General Scheme of the Miscellaneous Provisions (Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union on 29 March 2019) Bill 2019: Discussion

Apologies have been received from Senator Lynn Ruane. I propose that we conduct our public business first and then go into private session afterwards to deal with housekeeping matters.

The first item on our agenda is a briefing on the general scheme of the Miscellaneous Provisions (Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union on 29 March 2019) Bill 2019. The purpose of this part of the meeting is to have a briefing session on the general scheme of the Miscellaneous Provisions (Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union on 29 March 2019) Bill 2019.

One behalf of the committee I wish to welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Joe McHugh, and the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, as well as their officials to the meeting. I will invite the Minister and the Minister of State to make opening statements. This will be followed by an engagement with members of the committee.

I wish to remind members that this briefing relates to Part 5 of the general scheme, the relevant part for this committee. Contributions should focus only on the relevant heads within that part.

Does that mean we cannot ask about other Brexit issues?

No. It is purely on this matter.

I am going. That is a waste of time.

It may be useful to note that European proposal COM (2019) 65, which is a proposal for a regulation laying down provisions for the continuation of ongoing learning mobility activities under the Erasmus+ programme in the context of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, is due to come before the committee.

I wish to remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I call on the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, and the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor to make their opening statements.

Will we have an opportunity to raise other Brexit issues at another meeting?

No, this is purely on education.

I am referring to some other meeting. Certain other issues are not provided for in the Bill.

Do they relate to education?

You can raise questions that are particularly related to education, Deputy.

That is what I was asking.

I beg your pardon. I thought you were referring to other issues.

No, I was referring to other education matters that are not in the Bill but that relate to Brexit.

You can raise such matters, Deputy - my apologies. I thought you were referring to other Brexit-related issues.

There are other Brexit-related issues relating to education that do not feature in the Bill.

Sorry for the confusion.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an choiste fáchoinne an seans labhairt leis inniu ar an ábhar iontach tábhachtach seo. I thank members of the joint committee for the early opportunity to brief the committee on the proposed amendment to the Student Support Act 2011. I am joined by my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for higher education, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, who will take the committee through the specifics of the proposed amendments.

My Department prepared a statement, which has been provided to the committee, but I would like to add to it. As a Donegal person, I am particularly conscious of the impact of Brexit not only in the daily lives of people living along the Border but of its potential impact on education. I am also conscious of the work-in-progress that has happened in the past two decades through the Good Friday Agreement.

I absolutely appreciate that but with regard to what the Minister said about a document being provided to the committee I want to clarify we did not receive a document beforehand. The Minister has said a statement was provided to the committee but it was not, so if the Minister feels we have had an opportunity to read another briefing document, we have not. I just want to clarify that.

It was a Brexit briefing. This is just a short introduction. A Brexit briefing was prepared. We will make sure it is circulated.

I thank the Minister.

Apologies for that.

With regard to the role education has played in the development of peace on this island, the most recent statistics for the 2015 to 2016 academic year on cross-Border student flows indicate 2,195 students from Ireland were studying in Northern Irish higher education institutions, of whom 1,135, or 52% of the total, were pursuing undergraduate programmes. Interestingly, the number of Irish students in the South declined by 38% in the five years leading to the 2015 to 2016 year. In contrast, the number of Northern Irish students studying in Irish higher education institutions increased by 24% over the same time period. Numerically, the figure stood at 1,200, with 980, or 82% of the total, pursuing undergraduate programmes.

This is only part of the picture. In the 2017 to 2018 academic year, more than 10,000 students from the Republic of Ireland were in UK higher education institutions, with more than half pursuing undergraduate programmes for the first time, while a further 44% were undertaking postgraduate studies. In the same year, there were 2,426 students from the UK in Irish higher education institutions, with 63% of these doing undergraduate studies. Clearly, not all of these students are eligible for SUSI supports. In the 2017 to 2018 academic year, 1,475, or 14%, of the Irish students attending UK higher education institutions were in receipt of a SUSI grant, which amounted to €5.2 million. In terms of the number of UK students in Irish higher education institutions, 205, or 9%, were eligible for the SUSI grant. This amounted to €720,000.

Since my appointment, my goal has been to protect the valuable and rich co-operation that takes place between educational institutions on a North-South and an east-west basis. There are examples of this at all levels. I look at the north-west strategic partnership, where Letterkenny Institute of Technology and Donegal Education and Training Board work closely with the University of Ulster and North West Regional College from the North to ensure further and higher education provision are closely aligned with the skills and industrial needs of the region. In many senses, the Border does not figure as these educational institutions seek to develop a shared education and skills strategy.

It is important to acknowledge the commitment of those educators at all levels who have built collaborations across the Border. They deserve commendation and our appreciation. The foundations they have built must be protected and strengthened. Indeed, there has been a shared education ecosystem between Ireland and the United Kingdom since the foundation of the State and even before that. It is hugely important that we protect and preserve this collaboration in the interests of our young people and in the interests of the quality of our education and training system. In this regard, we are working to maintain the common travel area, which will protect much of the valuable and rich co-operation that takes place in education on a North-South and an east-west basis. The Minister of State with responsibility for higher education and I view the amendment that is the focus of today's engagement as one of the key responses of the Department to the challenges of Brexit. It will facilitate student mobility between Ireland, Northern Ireland and the wider UK, and enable me to meet education obligations under the common travel area. I will now ask the Minister of State with responsibility for higher education to take the committee through the proposed amendment.

I would like to clarify that the Minister's opening statement is on the Oireachtas website.

No, it was not with regard to his opening statement, it was the other documents. The clerk was on to the Minister's office this morning to state we had not received it. While we have the statement we do not have the other documentation.

Sorry, I misunderstood.

I thank the committee for the invitation to appear before it to brief it at this early opportunity on the proposed amendment to the Student Support Act 2011. I am particularly keen to protect the excellent co-operation and collaboration between the higher and further education systems of Ireland and the UK and the students, teachers, staff and researchers who benefit from the co-operation. The importance of the maintenance of the common travel area cannot be understated and we are making this a priority of our Brexit preparations with our UK and Northern Ireland colleagues.

The mobility of students and their continued access to support payments are central to the education ecosystem of which the Minister has just spoken. We know we must make legislative amendments to underpin these key aspects of student mobility. I will explain the nature of the amendments proposed, which are broadly technical in nature. They are designed to legislatively permit student support payments to be made to eligible Irish students in the UK and to UK students in Ireland. As things stand, the SUSI grant can be paid only to students studying in the EU. Once the UK leaves the EU it will become a third country. The proposed changes will allow the Minister for Education and Skills to prescribe certain types of students, institutions and courses as approved for the purposes of the SUSI grant system. This will provide the Minister with the power to extend the SUSI grant scheme to encompass the UK post Brexit.

The Bill has five heads, with heads Nos. 1 and 5 focusing on interpretation and title and the commencement date, respectively. Heads Nos. 2, 3 and 4 cover the definitions of an approved institution, approved courses and students. Head No. 2 of the Bill, on approved institutions, allows the Minister for Education and Skills to recognise certain publicly funded higher education institutions in a prescribed country as approved institutions. Head No. 3 describes what an approved course is. This allows the Minister to prescribe certain courses in a prescribed country as approved courses for the purposes of the SUSI grant. The impact of these two heads of the Bill is to enable the Minister to provide for the UK to be a prescribed country to allow the payment of the SUSI grant to Irish students who pursue an approved course in an approved institution in the UK.

Head No. 4 of the Bill extends the definition of a student to include nationals of a country prescribed by the Minister. This will ensure that UK nationals will maintain eligibility for the SUSI grant. The proposed amendment to the Student Support Act 2011 will enable Ireland to maintain one of its key commitments under the common travel area, which is the maintenance of the right to study in either jurisdiction.

I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and the officials for coming before the committee. My fundamental question is why the Minister is not in a position to indefinitely allow people born on the island of Ireland, particularly Northern Ireland, to be treated the same as EU students going to college on a unilateral basis? Is this envisaged? It will be the case for students starting next year but not for students starting the following year. I suggested some time ago we could just do it unilaterally and, hopefully, the British would do the same. There is already a chilling effect on the movement of students on this island and east-west movement because they cannot plan for the future and many of them are making plans at present. May I ask supplementary questions later?

To follow Deputy Byrne's question on the longer-term timeframe, what certainty do we have of what will happen? What discussions has the Minister had on what will happen?

Presumably there will be a transition period, but whatever form Brexit takes, we must look to the longer term in relation to the long-established patterns of students from Ireland travelling to Britain for higher education and vice versa.

I read the House of Lords report on Horizon 2020 and Erasmus. I gather from it that they will support British students to travel for Erasmus and support continued interaction between EU States and the UK on Horizon 2020. Can the Minister clarify from our side if those Horizon 2020 programmes which are shared between British and Irish institutions will be affected or in respect to Irish students travelling to Britain for Erasmus?

I raise the Middletown Centre for Autism and whether Brexit has implications on it. It is a joint project between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which is close to the Border but located in the Republic. It provides services for children on the autism spectrum. Does the Minister know whether Brexit will have any effect on it?

After I call Deputy Funchion, the Minister may respond and then I will return to the members of the committee.

I thank the Minister and Minister of State for coming in and for their presentations.

I raise similar points to those raised by Deputies Jan O'Sullivan and Thomas Byrne on fees for students from the North in the event of Brexit taking place on 29 March. The Minister's opening statement noted the increase in students from the North studying in institutions in the Republic. That figure only goes up to 2016; however in September there was a 20% decrease in similar applications for Trinity College Dublin. One would imagine that might be students and parents panicking due to the uncertainty of whether fees might increase this September or from September next year. Will the Minister give a definite commitment that fees for students from the North will remain the same?

How well equipped is SUSI to deal with this matter? From my own experiences, SUSI operates in a very regimented, black and white way, with very little wriggle room if different scenarios arise. It can be quite difficult to deal with and it can take a long time to get case information to it. The Minister is saying that people should not be affected but I can envisage SUSI telling them that their address states that they are outside of the eligible area. SUSI, with all respect, can be difficult to deal with and is likely to have those difficulties. How ready is it for this?

The Minister of State and I will answer the questions between us.

We must be very clear at the outset that we cannot answer many of the questions relating to Brexit. There are a lot of hypothetical questions such as what happens if it is a disorderly or orderly Brexit. Regardless of which it is, this legislation will still be needed. We will still need to change the legislation either way.

Deputy Thomas Byrne asked why students from Northern Ireland will not be treated the same as French or Spanish students. Part of the Brexit deal between the European Union and the UK, which was accepted at Westminster, was that there would be provision within the backstop to ensure that there would be singular alignment. That was not accepted by the UK. Discussions are ongoing as to where that will take us. Central to what we are doing here is the protection of the common travel area. That is sacrosanct in every piece of work we do, whether it is on a North-South or east-west basis. The key mechanism for that is the Good Friday Agreement. At all times, whether it was Declan Kelleher and his colleagues in Brussels or officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Good Friday Agreement had to be protected in all its parts. Part of that was the flow of students, wherever they wanted to study, workers' mobility and so on. We are in a position where we do not know what will happen in the next six weeks. We must be vigilant but one thing is sure, as someone who comes from Donegal, we cannot contemplate going back after the great work that has been done over the past 20 years with communities coming together. Education has been an integral part of that. It could be students who can now do a joint course between Queens University Belfast and LyIT, Letterkenny Institute of Technology, or students being able to do a combined course between the Ulster University in its Magee campus in Derry and Letterkenny. These are practical examples of education transcending any kind of physical border. Our duty is to ensure that we protect this.

The question is what the Minister is doing to implement that duty. The Minister has not answered that. Why is the Department not telling students that in the event of a no-deal Brexit that they are still welcome here at EU rates? Is there any reason the Minister has not said that?

In the first week of January, we announced that the fees would be protected. Deputy Funchion also asked what would happen with fees. We have made a commitment for the coming year from September, for the duration of the course. I know the question is what about the following year-----

That is not the question that the Minister is answering.

-----we have committed to protecting students who are coming from the North-----

The Government has not done so.

----- in relation to the €3,000 contribution.

Why not say that now for 2020 and 2021?

I am confident that with the change in this legislation we will be in a position to do that. It is very important to highlight that at all times we will encourage the continued movement of people whether it is North-South or east-west. However, we do not know what will happen within the next six weeks. This legislation is quite clear in what it is attempting to do, namely to ensure that the SUSI grant, the student support scheme that is in place, will continue next year.

That was not the question. The question was about the treatment of students from the North of Ireland after 2019. The Minister made an announcement in January in relation to 2019. My question is why has the Minister not announced it unilaterally forever. People are making plans today for 2020. The Minister says he wants to uphold the free movement of students but he is actually doing the opposite by leaving that uncertainty there. It is no skin off our nose, as a State - in fact, it is hugely beneficial to us - if we tell students from the North that they are welcome. However, the Minister is not saying that. In fact, he is saying the opposite. He is telling them that it is okay if they come here this September but after that we do not know.

We have to create that platform, first, but also create a pathway to ensure that there is more continuity. That is where I would like to be after whatever happens over the next six weeks, so that it is not on a year-to-year basis----

It is the Minster who has made it a year-to-year issue.

Yes, but the decision that we made in January was to provide certainty for parents. Our job is to secure agreement on all of these matters including child support and the common travel area.

Why has the Minister not announced this for 2020? He has given no reason at all for this.

We are trying to solve the big question here, namely the common travel area. This legislation relates to the student support scheme. Once we have some certainty in the next six weeks, whatever the outcome-----

There must be some reason.

The Deputy should let the Minister finish.

It is a reasonable question. He is not answering the question.

Let the Minister finish then the Minister of State will speak. There should be no more interruptions, please.

To reiterate, there was a vacuum or uncertainty in January. I had to move really quickly to provide certainty to the parents in Northern Ireland. I met one of the mothers in Belfast two weeks ago. She said they had been in a very bad place because they did not know whether the student contribution fee of €3,000 was going to be protected.

What will happen in the following two years is a reasonable and fair question. It was asked in the Dáil where I answered the Deputy's question. I will be happy to work with him to ensure we bring that certainty to the matter in the future. In the first week of January I had work to do for September. I did it to bring that certainty to the matter. If the question is whether we have to move on from it, I am happy to do so.

The Horizon 2020 programme is within the remit of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. Nevertheless, Erasmus+ is an important programme, under which more than 30,000 students are studying in the United Kingdom. Discussions are ongoing on the matter which will not require any legislative change.

On the issue related to the Middletown Centre for Autism which was raised by Deputy Jan O'Sullivan in the context of Brexit, the Department of Education in Northern Ireland is anxious to protect the work of the centre and the service it provides for children on the island of Ireland. I share its determination in that regard.

We will watch that space.

I will wait until Deputy Thomas Byrne returns before I answer his question. The Minister has answered the question about the Middletown Centre for Autism. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked what was happening in the longer term.

My question was similar to Deputy Thomas Byrne's.

I can return to his question. We know that there is a lot of uncertainty. My officials in the Department of Education and Skills who are present have been working on the matter for two and a half years. We have been told that the legislation we need to pass relates to the SUSI grant. The rest depends on Brexit and what is decided about the common travel area. There are risks. As has been well publicised, the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the Erasmus+ programme may lead to the termination of opportunities under the programme for collaboration between schools and other educational institutions in Ireland and the United Kingdom. In particular, it may affect staff and student exchanges. It is also possible that if the United Kingdom leaves the programme, a number of the 30,000 students under it will divert to Ireland and thus create greater challenges for us in the higher education sector. Approximately one month ago the European Commission published a draft amended regulation to enable EU students currently in the United Kingdom and UK students currently in other EU member states to complete their exchange beyond 29 March. I welcome this.

To reply to Deputy Thomas Byrne's question, everything revolves around the endgame and the decisions that will be made, especially on the common travel area. We have begun discussions on what will happen next year. Once a decision has been made on the common travel area, we will be able to address the various contingency plans that need to put in place for the future.

The Department circulated the House of Lords report which seemed to indicate that the British Government was going to underwrite some Erasmus+ programmes.

Yes, up until a certain date.

Will the Minister of State clarify whether Irish programmes will be protected up until the same date and that there will not be programmes funded through Britain but which involve Irish and British students?

My understanding is the programmes will be protected up until that date. Contingency plans are being made in case Brexit happens, although we all hope it does not and that an alternative decision will be made. Departmental officials have been in contact with their counterparts in the United Kingdom to work out what will happen. As of now, as I mentioned, the British Government has stated it will guarantee Erasmus+ programmes up until a certain date.

In that case, there is the same level of uncertainty. After the British Parliament votes on the matter and when we know what it happening, we will need to return to-----

The only matter we have been told to address is that of SUSI grants. Everything else is a matter of EU competency. We must wait to see what will happen in the event that there is a no-deal Brexit.

On the Erasmus+ programme, the British Government seems to be making decisions to protect students. Can the Government not make decisions to protect Irish students?

Protection will continue for Irish students in any other collaboration they have made. It is UK students who will have an issue, not Irish students.

I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for appearing before the committee. Am I correct in saying current students who will continue on the Erasmus+ programme after 29 March should not have concerns? Has there been an analysis of the number of students in the North who are travelling to the South? If the number is dropping, has there been any consideration of the reasons for it, apart from Brexit? Who would make that analysis? Has there been any examination of the choices students in the North make to study in the South?

I thank the Minister and the Minister of State. In the context of Brexit, what steps has the Department taken to attract academic talent who may be considering leaving Britain? We should be in prime position to attract some of the top academic talent, which would enhance our status and reputation in the area of third level education. Are there plans in place in that regard which the Department can share with the committee?

While I understand the only item of legislation the Department has been asked to addressed relates to the SUSI grant, my questions relate more broadly to Brexit. What efforts is the Department making to ensure Irish research will be multipolar and international? All of the presentations in the Brexit and Horizon Europe workshop proceedings mentioned that the issue of researcher mobility was crucial, while one of the speakers stated mobility in Europe was a key aspect of research. There is real concern about whether we will be able to compete for graduates if we cannot train our own.

The area of climate knowledge is fast-paced and changing and the need for skill sharing and mobility has become twice as important. What efforts are we making to ensure we will be more independent and self-reliant in acquiring skills for the green economy? At a previous committee meeting on apprenticeships I noted that there was a severe lack of engineers and construction workers for retrofitting and other green build activities, whereas most of those who are available have had to be trained abroad. The United Kingdom is the closest country in which people speak English. In advance of Brexit, what efforts are we making to cultivate these skills, given that many of them were built in the United Kingdom because of EU directives and regulations, including the nearly zero energy building standard? According to the Irish Green Building Council, 54% of Irish organisations that participated in the World Green Building Trends 2018 SmartMarket report expect their projects to be green by 2021, well above the global average of 47%. The projections are led not only by client demand but also EU regulations. When the regulations change after Brexit, from where will our skill set come?

The Minister indicated that Horizon 2020 was within the remit of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, but I think it is within the remit of the Department of Education and Skills. The United Kingdom is the second largest recipient of funding under Horizon 2020. It has received 15.2% of the grants distributed, or €5.7 billion, under the programme thus far.

As well as funding nuclear research projects, Horizon 2020 supports scientific partnerships with countries across Europe and beyond, provides access to large-scale international research facilities and joint infrastructure, and offers fellowships for talented researchers to spend time working abroad. In the wake of Brexit, is there a way this funding could be accessed by Ireland? Could it be used to return to our recent high standards after years of cuts and decline? As the UK loses access to Horizon 2020, many UK academics will be looking for English language opportunities. What steps are we taking to attract academics from the UK, including the many brilliant Irish academics?

I will return to the Ministers. We will then have our final round.

We had a Brexit-proofed budget in 2019. Funding has been increased. For the past two budgets, the fund for the Irish Research Council is €2.5 million for young researchers. Science Foundation Ireland has been working on this for the past two and a half years since the result of the Brexit referendum, as have our higher education institutions. From my previous role, I know that Science Foundation Ireland would have been talking to the various higher education institutions, even in the UK, to see if we could collaborate and perhaps share senior academics.

A question was asked about English language units. I am bringing the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill through Seanad Éireann. This Bill will ensure that we have a very high-quality product in English language schools. I have got it through the first part of Dáil Éireann and members will be delighted to hear that it is coming through the committee. It is hoped it will go through Dáil Éireann.

Regarding academics wanting to work in Ireland, we have increased funding in the budget. I have put in place a three-year budget for my senior leadership initiative for academics in terms of gender only. We are hoping that those academics will be appointed here from Ireland or indeed from the UK or elsewhere. It is about having key people and world-class lecturers coming to Ireland. This did not just happen in the past week or month. I very much want to make the point that all Departments and all of the enterprise agencies, including Science Foundation Ireland, have been working very closely to internationalise our education. This project has lasted approximately two and a half years. We have our contingency plans if there is a no-deal, crash-out Brexit.

I will pick up on the point made by Deputy Naughten. If there is a no-deal Brexit at the end of March, the UK's participation in Erasmus will prove to be a difficulty. Obviously, we are working on every potential outcome and this legislation regardless of whether Brexit is disorderly or orderly. The Deputy also asked about the decline in numbers in terms of the North-South element. I raised this question during my first fortnight in the job. I have looked at those trends. Traditionally, many students from my county would have studied engineering in the likes of Queen's University Belfast and Ulster University in Jordanstown. That would have been a traditional route. Capacity is built around the IT sector. I know the likes of Letterkenny Institute of Technology in my county, Dundalk Institute of Technology or GMIT in the Deputy's county, which aspire to and are applying to become technological universities, have strengthened the choice available as well. I know many Irish students go to Europe. I am looking at the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, support we give to Bulgaria, which is more than 81,450. The Netherlands is the highest at 349,473, so there is a lot of movement of Irish students to Europe as well. The major piece is the number of students from Northern Ireland coming south. There is a piece of work that needs to be done there in terms of why that is happening. It is obviously down to choice - parental or student choice - but I would like to do a piece of work on that as to why that is happening. It would be important.

Someone asked about apprenticeships. The budget for apprenticeships and further and higher education was increased. The Deputy is right. It has been a slow burn with regard to apprenticeships. We have been working with the Apprenticeship Council to get that message out. I have met the various stakeholders and will meet businesses in the next week to try to ensure that the message is out there that apprenticeships are viable. New professional apprenticeships are on stream. Again, it is a slow burn. It is a very slow burn when it comes to women taking apprenticeships. As the Minister of State with responsibility for higher education, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, who is responsible for further education, I assure the Deputy that we are working on that to ensure that the take-up of apprenticeships increases.

The other group we work with is the expert group on future skills needs, which looks at the gaps in the market and gaps in employability. It then informs the Department and the Ministers of the day about which areas need to be looked at. I thank our higher education institutions, institutes of technology, technological universities and our nine skills fora. It is very important. They have been working together so that they can be flexible and react to the market. For example, if a company is coming into a region, the relevant institute of technology, university or technological university will be able to respond to the needs of the regions. That has worked. I will list some areas where it has worked very well, including Sligo and, in particular, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's area of Limerick.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply but my question was not about apprenticeships but more specifically about the green economy. This is happening abroad and I wonder what we are doing in Ireland. People are mostly being trained in retrofitting skills and green build activities abroad, so what are we doing in Ireland?

If the Deputy looks up, she will see the new apprenticeships that are coming on stream. Approximately 19 such apprenticeships are coming on stream and there are approximately five new ones. When the expert group on future skills needs points out to us areas and gaps in labour needs, the colleges and institutes of technology come together and offer those courses. All of that is in hand.

Obviously, there is more to be done in the green area.

I know there are areas that have not been identified in terms of apprenticeships, but I know from speaking to different agencies and even at a local level from speaking to members of SOLAS that they are looking at new initiatives and there is an appetite for it. A recent study has shown that employers, particularly multinational companies, are equally satisfied with people coming from either higher education or apprenticeships, so they value them.

There is still a piece of work that we can do together but there are agencies and different organisations looking at new apprenticeships. That will evolve as time moves on.

A very obvious issue on which we do not need to do any research is that there is a lack of engineers and retrofitters. We should be leading on the green economy and with Brexit-----

I know the Deputy talks about the lack of engineers, but I would just say to her that even in the CAO the numbers were down for engineering this year.

I am talking specifically about retrofitting.

I know and I have heard the Deputy say that three times.

Good. I will keep saying it, with the greatest respect to the Minister of State.

I am talking about engineers being trained. For example, the Construction Industry Federation, CIF, has put together a process whereby a number of employers can come together and employ an apprentice. We have a difficulty with employers coming forward to sign up for apprentices for four years. The information is all on the website. To young people listening in, there is a set of opportunities for people who might like to look at apprenticeships. I ask them to look at and

Our committee is very strong on that also.

I know it is. I also urge businesses to engage. To have apprentices, we must have them signed up by businesses.

SOLAS and the ETBs are doing a lot of good work in that area. I call Senator Byrne.

I welcome the Minister and Minister of State. Most of the questions I wanted to ask have been covered. Both Ministers indicated that new legislation would have to be brought through. When do they envisage this happening? Will the legislation be in place before Brexit?

I do not have a specific date.

We will first take questions from a number of members and answer them afterwards.

In my constituency of Sligo-Leitrim, a lot of students over the years have used Coleraine, Jordanstown, Queen's University Belfast and Enniskillen. Perhaps it is the same in the Minister's constituency of Donegal. There is great concern among students and parents about the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. What will the implications be for the students? The Minister also mentioned students coming from Northern Ireland to the likes of Sligo Institute of Technology or Letterkenny Institute of Technology. Does the Minister see any implications for them?

I welcome the Minister of State's comments on apprenticeships. I was involved in the business for many years prior to being here. So many businesses were looking after apprentices but for quite a number of years this fell flat and there was nothing happening. To try to get apprentices such as block layers, electricians or various other people is difficult now. They are very scarce on the ground. Any incentive that could be made available to employers to take them on would be helpful. We are out of the recession. During that time, builders and various others were very reluctant to take on any young people, male or female, as apprentices because of the cost factor. Now things have changed. I would like to see that everybody would be encouraged to take on new apprentices. There are a lot of people who would have loved to go down that route but were discouraged because there were no opportunities or incentives for them for a number of years. Perhaps the Minister of State could give me some detail on that.

Picking up where Deputy McLoughlin left off on apprenticeship, it is a vitally important area. The Minister of State outlined some of the work she is doing on it but, with the greatest respect, we have a serious crisis. I do not doubt the sincerity of the Minister of State in trying to tackle the problem but unfortunately, as Deputy McLoughlin outlined, the problem is very stark and it is staring us in the face. We have a serious housing crisis and getting the necessary qualified people to build those houses is a serious problem. They are not there at the moment. I spoke to a small builder at the weekend who told me it is impossible to get young people to come into trades like block laying, plastering or electricians. They can walk into any job and get the same amount of money, let it be in a supermarket or wherever. They are not going to pull on a pair of boots and go onto a building site when they can get the same money a lot easier elsewhere. We need to incentivise employers to take on apprentices. We need to pay them properly. At the moment it is simply not happening.

I will move on to the issue of clarity for families that are thinking about sending their children to colleges in the North of Ireland. The Minister and I, being from Donegal, understand, and Deputy McLoughlin also outlined, that for students along the Border, going to a college in the North is nearly the first option. There are currently about 2,000 students from the Republic attending colleges in the North. It is our first port of call. There is uncertainty out there. I have no doubt that the Government is attempting to bring clarity to a very difficult situation. People are planning a long time in advance, so it is important that we get clarity for them as soon as possible.

Much focus and attention has rightly been brought to the difficulties that Brexit will bring. On the potential opportunities that may exist for us as an English-speaking country, based on the Minister's own perspective and the work he has done so far, how optimistic would he be that there are opportunities for us? Has he homed in on what they are and where they exist? What kind of progress are we making in that respect?

From my own perspective, it is certainly welcome that legislation is being brought forward to deal with those who are on SUSI maintenance grants in the UK. They will know there is certainty in respect of the finance for continuing their education. We did a stakeholder engagement in 2017 with a number of organisations and third level institutions on the possible impact of Brexit. Two years later, we know a lot more in some ways but not a lot more in others. In 2016, there were 12,000 Irish students in the UK and 2,000 in Northern Ireland. In a difficult scenario, what would our capacity be in the Republic of Ireland for dealing with an extra 14,000 students? That question is very concerning when we see our third level institutions creaking at the seams at the moment. That leads us on to the concern about student accommodation, which is very difficult in its own right, particularly in Dublin. Have the Minister or the Minister of State any thoughts on that?

Aside from the question of SUSI grants and capacity in the light of Brexit, the whole issue of student mobility, visas and residential permits is an important one that we need to look at.

In terms of international education programmes, I agree there are possible opportunities for Ireland. Grant Thornton published a report on international education with respect to Dublin but a report certainly should be commissioned regarding possibilities across the country, given what the IDA Ireland has referred to in terms of opportunities outside Dublin. It would be a way of helping to support colleges outside Dublin. That is an important area to examine. In England in 2014, €1 billion was drawn down under Horizon 2020, which funded 9,000 researchers. That is quite incredible. If we in Ireland upped our game in terms of being able to attract that type of funding, it could lead to great dividends for us. It was only when Chuck Feeney, through Philanthropy Ireland, gave us a very large tranche of funding a number of years ago that we were able to get to where we are at now, which is quite a high rating. I believe we are rated 12th in the world but prior to that we were rated extremely low. I would be interested to hear the Ministers' observations in that regard. The Ministers might now respond to the last four questions.

I want to return to the issue of apprenticeships and put on the record that the number is growing. I will give some of the statistics on them. In 2018, there was a total of 5,468 registrations for apprenticeships, almost 5,000 of which were for the traditional craft apprenticeships and 590 were for the 25 new apprenticeships. I am sure the committee is aware that Mr. Martin McVicar spoke at the launch of the new original equipment manufacturing apprenticeship, which was launched by Ministers, Deputies McHugh and Humphreys. There were approximately 100 employers and businesses represented at it. New apprenticeships are coming on board. The new insurance practice apprenticeship is being run in IT Sligo. There are also industrial electrical engineering, polymer processing technology, manufacturing technology, manufacturing engineer and accounting technician apprenticeships, the latter being a traineeship run in my constituency which was launched by Deputy Jan O'Sullivan when she was Minister. There is also a commis chef apprenticeship which was established in response to the lack of commis chefs two years ago when businesses and restaurants were crying out for them. There are also chef de partie, sous chef and different financial services apprenticeships. There are also auctioneering and property services, logistics associate, laboratory technician and butcher apprenticeships. There is a myriad of them. Do not dismiss it because it is really important.

I beg your pardon. I am the Chair. I was not dismissing it. It is very important work that we as a committee have undertaken but we want to deal with the Brexit issues.

One of the chairperson's colleagues asked the question.

And I think the Deputy got her answer. We obviously need more nuance in that area.

I asked a specific question-----

I am answering the questions I was asked.

-----and I expect to get a response.

It is an important area because, of all matters, this is the message-----


Who is chairing this meeting?

Hold on a minute.

Is it Deputy Byrne or the chairperson?

Deputy, please, I am allowing the Minister of State to respond.

I am sick of this carry on.

I am asking the Minister to respond.

I am answering the question. It is important-----

We have been over this a few times now.

That is three or four times Deputy Byrne has come in.

-----that people, particularly our young people, and also Deputies and Senators, know exactly what is available. These courses are available across the country; they are not being run in Dublin. I advise members to ensure they are informed about them. The budget for apprenticeship training was €142 million. Therefore, there are many apprenticeships in place.

Deputy McLoughlin asked specifically if employers are being encouraged. They are and they will get a grant if they take on the craft and traditional apprenticeships. That is not the case for the new apprenticeships. Another member asked about money. A member also mentioned that craft apprentices are being paid badly and that they would get the same money if they worked as a waiter. Who asked that question?

Senator Gallagher.

I did not mention that specifically.

Not specifically, but the Senator did make such a comment. Under registered employment agreements it is worked out exactly what apprentices will earn. Many of them earn way above the other jobs the Senator mentioned and not only that but apprenticeships provide a career path and training and one can take up an apprenticeship in one locality and region. Across the institutes of technology especially, and the colleges of further education, wonderful apprenticeships are being offered. It behoves all of us now to ensure that message is got across rather than one to the effect that there are no apprenticeships. We need more students to apply for them. It was mentioned recently that the mothers of Ireland are helping their children to choose what options they want to pursue after the leaving certificate.

On a point of order-----

The point of order is that I am answering the question.

No. Deputy Byrne is entitled to raise a point of order.

I asked a question about the-----

The Deputy had left the room when we answered it.

I asked a question earlier about the free movement of students on this island. An answer was not able to be provided.

The Deputy had left the room.

If you just cannot answer it that is fine but it is not what we expect of Ministers. Yet they can come in here when the Fine Gael members are present, which is unusually the case, to give a long exposition of apprenticeship policy on which we have had numerous debates here.

The Deputy's colleague asked about it.

The Minister with responsibility for apprenticeships is not here.

Deputy Byrne has been in and out of the room four times.

I allowed Deputy Byrne to raise his point.

Deputy Byrne is the one who is criticising us and he has been in and out of this room.

I will explain to you later why I have been in and out, if you want to know. I will not say it on the record.

The Deputy should address his comments through the Chair.

The Minister with responsibility for apprenticeships is not here. On what basis is the Minister of State allowed to expound on apprenticeships at this meeting? I have other questions. I am happy she has done that because I have a list of questions to ask the Ministers on other topics. I am more than happy to do that if that privilege is afforded to the Fine Gael members.

In fairness, the Minister was asked two specific questions about apprenticeships. I would prefer if the Ministers were dealing with the Brexit issues that were raised. I ask that we conclude on that soon because we will be moving on to deal with the Action Plan for Education at which time members can ask general questions on education and apprenticeships. I ask we conclude questions on other Brexit-related matters with respect to education and then we will move on to the action plan. Is there more the Minister of State wishes to add?

I was asked about the student accommodation. I am not sure if that was related to Brexit.

I asked that question. I was speaking about our capacity. In 2016 there were 14,000 Irish students between the UK and Northern Ireland. If we had to absorb them into our system, I would have concerns about our capacity to do that and also about the shortage of student accommodation. That was the question.

There is a student accommodation strategy. I am pleased to tell the chairperson that we are reaching the targets set. We launched an action plan and those targets are being met. Money is being spent on it. Also, legislation was introduced by the Minister, Deputy Murphy, to protect regional-----

The rent zones to ensure the rent cannot be put up by-----

-----rent zones to make sure that students are protected, and that is happening.

If another 14,000 students were to come back per year there would be increased concerns about the capacity of third level colleges to accommodate them and also about the shortage of accommodation. Does Mr. McHugh wish to respond?

I can come back to the chairperson on that.

Deputy Byrne asked when the legislation would be completed. Hopefully, that will happen by the middle of March. Deputy McLoughlin asked what protections are in place for parents and students. He also spoke about certainty for students who want to study in Coleraine or some other institutions in Northern Ireland.

The job we are trying to do here is very specific. We are trying to minimise disruption and in doing so we are ensuring that disruption to any movement thus far, be it in preschool or at primary, secondary or third level, is minimised. We also want to build on the contribution education has made to the movement and mobility of people through the Good Friday Agreement. That is the space in which we find ourselves.

Deputies spoke about fees. We have moved to ensure that the contribution of €3,000 for students from the North who want to come south is in place for September and for the duration of their course, whether it is a three-year, five-year or six-year degree. While this is ongoing - to go back to Deputy Byrne who feels his question was not answered - discussions on an overall agreement continue. This will involve the common travel area and trying to come up with an agreement. Going back to Deputy Byrne again, any future fees in the 2021-22 or 2023-24 years will be decided in the context of that agreement. While this is all ongoing, the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, is in discussions, as are my officials and I, with the Department for Education in the United Kingdom on getting certain principles agreed surrounding the protection of education in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, North-South and east-west. I am not in a position to say what will happen after the end of March, but our job and duty as legislators is to ensure we do everything to minimise that disruption.

To respond to Senator Gallagher's question about what we are doing to ensure we attract more international students, we are examining this issue and engaging comprehensively with our EU counterparts. We are part of the European Union. Someone from Boston has no problem travelling to California or elsewhere on the west coast of America to study. Irish students are now going to Bulgaria, France, the Netherlands and Italy. If we can have a reciprocal arrangement, our doors are open. To give the committee another example, by 2021 we will have lifted the derogation on the Irish language in the European Union, after which time an Irish student with three languages - English, Irish and French, English, Irish and German or English, Irish and Italian, for example - will be able to apply for interpreter and translator jobs. If the UK is not in the European Union, that will obviously give us an added advantage.

Does the Minister of State want to comment on the capacity issue?

Yes. A figure of 14,000 was referred to. There are 4,000 postgraduate students and they will have made career choices. We do not expect them to come back. Regarding capacity, 5,531 beds have been completed in the past year, 4,825 are being constructed and 7,901 planning permissions are being sought for accommodation. We are working in the area and are on top of it. I go back to what the Minister said about internationalisation. We are very conscious that the English language is very important to our economy and country. As for our international students, we are very conscious that we need to be globally connected. We are growing the numbers of international students in line with best practice such that 15% of students within our higher education institutions will be international students. We are sure we will meet our target of increasing the number from 33,000 to 44,000 by 2020.

I thank the Minister of State. It was the increased possible capacity I was trying to address. That concludes our engagement on this matter.