fees and I very much welcome the increase in the SUSI maintenance grant and the Minister's commitment to having that review completed by Christmas as well as his acknowledgement that the SUSI scheme needs overhaul.

As the Minister said, the issue of student accommodation is not new. For far too long, we have had an over-reliance on the private rented sector which clearly does not have the capacity to deliver accommodation for students. It costs between €7,000 and €11,000 per year for accommodation on campus in UCD and in Trinity. These are exorbitant costs for students. At the protest last week, we heard stories of students who are commuting several hours to college each day, students who are sharing unsuitable cramped spaces due to unaffordable rent and competing with young professionals for scarce beds in Irish cities. Developments designated as so-called student accommodation are out of reach for them. We should not forget the plight of PhD and other postgraduate students who are suffering as a result of cost-of-living increases.

I point out that in the time I have been in this role, we have seen four changes to the SUSI student grant scheme. We have seen the first increase in the postgraduate SUSI grant. We have seen the first general rise in the student support scheme that the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and I introduced in the budget. We have seen the threshold increase so that more families qualify and the adjacency requirements reduced so that more families will qualify. I am not suggesting that is everything we need to do, but those are four concrete measures that will ensure more families qualify for a student support and will increase the amount that every student in receipt of student support is receiving for the first time in over a decade.

The broader issue of registration fees and having sustainable funding model has been kicked around this House for far too long. In the last Oireachtas an all-party committee asked for an economic evaluation. My predecessor asked DG REFORM in the European Commission and Indecon to carry that out. I have now received that report and it is my intention to brief the Cabinet committee next month.

I expect to be able to bring forward proposals shortly thereafter.

On the cost of student accommodation, the Deputy is correct that any conversation about access to cheap money or borrowing must be matched by a commitment to ensuring that is an affordable rate of rent. I have no interest in providing access to State borrowing if it is not affordable for students.

I thank the Minister for raising the broader question of the student contribution to the funding of the third level sector. As he said, the matter has been kicked around for too long. The Cassells report is now five years old and it was supposed to be the blueprint for reform. Labour certainly wants to see the State taking up the challenge in one of those three options in the report; we want to see that option rather the option of fees or loans. It is welcome to hear there will be progress and the Cabinet will be briefed on this in December. Will the Minister say what option from the Cassells report is likely to be taken up by the Government and how will this have an impact on students who are already paying €3,000 as a student contribution charge, which is, in effect, the highest fee in the EU? We can contrast that with €170 in France and no fee in Germany or Denmark. I am conscious the Union of Students in Ireland called for a reduction in the budget but it was not included in the overall package. The Minister has outlined welcome measures with the likes of increases in the SUSI grant and so forth but there is still the lack of clarity over what the funding model for third level will be and the future of the student contribution charge or student fees more generally.

Those statistics around the European Union only hold up because the United Kingdom and, sadly, Northern Ireland are no longer in the European Union. We certainly will not implement the system that the UK and Northern Ireland has for student loans. I do not believe in them or that they work. I have yet to see a country that has implemented this successfully. I also do not like the concept because it could have an adverse impact on people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, who tend to be more risk-averse in taking on debt. I do not support that. I cannot go further only to say we should settle the question. We have had enough all-party committees and we must move forward on this.

The Union of Students in Ireland, USI, and others have called for a reduction in the student registration fee and it would probably have been a politically popular act. I had to make the decision and I made the point to the USI very publicly and clearly. I thought in the first instance we should look at some things that had not been done in a long number of years that directly affect the most disadvantaged students in our country. I am sure the Deputy as a social democrat would agree with the increasing of access of those most in need, whether they are students from the Travelling or Roma communities, students with disabilities or students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. These are the measures we have taken in the very first instance but we want to do more and build on this. We want to ensure cost is never a barrier for anyone entering third level.

Third Level Examinations

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

57. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if students will have a remote option for end of semester exams; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [59095/21]

In light of the rising numbers of people infected by Covid-19 and the arrival of the new variant, will students have an option to complete end of semester exams remotely? Students across the State are seeking clarity and uniformity on what plans are in place to ensure third level institutions are prepared and capable of providing alternative assessments for students who do not wish to sit in-person exams or students who are unable to attend due to requirements to restrict movements.

I thank the Deputy for raising an important and timely question. Higher education and research and further education and training, including apprenticeship have been confirmed and reconfirmed by the Government as an essential service in the course of the pandemic. They continue, therefore, to take place on-site, consistent with the safe return plan published by my Department last June and endorsed by the Chief Medical Officer. There is no medical or public health advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team or the Chief Medical Office to suggest any level of on-site activity planned, including exams, should now be moved online. Since the start of the pandemic and whether I was Minister for Health or in this role, I have always believed in following the public health advice.

On Friday, 19 November, I met sectoral and stakeholder bodies through our Covid-19 steering committee, including the Union of Students in Ireland, and the question of end of semester examinations was discussed. The USI emphasised the requirement for consistency in approaches and the provision of appropriate options for students and learners. Due to the diversity of our higher education institutions and the very broad range of activities they undertake and different contexts and requirements applicable to exams, it was agreed that a "one size fits all" approach would not be appropriate across the whole of higher education or the third level sector more generally. It was also agreed that the basic principle of risk assessment and the application of appropriate precautionary measures would also apply.

Management bodies confirmed at the meeting that they are putting in place a range of approaches to ensure that end of term examinations will be safe and that the requirements of students who may have Covid-19, be a close contact or have an underlying health condition can be addressed. It was also pointed out that there are some examinations, such as those related to external accreditation, that are very challenging to change to an online format at short notice.

The outcome of the meeting was that individual higher education institutions will assess the appropriate approach to exams consistent with the outcome of their risk assessments since they returned to campus. Timely engagement and consultation with student and staff representatives has a very important role to play and in all instances, public health must remain a priority. To be clear, if a student is not able to attend an exam in person due to Covid-19, being a close contact or having an underlying health condition, I expect and am assured that alternative arrangements will be put in place. That may be a deferral or, in some cases, online accommodation.

I understand some colleges, such as University College Cork, have moved all their exams online. I spoke to a number of students from Waterford last night who were told they cannot be facilitated in doing their exams remotely. The issue here is that students do not feel safe or comfortable entering an exam hall with hundreds of other students and students do not want to defer these exams. Many of them depend on working through the summer to pay for college and they cannot afford the cost of deferring.

Living situations, health status and many other factors vary from student to student. Some have underlying conditions and others live with vulnerable family members so it is unfair and unjustified that students are given no option in this position when Covid-19 numbers are high. There must be scope within examinations for alternative arrangements for students who for whatever reason do not feel comfortable attending mass indoor exams, even if they are scheduled to go ahead. These students need the Department to demonstrate leadership on the matter and we must really send a message from here tonight that these students must be accommodated. I will explain further why this is so as we debate the matter.

Respectfully, the last time I took Oral Questions in the House the Deputy was asking me to increase on-site attendance and I shared that view with her. I said to her then what I will say now, albeit in a different context. Everything must be done in the context of public health and the framework we have agreed with all stakeholders, including students, their union and, crucially, the Chief Medical Officer.

The return to on-campus education has gone very well, although it has not been a straight road without hiccups. I spoke with students in Maynooth last night and they want consistency and clarity about what is happening with the exams in their institution. I believe, as a result of our stakeholder meeting on 19 November, there is now an understanding in the approach being taken. The Deputy has made me aware of individual examples and I am very happy to follow up on them. However, the approach we are taking is that what is safe to carry out on-site and in person will continue, with accommodation and flexibility being shown to students for whom it is not possible to partake in on-campus activity. The Deputy is correct that different institutions will act differently in this scenario, which is okay or right because they must risk assess their own campuses, as they have done with lecture theatres etc. since the recommencement of on-campus activity in September.

I still think we need uniformity and fairness across institutions in this. Are we really saying it is okay to tell students who are unable to leave their home or who are a close contact that they will have to repeat an exam in August? This will not only result in the punishing of students who follow public health guidance but incentivise some in not adhering to public health advice. I am concerned about that. Too often the response has been reactive rather than proactive.

Students are also being asked to submit medical certificates, costing up to €50. They may be doing exams on 23 December in a hall but have vulnerable parents or other people at home. They deserve a Christmas as well. They may be two hours or more in a hall with many other students, putting themselves at risk. Having windows and doors open is not conducive to doing exams. I ask the Minister to please look at this again because it is causing heightened anxiety among students and their families.

Of course I will look at such matters continually but I will not defy public health advice approach, no matter which way it goes. I will not decide on the floor of Dáil Éireann that I will move exams online because I do not control the decision and institutions are autonomous. Additionally, such a decision is not in our space, and as politicians and public representatives our role is to put in place the framework endorsed by public health. That has been working well.

It is entirely correct - I do not view it as an inconsistency or inappropriate - that different institutions must make different calls on this because they have different facilities available.

That has been the case since the return to on-site activity. That is where our colleges differ very much from our schools in the size of examination halls, the potential for some exams to take place online and the potential for others not to. I am satisfied our institutions are applying public health advice to their facilities. I fully agree with the Deputy's point that maximum flexibility, common sense and accommodation must be shown to students who, for appropriate health reasons, cannot attend an exam on-site. I could not agree more with the Deputy on that and I will work with her if there are any examples where that is not the case.

Student Accommodation

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

58. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans to deal with the issue of student poverty and, in particular, the chronic shortage of affordable student specific accommodation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58585/21]

I wish to return to the question of student poverty and accommodation costs. I know Rome was not built overnight, but if one lived in Dublin 8 one would swear that student accommodation, built by corporate developers that charge up to €1,800 to live in it for 8 months, was built overnight. It is all over the place. It is totally owned by corporate developers and is very expensive so that only the very wealthy or overseas students can afford it, or if they cannot be let, a change of use is sought for them. What will the Minister do about it? Where will we accommodate students because they are being pushed completely out of the market?

The first thing we have done is change the law, not once but twice, on student accommodation and student renters. The first thing the Union of Students in Ireland asked us to do - I think the Deputy co-sponsored legislation on this - was to change the rule so that a student renter could not be asked to pay four, five or six months' rent up front, which was happening. The law is now very clear. One month's rent up front and one month's deposit is the maximum amount anyone can be charged. The second thing the Union of Students in Ireland and the Deputy's legislation asked us to do was to make sure that students in purpose-built student accommodation only had to give 28 days' notice if they had to leave their accommodation for family or whatever reasons. We took both of those requests on board.

The Union of Students in Ireland, Opposition and Government Deputies and college authorities have told us that the next step must be a new model for student accommodation. I will not stand here and say the model we have at present is working, because it is not. I will be honest in that we need to put in place a new model and we need college-owned affordable accommodation. In my answer to Deputy Bacik, I outlined how I intend to do that. We have set up a working group with the colleges, between the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and my Department, to consider what the new model will look like. I would like to see a cost rental model that works for students put in place. I genuinely believe that could make a substantial difference. What we will not do is provide cheap access to State borrowings, if we do not get an assurance from a university that there will be an affordability piece as well, because we have seen too much college-owned accommodation that is beyond affordable.

I expect to bring forward a new model of student accommodation in the new year. I have already told institutions to prepare their pipeline of projects. I will give the Deputy one example, namely, the Technological University Dublin, which is either the first or second largest institution in the State. It does not own one student room because until now it has not been able to borrow under various borrowing frameworks. We are changing that through the Housing for All strategy. I am saying that we need to change the model. We need to build a lot more college-owned affordable accommodation. We delivered on the two request that were asked of us by the students' unions and Opposition Deputies last year, and we will work with Deputies on this too.

I am glad the Minister referred to college-owned and affordable accommodation because the Union of Students in Ireland is not the only student group protesting. University College Dublin student groups have been protesting about a 20% to 30% increase in accommodation costs. They are being charged €1,400 for 8 months.

The Minister mentioned the cost rental model and I am curious as to what he means by that. In the Government's homes for all Bill, cost rental is defined as 25% below the market value. If this is the Minister's vision of cost rental, all he is doing is subjecting students to the diktat of market, albeit 25% below the market value. The market value will inevitably go up, therefore, the cost of accommodation will go up. I look at the number of students from my area in Dublin 10, where something like 16% of all young people get to college. The figure is 99% in Dublin 6 and Dublin 4. There is a huge disparity. It is reflected in the wealth and poverty of students and it is even deeper when one tries to educate people who come from economic backgrounds where they cannot afford these prices, costs and fees of books, IT equipment, travel and everything that goes with it.

In the time available to me, I will take as read the answers I have given on the immediate measures we are taking through increasing the student assistance fund and the like for day-to-day costs and the cost of living increases, which are real. The Deputy has asked me a very direct question in what I mean as to the cost rental model. A number of our higher education institutions currently hold existing lands on which purpose-built, college-owned student accommodation could be developed. In these cases, development of this would unlock land that would otherwise be unavailable for the provision of housing. Further, the required specification of student accommodation has the potential to make it more cost-effective than other types of development. The potential for access to affordable accommodation to become a barrier to access to education creates a social imperative to increase the supply of affordable student accommodation. In this context there is an opportunity to utilise supports under the Housing for All strategy to enable higher education institutions to increase the provision of affordable student accommodation. The cost rental model deployed by housing with regard to social housing considers costs associated with development of financing, management and maintenance. It models it over 40 years to determine a one-year rental value and a scheme known as cost rental equity loans is also operated.

They are great plans and sound lovely and all the rest of it, but the model of cost rental really matters and the one the Government envisages is not good enough because it leaves people subject to market fluctuations. We cannot do that immediately but there are some things we can do immediately which would help to alleviate student poverty, one of which would be to scrap the registration fees. All fees could be scrapped and the Government could cough up and make sure we get the quality training, education and skills we need for the future workforce. We need that in every area. It is way too expensive for people to do postgraduate courses. It is way too expensive for most of the cohort I referred to earlier to go to college. Apprentices have to pay fees and we are screaming out for people to move into the construction industry to retrofit homes. These sorts of exorbitant fees on training and education could immediately be scrapped, whereas the houses will take a long period of time to build, and that could contribute to them being able to afford the accommodation they need.

I take the point about the devil being in the detail on the cost rental model and I am happy to further engage with the Deputy on that as we explore the matter with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I am genuinely excited about the prospect that this could be a new beginning for student accommodation.

On the issue of cost and affordability, I made the point that I have prioritised the additional funding my Department received into targeted supports in the first instance, such as student grants that had not been increased in more than a decade and income thresholds that had not been increased. It is now true, and is sometimes not said, that somebody with an income of more than €50,000 can qualify for student grants in this country. Around 45%, nearly half of students, access the free fees and are not subject to registration fees.

We have also abolished the levy to do a post-leaving certificate course in the last budget. We are implementing a number of measures. I accept the Deputy will argue that we need to go further and quicker, and I take that point. We have taken a number of significant steps to address the issue of affordability and ensure there is education for all in this country at third and, indeed, fourth level.

Technological Universities

Peter Fitzpatrick

Question:

59. Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the likely timeline by which Dundalk Institute of Technology will attain technological university status as part of the technological university project which has transformed higher education across the State (details supplied); and if he will ensure that the institute will not continue to be left behind. [59076/21]

The technological university, TU, project has transformed higher education across the State. With the recent announcements of the Technological University of the Shannon, the Technological University of the South East, and now the Atlantic Technological University, the national jigsaw, as the Minister has described it, is almost complete. However, the glaringly absent piece of this jigsaw is the north east, and its sole higher education provider Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT. Four years ago, DkIT was a leading force in the TU project. What is the likely timeline by which the DkIT will take its rightful place in a once-in-a-generation, State-wide transformation of higher education? What will the Minister say to the staff, students and prospective students, and their parents, that this key institution in my constituency will not continue to be left behind?

I thank Deputy Fitzpatrick for meeting me about this matter with other Members from Louth. I assure him that the north east will not be left behind. I would have been delighted had I received an application from the north-east institute to become a technological university. I am sure the Deputy and I share that real and palpable frustration as to why when a number of other institutes of technology came together with other institute of technologies to put together their bid, none came from DkIT. That is a frustration we jointly share. Institutions need to apply to become a technological university.

At the outset, I wish to recognise sincerely the important contribution Dundalk Institute of Technology has and continues to make to Dundalk, Louth, the north east and the Border region since its establishment. In order to achieve further progress in realising the ambitions and potential of the north east, I remain strongly committed to seeking to enable DkIT's participation within a technological university agenda.

However, as I have said, it is very important to recognise that, consistent with the autonomy of all higher education institutions in the State and the law we passed in this House, it is a matter for the institution itself to determine its strategic direction. This discretion must, of course, be exercised in light of the legislative options available.

In specific terms, under section 38 of the Technological Universities Act 2018, an institute of technology and an established technological university may jointly apply to me, as Minister, for an order transferring the functions of the institute of technology to the technological university. I understand that Dundalk Institute of Technology is pursuing such a path. From our previous meetings, the Deputy will know that I have provided specific funding through the Higher Education Authority, HEA, under the technological university transformation fund. I have also provided the expert advice of Dr. Ruaidhri Neavyn, who will work with the institute to get it where it needs to be in this regard.

I assure the Deputy of my absolute commitment and determination to support Dundalk Institute of Technology on its journey and to work with the Deputy and other Oireachtas colleagues in Louth to make this happen. As a Border region, the area has great potential. We see that already but there is an opportunity to go much further and to harness that potential. I encourage everybody in the institute of technology to work on this matter, knowing that they have our full support on this strategic direction.

I wish to raise the issue of Dundalk Institute of Technology's ambition to become a technological university. There is no doubt that the technological university project is transforming higher education across the State. With the recent announcements of the Technological University of the Shannon, the technological university for the south east and the Atlantic technological university, the national jigsaw the Minister has described is almost complete. I will mention again that the missing piece of the jigsaw is the north east. As the Minister knows, the sole provider of higher education in the north east is Dundalk Institute of Technology. There are more than 6,000 students and more than 500 staff members in the institute. Some 80% of the students who have attended it are part of the first generation of their families to attend third level education. It creates many thousands of jobs in the north east, attracts lots of multinational companies and helps SMEs to get the qualified people they need. Dundalk Institute of Technology is the life and soul of the north east. Only four years ago, the institute of technology was a leading force in the technological university project. The north east badly needs to be part of this exciting project. The area cannot be left behind. Will the Minister reassure me that Dundalk Institute of Technology is part of the technological university project?

I give the Deputy that absolute assurance but, in all honesty, this Oireachtas has not given me any legal powers to create a technological university or to compel an institute of technology to become a technological university without somebody applying for that to happen, that body being an autonomous higher education institution. However, I am delighted that Dundalk Institute of Technology has indicated in both its strategic plan and its engagement with the Higher Education Authority that it now has a clear intent to grasp the opportunity provided by the Technological Universities Act to further advance its contribution to the economic, social and cultural development of the north east. To this end, all stakeholders in the institute of technology support the governing body's ambition to become a significant campus of a multi-campus regional technological university as soon as possible.

The HEA, my Department and I are supportive of these ambitions. In this regard, we have funded a special expert adviser to assist Dundalk Institute of Technology in its endeavours. I am also delighted to say that it has made significant progress in achieving its ambitions, including through the establishment of a Dundalk Institute of Technology technological university, TU, project group, a TU project steering group of the governing authority and a technological university transformation fund operational project group. It has also secured funding of €2 million from the HEA to assist it in this regard. We are fully committed to working with the institute on this matter.

As I have told the Minister, Dundalk Institute of Technology is an integral part of the north east. It was established in 1971 and has 6,000 students and 500 staff, as I mentioned. The institute now needs to be part of the TU project. The Minister said there was a problem. If there is a problem, I would appreciate it if he and the Department would sort it out because, at the end of the day, the people who are losing out are the students, their parents and the prospective students. I really urge the Minister to get involved. As I said, the institute was at the top of the list four years ago but, all of a sudden, it is not on the list at all. There are three grades. The institute seems to be at the bottom, in the third grade. I plead with the Minister. We are in a Border area in the north east. It is a big thing that 80% of the students attending the college are the first generation of their family to do so. This means that people who do not normally get an opportunity to attend college are getting an opportunity. I appeal to the Minister to come down and talk to those in Dundalk Institute of Technology. I know he has put projects and so on in place but we need his help to get into a TU.

The Deputy will have my help. He asked me what the problem is. The problem is that the institute has not applied. The truth of the matter is that it did not apply when all of the other institutes did, for whatever reason. That was the institute's choice. I am really pleased that people right across the institution, including staff, students, the governing authority and management, now want to be part of this agenda. I welcome that. I also welcome the Deputy's personal commitment and the cross-party commitment that I believe exists in Louth on this matter. We had a very good meeting of Oireachtas Members and I would be delighted to have another. I would be delighted to come to Dundalk to meet staff, students and representatives of Dundalk Institute of Technology. I emphasise that but I am involved. We have provided funding and an expert adviser but everyone needs to be involved to make this happen. No one will be happier than me - with the possible exception of the Deputy but I will be right there with him - if and when an application comes in from Dundalk Institute of Technology. However, there is a body of work to be done. We have provided the funding and the expert adviser. I will provide the political leadership, along with other Oireachtas Members. We will work closely with the institution. The north east will not be left behind. I acknowledge the great and positive role the institute plays in the region.