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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 8 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 3

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Further and Higher Education

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

45. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science when he will bring a sustainable funding model to Cabinet; the reason for the delay in publishing the economic evaluation of the Cassells report in advance; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12746/22]

I have been asking the Minister to publish the economic evaluation of Cassells report since it came back from the EU at the beginning of last summer. He has repeatedly stated he will be bringing proposals to Cabinet for a sustainable funding model for higher education and he will then publish the report. When will he bring these proposals to Cabinet? Why can he not publish a draft copy of the report in advance?

I want to say at the outset, and perhaps we will have time to get into it during Question Time, that I look forward to working with all Members of the House and all spokespersons on a number of the issues we will have to address arising from the Ukrainian situation, in terms of supporting students including those who are already here. I know this is an issue on which Deputy Conway-Walsh and I will want to work together. We will have a lot of work to do on English language supports. I wanted to say this on my first opportunity to do so in the Dáil.

I am very committed to resolving the issue of the funding model for higher education. It is priority issue. It is essential for ensuring that our higher education institutions can effectively meet high standards of quality and achieve critical outcomes for our economy and society. I will bring forward a proposal on a funding model to Government, which will be implemented as part of budgets. Implementation will entail the sector delivering strengthened performance and enhanced outcomes based on a robust reform agenda. The Deputy would expect this of me. Students and taxpayers would also expect this. This approach will be informed by the comprehensive economic evaluation of funding options which, as the Deputy said, has been carried out under the auspices of the European Commission's structural reform support programme.

I brought this matter to the Cabinet committee on economic recovery shortly before Christmas. This allowed me the opportunity to explore key issues with Government colleagues including the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. It was agreed that I and the Department would engage with the Department for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, to inform the Government's consideration, in particular undertaking technical work to update costings reflecting relevant funding decisions in the most recent budget and other issues. I am please to inform the Deputy this work is nearing finalisation. This work has sought to robustly assess the assumptions underpinning the economic evaluation and to take account of the significant levels of State funding which have been invested in higher education and student support in recent years.

It is my intention to bring final proposals for funding and reform of higher education arising from this work to Government very shortly. I mean "very shortly" sincerely. I am very clear that, from a policy perspective, addressing the sustainability of the higher education system must proceed in tandem with measures which address the costs of education and ensure they are never a barrier to accessing higher education.

I will absolutely work in every way I can to ensure that Ukrainians who are coming here and who are very welcome here will have access to further and higher education.

By delaying the publication of the report the Minister is impeding the work of the education committee. The committee has dedicated weeks of hearings on the future of funding of higher education. These hearings were scheduled on the assumption the information would not be withheld and that it would be available. The report is an economic valuation paid for by public money. There is no commercial or privacy consideration to justify delaying it. The Minister is forcing the committee to work in the dark. We have had representative bodies of universities and the technological sector as well as trade unions and student unions all wondering why we have not been provided with the report. It is the most important document for dealing with the current funding in higher education. I and many others working in the sector would appreciate a clear explanation for why this is the case. It would make it much more productive for the committee if we knew what had come back from Europe.

I take the point the Deputy makes and the spirit in which she makes it. I certainly want to work with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. I assure Deputy Conway-Walsh that the new funding and reform framework will be provided to the Oireachtas committee once the Cabinet has considered the matter. It will be published along with the DG REFORM-sponsored economic assessment report on the sustainability of higher education and the SUSI review. I believe the Deputy will agree there have been many reports on higher education funding in recent years. I do not wish to just publish another report. I am trying not only to publish the economic assessment but to get the Government to make big decisions that will allow for multiannual inclusive processes allowing implementation to commence. I know from engaging with the sector this is what it wants also.

All of us in this House, including me, accept there is a gap to be closed in sustainable funding and core funding. We also all accept there is work to be done on the costs of education. We can debate how best to do this. I want to try to publish the report alongside an implementation process and decisions. This is why I need to brief Cabinet colleagues and make a Cabinet decision. I assure the Deputy that straight after this the next group to be briefed will be the Oireachtas committee. I will work with the Deputy collaboratively on the matter.

I understand the implementation is absolutely important and we have to get this right. It is fundamental to the future of education. Today we had trade unions and the Union of Students of Ireland, USI, before the committee. They were unable to engage with the economic report and how we might address the underfunding in education. Instead we discussed the effects of underfunding. ICTU spoke of the creeping privatisation of the sector over the past ten years, when the Minister has been in government. The TUI highlighted that in those ten years we have seen student numbers rise 28% while staff numbers fell 8%. The USI highlighted the fact that most universities get more funding from private sources than they do from the State. The Irish Federation of University Teachers, IFUT, raised the fact that in the late 2000s two of our universities were ranked in the top 100 internationally and one was in the top 50. We now have no institutions in the top 100. The fall in the rankings is directly linked to systemic underfunding. The most obvious way in which the underfunding manifests itself is through the student to staff ratio in all the institutions.

I am following with interest, and I believe there is value in, the work the committee is doing. Perhaps not everybody in the sector will agree with the following but let me be very clear on my position. This will not be new money for old rope. It will have to be accompanied by a reform agenda. To be very clear to the sector, I accept there is an issue with core funding that needs to be addressed. I also accept and know that reforms will be required in the sector. These are reforms to deliver on a number of issues we discuss in the House on a regular basis, including a more inclusive education system, a system that is more open and responsive to the needs of people with disabilities and additional educational needs, and a system that recognises that learners come in many different shapes and sizes that need to be accommodated, such as part-time students, mature students, online learning and flexible learning. I accept there are funding challenges in some areas. I will also say on the floor of the Dáil we now have funding back at peak levels. We have also started the journey of improving student supports in a range of areas. I am excited about the next piece of the jigsaw, which is once and for all settling the question as to what a sustainable funding model looks like for Ireland and getting on with implementing it after years of people debating this point.

Further and Higher Education

Ivana Bacik

Question:

46. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he will issue a directive to further and higher education institutions to retain certain flexible teaching mechanisms post-pandemic to support disabled students, those who cannot afford to live in university towns and those who are immunocompromised. [12709/22]

Will the Minister issue a directive to further and higher education institutions to retain certain flexible teaching mechanisms after the pandemic to support disabled students, those who cannot afford to live in university towns and those who are immunocompromised?

I thank Deputy Ó Ríordáin for the question. If we were debating this a couple of months ago the first priority we would have had was making sure we could get the college campuses reopened and get students back on campus in a safe way. We discussed this at great length in the House. I thank everybody who worked extraordinarily hard to do this, including trade unions, student unions and management bodies. The real collaboration we have seen in the further and higher education sector has resulted in our college campuses reopening. I also thank them for the work they did on online learning during that time.

The Deputy's question hits on a very important issue. There were things we learned as a result of Covid about how our education system can be agile and flexible, how there can be different ways of doing things and how we can have a university without walls. There is no doubt that while many people found it extremely difficult that college campuses were closed there were some students who said to me that by education being available online they were able to access it in a way they may not have been able to otherwise. We need to acknowledge this also. I am very conscious of the enormous efforts made by our institutions to respond to the various needs of learners during the pandemic. This was marked by a highly collaborative approach, consideration of those at risk or otherwise vulnerable and the adoption of innovative practices to support learners.

The Government is committed to delivering civil and political rights to people with disabilities and the realisation of social and economic rights as espoused in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Public bodies have obligations under the Equality Acts, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act and other legislation. The Department is working with institutions to deliver on these obligations and to further embed policies in areas such as universal design for learning. It is up to everyone in the system to look at how we can retain and build on the innovations that we adopted during the pandemic. For example, we learned a lot about how the digital divide can affect people.

Institutions are autonomous bodies. They have academic freedom and responsibility for their teaching and learning activities. The question of me directing them does not arise.

At a national and institutional level, I now want to sit down with stakeholders and look at how we can embed the good practice we have seen and I want to do this in the context of the publication of the new national access plan before Easter.

I know the Minister cannot necessarily direct institutions but he does give them money and could attach a few conditions to that. I agree with him that we need to think differently about education and learn something from the pandemic. Indeed, the idea of having an institution without walls is something I am particularly attracted to. However, the fact is that issues in respect of renting, the accommodation problems students are facing and disability were overcome in a way which showed a lot of ingenuity, forward thinking and thinking outside the box. That is what we always want our institutions to do. Will the Minister proactively interact with all the institutions of further and higher education to ensure that they have thought about every opportunity to break down those walls and that they will not say, in a post-pandemic era, that those solutions are a thing of the past? They have to be brought into the next phase.

The short answer is "Yes". We should and will do that. I agree with Deputy Ó Ríordáin in this regard. I believe he will also agree with me that staff in our third level institutions, and across the public sector, changed their work practices and how they worked overnight. They did so in an emergency scenario. They showed great flexibility and I really respect and thank them for that. However, as we move from an emergency phase of the pandemic - and we all hope we are doing so - it is important that we have discussions about how to make these changes more sustainable and what is required to embed them. People did things on a one-off basis and went above and beyond but a precedent was not set. We have to sit down and engage with stakeholders if we want to embed these changes into people's work practices. We absolutely will do that. I have no doubt that there are people who have accessed third level education as a result of these changes who may not otherwise have been able to. I remember talking to Longford Women's Link and women in that group were accessing degree programmes in Maynooth University from rural Longford. That shows how we can bring education to people who may not otherwise be able to access it. While the Deputy is right that I cannot necessarily direct institutions, as part of the discussions on future funding, we have a list of reforms that we want to see from the sector. This is certainly one such area.

As the Minister will know, people with disabilities have lower rates of progression to third level. My colleague, Senator Hoey, has been speaking on this recently. They have lower progression rates to third level than the general population. The Association for Higher Education Access and Disability, AHEAD, reported that approximately 12% of students disclosed a disability in a recent survey. The true figure may be as high as 20%. With regard to access to third level, further and higher education, this could be a fantastic tool to use into the future. The physicality of a university campus or further education facility does not have to be any kind of barrier to people engaging in learning. Remote learning will be a very significant part of that. As the Minister has said, the walls absolutely can be broken down. Within all that, we also need to understand that these institutions will need funding streams to roll that out.

Absolutely. I acknowledge the work of the Deputy's colleague, Senator Hoey, who I happened to meet this evening. There is a lot we can do in this space. I am proud of the progress we have made across the education sector, including in early years, primary and secondary education, with regard to being inclusive of people with additional needs. We have made some progress in the third level sector and there are statistics to back that up but we have not made enough. In many ways, the cliff edge for many students has moved from second level to third level. We need to fix that. We are developing our new national access plan. I hope to publish that around Easter. I am pleased to say that we have €5 million to spend on that in 2022. I am now considering how best to deploy that. To give the House an indication of my plans, one of the areas I intend to focus on this year is the area of intellectual disabilities. This is an area we have been too silent on when it comes to disability in the third level sector and one in which we can make progress. I look forward to engaging with Deputy Ó Ríordáin and Senator Hoey as we publish the national access plan and then, crucially, as we implement it.

Departmental Reviews

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

47. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science when he will publish the SUSI review and bring forward measures to improve the system; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12747/22]

The draft SUSI review has been on the Minister's desk since December. When will the report be published? When will he bring proposals to Cabinet? In particular, are the reforms specified in the review going to be introduced in September or will we have to wait until 2023-24? That is what I am really concerned about.

I thank the Deputy very much. The honest answer to the last part of the question is that it will be a matter for the discussions on the Estimates. However, I take the point she makes about the need to ensure additional supports are brought in for September. It is right to say that what is announced in the budget will take effect from the calendar year 2023. I believe the Deputy is putting it up to me to see if we can do more from this September. I will certainly work on that basis.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to review SUSI eligibility criteria, adjacency rates and postgraduate grant supports. To take this forward, I established a review of the student grant scheme. This was conducted by Indecon under the direction of a steering group chaired by my Department and comprising a number of stakeholders including, importantly, the Department of Social Protection so that it could look at the whole area of poverty traps. Crucially, the voice of our students was also represented through the Union of Students in Ireland, along with the voice of institutions and others.

As the Deputy will know from my answer to her previous question, it is my intention to bring this piece of work to Cabinet alongside the proposals on a sustainable funding model. Issues of cost and access must be considered in tandem with the issues of system funding and reform. I do not want to bring forward a funding model that is sustainable for universities but not for students or their families.  If we want the best outcomes, we need a well-funded system that is accessible to people regardless of their background.  Reform of the student support system can, and will, be a critical enabler of other strategic outcomes across the tertiary education system. Given these interconnections, it is my intention to bring the student grant review to Cabinet alongside the report on funding and reform of higher education, both of which will be published together.

Implementing the report recommendations is a key priority for my Department. I am pleased to say we have started this process. I know the Deputy will argue with me about the pace but we have started to initiate these improvements. Indeed, I will be signing regulations this week to bring in a number of improvements to the SUSI grant scheme from September. These include increases to the thresholds and income levels and improvements to the situation regarding adjacency rates. All student grant maintenance payments, including the special rate of grant, will increase by €200 per year, the income thresholds to qualify will increase by €1,000, and the qualifying distance criterion for students to qualify for the non-adjacent rate of grant has been reduced from 45 km to 30 km.  I will sign those regulations this week.

We welcome those changes but we really need to see them now. As the Minister will know, we are in extraordinary times with regard to the cost of living. The cost of living is having a severe impact on students and their families. That is why I am concerned that one thing is being delayed by the other. We need to bring in measures with regard to SUSI eligibility before the beginning of the next year. I am concerned about the students who are here right now, particularly students who have to travel because they either cannot get accommodation or afford accommodation and have to travel in their cars when we are seeing the price of fuel become unaffordable. This is really having an impact and we should treat this with the urgency it deserves in terms of providing support for students. It is in their interests, and all of our interests, for us to ensure that as many students as possible continue and are as successful in their studies as they can be.

I thank the Deputy. Of course, we did take measures in this House to benefit students for this academic year. We changed the law in respect of student renters not once, but twice, to make sure that students could not be asked to pay more than one month's rent in advance or a deposit worth more than one month's rent. That was a significant issue and a solution was sought by students' unions with support from parties across this House. This could have a real and meaningful impact with regard to the amount of money students have to pay out up front. We also changed the law with regard to the notice period students, and other renters, need to give. In the budget, we also introduced the first increase in grant maintenance payments in some time, an increase of €200 per year. The income threshold is increasing by €1,000 and the qualifying distance criterion for students to qualify for the non-adjacent rate of grant is being reduced from 45 km to 30 km. These are not abstract things, as the Deputy knows. She has welcomed them. These changes will benefit thousands of students and will build on improvements that we brought in for this year for current students, including an increase and improvements for postgraduate students. However, I accept that we need to do more. I will point out that, if the Deputy looks at the terms of reference of the SUSI review, she will see that these are exactly the sorts of areas we have been looking at. We are not waiting for the publication of a report to make progress. We have started and I certainly hope to take many more steps in the budget.

I appreciate that but we really need to make sure that SUSI is fit for purpose. I think we agree on that. At the moment, too few people have access to it. I welcome the announced increases to the income thresholds but we are obviously still waiting for them to come into effect. We could have worked on the maintenance grant. We did not have to wait until September to do that.

We need to increase the numbers getting access to the scheme rather than simply being a standstill measure to keep up with the limited wage growth that we have seen in recent years. The SUSI budget was substantially larger in 2015 than in 2020. Part-time students are offered no support. The Minister should be looking to extend student grants to part-time students even if it is just helping with fees. SUSI should cover the postgraduate fees as well. We also need to ensure that SUSI supports get to those who need them most. The burden of proof for lone parents is too high. We need to look specifically at the case of adults often with children of their own who need to move back in with their parents because of the housing crisis. There is a perfect storm for students and we need to get them out of it.

I accept some of the matters the Deputy has highlighted and the need for improvement. I particularly agree with her on the issue of part-time students. We need to do some work on defining what a part-time student is. I do not say that in any smart or flippant way. Obviously, there are many different types of part-time courses. What constitutes a part-time student for the purposes of the grant involves genuine technical and somewhat legal issues that we will need to work through. We should do that and we will do that.

I want students to know this. The Deputy is right that students are not immune from the cost-of-living pressures - far from it. Many are experiencing those costs which is why we made the additional allocation to the student assistance fund. I want students to know that it is there. It is available through their access office. Students should know that it is there for one-off bills for people who are struggling financially. I want to get that message out. I sometimes worry that this message does not get out to students on the ground as much as it needs to through the access office. The student assistance fund is there. We have made changes to the SUSI grant scheme that have already taken effect, including specifically for postgraduate students and the grant scheme will open in coming days for the forthcoming academic year.

Third Level Costs

Gary Gannon

Question:

48. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if his attention has been drawn to the lack of eligibility to student grants for persons who hold stamp 4 visas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12848/22]

Has the Minister's attention being drawn to the lack of eligibility to student grants for persons who hold stamp 4 visas and will he make a statement on the matter?

I do not wish to make the Deputy uncomfortable, but I found myself agreeing with him during the previous Question Time. I find myself similarly thinking that there is merit in the issue he has raised this evening. I have done some work on it and I am committing now to intensify that work to try to get a positive outcome.

The nationality requirements for the student grant scheme are set out in section 14 of the Student Support Act 2011 and regulation 5 of the Student Support Regulations 2021. The candidate's nationality or immigration status in the State determines whether she or he meets the nationality requirement outlined in the Act and regulations, and would be therefore eligible to qualify for a student grant.

Permission to remain in the State on the basis of a stamp 4 visa does not, in itself, meet the nationality requirements of the student grant scheme. There is provision for a review of eligibility where a person’s circumstances change in the academic year. This includes a change to a student's immigration status in our country. Where a student acquires Irish citizenship by naturalisation or is granted one of the permission-to-remain criteria provided for in the Act or regulations during the course of their studies, she or he may apply to SUSI to have their application reassessed.

It is important that our approach to these issues is equitable, consistent and fully aligned with the intent and purpose of the immigration permissions which are granted to individuals. I have met the Irish Refugee Council to discuss this matter. We have tried to introduce changes in a number of areas. The Irish Refugee Council has been advocating for a change in this area for some time and there is significant merit in it. I understand that a number of NGOs have written to my Department in recent months on the matter. As a result of this and as a result of the Deputy's question, I have asked my officials to look in further detail at the issue he has raised. I have asked them to look at the wider issue of alignment of SUSI grants and free fee support with immigration permissions in collaboration with other relevant Departments and to provide advice to me as quickly as possible as to whether I can make any changes in this area to align with those broader objectives.

I assure the Minister that finding commonality across the Chamber would never be an issue to be uncomfortable with. I wanted to raise this matter in general but also specifically relating to Irish citizens who are not currently eligible for the SUSI grant. This issue was brought to my attention by Kuxi Ghai, an incredible law student in Kings Inns and also an incredible advocate for the SPARK one-parent family group. I thank Ms Ghai for her tireless campaign. The Minister mentioned the principles of equity.

Currently, grants are given to those with permission to remain in the State with stamp 4 visas if they are the spouse or civil partner of an Irish citizen or a dependent child of a naturalised Irish citizen. Not included in the eligibility are those who have permission to remain in the State with stamp 4 visas who are parents of Irish citizens. Excluding parents of Irish citizens is inconsistent with any principle of equity. It flies in the face of the purpose and intent of the stamp 4 permissions for parents of dependent Irish citizens. In his response the Minister suggested that he would undertake a review and make a change. I hope we can do that very quickly. In my next contribution I will make suggestions for an amendment that could be made as suggested by Kuxi Ghai.

I thank the Deputy for the information and for the constructive way in which he is approaching this. I am very open and want to do more in this area. Since I came to office, we have already made three changes to try to support students coming to Ireland. First, we removed the requirement for prospective applicants coming in through our international protection system to have attended three academic years in the Irish school system and to have obtained a leaving certificate. I thought that was a ridiculous requirement. Subsequently, in 2021 the scheme was further expanded to allow eligible applicants to undertake postgraduate courses. In March of last year, my colleague the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, and I jointly announced that international protection applicants with permission to work would no longer be required to pay the international student fees to access post-leaving certificate, PLC, education courses.

We have been working with the sector. We have been listening to NGOs and the Irish Refugee Council. I accept there is a valid argument regarding those with stamp 4 visas. I am sure my colleagues in the Department of Justice will have a view and I need to engage with them on that. I will be happy to revert to the House and to the Deputy then.

I am really happy that we seem to be in line regarding reviewing this. However, I wrote to the Minister in November and again in January, at which time we seemed to be at odds. I am glad that seems to have been rectified.

I am very conscious that the Minister has included reference to the Minister for Justice. My concern is that the buck will continue to be passed between the Department of Justice and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. There is an onus on Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science because the Minister is responsible for widening access and participation rates of marginalised groups, particularly those heading one-parent families and those coming from migrant backgrounds. This is a barrier for education. Kuxi Ghai, whom I mentioned, has not only raised this issue with me but she has also proposed potential solutions through amendment to the Student Support Regulations 2021 to include a new section that would specifically allow parents of Irish citizens to be eligible for the grant. I will email that to the Minister's office tomorrow.

I thank the Deputy. I was merely stating that issues relating to immigration policy are matters for the Department of Justice. I agree with the Deputy that issues relating to widening access to education are very much the responsibility of my Department. We do not shirk that nor do we pass it to any other Department. The approach I take is that it is always of benefit to provide access to education for people in our country regardless of nationality, circumstances, background, gender or any other matter. We have already taken a number of steps to do that. I accept that we need to do more. Dr. Catherine Day's report also broadly indicates we need to do more. We could do more on the area the Deputy has identified. I will try to rectify this and I look forward to receiving his email. I am happy to keep in close contact with him on this.

Student Accommodation

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

49. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the detail of his plans to increase the supply of affordable on-campus accommodation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12748/22]

We have an entrenched housing crisis and students and families have felt this extremely severely. I ask the Minister to outline his plans to increase the supply of affordable on-campus accommodation.

I am very conscious of the challenges faced by students with student accommodation. My Department and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage are working closely together on these issues. As everyone in this House will know, the underlying issue is one of supply. We need to increase the supply of all types of accommodation, including student accommodation. That is why we launched Housing for All, led by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage which sets out a series of actions which will be delivered to address the housing crisis backed by a transformative budget of €20 billion.

In its ambition to deliver student accommodation, I acknowledge that the third level sector is facing the same issues which are affecting construction developments globally, including disrupted supply chains and other constraints. Very significant progress is being made in the Government's overall housing policy with both housing completions and commencements showing significant acceleration and the construction workforce back to pre-pandemic levels. Notwithstanding these trends, construction costs and other constraints are acting as a deterrent to institutions in proceeding with new developments. My Department and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage are considering whether options may be open to us to support increased supply with affordable rental levels.

With this in mind, I am working with my officials to consider immediate options and those initiatives which can be achieved in the more medium term. I have recently written to all universities, technological universities and institutes of technology asking them to identify any potential local solutions which could contribute to increased supply ahead of the next academic year.

This may involve the repurposing of existing buildings. This is an important, real and sincere offer. We saw in Limerick that there was an ability to identify a local solution and some facility that could be adapted there, with funding provided through the council, I believe, and that being ready for September. I would like to see if there are other examples of that. There is an open offer to all higher education institutions, HEIs, in that regard.

More broadly, as for the medium-term strategic change that needs to happen, my Department is, as I said, working with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to examine how student accommodation can be incorporated into other developments aimed at boosting land supply, including the Land Development Agency's plans in Limerick, for example. In my view, student accommodation should form part of the overall residential mix.

I will update the Deputy further in a moment.

I welcome the Minister's response, in particular the part about working with the local authorities to identify for the higher education institutions possible locations for student accommodation and buildings that can be converted. As late as last week I discussed that with Atlantic Technological University. By the way, I congratulate Dr. Orla Flynn. I think she will do an excellent job there, and I know the Minister and I will work with her to ensure that Atlantic Technological University is successful. That is one tangible way in which this could work. The Minister has stated to me in previous responses that he has no plans to bring forward a new strategy for student accommodation because the current strategy covers 2017 to 2024. That strategy has been a failure.

I join the Deputy in congratulating Dr. Orla Flynn. I think she will be an excellent president. I wish her luck and look forward to Atlantic Technological University, ATU, coming into being shortly.

The Deputy has hit the nail on the head. One of the institutions is already asking what it can do locally. For the first time here we are making a shift in policy and having an open-door policy for any local solution or idea that can come forward, particularly those with immediate solutions for September.

More broadly, though, I have admitted that we need to change policy when it comes to student accommodation. We do not need better speaking points to explain it; we need to change the policy. That is why I am meeting the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. I am looking at the Land Development Agency as it develops across the country and whether student accommodation can be a part of that. The Minister and I are looking at a cost-rental model and whether there is room for that, what we need to do and whether there are grant-aid options to make it sustainable for the colleges to build. I will update the Cabinet committee on housing at the beginning of April on options in that regard.

The reliance on private sector purpose-built student accommodation has failed to deliver any affordable student accommodation. Looking at Mayo, for instance, the problem there is that we are concerned that the lack of accommodation will constrain the possibilities and the opportunities for Atlantic Technological University. There were only 24 properties to rent last week in Mayo, and we find that students are competing with families, which should not be the case. We should have purpose-built on-campus accommodation for students. This cannot be separated from the underfunding of higher education. Even the on-campus accommodation was turned into a source of revenue for colleges to replace the public funding removed under austerity. It is not the fault of the individual institutions; these decisions were made at a Government level. On-campus accommodation is charged for at near the market value because the various institutions need to cover costs. They therefore try to attract wealthier, more lucrative students to be able to bring in more revenue.

I probably do not have time to engage on the Deputy's last point, but let me offer some statistics. While I accept there needs to be new policy initiatives and policy levers, some of which I have outlined, it is important to say that since 2016 we have seen 12,149 purpose-built student bed units built. Work is under way on-site on an additional 3,128 units and planning permission has been obtained for a further 10,493 units. In addition, planning permission for a further 1,028 units has been applied for. I just wanted to put those figures on the record of the House. In addition, regarding the Atlantic Technological University, institutes of technology and technological universities lacked clarity as to whether they could borrow to build student accommodation. That has now been clarified. They now can, and we have put into the mix immediate local solutions. The piece we are trying to rectify is affordability. What student unions say to me is that this is not just about the numbers being built, which I have cited, but has to be about trying to find that affordability. We have changed the law, as we discussed earlier, to deal with some of the difficulties students face in terms of upfront costs for student accommodation. I accept we need to do more and I will bring proposals to the Cabinet committee in April.

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