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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 8 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 3

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Questions Nos. 50 and 51 replied to with Written Answers.

Apprenticeship Programmes

Joe Flaherty

Question:

52. Deputy Joe Flaherty asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the staffing and funding allocated to the new national apprenticeship office; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12775/22]

The programme for Government made a number of key commitments to look at new ways of structuring funding for and promoting apprenticeships. It recognised that we have to encourage better and wider take-up and target skills to meet the needs of our economy. A plan to deliver this is the Action Plan for Apprenticeship, which has shown the intent to create a modern apprenticeship system that is reflective of Irish society and supports learners and employers. I ask the Minister to comment on the staffing and funding allocated to the new national apprenticeship office.

I thank Deputy Flaherty for the question and for highlighting the important issue of apprenticeships.

I am pleased to say that significant progress is being made in realising the ambition for apprenticeship set out in the Action Plan for Apprenticeship, which I was pleased to publish in April of last year. The further development and mainstreaming of apprenticeship in Ireland through the creation of a single unified apprenticeship system has a key role to play in meeting Ireland's skills needs in a manner that presents a valued proposition for apprentices and employers alike.

Key to the delivery set out in the action plan is a new organisational architecture, including, as the Deputy has alluded to, the creation of a new national apprenticeship office and a national apprenticeship alliance. The office will have responsibility for all aspects of management, oversight and development of the apprenticeship system and for implementing our action plan. Under the action plan the national apprenticeship office will exercise, on a shared and conjoint basis, the relevant legislative and funding functions of SOLAS and the HEA in this area. The new national apprenticeship office will deliver additional practical supports and information for employers and apprentices seeking to engage with apprenticeships. I am delighted to inform the Deputy that Dr. Mary-Liz Trant, who has extensive senior experience in education and training, has now been appointed as the first director of the office. She is now providing the leadership required to address the next stage in the office's development, and I thank her for that. This includes finalising the work programme, the staffing allocations and the development and implementation of solid governance and financial arrangements, aligned with our action plan. I am also pleased to inform the Deputy that a sum of €1 million has been allocated for the first year, 2022, of the national apprenticeship office's operation to allow it to establish, to staff up and to begin its work.

I am also pleased to tell the Deputy that the success of what has been a national effort under way to promote apprenticeship as a career option can be seen in the fact that last year saw the highest number ever of registered apprentices in our country, at 8,607. That is a 40% increase on the number for 2019, which was the last full year before the Covid pandemic, so the last comparable year. Last year 8,607 people put up their hands and said, "I want to be an apprentice." We need to build on that to meet the skills needs of our country.

I agree with the Minister that we have seen good and much-needed progress lately in the form of an increased annual number of apprenticeship registrations. I think the entire House agrees that the creation of a focused, well-resourced national apprenticeship office to co-ordinate the apprenticeship system and to drive it forward is essential to this delivery. I am therefore delighted to see the Minister's enthusiasm for the project and to see the commitment he has made to it thus far. He said €1 million is allocated for the new office but, specifically, could he give us some indication as to how it will be staffed? I know we have a director for the office, but what staffing will she have? More importantly, where does the Minister think this new office will be located?

I agree fully with the Deputy about the need to continue to promote apprenticeships. We have done this in a number of ways. For the very first time, leaving certificate students, when they go onto the CAO website, cao.ie/options, now see all their options, including apprenticeships, not just the university route. I always say to students about this place, so I will say it to the face of everyone here, that we always talk about building more houses in here. If every Member of the Dáil got together, we probably would not build one house between us. We need to make sure that younger people and not-so-young people get the opportunity to become the bricklayers, electricians, plasterers, plumbers and carpenters we need to address housing and the green skills needs of our economy. The employer grant has also been transformational. You cannot have apprentices without employers. This year we will also have a focus on public sector employers. The public sector cannot just keep lecturing the private sector. We need every county council and every Department taking on apprentices. We now have a lot of capital to expend on expanding this.

As for the detail, I would need to defer to the director, Dr. Mary-Liz Trant. We have given her the €1 million, she has been appointed to the role and she now needs to do her workforce planning. What I can tell the Deputy is that whatever she needs to make a success of this will be forthcoming from the Government.

I take on board that we have to wait for the director to come into office before seeing exactly what her plans are. The country agrees we need apprentices rapidly, particularly for retrofitting.

It will be a missed opportunity if we do not take a centre and office for apprenticeships outside Dublin and the big urban areas. In the main, apprenticeships and apprentices will be drawn from rural Ireland into construction trades and across the agricultural and possibly retail sectors.

Deputy Conway-Walsh spoke of the challenges regarding student accommodation. The last thing we need to do is pile more students into large urban centres, fuelling the fire of the housing crisis. We have an opportunity with the Minister's statement of intent in terms of apprenticeships to reconfigure and recalibrate where we direct and where we house our students. It is a huge opportunity for the Minister and for rural Ireland.

We all know apprenticeships have been a scandal over the last ten years since the financial crash. I welcome some of the points the Minister has made about how we are now looking at options but he gave 2021 figures of over 8,000 apprentices signed up. Does he believe that is enough? What is the figure we need to reach every year? I am talking to builders, plumbers and carpenters in small and medium family-run businesses. They are looking for support to take apprentices on, including financial support. Will the Government deal with that?

I thank Deputies Flaherty and Gould. In relation to rural and provincial Ireland, I am pleased we have €430 million in capital funding to spend on further and higher education. From memory, 45% of that will go to further education. I was talking to Longford-Westmeath ETB yesterday. Capital calls are open for each ETB to come forward with projects. There is a short deadline. It is the first week of April. Let us get these projects in and start opening more apprenticeship centres around the country. Good progress has been made on one in Galway-Roscommon recently but we need much more.

To Deputy Gould, we estimate we need about 10,000 registered apprentices per year by 2025. That is what the plan commits to. We were at 8,607 at the end of 2021 so things are looking good in that regard but we cannot be complacent. The point the Deputy made on small and medium businesses is important. Until now, we have seen good and growing employment uptake in apprentices but we need to make sure it is accessible to all employers. That is why we have brought in the new employer grant offering a €2,000 payment to an employer who takes on an apprentice. I hope that will be of great use.

Third Level Education

Peadar Tóibín

Question:

60. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he will provide a progress update on SUSI reform. [12782/22]

I am sure the Minister has listened to the concerns of students during his visits to universities around the country. Students are asking me and, I imagine, many others in the House, what material difference students who apply for the SUSI grant next month will notice. How much has the threshold changed?

The questions are out of order, my apologies.

I thought it was the Deputy's question about the university visits.

Regarding the SUSI grant systems and changes in the thresholds, I will sign regulations this week which will increase the income threshold by €1,000 for the grants from September. It will increase the amount of the grant by €200 and reduce the criteria to qualify for the higher, non-adjacent rate. It will reduce the distance a student needs to live from the university from 45 km to 30 km. These are three of the initial measures we intend to take to improve the SUSI grant system. I will sign those regulations most likely tomorrow, but certainly this week.

Students have been radically hammered by the cost of living crisis. For the last two years, many students have suffered significantly through the housing crisis so many have been forced to live at home and travel great distances to college daily. I know of many people throughout rural Ireland who do not have the public transport to access universities. Many of them have their parents drive them to college or to the location where they can get public transport, or they drive themselves. Now they are being snookered on the other side of that equation because prices of diesel and petrol are increasing. They feel that nobody is winning in this situation. They are borrowing money, facing debts and suffering anxiety and mental health issues as a result.

One of the promises in the recent budget was reduced transport costs for young people. That has not materialised and today we still do not have that in place. It is an incredible situation. It is astounding that it was promised in the budget and still not delivered in March 2022.

We need an update on SUSI reform. Can the Minister say with absolute clarity that students who apply for SUSI next month will be treated more fairly and with greater leniency than last year. When will the reforms the Minister has spoken about kick in? Will they kick in for people who apply next month or will they have to wait for the next years for those differences in grants?

I thank the Deputy. I will ask my colleague, the Minister for Transport, to revert to the Deputy on the issue regarding public transport.

The changes I have spoken about will come in for students from this September. The grants will increase by €200 and the income threshold by €1,000. The qualifying criteria for the higher and non-adjacent rate will reduce from having to live 45 km away to 30 km away. Those changes will come in from September.

Deputy Conway-Walsh and I engaged earlier on when any more changes that come in by way of the budget will take effect. That will be a matter for the budget.

The Deputy has hit on an important issue about stress, anxiety, mental health, worry and cost of living. There is a student assistance fund in place separate to the SUSI grant scheme. There is over €18 million in that fund. It is available through every access office in our publicly funded higher education institutions and is there for students who find themselves in hard times and in need of additional financial assistance.

Is that a grant increase of €200 in total?

That €200 will be consumed very quickly in the increased costs in fuel etc. that students will experience. Can the Minister give clarity on the issue of transportation? I know it is not his Department but it is frustrating for students who were told they would get this and are waiting for it to happen. There is no clarity on when it will happen and it is happening at a snail's pace.

Today the Minister provided me with an answer to a written question about salaries in his Department. Since he took office just less than two years ago, just shy of €500,000 has been spent on special advisers. I have asked this of all Ministers because €500,000 is big money and would pay full college fees for a year for 167 students. There is a deep difference between the €200 that will be given to students in the SUSI grant increase and the largesse being expended on special advisers. How many special advisers work in the Department and what do they do?

The question is on SUSI but, anyway, I will leave it to the Minister.

It is a broad stretch. Every Minister has two special advisers, who earn less than the Deputy every year. The Deputy benefits from a salary that is higher than theirs and we can work out how many student contributions that would pay for as well.

There is €250,000 in the Department each year for special advisers.

I have two special advisers. Every Minister has two Government advisers. That is a matter of fact and it is well known what special advisers do in Departments.

On public transport, I will ask the Minister for Transport to revert directly to the Deputy. Fuel costs are a real issue for all our constituents, regardless of our political affiliations. I hope the Government can do something to assist the public generally and students specifically. We will reflect on the cost of living impacts on students and all people in the country as we approach the budget.

There was a reason for the Minister's confusion. I let Deputy Tóibín in because the Minister had missed Question No. 51 but, when the Deputy stood up, he took a question that is further on.

It is okay. Nobody has lost out. Deputy Tóibín will have to wait for that question until his name comes up at Question No. 60.

Apprenticeship Programmes

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

53. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he will report on the waiting lists for craft apprenticeships and the progress in decentralising the craft apprenticeship model; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12743/22]

Will the Minister provide an update for the waiting list for the craft apprenticeships and the progress in decentralising the craft apprenticeship model? When I raised this with the Minister last month, there had been a 17% increase in the number of apprentices waiting to access off-the-job training over the preceding two months, with figures back up to just under 10,000.

It will be a missed opportunity if we do not take a centre and office for apprenticeships outside Dublin and the big urban areas. In the main, apprenticeships and apprentices will be drawn from rural Ireland into construction trades and across the agricultural and possibly retail sectors.

Deputy Conway-Walsh spoke of the challenges regarding student accommodation. The last thing we need to do is pile more students into large urban centres, fuelling the fire of the housing crisis. We have an opportunity with the Minister's statement of intent in terms of apprenticeships to reconfigure and recalibrate where we direct and where we house our students. It is a huge opportunity for the Minister and for rural Ireland.

We all know apprenticeships have been a scandal over the last ten years since the financial crash. I welcome some of the points the Minister has made about how we are now looking at options but he gave 2021 figures of over 8,000 apprentices signed up. Does he believe that is enough? What is the figure we need to reach every year? I am talking to builders, plumbers and carpenters in small and medium family-run businesses. They are looking for support to take apprentices on, including financial support. Will the Government deal with that?

I thank Deputies Flaherty and Gould. In relation to rural and provincial Ireland, I am pleased we have €430 million in capital funding to spend on further and higher education. From memory, 45% of that will go to further education. I was talking to Longford-Westmeath ETB yesterday. Capital calls are open for each ETB to come forward with projects. There is a short deadline. It is the first week of April. Let us get these projects in and start opening more apprenticeship centres around the country. Good progress has been made on one in Galway-Roscommon recently but we need much more.

To Deputy Gould, we estimate we need about 10,000 registered apprentices per year by 2025. That is what the plan commits to. We were at 8,607 at the end of 2021 so things are looking good in that regard but we cannot be complacent. The point the Deputy made on small and medium businesses is important. Until now, we have seen good and growing employment uptake in apprentices but we need to make sure it is accessible to all employers. That is why we have brought in the new employer grant offering a €2,000 payment to an employer who takes on an apprentice. I hope that will be of great use.

I thank Deputy Conway-Walsh for raising the issue of Ballyhaunis. I will ask my officials to engage with SOLAS regarding it. A competitive call is under way now and, from memory, applications are due in by the first week of April. It will be up to the local ETBs to prioritise the projects they wish to see funded in the first competitive capital call. I will ensure that my officials and SOLAS are aware of Ballyhaunis.

The Deputy has pointed out the reduced number of apprentices who fully qualified in a year. We must, though, also be truthful about why that was. We had significant lockdowns and restrictions because of the Covid-19 pandemic. I have seen heroic work done across the sector and people trying to reduce those times now when the sector is back at full throttle. We have allocated a great deal of additional support. That would be acknowledged by SOLAS and the ETBs. We are taking on additional trainers and saying that the backlog for phases 4 and 6 will be cleared by April. We are also saying that by the end of the year, the waiting list for phase 2 will effectively be cleared, if not fully cleared. I and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, who is away on Government business tonight, will be monitoring this aspect closely and Deputy Conway-Walsh will be asking me about this issue every time we have questions too.

This is about someone taking up an apprenticeship and being able to do that programme in the set length of time of four years. I am concerned about the drop-out rate as well. Perhaps that is a figure we can look at another day. We do not want people dropping out of apprenticeships. The State has saved €55 million, mostly from apprenticeship allowances, but has reinvested only €37 million in the programme. Apprentices have not been treated with the same consideration and importance as other third level students. They are vital to our economy, across all areas, in respect of development of the regions and the opportunities that will be presented in that regard, whether in renewable energy, construction and everything else that needs to be done. I am also concerned that the backlog is being used as a justification for reforming the traditional model of craft apprenticeships. There has been a real debate regarding why it is planned to dismantle the traditional craft apprenticeship model in favour of a decentralised and industry-led approach. What is the rationale for that change? I am concerned about it.

The Deputy makes a fair point regarding the voice of the apprentice. For example, if I wish to talk to third level students, I can talk to the USI and if I wish to talk to university presidents, then I talk to the Irish University Association, the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA, etc. Who does one talk to, however, when one wishes to talk to the apprentice on the front line, other than going around apprenticeship centres, which the Deputy and I do? The new national apprenticeship alliance, which we are just establishing and have just signed off on its composition, will for the first time see apprentices have a collective voice. It is important to have a voice for apprentices that I, the Deputy and SOLAS can talk to and that can be heard. That is important.

I assure the Deputy that there is nothing to do with Covid-19 backlogs or anything else in the idea of having a new structure concerning decentralising the craft apprenticeship model. The idea is to have one structure for all our apprenticeship programmes. We have 62 of them. The crafts and trades are so important, but so too is the account technician, the people working in insurance, the farm manager and the hairdresser. We need to have one unified system. This will be done in consultation with stakeholders, with staff and with trade unions. Their voices will be heard, so there is no motive in doing this, other than to genuinely try to create a modern, fit-for-purpose and unified apprenticeship system.

Education and Training Provision

David Stanton

Question:

54. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the number of local training initiatives, LTIs, currently in operation; his Department’s plans to expand this number; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12706/22]

I have been interested in LTIs for some time. They could be said to be the Cinderella of the training structure. I am interested in hearing what the Minister has to say about the plans to expand the number of people taking part in these training initiatives and about the number who took part in them in the past year.

I thank Deputy Stanton for raising this issue. It is not the first time he has raised this issue with me and I am aware that he has an interest in the area. The LTI is a project-based training and work experience programme operating under the 16 ETBs in partnership with community and voluntary organisations.  In 2021, the ETBs provided 212 LTI courses nationwide, involving more than 2,000 learners. Those are the latest figures I have. Training provision organised through LTIs is not intended to be permanent and it is this aspect that gives ETBs the flexibility to use resources in the community in response to emerging needs. This flexibility is one of the attractive aspects of the LTI programmes. They enable local communities to carry out valuable and necessary projects of benefit to their communities and are designed for unemployed people experiencing difficulty in gaining entry to the labour market.

The importance of the role played by LTIs within overall ETB provision is well recognised. I acknowledge that. All ETB provision is subject to annual funding requests and allocations based on learner demand. The national further education and training strategy, entitled Future FET: Transforming Learning National Strategy 2020-2024, sets out the ambition and vision for the further education and training system over this period. The expansion of any FET provision will be considered in the context of that strategy and of the new strategic performance agreements that are currently being agreed between SOLAS and the 16 ETBs.

This is an important development. SOLAS is sitting down with each of the 16 ETBs and asking about the strategic plan for further education and training in each area and how all the different provisions will fit into the strategic plan over its full term. My Department is committed to the continuing development of LTIs. We see the important services they provide to learners within communities, as well as the important benefit they provide to communities everywhere.

Will the Minister agree with me that the staff who work in these LTIs are important? Could he tell me what plans there are to help those staff in their professional development and to put in place an appropriate future staffing framework, as has been mentioned in the national further education and training strategy, Future FET, that was launched two years ago? Is the Minister concerned that LTIs are not mentioned in the national further education and training strategy at all? Will he tell me what can be done to ensure that the staff can be secure in their employment? Is it not true that they go from year to year and that there is no opportunity for advancement, promotion, incremental increases in salary or professional development? Would he agree with me that the staff need to be very skilled when dealing with a group of students who find it difficult to learn?

There were a couple of questions from the Deputy. He can speak about what the document is not referencing but I want to state in this House that it should not be taken in any way, shape or form as my view, the Department's view or the Government's view on the importance of the LTI programmes across the country and the role they have to play. I suggest to the Deputy that the most appropriate avenue to embed that importance will be in the individual strategic agreements being reached between SOLAS and each of the ETBs individually. Ensuring the LTIs are embedded in that strategic agreement with ETBs will be an important element and something I will follow up on as a result of the exchange we have had here in the Dáil this evening.

I know the 2021 funding allocation for LTIs is €18,963,596. The funding allocation and planned provision for this year is due to go to the SOLAS board in April. The actual spend will be available when ETBs finalise their accounts in April. The Deputy also makes an important point about training and continuous development of staff. It is something I will reflect on and engage with SOLAS on. I am happy to meet some staff members with the Deputy because I know he has a familiar interest in this.

I thank the Minister for the final commitment that he will look at the professional development of staff and the appropriate future staffing framework, which is mentioned in the national education and training strategy. In this particular instance, however, it seems to be missing; it is not there. I would be very grateful if the Minister could come back to me with concrete plans on this. I put it to the Minister that whatever about SOLAS and the ETBs, it is very important that at a national level, from his Department, the policy and strategy are fed down as well as up. I call on the Minister to ensure it happens in this case.

With respect to waiting lists to get into LTIs, does the Minister have information or can he come back to me later to let me know how many young people in particular did not get into LTIs despite wanting to? He spoke earlier about these being demand-driven and I put it to him that more people want to get in there because of the training and opportunities they get to develop themselves and learn.

Is the Minister aware of the Open Doors Initiative? Has he met its representatives or does he have plans to do so?

I am aware of it. I have not met them and I am not sure if they are looking to meet me. I would be delighted to meet them and am more than happy to set that up with the Deputy. As the Deputy rightly says, I will ensure that policy comes from both the bottom up and top down, for want of a better phrase. I will ensure that is reflected in my engagement with SOLAS, the ETBs and my Department.

I do not have the data that the Deputy is seeking. I will state clearly that I am concerned if a number of people, particularly younger people but anybody seeking to access LTIs, find themselves not in a position to gain that access. We are spending more money on further education and training probably than ever before and certainly more than in an awfully long time. This is demand-led and we want to provide opportunities for everybody to upskill, reskill and get into work with the career they want. There should not be any blockages like that. Perhaps the Deputy and I could discuss that in more detail. I will certainly inquire about the data and revert to the Deputy.

Apprenticeship Programmes

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

55. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he will report on the low number of apprentices that became fully qualified tradespersons in 2021; his plans for the apprenticeship system given the demands to deliver on housing, retrofitting and other infrastructure needs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12800/22]

Will the Minister report on the low number of apprentices that became fully qualified tradespersons in 2021, the plans for the apprenticeship system and the demands to deliver on housing, retrofitting and other infrastructure? Perhaps he could speak to needs beyond that. Will he detail the dealings of his Department, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the regional skills forum in delivering what we need into the future?

I thank Deputy Ó Murchú for the question. The Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021-2025 aims to ensure the apprenticeship system will contribute to meeting Ireland's skills and human capital requirements by delivering on a target of 10,000 apprenticeship registrations per annum by 2025. Among the 62 apprenticeships currently available at levels 5 to 10 of the national framework of qualifications, 25 are craft-related. More specifically, they include housing and retrofitting-related programmes such as electrical, plumbing, carpentry and joinery, plastering, painting and decorating and the recently-launched scaffolding apprenticeship.

Given the practical nature of off-the-job training for craft apprentices, the pandemic shutdown of on-site learning significantly impacted the ability of apprentices to access this training over the past two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. This has led to some apprentices taking longer to fully qualify.  However I am pleased to say that more than 7,500 of the affected apprentices have now progressed in their off-the-job training. This includes more than 600 final-year apprentices who have been fast-tracked to complete their qualification.

It is worth noting that overall craft apprenticeship qualification data show that numbers qualifying from these programmes rose over the five-year period from 2016 to 2021 from 1,222 to 1,798. Despite the fact that two of those years were affected by the pandemic, we saw a significant increase in the number of people qualifying from craft apprenticeships. Furthermore and encouragingly, annual intake to these programmes has been steadily increasing from a low of 650 in 2010. In 2021, a record of 8,607 new apprentices were registered, an almost 40% increase on the figures from 2019, in what we call the last "normal" pre-pandemic year, whatever that is. Of those registrations, 5,181 were on construction and electrical apprenticeships. As of January 2022, the latest full-month figures, there have been 376 construction-related registrations.

I suppose the question is whether we have the throughput we will require into the future to provide us with the needs we have. We are talking about building and retrofitting and beyond that we have been talking specifically about work on renewable energy etc. Even beyond that we are looking at apprenticeships in non-traditional and non-craft training, even taking in training that might previously have happened in colleges. There is also the question of the post-leaving certificate route and whatever other routes are available.

There is work that goes between the Minister's Department, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the regional skills forum. Where will we get the information on the skills and numbers that are required and how that can happen? Do we even have enough employers to take on apprentices etc.? How often are we reviewing this?

There are two specific answers. The expert group on future skills needs falls under the remit of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and SOLAS is an agency of my Department that looks at labour bulletins and where skills shortages exist and which has a responsibility for meeting those skills shortages.

I will take those two specific issues because we have figures for them. To deliver the retrofitting programme, we believe we need 17,000 additional people working in retrofitting by the middle of the decade, or 2025. To achieve that we will open five centres of excellence in retrofitting training. We have a centre open in Waterford and another in Mount Lucas, County Offaly. We will have three more coming this year, with one in Cork, one in Limerick and one in Sligo. This will give us the throughput to provide the 17,000 workers. We need to create the demand and my message to any tradesperson or craftsperson who happens to come across this debate or is listening, it is that these are short, fast, free and flexible courses. They can be done at the weekends and the average person's training is approximately three days. It is not a big apprenticeship programme but it is about somebody getting a piece of upskilling. With construction, we need 27,500 more people to build 33,000 homes per year by the middle of the decade.

I appreciate the answers from the Minister and in fairness, I probably threw enough down that it would have taken him another ten minutes to go through everything individually. I request a wee bit of leeway, as I am sure many of us have been asked questions about moves that will be made to facilitate people coming from Ukraine. The Minister is on the record speaking about this. I am talking about tradespeople doing apprenticeships and I have been contacted about people doing medical studies. Where is the lie of the land in that regard?

I will follow up with the Minister on the proposal around the Redeemer centre. It is basically a place where people who might not necessarily be initially comfortable in, for example, Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT, could possibly start courses, including post-leaving certificate courses in the likes of that centre. There will be a need for a funding solution.

Will the Minister indicate if he will meet Oireachtas Members about DkIT in the near future? I apologise for being so broad.

I might need an hour and a half to reply to all of that.

You have one minute.

The DkIT cross-party Oireachtas Members meeting must happen and I put it on the record of the House that it will get under way quickly. The transcript will act as an aide-memoire on that.

On the question of students coming from Ukraine and my Department's responsibility in that regard, the Deputy raises an important point. My Department's responsibilities will largely arise in four areas. These include English-language supports and ensuring we have provision for anyone who comes to this country to access English-language provision. We are working to ramp that up and we have a good network and structure in place already to ensure we can meet demand there.

We will treat any student who comes here from Ukraine the same as an Irish student in terms of access to student supports and not being subjected to international fees and the like. That is a commitment I give now. The Department will also ensure the continuance of education for anybody in the middle of a programme, including Irish students in Ukraine and returning. We are working our way through that but we will meet that goal.

The fourth element is important in the area of skills, as we will provide a personal assessment to anybody coming into the country in respect of his or her own skills and how they may match with qualification frameworks here. It is about ensuring that such people can access the labour market too.

Further and Higher Education

Thomas Gould

Question:

56. Deputy Thomas Gould asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he has considered the expansion of funding to citizen science mapping projects. [12728/22]

Will the Minister consider expanding funding to the citizen science mapping project?

I thank Deputy Gould for the question. I should first say that my Department allocates specific funding for research through Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, the Irish Research Council, IRC, and the Higher Education Authority, HEA. In 2021, SFI and the IRC spent €257 million on targeted research funding. Higher education institutions also fund research from their block grants from the HEA, in addition to other calls such as the North-South Research Programme.

Citizen science benefits from this funding. For example, the SFI Discover programme has invited applications for training and engagement activities of citizen science projects. There may also be indirect benefits, for example as a product of individual research projects. Last year the Taoiseach and I launched Creating our Future, a national brainstorm that involved the people of Ireland in a conversation on the role research can play in addressing opportunities, challenges and hopes for the future of this country and world. Researchers joined the Creating our Future events to speak directly to communities. This is really important, not just to have researchers speaking to researchers but to have civil society engagement. More than 18,000 submissions were received from members of the public.

I am delighted that, as a result of one of these events, Insight, the SFI research centre for data analytics, is now working with a community group in Oranmore on the Crowd4Access project. This citizen science project empowers citizens to map the accessibility of Irish pavements for those with various mobility challenges, and represents a partnership between citizens and professional technology. It is an interesting area for the Leas-Cheann Comhairle too, I am sure. Insight is also working with the Europe Direct centre based at the Ballinasloe library to provide citizen science projects to secondary schools in the locality. This is precisely the impact we had hoped for when we launched Creating our Future - communities coming together to discuss their challenges, engaging with researchers on addressing them and ultimately working together through a citizen science project.

I will be bringing the final report of the Creating our Future project to Government, and it is my intention that projects involving all sorts of citizen and community interactions will form a continuing part of the engagement by the research community.

OpenLitterMap is a citizen science project established in Cork city, following a very simple concept. People see litter and they record it. This project has the potential to assist local authorities in targeting areas where there is constant litter and also in helping communities to identify litter black spots. This research gets no funding from the Department, which is very disappointing. Despite applications to SFI and IRC, they did not get funding. I ask the Minister to make contact and consider additional funding for projects given the positive impact they could have.

I came from a housing committee meeting today; 32 years ago the derelict sites register was set up and we still have no clear data on dereliction. The Department cannot give a timeline. This is another project where citizens could be involved.

I thank the Deputy and acknowledge his passion in this area. Just to be really clear, I see huge benefit in citizen science. The Deputy will also appreciate and would think it appropriate that when it comes to deciding scientific and research projects to be funded, it is important that there are criteria that are independent of me. That is the way we have funded science and research in this country, through our funding agencies, SFI in this instance.

In an effort to be helpful to the Deputy and the project he references, I do run the Discover programme and there are open calls each year through a competitive process. There is international peer review in deciding what to fund. The aim of the SFI Discover programme is to support projects that address one of a number of objectives, including stimulating and creating debate and dialogue among the public, opportunities for dialogue with STEM experts on topics of societal importance, inspiring greater public awareness of the impact of STEM, and supporting and building engagement with and participation of a broader range of civil society and community groups. I will send the Deputy the details. I can also send him a list of the projects that have been funded this year and perhaps arrange for an engagement with SFI for the Deputy.

As I said, in the 1990s the derelict sites register was established and after speaking to the Department, we still do not have data about the derelict sites that are littering every community in the State. That is where a citizen science mapping project would be vital. Citizens could take photographs and upload them to a central database. We would be engaging with the community to tackle a huge issue. We are in the middle of a housing crisis now. We could use citizen science mapping to support local authorities and the Government to identify these projects, to identify these derelict sites and turn them into housing. The whole concept of using citizen science mapping could be turned into a positive. I spoke to the Department officials today and 32 years on they still do not know where the derelict sites are.

It sounds like a very interesting concept that the Deputy has. The SFI Discover programme is genuinely the route where I would suggest citizen science opportunities may exist for community groups. In the Deputy's own county of Cork for example there is a project being funded by SFI Discover called Rebel Yeast. It is an immersive citizen science project where volunteer scientists are exploring local woodlands to discover new wild yeasts, analyse their samples in the laboratory and participate in planning the research. The volunteer scientists will fully engage with the scientific method through practice and with the research and any associated issues before co-signing communication materials for a final public event. I assure the Deputy that there is a mechanism for citizen science to be funded. There is the direct mechanism of SFI and the indirect but really important mechanism of the Creating our Future initiative. There are projects being funded across the country. Rebel Yeast in Cork is an example. There is a competitive annual process that is internationally peer reviewed. I can certainly arrange for SFI to brief the Deputy further on avenues that may be available.

Further and Higher Education

Dara Calleary

Question:

57. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the progress that has been made under the national development plan for an increase in investment in further education and training infrastructure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12763/22]

The Minister's capital budget for 2020 was €20 million and it is due to go to €100 million by 2025. I would like to get a sense of the direction of travel of that investment and what kind of priorities the Minister has within the infrastructure budget for his Department and for further education generally.

Under the national development plan published last October, the Government has committed to a significant and much needed step-up in investment in further education and training, FET, infrastructure, including the realisation of what we call FET Colleges of the Future and expansion of apprenticeship delivery.

In the context of this commitment, I was very pleased to announce in February the parameters of this ambitious new phase of capital investment in the further education and training sector. This investment will include a FET College of the Future major projects fund, supporting projects to drive reform of the FET sector, including consolidation of provision in high quality facilities, integration of further education and training and realisation of centres of excellence. It is open to every ETB now to put forward ideas. I know from my visit to Deputy Calleary's county that there are already ideas coming from Mayo in this regard. That is the futuristic piece; what we want to do in terms of a new way of delivering and having a modern, fit for purpose FET college. The second funding call for FET is equally important. It is a strategic infrastructure upgrade fund, supporting smaller-scale investments in existing FET infrastructure which are also aligned with FET College of the Future principles. We are all very proud of the work that FET does but we also know it has been starved of capital for far too long. This is for the projects that might needed to be done for which there has not been funding in the past. Those two competitive calls are now open. It is up to each ETB to prioritise and put forward their projects.

Overall, as the Deputy has said, capital investment in the FET sector is expected to increase from expenditure of less than €20 million in 2020 to over €100 million a year by 2025. That is a very significant increase. The sector is excited about it. We need to build capacity in the sector not just to identify projects but to deliver them as well. The next phase of investment will position the sector to cater for rising demand, offering a comprehensive range of complementary options for learners. There will also be a specific focus on apprenticeship facilities and the ability to ramp up apprenticeship provision, particularly in provincial Ireland.

I certainly welcome the level of investment. Recently I visited the Mayo College of Education Ballina campus where they are doing some really fantastic work. We also had the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, launch the new national outdoor education and training strategy at the Achill college. I congratulate Michael and all the team there. They have seen investment. Can the Minister tell me that this process is open to every ETB to apply for? In the context of hospitality, for instance, we are facing a major crisis of staffing within the sector. The Minister is probably too young to remember the fantastic work done by CERT - I am not, unfortunately. We need to go back to that kind of local, industry-based model. It strikes me that the FET colleges are ideally placed to do that for tourism and hospitality centres around the country. The Minister mentioned to Deputy Ó Murchú the five centres for deep energy retrofit working.

It strikes me as odd that one of them would not be located in Mayo, given the prospects for the county in terms of wind and offshore energy generation, which involves particular skills. I support the call by Deputy Conway-Walsh for the location of a centre in Ballyhaunis.

The time is up but the Deputy will be able to come back in presently.

I hear clearly what the Deputy is saying in regard to Ballyhaunis and the importance of that project for County Mayo. It certainly is the case that these funding calls are open to all ETBs. More than that, I expect all ETBs to come forward with projects. I want to be able to fund €430 million of capital expenditure across further and higher education between now and 2024, 45% of that being in the further education and training space. In fact, I want to do more than that. I would like us to have what we have never before had in further education and training, which is a pipeline of projects. That has been done really well in the Department of Education in regard to schools building projects. We all know where schools are on building lists. We might argue over the pace of development but we all know where schools stand. We need to have shovel-ready projects in further education and training in order that we can fund a significant tranche, amounting to €100 million worth of projects, each year by the middle of the decade and also to ensure we have projects constantly coming on stream.

It is up to each ETB to prioritise, which is important. Each board needs to decide on the two or three big projects it wants to see progressed. If they do so, do it well and put in good applications, I believe we can see good news for each ETB across the country in this round of allocations.

I welcome that plan. Every ETB should be encouraged to prioritise the existing strengths of each region and the educational opportunities that are available. It is important that the Minister takes an interest, as I know he will, in the Ballyhaunis project and that there is encouragement for those involved to identify and pursue opportunities. I certainly will be happy to work with him on a location in Mayo for deep energy retrofitting and the provision of the skills necessary in terms of wind farm and offshore operation.

I welcome the investment the Minister and his Department have committed to the south-east region under the national development plan. Where are we at in terms of the full integration of Carlow College, St. Patrick's into the higher education system? Will it be possible to expedite the integration process following the establishment of the technological university from 1 May?

I certainly will take an interest in Ballyhaunis and would be delighted to visit the town with Deputy Calleary. Between the work we are doing in terms of the ETBs, capital funding and the Atlantic Technological University coming into being at the start of April, it is an exciting time for further and higher education in the north west, including Mayo. I look forward to working with the Deputy on that.

I thank Deputy Murnane O'Connor for all the work she has done in regard to Carlow College, St. Patrick's, for bringing me there and for the time she has given me on this issue. I acknowledge that the college has played a major role in higher education in Carlow and the south east. I thank the president, Fr. Conn, for his time and courtesy to me. It will not come as a shock or news to anyone when I say that the question of integration into a technological university is a matter for the university in question, which, in this instance, will come into being at the start of May. I would like to work with the Carlow College on this. My officials will be meeting with representatives this week to ensure the college can be as well-positioned as possible to put forward a strong case for integration. I look forward to working closely with the Deputy on this.

Further and Higher Education

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Question:

58. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if he will consider having a higher education institution representative at the National Skills Council and the regional skills forums; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12784/22]

In a slight deviation from my question, will the Minister consider including a member of the Higher Education Colleges Association, HECA, as a representative on the National Skills Council and the regional skills forums?

I thank the Deputy for his question. I acknowledge that HECA has played a very constructive role in its engagement with my Department since its foundation, particularly during the Covid pandemic. Representatives of the association sat on the Covid steering committee and there has been no difference between publicly-funded and privately-funded institutions in terms of the public health-led approach to the crisis. I thank HECA and, in particular, its CEO, Patricia O'Sullivan, for her work in this regard.

Partnership between Government and key stakeholders, including the enterprise sector and providers of education and training programme such as higher education institutions, HEIs, is a key principle embodied in our national skills strategy. I assure the Deputy that this principle is reflected in a strong voice and representation on the National Skills Council and the regional skills forums for higher education institutions. I take his specific point in regard to HECA. The Irish Universities Association, IUA, and the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA, which between them represent all but one of the public HEIs in the State, are represented on the National Skills Council by Professor David FitzPatrick and Dr. Brendan McCormack, respectively.  Membership of all the regional skills forums includes representatives from universities, technological universities and institutes of technology.

I am providing the Deputy with full details in writing of National Skills Council and regional skills forums membership, which I trust will be of assistance to him. I do not want to give a prescriptive answer tonight but, in light of his question, I will give consideration to representation for HECA. I am happy to engage further on this issue with representatives of that organisation when I next meet them. I certainly think the proposal merits consideration. HECA has a very important role to play in providing courses to meet industry needs, which it already is doing in many ways. The Deputy has asked me a valid question and I will reflect on it and revert to him directly.

My response to the Minister's fairly welcome reply will be brief. We are well aware of the role HECA plays, particularly in terms of the courses it offers. I understand it currently has 27,000 students nationwide, in colleges ranging from Hibernia College to Griffith College, both in Cork and Dublin, and covers courses from business to education to childcare. There is a good balance in terms of the colleges and students it represents. I understand the National Skills Council meets quarterly or every two months. If the Minister were in a position by the next meeting to clarify whether HECA has been consulted, that would be most welcome. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, where we regularly have discussions with representatives from HECA. It is obvious that they are held in such esteem that they are invited together with the other representative bodies. They warrant inclusion on the forums we are discussing.

I assure the Deputy that I hold HECA in high esteem. Its representatives are very good to engage with, which we do on a whole range of issues. I have had a number of meetings with them and will continue to engage. In order to take this forward, perhaps the Deputy and-or HECA would formally communicate with my Department and me on the matter. In that way, we will be able to come back to the Deputy, as he suggested, in advance of the next regular meeting of the National Skills Council.

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