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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 8 Feb 2022

Vol. 1017 No. 5

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Questions Nos. 51 to 53, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Educational Disadvantage

Michael Moynihan

Question:

54. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the status of the strategic action plan for equity, participation and success in higher education 2022-2026; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6380/22]

Will the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science tell me the status of the strategic action plan for equity, participation and success in higher education for the period 2022 to 2026, and will he advise the House of his plans?

I thank Deputy Moynihan very much for raising this issue, which I know is one in which he has a particular interest. Development of the new strategic action plan for equity, participation and success in higher education, which I call the national access and inclusion plan, is at its very final stage. The plan is being developed collaboratively between my Department and the Higher Education Authority. The plan has involved significant consultation with interested stakeholders, as is right and proper, including the institutions but also with students, individuals and representative groups of students with disabilities and students from a range of under-represented groups. I am pleased to say there was a very strong response to the consultation process, and in addition to workshops and engagements, we have also received a total of 122 submissions from a wide range of stakeholder groups.

The approach of this plan will be rooted strongly in a partnership approach involving the role of the Government, institutions and communities. It will focus on improving the learning experience and success of learners and will seek to enhance support for people who are under-represented in the learner population in higher education.

Among the key themes in the new plan will be the continued targeting of progress with specific groups with policy measures, funding and institutional initiatives aligned to support these groups. I am particularly delighted to say that for the first time this will address people with intellectual disabilities who have been, quite frankly, overlooked in previous plans. I am quite excited about this and it is an important move.

It will also be a move away from just measuring access, which is important. It is quite easy to measure access, that is, how many students have got into the college. This, however, will follow their pathway through college, their successful completion and what happens post college in employment terms

There will be a stronger focus on pathways between further education and training and higher education to try to create that more unified and connected third level system. There will also be an evidence-based approach to policy, with a strong focus on data.

I intend to bring the final plan to Government in advance of publication in March. We have a budget of €5 million for 2022 to put a number of initiatives in place to try to advance this plan.

The Minister mentioned the timeframe. There is a great urgency with this. Even though the education system has quite rightly served the country very well over the decades, we need to look at those who are not benefiting from education, those on the margins of society and those, as the Minister has said in his response, who are not represented in it.

I have a number of questions. I am glad the Minister is looking at the whole experience. What are the outcomes for people with disabilities in further education? Many of those in the further education sector and in many of the colleges throughout the country in the sector would say they have been the Cinderella of education for quite a long time. A great amount of work has been done, a very small percentage of people have gone back to further education through the colleges, and their lives have changed dramatically because of that. We as a society need to be very mindful of that. We must also challenge all of Government - this Department and others - to ensure we are looking towards the people who are not engaging with further education, how we can make it more accessible, and how we can devise a programme and strategies that will ensure the best possible outcomes for people with learning difficulties and every kind of challenge who are on the margins of society. The Minister needs to focus on that.

On the submissions, is the Minister still taking submissions on this strategy or has this process closed at this point?

The submissions process has formally closed but it is never too late to submit a good idea. If there are any further groups or ideas the Deputy wishes to bring forward, I will be very happy to hear from them. The Deputy is 100% right as he has described those at the margins. One of the things a group or stakeholder driving the strategy said was that there needed to be additional priority groups.

As I was saying in my response to Deputy Bacik earlier, we have made good progress on a number of category groups. There are more students with a disability in higher education than ever. However, that masks another reality. We are not measuring all disabilities, so we expect additional priority groups.

On the outcomes piece, that is exactly it. We cannot just say, and this came from the feedback and the consultation, that it is great a student with a disability got into college. Of course it is, but that is the student's right. What we need to do is see what the student's college experience is like. That brings me to the Deputy's next point, because the plan will require joined-up thinking, including with the Department of Education on the transition planning between second level and third level and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment on what happens in terms of job opportunities afterwards.

On the point about further education and training being the Cinderella of education, from a capital point of view that has been correct, but the Deputy can expect a significant uplift in capital funding in a new capital call. He can expect an announcement in that regard probably later this week.

On the capital side, I look forward to that later in the week. On the revenue side and the day-to-day running of it, what percentage of the overall higher education budget will be targeted towards people on the margins of society? There are people who have multi-generational issues whereby they have not got into third level education and do not see a prospect of third level education. In addition, on the disability side, it is necessary to ensure there are outcomes for them there. There is a fundamental attitude across society that has to change. While the Minister says the figures have increased, it is from a very low base. We must be able to say that everybody has a role to play in society. With this new Department and by making sure this strategy is correct, I believe we can encourage more people into education and see better outcomes for them, but it has to be targeted at the most vulnerable and those with disabilities.

I am 100% up for that. I hope the Oireachtas and Oireachtas committees, including Deputy Michael Moynihan, can genuinely play a helpful and active role in monitoring this. It is not a static document. In my term as Minister, I have been regularly invited to the oversight group. We publish the documents and the targets, but then the work begins. Our figures for higher education participation are very good and among the best in Europe, but headline figures can flatter and can mask another reality. They are very good and there has been progress across all groups, but not equal progress. That is why this is a national access and inclusion plan, identifying the priority groups where we want to make progress and provide funding. In fairness to my colleagues in the Government, I am pleased we have a €5 million fund this year to drive forward some of these initiatives, so it will not be a plan without real funding.

The question about the percentage of the budget is very good. I will have to get the answer for the Deputy because, of course, it is not one budget line. We provide a variety of supports for students with disability across SOLAS, the HEA, the SUSI grant system and the fund for students with disability. Perhaps I can send that information in writing to the Deputy.

Third Level Fees

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

55. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science when he will bring forward a plan to reduce student fees for third level students; if this will be in place for the next academic year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6450/22]

We are facing a crisis in the cost of living and students and families have to pay the highest fees in the EU. As a means of taking the pressure off students and their parents, will the Minister and the Department reduce fees as part of a sustainable funding model for third level education? I am also conscious of the fact that they need help now so I again call on the Minister to increase SUSI support for this academic year. In addition, reducing the looming cost of third level fees coming down the line would be a welcome relief for many.

This is something on which we agree. I passionately believe we have to reduce the cost of education. We have already taken a number of steps since the Government took office just under two years ago. I will not go through them all in the time available. There is the first increase in the SUSI grants. I accept that some of them do not take effect until September, but some of them have taken effect this year. There have been increases in the student assistance fund, and the Deputy and I have engaged on this. Indeed, the Government will consider the cost of living in the round at a Cabinet committee later this week.

However, I am conscious that when we talk about a sustainable funding model for higher education it cannot be just a model that is sustainable for the institutions, although that is very important. When I consider what a sustainable model would look like, I think of it as having three parts. It looks at the level of investment we need to put into higher education now and into the future to ensure it can meet the needs of our society and some of the issues the Deputy and I were discussing earlier, and how we can know it is adequately and sustainably funded. The second issue is how the grants system can be completely overhauled. We have a SUSI review to go alongside that. The third is the cost of education. I believe we need to do work with regard to the registration fee. The factual answer, as of now, is that I updated the Cabinet committee in December. I am engaging bilaterally with my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and I will shortly bring forward proposals on what that sustainable funding model looks like. I must say again that we have ruled out student loans. That is very important. I do not believe it works; it is a failed model. Students should not be leaving college heavily indebted and paying back the Government for loans, at a time when they might well want to be saving for other things in their lives in terms of progression.

We have made a number of changes to the SUSI scheme. There have been changes that have taken effect, including in respect of postgraduate students. There are more to come in September. We announced an increase in the student assistance fund last week as well. We continue to keep all these issues under review. However, I wish to be clear that I want to see the cost of education go in a downward direction as we bring forward the sustainable funding model.

We have to be conscious of families who are really struggling at this stage, and of students who, because they cannot get accommodation even at a very high price, are driving long distances and of the extra cost that is putting on students. In addition, it is time for a new accommodation strategy because the cost of accommodation is prohibiting students from attending and participating in the colleges they wish to go to. We must do everything we can to bring higher education within the reach of everybody. That is why I am seeking a commitment from the Minister that fees will be reduced. With regard to SUSI, I hope the Cabinet decides, on the Minister's recommendation, to bring forward some of the reliefs there to take the pressure off students and parents.

I thank the Deputy for the points she raised and for the constructive manner in which she did so. It is important to say there are existing supports available, and I always say this particularly when I visit schools because sometimes students, when they hear about the cost of education, might not perhaps be aware of that fact. That is worth saying whilst trying to improve them. More than 65,000 students not only do not pay the highest tuition fee in Europe but pay either no tuition fee or a significantly reduced rate of fees. These costs are covered by my Department through the SUSI scheme. Last year, we allocated €190 million to meet those fees to help the students most in need in terms of targeted interventions.

We have made a number of changes to the SUSI scheme. I accept they largely come into effect in the new academic year. It is the first increase in the grant for a number of years for everybody. There is a significant reduction in the adjacency rate so more students will qualify for the higher grant. There is also an increase in the income threshold so more students will qualify than previously. We need to continue to take many actions to reduce the cost of education.

On all parts of this island we have to reduce the cost of attending college. Yes, there is a student contribution fee of €3,000 in this jurisdiction and I would like that to go down. There is a tuition fee in Northern Ireland of €5,434. The only reason the Deputy can say we have the highest fees in Europe is that, sadly, Northern Ireland is not in the European Union. I hope she will join with me in taking an all-island approach to wanting to reduce fees. I was in Northern Ireland and the students there are not very happy with the Deputy at all.

The Minister should not worry. He should concentrate of the students down here-----

Surely the Deputy would like the Government to take an all-island approach.

-----where he has a mandate.

It is a commitment under the Good Friday Agreement that I must fulfil as a Government Minister.

The difference between Sinn Féin and this Government is that we listen to students and to what they want. The Minister knows that the only reason the fees in the North are not £9,250 as they are in England is that Sinn Féin in is government in the North as well. The Minister twisting his play of words is not fooling anybody.

That is an extraordinary answer.

It is not; it is a truthful answer. I want fees here to be reduced. I do not want the highest fees in the EU; that is not a label we want in this State.

We must work together to make sure they are reduced. The Minister said that some people do not pay fees. Yes, many do not. However, we see the people who are working day and night, the people who are excluded, locked out and not entitled to anything because they are just above the thresholds. We must help those students. We must give those students and their families the opportunities they deserve. We do not need to punish them for going out to work and for earning a very modest income that then excludes them from any help.

I am sure the Deputy did not mean it.

I presume the Sinn Féin Party is very much aware of my commitments under the Good Friday Agreement as part of the Irish Government to have an active interest in many things relating to Northern Ireland. The Deputy will ask me in the Higher Education Authority legislation to take an all-island approach, and I do and I will do so. That is why I visited Queen's University Belfast and Ulster University, and it is why we will deliver our commitments to students in the North. By the way, when Northern Ireland and Britain left the European Union, sadly, we continued to ensure students there could access the Erasmus programme. I have a very active interest in and fulfil my commitments relating to the North.

If I were the Deputy, I would work on the fees aspect. If her party is taking credit for not putting the fees at £9,000, I presume she is happy to see them at €5,434.57.

My maths skills are not great but we charge €3,000, which I see as too high. In the North, where Sinn Féin is in government, it is charging €5,434. Shame on the party.

We do not have control of those finances.

The Minister knows we do not control those finances.

It should listen to the students and reduce those fees in the North. Do something about the A levels as well.

The Minister should speak to British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

With the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, we will reduce the fees over time for students. We will ensure a sustainable funding model and we will put more into SUSI. We will work on an all-island basis to look after all the young people.

We will see what is delivered.

Third Level Admissions

Gary Gannon

Question:

56. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his plans to increase degree places for nursing and midwifery for September 2022 and beyond; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6386/22]

This relates to increasing the number of places in universities for nursing and midwifery. Will the Minister make a statement on the matter?

I thank the Deputy for this important and timely question. My Department is strongly committed to supporting the health of our population through the provision of graduates with the key competencies and skills to be effective in the health workforce and to support a range of clinical teams in our health services. I am pleased that in the two years this Department has existed, in both 2020 and 2021, we ensured additional places for nursing and midwifery. There were approximately 200, or perhaps slightly more, additional places on nursing and midwifery courses in 2021. We quite significantly increased the number of nursing places last year.

My officials are currently engaging with the Higher Education Authority and institutions on the provision of additional places for the coming year. It is the intention that there will be a focus on areas such as healthcare. In agreeing with Deputy Conway-Walsh on this point, I indicated we must take a targeted approach this year. As Minister, I am asked how many extra college places will be created, which is important, and more places will be created. The more important question, as raised by Deputies Gannon and Conway-Walsh, is how to provide these places in targeted areas where we need more people. We are working with the institutions and my colleague, the Minister for Health, to see if we can provide additional college places, particularly in the health service area, and whether it can then provide additional training places. Of course, for every additional nurse or doctor place, a training placement is required also.

We are very actively engaging with the Department of Health, as we have been for some time, on determining the longer-term skills needs of the healthcare services and the role the further and higher education sector can play in meeting those skills needs. We provided additional places in nursing last year and the year before and I expect there will be further additional places this year. I am happy to provide the Deputy with more detail when we conclude those conversations, which is likely to be in March.

That is brilliant. I have a suggestion about where some of those places may come from. A couple of months ago my office was contacted by a young woman who took part in a QQI level 5 course in nursing. She got full distinctions on the course but was unable to access university because there were a limited number of places for people transitioning from QQI level 5 to nursing at university and college level.

We called around to different colleges and determined that at QQI level 5, or colleges of further education, there were between 1,168 and 1,296 places for nursing, depending on interest, but there were only 152 places in 13 colleges for students trying to access nursing through that route. We also have the figures for midwifery. Could we look at improving access via this route of QQI level 5 courses? Students have a passion for the subject but they simply cannot access the places in colleges. We could look at this way of increasing the cohort in question almost immediately.

The Deputy is entirely right. Since giving my initial response, I found the figure in question from 2020. There were 135 additional places in 2020 and approximately 200 additional places in 2021. It is an increase of approximately 335 nursing and midwifery places over the past year.

The Deputy is on to something and he is entirely correct. All of us, including me, regularly tell students about the options and pathways that further education has. It is true those pathways are not as developed as they need to be for nursing. I will not name the institutions in this House but I have been in parts of the country where the college of further education is in one place, You can see through its windows the university or institute of technology, and the venue for pre-nursing and-or the university degree is adjacent but there is no pathway in place. One of the conversations I am having is, instead of having a global figure of increase this year, whether we can ring-fence some of those places to increase pathways from further education.

It always happens, regardless of points, that some people who would make a very good nurse or midwife go the further education and training route. I accept we are losing too many of them now. "Yes" is the short answer. Rather than just increasing the general number, we must work with the autonomous institutions to see if more places can be ring-fenced for this. I am happy to work with the Deputy on this.

I do not need to dwell any more deeply on this. Last year, for example, 1,296 students were in colleges of further education who would have made exceptionally good nurses. They chose that pathway, studying for a year in the area, before finding there were very limited places for them in university. I worked in career guidance for early school-leavers, encouraging people to do nursing that way because they would have been fantastic in the field. They might do great over the year but the pathways are very limited. We can and should address this. I appreciate that universities are autonomous but there is a exceptional talent pool in those FETAC courses. We should harness it and give those people the option to progress to university and a vocation.

While I always feel obligated to say the universities are autonomous, I do not wish to sound that I intend in any way, shape or form to be a bystander on this matter. They are autonomous but they are also funded heavily by the taxpayer. We have a right as an Oireachtas to have a policy view on this. Deputy Conway-Walsh asked about a sustainable funding model and there will be a list of reforms we can legitimately say, from a public policy perspective, we would like to see addressed. The pathway from further education and training to higher education is an obvious one. There are some genuinely good examples but nursing is an underdeveloped pathway.

As I go around the country, I have identified areas where there could be significant improvement. The Deputy can be sure my officials, as they engage on the global numbers for nursing and midwifery this year, will want to increase it again, as we have in the past two years. We will genuinely give focus to this. As we sit down to have the conversation about sustainable funding models, this will be a key reform request on our side of the table.

Third Level Costs

David Stanton

Question:

57. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the way his Department intends to address the costs associated with further and higher education such as student accommodation costs and the student contribution charge; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6120/22]

Some of the question has been dealt with in respect of accommodation costs and student contribution charges. Does the Minister wish to expand on that answer? Will he address the question of the availability of accommodation, which has an impact on cost?

I thank the Deputy for his time when we visited Midleton College and Carrigtwohill Community College recently. I had a chance to engage with students about some of their pathways and options after school and to see the new and exciting plan for Carrigtwohill Community College.

I, along with everybody in the House, am highly conscious of the rising cost of living and how we must work together to ensure cost is not barrier in education. Costs in education can come in many forms, as the Deputy correctly suggests in his question, including as a student contribution charge. There can also be costs for accommodation and living away from home as well as for books and supplies.

I recognise that student contributions are a significant cost for those who pay them. It is worth stating, nonetheless, that more than 65,000 students in higher education and their families receive support from SUSI and either pay no contribution or a reduced contribution level. I would like to see that number increase, and that is why in the budget we voted to increase the income threshold so more families would not have to pay the contribution fee and would be eligible for the maintenance grant. It is also why we have put in place measures to increase the SUSI grant by €200 across the board from September.

Specifically on the question of adjacency, we have decreased the distance very significantly from 45 km to 30 km. It is an important move and we must do even more on that. More students and their families will now qualify for the higher rate of grant as well.

I have already said in this House, and I will do so again, that as we work on a sustainable funding model for education, it cannot just be about how we better fund institutions. It must also be about how we can better support students and their families with costs. I am engaging with my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and all of the Government in that regard.

On the question of student accommodation, we changed the law not just once but twice last year to ensure no student could be asked to pay more than one month's rent and deposit. Students were being asked to pay a lot upfront, such as four, five or six months of rent. That was not on. We also changed the law to ensure a student in student accommodation only had to give 28 days' notice because many students were losing money if, for whatever reason, they needed to return home. We want to build on this in the coming months.

I thank the Minister for his response and acknowledge the work done by him and the Minister of State in the area, especially with regard to travel distance. Is there any role for hybrid work or study to assist students in the area?

Has the Minister looked at this at all?

I ran out of time when referring to student accommodation. The Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and I, along with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, are working intensively to make sure that our technological universities can borrow for the very first time and start to build student accommodation. In Deputy Stanton's part of the world, for example, it opens up opportunities for the Munster Technological University also.

The Deputy asked a very interesting question about hybrid learning. We are trying to start a conversation by recognising that not every student is 18 or 19 years of age, and not every student wants the traditional full college experience. More and more we are going to see students in full-time employment, with dependants, with a job or with a mortgage, who will need to access part of the education system. This is where the hybrid model becomes very attractive, or indeed the remote learning option. We introduced a range of emergency measures during Covid across education to keep the show on the road. We now want to sit down with education stakeholders to see what good learning can be had from that, that we want to see embedded in the education system. In a county as large as the Deputy's constituency, where people can live quite a distance from a college, there is a particular appeal to making education available in remote working hubs or online at home.

I thank the Minister for the response, which I welcome. I acknowledge the work done by the Minister of State with regard to the local training initiatives. This is also part of further education. What further plans does the Minister have to support students financially, and those people who provide the courses, in these local training initiatives that are part of further education? This also applies to persons for whom the formal education has not worked.

Absolutely. I had started to answer the question, and I believe I have to conclude on it. I acknowledge the work the Minister of State is leading in this area. We are now trying to make sure that the range of supports available in higher education begin to transition in an appropriate way that works for further education and for community education. I will give a couple of quick examples. We have introduced the mitigating against educational disadvantage fund. Perhaps it needs a better name. It is the first time ever that community education has been able to draw down, annually, on an actual fund. This is making a real transformational difference. I see this as I travel across the State. We have also waived and abolished the fee for PLC courses. With regard to our capital announcements, Deputy Stanton will see in our capital calls, which we will announce in the coming days, significant attention and priority being given to further education on a scale that simply has not been seen before.

Nursing Education

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

58. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if additional places on nursing courses will be provided for the 2022-23 academic year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6459/22]

I want to establish if the Minister is going to focus on having additional places for nursing and for other critical skills, additional places in college, and through the various channels, for the year ahead.

I thank Deputy Aindrias Moynihan for this important and timely question. The Government has increased the number of places in higher education by approximately 6,000 over the past two years. Obviously, that is a global figure. I would also make the point, which might be somewhat reassuring or informative to leaving certificate students this year, that, as of the CAO deadline last week, the number of students who had applied to the CAO relative to the same time last year was down by 1,141. We will have to see how this plays out in the weeks ahead, but there is a slight decrease this year in the number of students applying through the CAO compared with last year.

We have made a number of significant increases in the overall places, and we have made targeted increases in specific places, including nursing and midwifery, where places have grown by 325 over the past two years. The Government, the Minister of State and I are very conscious of the need to do more. This is why we are working very closely with the Minister for Health and the Department of Health to identify if our sector is in a position to provide further places is the HSE and the Department of Health in a position to provide matching training places. As Deputy Moynihan will be aware, when it comes to healthcare studies the college place is one part, but often the more important component can be the hospital training place. I expect very good progress on that, and I acknowledge the very close working relationship with the Minister for Health in respect of it.

While the initial CAO deadline was last week, we will find out the breakdown of courses, exactly how many people actually applied for the courses, and types of course, in March when the deadlines for higher education access route, HEAR, and disability access route to education, DARE, applicants also passes. I would expect by March to be in a position to give more detail on where the additional places will be, and how that corresponds with the demand we have seen through the CAO this year.

I acknowledge the additional places that have been provided over the past two years. A lot of the references are in the context of college places. There are a number of different channels through which people get qualified for nursing. For example, there is a QQI level 5 nursing studies PLC course in McEgan College of Further Education in Macroom. There is a health and social studies course at level 6 in Mallow. There is a whole range of different channels through which people can access nursing studies. These are very passionate people who want to get in there and will take whatever route possible to make it happen. Is the Minister providing additional places in those courses? When those people then move on into the degree course, is the Minister reserving places for them to ensure that they have the opportunity? I ask that the Minister would also bear in mind that these people would be the 2020 leaving certificate students and will be competing with 2022 inflated grades for places. There will be that further intensity for them. Perhaps the Minister could clarify if there will be additional places for those people, who are clearly very interested and passionate about getting into nursing.

With regard to Macroom and Mallow and those courses specifically, I will check with SOLAS and Department regarding the capacity to do more this year. Generally, when it comes to further education and training we tend to be in the space of being demand led, and where there is a local demand we try to provide those additional places at the further education and training levels. I will revert to Deputy Moynihan on that. If there is a willingness and a desire to do more locally, then I am very happy to work with the Deputy to deliver on that. I imagine that we could certainly do that.

The second part of the Deputy's question is, truthfully, trickier. We have dealt with it a couple of times in the House this evening. It was around the pathways between further education and training and higher education. In the interests of time I will just outline briefly that this is an issue we want to focus on. I am not satisfied that there are enough reserved places in higher education for people who have come through the further education route through pre-nursing.

On grade inflation, I pay tribute to my colleague the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. The scheme the Minister has devised this year, which was outlined last week to leaving certificate students, will effectively, for want of a better phrase, take into account the level of grade inflation from last year to this year, and will provide that level playing pitch between this year's leaving certificate students and last year's students. I am aware that this was a concern many of them had.

I used the McEgan and Mallow college courses as an example to illustrate the position regarding PLC courses. Consider a student called Hannah, for example, who is clearly passionate about becoming a nurse. She is a 2020 leaving certificate graduate and is now going to be competing with 2022 leaving certificate students and the inflated grades. There needs to be a certain amount of reserved places for people coming through those different channels.

It is not always just about the degree course, the Minister also needs to have additional capacity in those PLC courses and the various different channels through which people will access nursing. Has the Minister looked at that, and will he confirm that there will be additional places so that people who are coming through those channels will have reserved places in those courses? There would have been at least three or four people coming through some of those course who would have been expecting to get into a nursing degree last year but did not make it. Were the additional places at the expense of the PLC people or were they over and above new places?

Those extra places were over and above. While they may not have been ring-fenced for people in further education and training, they certainly did not take away from any existing places. I want to make the point that these were newly created places amounting to 335 additional nursing and midwifery places over 2020 and 2021. That figure will grow further.

I cannot give the Deputy a commitment on the record of the House until I can be sure that I can deliver on it. I can tell the Deputy that it is an absolute focus of my Department in our conversations with the universities that we do not just look for an increase in the global figure when it comes to nursing and midwifery, as relevant to this question. We also look to see how we can grow the number of places that they set aside from that additionality for the further education and training pathway. I am very confident that we can and will be continuing to expand the number of students we will be taking into our PLC courses for nursing. We are investing record amounts there, but quite frankly I believe that we can do even more on that with the budgets we have and the facilities we have. I will come back on the Deputy's specific examples, and I accept that the Deputy is using them as examples. The piece I am trying to work on is the pathway between further education and training and higher education, which Deputy Moynihan has outlined very well.

Apprenticeship Programmes

Cathal Crowe

Question:

59. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science his strategy to broaden the number of new apprenticeships; the details of the development of the seven new apprenticeship programmes announced for 2022; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6379/22]

This question will be taken by Deputy Niamh Smyth on behalf of Deputy Cathal Crowe.

I ask the Minister of State to outline his strategy to broaden the number of new apprenticeships and the details of the development of seven new apprenticeship programmes in 2022.

I thank the Deputy for the question. The action plan for apprenticeships 2021-2025 sets out new ways of structuring, funding and promoting apprenticeships to make apprenticeships more accessible to employers and learners in order to achieve a target of 10,000 annual registrations across a wide range of programmes by 2025. Expanding apprenticeship across all sectors of the economy has widened its impact in areas of skills shortage such as engineering, technology skills, logistics and fintech. Under the plan there will be an increase in the online visibility of apprenticeship engagement and apprenticeship development processes for employers and sectors that wish to assess the potential of new apprenticeship development.

The development of new apprenticeships is employer-led, with consortia comprising employer groups and educational providers coming together to identify a skills need and appropriate apprenticeship responses in a sector. It is open to any industry that wishes to explore such options to bring forward a proposal. Applications for new apprenticeship development are open on an ongoing basis, allowing all employers to progress the development of programmes in response to emerging skills needs on an as-needed basis.

There are currently 62 apprenticeship programmes on offer, comprising 25 craft programmes and 37 programmes which have been introduced since 2016. Eight new programmes were launched in 2020 and 2021, despite the pandemic: arboriculture; equipment systems engineer; healthcare assistant; principal engineer; professional doctorate; recruitment executive; sales; scaffolding; and supply chain associate. A further three programmes are close to launch, namely, wind turbine maintenance, bar manager, transport operations and commercial driving. There are 17 additional programmes being developed across agriculture, construction, engineering, equine, finance, horticulture, hospitality and food, ICT and logistics. A number of other potential apprenticeships are at an exploratory stage, in sectors such as health, beauty, environmental, engineering, ICT and finance.

To meet our targets, we require an apprenticeship system that is flexible and responsive and provides a strong value proposition for employers and potential apprentices. It must be attractive and easy to engage with and deliver high standards and sought after qualifications, therefore embedding apprenticeship as a preferred route to skills development.

I thank the Minister of State. He has outlined some exciting new and progressive courses. It would be remiss of me not to take the opportunity to mention Cavan Institute, which the Minister, Deputy Harris, visited. Not only does it provide academic subjects, it also endeavours to provide apprenticeships in hairdressing and for commis chefs. It is a victim of its own success and space is now required to help it to continue to provide those programmes.

Ireland has traditionally lagged behind our neighbours in the scope and range of apprenticeships offered here. We know that ETBs, formerly VECs, have always taken a lead role in that delivery. In the programme for Government, there is a number of key commitments to examine new ways of structuring funding and promoting apprenticeships, and it recognised that we need to encourage wider take-up of these programmes, especially for women, people with disabilities and disadvantaged groups. The action plan for apprenticeships launched last year was a welcome commitment to widening and expanding the type of apprenticeships available. The Minister of State touched on some of that in his response. Perhaps he could expand on that further.

I welcome that apprenticeships are now part of the CAO process. With respect to young people who drop out of apprenticeship programmes, which is quite a lot in some areas, does the Minister of State intend to commission any research or study into why this going on?

On the last point raised by Deputy Stanton, that is an issue which the Minister, Deputy Harris, and I have raised with the new director of the National Apprenticeship Office. It is something which is very much on its work programme. There is a dropout rate similar to that across all sectors, but it is something we are conscious and aware of.

On the point raised by Deputy Smyth, the apprenticeship action plan has a number of key targets in terms of new registrations and the number of apprentices in training at any point in time. We have put a lot of focus on that. As the Deputy said, in terms of diversity and gender we are also challenging the State, including the Civil Service and public service, to get involved in the apprenticeships space.

She again raised the case of Cavan Institute. The Minister, Deputy Harris, and I are happy to engage on that, as we are happy to engage with any institution or college of further education. Our Department will advertise for expressions of interest for our capital development programme in the coming days. We will accept applications and business cases from colleges and further education institutes for capital development.

I thank the Minister of State. What measures are in place for those waiting to move forward in their training to tackle the backlog in apprenticeships across SOLAS and the higher education sector, in particular craft apprenticeships?

We discussed this earlier. Across 2021 and 2022, €37 million has been provided to address the significant backlog which arose due to the Covid pandemic and the restrictions that were imposed throughout various lockdowns that significantly impacted the off the job training available to apprentices. SOLAS and our ETBs are providing extra capacity and are hiring extra trainers. They are doing everything they can to reduce the backlog. Earlier, I outlined the specific numbers in terms of how that will be reduced over the next number of months. We are making good headway on that.

Question No. 60 replied to with Written Answers.

Further and Higher Education

Brendan Smith

Question:

61. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the projects that will be progressed in 2022 in the upgrading of existing accommodation and the provision of new accommodation in the further education sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6437/22]

As the Minister knows, there was a welcome commitment in the national development plan to increase capital investment in the further education sector. I had the opportunity to speak with him on a number of occasions regarding the needs of Cavan Institute and the welcome increase in demand for places in the further education sector. I hope the Minister is in a position to announce a substantial investment in the provision of upgraded accommodation at our colleges of further education and also new build projects.

I thank Deputy Smith for the question. The national development plan commits to a step up in investment in further education and training infrastructure. As the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, outlined, under plans being developed by my Department it is projected that expenditure will increase from less than €20 million in capital funding for further education and training in 2020 to approximately €100 million per year by 2025. That will give the Deputy a sense of the stepped increase.

There are more than 35 projects in the pipeline for delivery in 2022, at various stages of the project lifecycle. They are classified in two main areas, namely, capital projects and emergency health and safety works. The project range includes refurbishment and renovation works, civil works, addressing serious access issues, roof repairs, mechanical and electrical projects, with a focus on safety issues and emergency replacements.

An apprenticeship specific capital grant scheme was, I am pleased to say, introduced for 2021-2022. It has provided €10 million for further education and training and €10 million for higher education, and is jointly administered by SOLAS and the HEA. I am pleased to advise the Deputy that in the coming days I will announce a new and significantly more ambitious phase of capital investment in the further education and training sector. I should be clear; it will be an invitation for projects to come forward. It will provide ETBs with a framework to put forward projects in 2022 to upgrade and enhance the further education and training strategy and advance the priorities of the future further education and training strategy.

I am particularly excited about capital investment, which will be a key enabler of what we call the further education and training college of the future, which the Deputy will have heard me talk about when I visited Cavan Institute. Deputies should expect significant news in respect of a stepped increase in capital investment from the Government for further education and training. From a process point of view, it will be for the ETBs and institutes to come forward.

I thank the Minister for his positive message regarding increased investment. A new building complex was completed in Cavan in 2005.

Cavan Institute was the first dedicated post-leaving certificate college in the country. I and other public representatives were very much involved with the local authority in the transfer of substantial lands at that location to enable the building of the college at that time. There is an increased demand for space and accommodation. I want to see new permanent accommodation. As a layperson, I believe the proper location for that would be adjacent to the existing main building of the college. There is plenty of space there and it would keep the college in the town.

It has been a very successful college, one of the leading further education providers in the country. We spoke about this previously in the House. The Taoiseach has committed to further intensification in the provision of further education on an all-Ireland and cross-Border basis. Given its geographical location, Cavan Institute can be a key provider in ensuring that we step up that collaboration. We have it on an ad hoc basis but we want it structured. That will bring benefits to students on both sides of the Border and throughout the island.

As the Minister knows, the building was built in 2006 to accommodate 420 students. The college has gone from strength to strength which is totally down to the wonderful staff, and management, and the commitment from the students and the ETB. As my colleague has said, there is a greenfield site there. There is no need to find a site or anything like that. The college has more than 1,100 students and it needs that new building. Up to now it has been all over the place with sites in multiple locations. As leases are now up, there is a golden opportunity to deliver the new college that is needed for Cavan Institute.

I thank Deputies Brendan Smith and Niamh Smyth for making the case very forcefully for Cavan Institute. I genuinely enjoyed my visit to Cavan Institute and was extremely impressed by what I saw. That followed on from a virtual meeting we had with Cavan Institute. I know that both Deputies understand that I am taking a very personal and active interest in this project.

Commitments were made to Cavan Institute and commitments were made to Dunboyne College. I believe those commitments need to be honoured in addition to any future capital call that may be made for new projects. As Deputy Niamh Smyth mentioned, the multi-location aspect needs to be resolved. It is important to try to consolidate on one site. Work needs to be done in that regard. Rather than getting into the detail of that now, it would be useful for Oireachtas Members from Cavan-Monaghan to meet me to see how we might make further progress. Perhaps, I could visit Cavan again shortly.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Very high standards were set in Cavan Institute from the word go. I had the privilege of being the first chairman of the first board of management of that college. It has carried on a very fine tradition in ensuring that any public representative who visits to college gets a very warm welcome, in particular a Minister making an announcement of major investment in the future. There will always be a strong cead míle fáilte. The money would be put to good use.

Cavan-Monaghan ETB in anticipation of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science's roll-out of the new capital investment programme is preparing a proposal which will meet the criteria. As I have said to the Minister both in this House and in Cavan that day, I believe the preference is to have as much of the accommodation of the college as possible on one site. There is plenty of space there and thanks to the successful negotiation between the then County Cavan VEC and the local authority at the time, a prime piece of land, practically in the town, was made available to the VEC to develop that college. We want the broader expansion of it to ensure it continues to grow and has adequate accommodation for the students attending.

As a Fine Gael Minister, I feel in a very difficult position almost having to referee between the levels of enthusiasm for the project from both Fianna Fáil Deputies, Deputy Brendan Smith and Deputy Niamh Smyth. I notice the very significant links they have with the project. In the interests of keeping the coalition together I should mention my colleagues the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and Senator Joe O'Reilly. We have had very good visits, very good engagement and very good support from Oireachtas Members on this project. I know how important it is.

I often give the example of a student I met from Cavan Institute who talked to me about the pathway he took. Earlier Deputy Conway-Walsh mentioned a pre-law course. The example I always use is that of Jack, the young man I met from Cavan Institute, who is now studying for law in Maynooth. Cavan Institute gave him that pathway. I was very impressed by the students I spoke to there. One said, "I was not sure about FET, but I have developed and grown as a person, not just educationally but as a person." I am particularly impressed with the kitchen facilities used for the apprenticeship scheme there. I received a very warm welcome the last time I went there. I can only imagine the warmth of the welcome when we get this project over the line together.

That was fantastic teamwork on behalf of Cavan-Monaghan.

It is tough being the referee.

Grant Payments

We now move to County Meath and I call Deputy Tóibín.

Peadar Tóibín

Question:

62. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the number of persons who were granted a SUSI grant in each of the past ten years by county in tabular form. [6315/22]

I am sorry to break up the love-in here. Documents released to Aontú under the Freedom of Information Act reveal emails sent to the Minister by students who were refused SUSI grants. Homeless students, orphans and students who are full-time carers of their parents are all emailing the Minister on this issue. Why is the Department refusing to give these people the SUSI grant?

Of course, my Department does not refuse people the SUSI grant; my Department sets the criteria under which people may apply, as is the case with any Government grant. I acknowledge the very serious issue that the Deputy and his office have consistently highlighted in engagements with my office on the need to reform and overhaul the SUSI grant system. I accept that the system is rigid. I accept that a system which made progress in consolidating student grants from VECs across the country needs to significantly catch up in understanding the reality that many families and students are facing now.

The scheme operates within the parameters set out in the legislative scheme, which in turn broadly reflects budgetary decisions that we make in this House. I have been conscious that the overall trend of awards in recent years has not kept up with cost-of-living increases or income increases that have happened across the economy. That is why we have brought about the first increase in quite a while in income thresholds. That will kick in from September of this year along with a general increase in the rates.

While the SUSI grant scheme is a very important scheme which supports many thousands of students - some 65,000 students either pay no registration fee or pay a very significantly reduced registration fee - it is just one avenue available to student support. Any student who does not qualify for the student grant scheme for whatever reason may avail of the student assistance fund. That is a significant scheme with a budget of, I believe, over €18 million this year after we provided an additional €1.3 million for it last year. That scheme is available to assist students with many of the costs they may face including the rising cost of living.

The SUSI grant system has let down homeless students who have been refused the grant. If a system is not providing a grant to a student who is homeless, then it is absolutely broken. There are inadequacies and discrepancies. Many families are caught in that gap just above the threshold but still finding it increasingly hard to pay the fees. I know of a number of students who had to take out loans just to pay for fees for their education.

Another issue is that the threshold for the grant focuses on the household income from the previous year. A couple could be made redundant in a particular year, but their income hardship is not recognised by SUSI because they were comfortable that year.

Another big issue relates to students who are estranged from their parents. The application process is nothing short of inhumane.

When will we have an update on when the SUSI reforms will fully kick in? Will the Minister take immediate action to ensure that no homeless student who applies for a grant is left unaided?

The Deputy is talking about a specific case, as is his right. I do not have the information available to me on a case. Obviously, appeal mechanisms are available. A system that does not understand the needs is a very significant concern. I acknowledge that and I am happy to engage with the Deputy on this specific case. This is a scheme based on income thresholds. It is there to support the most vulnerable, the most marginalised and those most in need of assistance based on the income level in their household.

The Deputy has identified difficulties under the current scheme whereby some students are not being assessed on an independent basis and instead are linked to their parents' income despite their estrangement. I regularly hear that from students.

In response to the Deputy's specific question, I have just received the SUSI review. It is a commitment in the programme for Government. The Deputy will be familiar with the terms of reference. They are quite broad in acknowledging that the scheme needs to be overhauled. I intend to bring that to the Government alongside the sustainable funding model. I expect to do that in the coming months and to come forward with SUSI reforms as part of the sustainable funding model.

The Minister will agree with me that holding Ministers to account is very important. Sometimes it is hard to do so in this institution because Ministers move on from one Department to another. A whistleblower, Sharon Butler Hughes, has received documents under freedom of information, FOI, from the Department of Health which basically amount to reams of notes that are fully redacted. These are the Minister's own briefing notes from 2019. Does he agree that, in the interest of transparency, the Department should release his briefing notes with information on key moments in the CervicalCheck controversy unredacted, within reason, such-----

That is not related to the question.

I understand it is not related, but usually the Minister is very forthcoming in talking about health service issues.

The Chair has Standing Orders-----

I would just like to put that question of accountability to the Minister.

I am always happy to be accountable and I am very well aware of my role in this House. I am also conscious that the Deputy's supplementary contribution is out of order but, to be helpful, I am happy to answer. The Freedom of Information Act, as the Deputy will be well aware, should not in any way be open to political interference in the form of any Government Minister deciding what should or should not be issued. The laws of this House are very clear on that. Lest there be any doubt, I had no role in any issuing of any freedom of information documentation. Transparency is always good.

Questions Nos. 63 to 67, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Departmental Policies

David Stanton

Question:

68. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the importance of mathematics in the work his Department is undertaking to promote and support research, innovation and science; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6119/22]

I was not expecting to be called so soon. Things are moving very fast.

This question is about the importance of mathematics. A number of years ago coding was hugely important. I put it to the Minister that mathematics is now vital. What is happening at third level to look at different ways of teaching mathematics and of using mathematics for innovation, science and research? Is the Minister aware of a concept I have been talking to him about for some time, PolyUp mathematics?

I must admit, I am aware of it only because the Deputy has kindly brought it to my attention, for which I thank him. I have asked my officials to provide me with a viewpoint on it in the context of our overall work on the importance of mathematics and of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, in general and the needs of our students, our economy and our society. I will revert to the Deputy on that matter.

Developing a strong supply of science, technology, engineering and maths graduates is critical to Ireland's positioning as a world-class centre of research and innovation and to supporting high-growth sectors such as ICT, life sciences and business and financial services. My Department is committed to raising awareness of maths and other STEM disciplines, ensuring a strong pipeline of suitable graduates and supporting research and innovation in these areas. Raising awareness of STEM, including maths, is a critical enabler to all our work in this area.

I am pleased to say that last March I announced a national investment of €5.2 million through Science Foundation Ireland's Discover programme. The funding supports 49 public engagement and education initiatives that aim to promote and improve public awareness and understanding of science, technology, engineering and maths and to engage a wide audience of people with STEM topics. SFI also supports awareness-raising of science and science careers through the Discover primary science and maths and smart futures programmes.

The availability of qualified teachers is also critical, as the Deputy will know. Last April, the Minister for Education and I announced additional places for 2022 on programmes to upskill registered post-primary teachers to teach more subjects, including mathematics. I detect a real yearning for this from the profession. I visited the DCU school of education recently to discuss this. I am pleased to say that significant progress has been made over recent years in increasing graduate output in STEM disciplines, including maths. In addition to mainstream programmes, there has been significant provision of relevant skills through Springboard+ and the human capital initiative. My Department's science funding agency, Science Foundation Ireland, also supports our STEM talent and skills pipeline in a number of ways, including by funding fourth level master's and PhD students, early career researchers and more established, world-leading researchers.

I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply. Does he agree that, for many students, mathematics is extremely challenging and difficult and that we need to look at different ways of teaching mathematics from the earliest age? What research is ongoing in his Department or at third level on different ways of teaching mathematics using the modern technologies of apps, tablets, mobile phones and so forth? Will the Minister come back to me with a view on the PolyUp methodology, which is being pioneered in Stanford and which I have seen in action? It is quite impressive.

I will come back to the Deputy on that. I thank him for bringing it to my attention.

The Deputy highlights an extremely important issue. We talk about how to increase the number of STEM graduates. That is important and we have made considerable progress on it. We often talk about that just in the context of the student, which is important, but we do not often talk about it in the context of how we upskill and support the teacher in how he or she teaches the student to help him or her get to the level of mathematics, science or technology that is required. Not too long ago, I visited DCU's school of education and had a very interesting engagement with Professor Anne Looney and others on this and on how one teaches the teacher of the future in order that he or she can in turn pass on that learning and the new ways of learning mathematics and science subjects and technology in general. Through Science Foundation Ireland's centre for research training, we have provided €13.6 million in funding for what we call foundations of data science. That funds a cohort of PhD students to look at the area of applied mathematics, statistics and machine learning. PhD students trained in that centre will develop skills that will make them uniquely adaptable to the rapidly evolving needs of Irish and global society. Also, through our Springboard+ programme and human capital initiative, we are positively discriminating, if you like, in favour of STEM and the upskilling of individuals working in education and maths.

I will revert to the Deputy on his specific proposal.

Further and Higher Education

Bernard Durkan

Question:

69. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the extent to which third and fourth level education is likely to focus on the need to supply suitably qualified staff in the public and private sectors and in areas currently experiencing difficulties in obtaining and retaining staff; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6349/22]

This question is about the extent to which the Minister remains focused on the need to supply the workforce with suitably qualified people as quickly and as often as needs arise.

The challenge to deliver suitably qualified graduates to meet the demands of the public and private sectors is a fundamental focus for my Department. It needs to be and is a fundamental focus for the Government and this House, I am quite sure, across the entire skills system, including tertiary. I often say to students when I meet leaving certificate classes that everybody in the Dáil says we need to build more houses, and we do, but I am not going to build a house, and if every Member of the Dáil were to come together, we probably would not build a house between us. Some of the biggest societal challenges we face, whether climate change or housing, require making sure we have a skills pipeline. That requires a broadening of the conversation we have with young people about their options after school. I passionately believe that.

We have made huge progress on university progression and we should be proud of that. We now need to apply a similar level of focus to broadening the conversation about apprenticeships. Let us debate in this House how best to do so, how we might do it more quickly, what we do well and what we do not do well. I think we can all agree on the need to make sure the students sitting in sixth, fifth or fourth year classrooms today are aware that the trades and the crafts can provide high-paid, skilled jobs that can help address some of the biggest societal challenges. We are putting a focus on making sure that, for the first time ever, apprenticeships and further education and training options are on the CAO website. I am pleased to see that more that 15,000 students who logged on to cao.ie/options went directly from that page to the apprenticeship website to find out about more options.

We have an advanced system of skills provision across further and higher education and lifelong learning, which is agile and responsive to changes in the world of work. It is critical that graduates acquire technical and transversal skills. This is an important point in response to the Deputy's question. We need to embed transversal skills in our degree programmes and higher education institutions. The development of skills policy and responses to skills needs is evidence-based and informed by the work of the skills and labour market research unit of SOLAS, which is an agency of my Department, and the expert group on future skills needs.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Is it possible, or has consideration been given, to turn on an accelerated supply of suitably qualified people, particularly in the tourism, hotel and catering sectors, where premises cannot open fully, even though they want to, due to a lack of suitably qualified staff?

The regional enterprise plans are soon to be published. We need to align courses, apprenticeships and training provision to meet local needs and future skills needs. The establishment of the Atlantic Technological University in my own region will certainly strengthen further investment in job creation. We can build better capacity within our life science sector, look to be more innovative with regard to green technology and expand growth within our tourism and business sectors. We need a cohesive approach across Departments to ensure we address deficits with regard to future skills needs and that we have a long-term strategy and approach.

I thank the Minister for his visit to Tralee, which was very productive and helpful. I invite him to come to Killarney in the near future to meet representatives of the tourism and hospitality industry because there is a particular difficulty there with regard to obtaining and retaining skilled staff. That will be one of the great challenges for the tourism and hospitality sector as we emerge from the pandemic. It deserves really close focus and attention. It would be marvellous if the Minister could come to Killarney, meet representatives of the industry, listen to their views and, it is to be hoped, help to put a solution in place.

To respond to Deputy Durkan, the short answer is "Yes". I want to work with the tourism and hospitality sector. We have already shown that when we worked with the Irish Hotels Federation to put in place a range of upskilling and reskilling programmes. Its members wanted to use the difficult times of the Covid restrictions when they were not able to open their premises to provide their staff with the skills they might not have had the opportunity or time to develop during a busy season. We remain willing and able to do more in that space and have a budget to do so.

I thank Deputy Dillon for raising the issue of the skills needs of the regions. I am very excited about the opening of the Atlantic Technological University in April. I thank the Deputy for his support and work on this matter. Castlebar will become a university town and Mayo will become a university county. I want to send a clear message in respect of the Atlantic Technological University. Its role will be to work in the context of the regional jobs plans and enterprise strategies and with the regional skills fora to identify where the jobs for the future and for now are in Mayo and the north-west region and to provide the courses and pathways necessary to develop a pipeline of talent. I look forward to visiting Mayo with the Deputy shortly to look at that.

I thank Deputy Griffin very much for his invitation to visit Killarney. I would be delighted to come to Killarney with him to meet businesses, particularly in the tourism and hospitality sector, and to see how we can do more with regard to further education and training opportunities, particularly for those sectors that are busy and that we want to be busier, and to make sure that education and training is provided in an agile and flexible way that works for them. I am delighted that we have provided an employer incentive scheme worth €2,000 to people who take on new apprentices. I hope that will be of use and I look forward to being in Killarney soon.

Is féidir teacht ar Cheisteanna Scríofa ar www.oireachtas.ie.
Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
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